Saturday, July 13, 2013

What Is Doctor Who All About?

(Originally posted to on May 3, 2013.)

I’ve thought for a long while that any long-running series eventually stops being about anything other than itself. Each individual story might be about something; “Let This Be Your Last Battlefield”, for example, is about the absurdity of racial prejudice. But that’s not what ‘Star Trek’ is about. Other episodes of the series were about friendship, or about sexism, or about obsession…until eventually, all you could really say about the series was that it was about the Enterprise crew and the things that happened to them. Each episode was like a color transparency, laid over each other episode until all you could see was a character-shaped hole.

You could say the same thing about ‘Buffy’, about ‘Highlander’, about just about every long-running series…in the end, the changes forced on them by circumstance and the need to keep the show creatively fresh made them less about high school or the Gathering or the alien conspiracy or the fall of the Greek gods and more, eventually, about a person to whom things happen. A season might have an arc, an episode might have a point, but ‘Buffy’ is about a young woman named Buffy.

I’ve come to the conclusion, recently, that ‘Doctor Who’ is (as always, it seems, among science-ficton/fantasy series) an exception. ‘Doctor Who’ is about something, all the way through its fifty-year history, and it’s not the Doctor. In fact, the key to realizing what it’s about is to realize that the Doctor isn’t really what the series is about at all. It’s about the people around him. The Doctor is a catalyst, an agent of change, and the show ‘Doctor Who’ is about the way that people deal with him (and by extension, the monsters he fights and the strangeness of his universe) being thrust into their worldview.

Because everyone has a worldview, a collection of concepts and information that forms the underpinning to their mental existence. Things fall down, cars take you places, jobs pay you money, and the world works the way you’ve come to expect it to each day. We all form an opinion about the Way Things Are…and crucially, we all deal in different ways when that worldview is disrupted.
Some people become angry. Obama becoming President, for example, created a kind of hysterical rage in a certain type of person, because in their world black people did not become President. Obama wasn’t just a man who disagreed with them, he was a sign that their entire existence had come to an end, to be replaced by a strange new world where all their old certainties had dissolved. These people have to believe that he somehow cheated his way into the Oval Office, because they can’t accept the fundamental idea of his legitimacy.

Other people become elated by the change. The unexpected fills them with delight, tells them that there are still surprises left in a boring and predictable world. Seeing a paralyzed woman pick up a cup with a robot arm controlled entirely by her mind elicits a sort of giddiness, a sense that you’re taking a step into a bigger and stranger and more wonderful universe than you previously knew existed.

And many people, to quote the ‘Doctor Who’ story “The Face of Evil”, “rework the facts to fit their views.” Information that changes their worldview too much becomes false, even if the logic required to fit the lie into their head becomes strained to the point of absurdity. People are willing to imagine vast and shadowy conspiracies of government coups and secret shadow agencies if the alternative is accepting that a President can get his head blown clean off by a stranger with a rifle and a grudge.

This is what ‘Doctor Who’ is about. It’s about the ways that people deal with situations that challenge their worldviews. Each story establishes a world, whether it be 1960s London or an alien planet thousands of years in the future, and then it drops the Doctor–a tiny piece of impossibility–into that world. Just to see what happens. (This is one reason why the series can run for so long on such a premise…it’s inherently new-viewer friendly. Since you have to establish the world before you can change it, you’re constantly creating entry points for people who’ve never seen the show before.)
Sometimes people cope with the changes. The first two seasons of the series were about Ian and Barbara, two normal 60s schoolteachers, dealing with situation after situation that was entirely outside of their experience. Rose gleefully embraces the strangeness, Dodo freaks out and leaves the second she gets the chance, and Tegan treats it like a package tour until the point where it all gets to be too much for her.

Other people try to slot the Doctor into their worldview. The new show makes it explicit with the psychic paper–when the Doctor shows it to you, you see what you expect him to be reflected back at you–but even in the old series, the Doctor was always treated like what he was expected to be. Authoritarians saw him as a rebel, police slotted him in as a criminal, scientists expected him to be a kindred spirit. People have tried, desperately and endlessly, to make him fit. Only to find, to their frustration, that’s he’s exactly what he says he is, and nothing else.

The people who can’t accept that, in ‘Doctor Who’, tend to come to unpleasant ends. If you can’t accept that a Dalek or an Ice Warrior isn’t something familiar and acceptable, something you can fit into your worldview by negotiating with them or threatening them or ignoring them, they will probably kill you. The only chance you have to survive in ‘Doctor Who’ is to keep an open mind, to accept that the universe is bigger and stranger and more wonderful than you previously imagined, and to believe the facts when they’re right in front of your face, even if they’re not pleasant. And that’s a premise big enough to last fifty years and then some.

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