Doctor Who is often—and quite erroneously—explained to Americans as “the British Star Trek.” The problem with such a comparison is that, for all the fervor of its enthusiasts, Star Trek has always been peripheral to the mainstream American experience. Due perhaps to that stubborn old streak of American anti-intellectualism, Star Trek is generally watched by “geeks” and not spoken of in polite company. Doctor Who, however, has always been a family program, and the percentage of the British population glued to the screens to watch it is far greater than the percentage of American Star Trek fans. Who is, according to Guinness, the most successful science fiction series in history, both in terms of longevity and profitability. It is also, one could argue, only very nominally “science fiction.”
True, it is about an alien. When we first met the titular character in the November 23rd, 1963 episode “An Unearthly Child,” he was hiding in a junkyard, his remarkable alien ship disgused as an ordinary London police box. That first episode is dark, weird, and quite eerie, the story revolving around two teachers who cannot make sense of the mysterious new girl at school. A genius in mathematics, science, and history, the girl is befuddled and ignorant when it comes to the most basic things (in flashback, she mistakenly refers to British currency as a decimal system, and when the teacher corrects her, the girl responds that she had forgotten the British hadn’t moved to a decimal system yet). The teachers feel compelled to investigate, and follow her to her home address (the junkyard) where she apprently lives in a police box with her grandfather. Forcing their way in, they discover the truth; the girl and her grandfather are aliens, not only from another world but another time. We are told nothing else about them; not the name of their planet, their people, or why they are on the run from them. We are not even told their own names (the girl’s, “Susan Foreman,” is clearly an alias and her grandfather is called simply “the Doctor,” begging the question that gives the show its title).
Which is of course the crux of Doctor Who’s charm. There is no techno-babble here. Where similar science fiction programs struggle to explain the mechanics of things, Doctor Who veils everything in mystery. The show embraces Clarke’s assertion that “sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Thus, while Star Trek tech is from just a few centuries in the future and therefore expected to be somewhat comprehensible to us, the Doctor points out, his people had mastered all time and space when humanity was struggling with the wheel. Even if he tried to explain the workings of his science we wouldn’t be equipped to understand. His mysterious ship can therefore be physically larger on the inside than the outside, can change its appearance at whim, travel througout all of time and space simply by vanishing and re-appearing, and to some degree sentient, without us needing to know “how.” And the Doctor himself conveniently “regenerates” when seriously injured or an actor gets tired of playing him, changing both his physical features and to some extent his personality. Thus, eleven actors have played the Doctor in the series, but unlike the various James Bonds, they are all understood to be the same character in sequence. As the show unfolds it becomes clear that even the Doctor and his people have forgotten how everything “works.” They are so old they cannot even recall how their ancestors came up with the technology, and everything is veiled in ritual and evocative names (the black hole that somehow powers the whole time-travel thing is charmingly called “the Eye of Harmony”).
What this does is make room for stories, and oh...what great stories they have been. Doctor Who careens wildly between horror, historical drama, fantasy, action, comedy, and sci fi. And yet remarkably—impossibly—it follows a loose sort of story arc. When we first met the Doctor he was callous, self-absorbed, and utterly contemptuous of humanity. He abducts the two teachers who learn his secret and seems to spare them only at the urging of his grand daughter. He demonstrates over and over again cowardice and a lack of sympathy for the suffering of others. But it is through his travels, and his interactions with these human companions and others that follow, that the Doctor begins to evolve. He begins to care. In one of my favorite episodes of the program, The War Games (broadcast back in 1969), he even runs into a situation he realizes he cannot handle on his own and is forced to call his people. We learn a bit more about him here—he is a renegade being hunted by his own race, his ship stolen. But he risks capture and punishment to save other lives. It is a character-defining moment, splendidly acted, and the Doctor pays the ultimate price. His people help the human out and then punish the Doctor by exiling him to Earth, his vessel disabled, and in a weird form of capital punishment “kill” his current incarnation, forcing him to regenerate into a new actor (this matters only because we learn that the Doctor’s people ultimately only have 13 such lives in them).
From here the Doctor softens, working with the United Nations to defend Earth against alien attacks, doing his best to help the primitive humans learn and grow. When his ship is restored to him, he continues to act as a sort of crusader, righting wrongs whenever he can. As the series progresses, his schemes become grander, and darker elements of his past re-emerge. He becomes more ruthless in fighting for what he thinks is right, until finally destroying both his own home planet and its mortal enemies when the war they are fighting threatens the rest of the universe. After its 26-year run ended in 1989, the series returned in 2005 with the Doctor as the last of his race, a mythic figure so ancient and so far ahead of anyone else that he sees himself as the custodian of all creation. Despite his altruism, the Doctor’s old arrogance, his sense of absolute suoperiority, frequently rears its head, making him a very complex sort of hero. In what is arguably the single best episode of the revived series, the Doctor takes it upon himself to change history, saving the life of a woman whose death will actually inspire others to future greatness. Being the last of his kind, he boasts he no longer has to follow the rules. He is the “Time Lord Victorious” and can change history if he pleases. In the end, knowing what her destiny was supposed to be, the woman he saves commits suicide to restore the balance. It is brutal, deeply emotional, and highly philosophical all at once (not to mention a very clever inversion of the most praised Star Trek episode of all time, “City on the Edge of Forever”). It reminds us of what a previous human companion once said to him; he needed humans to travel with him because sometimes “you need someone to stop you.”
I have no doubt that the Doctor will make it to fifty. The revived series is going strong, and the Doctor Who brand sells better than ever. The premise is inexhaustible—stories anywhere in time, anywhere in space—and there are built in excuses to change lead actors and key sets. It continues to attract creative minds; Douglas Addams has written for Who,and last year the man behind Notting Hill and Love, Actually did a touching story about Vincent Van Gough. Now, Michael Moorcock—probably England’s greatest living fantasist—has written a Doctor Who novel and there is talk of him doing a script. Where the Time Lord will go from here is uncertain, but I will definitely be along for the ride.