Fifty years after a pair of school teachers followed their strange pupil into a blue box in a junkyard, the Doctor is still traveling through time and space, making (and leaving behind) friends and having timey-wimey adventures.
In light of this weekend’s anniversary special you might be moved to wonder why this mad cap sci fi show is still on the air, why its fans are so rabid for more and why it’s still relevant after all these years.
There are a lot of reasons you could point to for the show’s longevity. The mere fact that the concept of regeneration allows the Doctor to be replaced over and over again as actors age and contracts expire, has allowed the to survive where others would fail trying to replace a lead. There’s a nostalgia element to it too, parents introducing kids to something they loved, makings something old new again. There’s also the fact that it’s an institution now, a tradition that just keeps passing down the generations.
But I’d argue that the magic of Doctor Who is summed up in something the 11th Doctor says in “The Eleventh Hour,” the first time Matt Smith takes on the role. Speaking to his new companion he asks: “All of time and space. Everything that ever happened or ever will – where do you want to start?”
Well, where do you want to start? The answer is, of course, anywhere. Just anywhere. When watching Doctor Who the audience can follow the man from Gallifrey wherever in this vast – and seemingly rule-less – fictional universe that the writers want to take us. And so every story becomes not just another entry in the long history of a time-traveling alien, but also an opportunity to indulge in some childlike wonder and curiosity. You can’t help but ask yourself, what will they think of next?
The first episode of the show I ever saw was actually the series one outing, “The Unquiet Dead,” in which the 9th Doctor and Rose head back to Victorian Cardiff and meet Charles Dickens, and also a bunch of incorporeal aliens who want to use corpses as their new homes.
I distinctly remember saying aloud to my father (who needed no convincing of the show’s worth), “So it’s history and sci fi? Cool!”
And it was cool, gosh darn it.
“The Unquiet Dead” is no poster child for acting or special effects. The ghost/alien/corpse monsters weren’t actually all that scary. But the combination of setting and story was so novel. And it was fun.
Doctor Who isn’t magical because it’s so well plotted or deep or smart or exciting. It often is (and sometimes isn’t) those things, but they’re beside the point.
The part of Doctor Who that I love, that keeps me coming back for more, despite setbacks and frustrations, is that incredible sense of wonder that it brings to every episode. In no other show that I’ve watched has there been this unending possibility to surprise and amaze. In a fictional universe as wide as the universe itself there are no limits on what could happen, who you could meet or where you could go.
Sure, recent adventures in convoluted plotting (see “The Wedding of River Song”) have abused this idea of limitless possibility. Even when anything can happen, it helps when what happens makes some kind of sense.
That’s why some of the Doctor’s best outings, both classic and new, thrive on complexity of concept but simplicity of execution. Take “The Dalek Invasion of Earth” from the 1st Doctor’s tenure. The title says it all: the Doctor’s nemeses invade Earth in the future. Or of course, “Blink,” where the high-concept Weeping Angels – arguably the most terrifying monsters in the Whoverse – are deployed in pursuit of a single girl. When they next appear in “Flesh and Stone,” the whole thing is so convoluted the angels aren’t as scary anymore.
Ultimately, the sense of curiosity still pervades even in stories that leave you scratching your head. And if one world or alien or idea doesn’t really click (I’m looking at you, strange absorbing alien from “Love and Monsters”) there’s so much more out there to discover, that the show never has to revisit a failed concept again.
So I’m looking forward to tomorrow’s anniversary special not just because of the throwbacks (believe me, I can’t wait for 10 and 11 to say their respective catchphrases at the same time, something like “Allon-imo!”), but also for everything new that could be stuffed in there. I mean seriously, what is the deal with John Hurt? Well, we’ll all find out tomorrow. But there’s always more to see and know.
And that’s enough to keep the show going for years and years to come.