(BBC) We are heading into the seventh season of Doctor Who — or is it the thirty-third? It's actually both, which makes sense for a show about time-travel. Doctor Who is the longest-running sci-fi TV show in human history...unless the Ancients had a longer one, which the Doctor would probably confirm they did. Doctor Who first aired in 1963 and continued until 1989. It was re-started (not exactly re-booted) in 2005. Those who grew up watching it need no convincing, although there may still be some uncertain souls who haven't made the leap to the new series yet. Whatever the case, if you've been debating whether or not to watch the new Doctor Who, hesitate no longer; it's every bit as good as the original, which was and is one of the best sci-fi shows of all time.
What makes Doctor Who better than classic shows like Star Trek, Blake's 7, and Battlestar Galactica? Well, it's not the special effects, which for decades were little more than slightly modified flashlights and creatively glued bits of cardboard. It's not the acting, which has had its ups and downs — how could it not, over a fifty-year span? It's not that the writing has been consistently brilliant — there were a lot of years where the plot-lines were little more than monster-of-the-week. What makes the show special is the sheer crazed energy and scope of imagination that has informed it since the beginning.
Doctor Who began as a children's program but mutated into something more. A generation of kids watched the weekly adventures of the alien known only as “the Doctor” -- who could spawn a new body when gravely injured -- and his rotating cast of companions. The story began on a note of mystery, with two school teachers discovering that their student, who appeared to live in a junkyard with her elderly grandfather, was in fact from the planet Gallifrey. The old-fashioned police box (a uniquely British icon), sitting among the odds and ends, was, in fact, a disguised time-and-space-ship called the TARDIS — a living miracle of temporal engineering that looks no bigger than a phone booth on the outside, but houses near-infinite dimensions of space within.
Through the years, as its viewers grew up, Doctor Who grew up too. It dealt with adult themes of mortality (“Earthshock”), drug addiction (“The Nightmare of Eden”), ecology (“The Green Death”), politics (“The Enemy of the World”), industrialization (any episode featuring the Cybermen), war (any episode featuring the Daleks), and genocide (“The Silurians,” “Warriors of the Deep,” “Terror of the Vervoids”). Despite the aforementioned low production values, some of the early black-and-white episodes, such as “The Keys of Marinus,” are rather beautiful to watch from a filmmaking standpoint. Through ingenuity of set design and photography, the show was able to approach the epic visual fantasy of silent-film classics like Metropolis.
However, it was the characters which kept viewers coming back. The Doctor was and is an inspiring, charismatic rogue — a natural leader who fights for justice, peace, and sanity in a chaotic universe, despite being essentially an outcast from his own race. His nemesis, the Master, is the archetype of selfishness, greed, and cruelty. The two have battled across the stars for centuries like warring gods.
At some point — probably during Season 18 — the show took a sharp turn into surrealism and has kept one foot there ever since. The way to read a Doctor Who episode is not to expect logic or consistency. The Doctor's championing of the cause of rationality notwithstanding, his adventures are often dreamlike and occasionally absurd. The show makes minimal effort to keep its mythology credible or internally consistent, being more concerned with exploring grand vistas of imagination and abstract emotional states. Why doesn't the Doctor's sonic screwdriver (read: “magic wand”) work on that particular door? It just doesn't; accept it and move on. The beauty of the show isn't in a realistic vision of the future; it's that the characters can literally go anywhere and do anything.
Rather than “science-fiction,” Doctor Who should more properly be called “science-fantasy,” and frequently “science-horror”: check out recent episodes “Blink,” “The Satan Pit,” and “Midnight” for stories as unsettling as any horror film. When Russell T. Davies and Steven Moffat re-started the show, they turned everything up to eleven. Geniuses that they are, they took the strangeness that had run underneath the drama for years and brought it all to the surface. Their key insight was to recognize the darkness that lurked within the Doctor himself. Why does everyone around him always die? Why does he eventually abandon his companions? Does he really have as sure a grip on things as he claims? Doesn't he often play god to some extent? Previous writers had played with the idea of the Doctor as a somewhat mad creature — a bit unstable, a bit manic, but generally all right; the new series gives him a reason for his madness: intense loneliness due to the death of his entire species. As the Last of the Time Lords, he wanders the cosmos, desperately trying to do good, but frequently losing control of events.
The new series also takes the mythical stature that has grown around the Doctor in the last fifty years and builds it to almost Christ-like proportions within the show itself. Having become a revered cultural icon in the real world, he is now the Savior of Humanity in the fictional one. The new series regularly satirizes human failings — in particular the tendency toward totalitarianism in current global politics — so it follows that we must need saving in a bad way. Can the Doctor heal us all, as his name would imply, or is he just a little too lost and a little too jaded to pull it off? Really, what the show is asking is this: are we too lost and jaded now to believe in the Doctor and his philosophy the way we did when we were kids?
Essentially, the new Doctor Who is a beautiful and exciting deconstruction of the original series. That's not to say that it's all high-minded contextual games; the new series may have elevated the show to a kind of surrealist art-form, but it's still first and foremost an adventure story about the thrill of discovery and the struggle for a better tomorrow. In the last fifty years, our situation has grown only more dire, but the Doctor still believes in us. We should believe in him.
For Fans Of: Star Trek, Stargate, Battlestar Galactica, Babylon 5, The Prisoner, Blake's 7
Why We Like It: intense emotional drama, unique premise that provides for endless narrative flexibility, clever deconstruction of its own cultural impact, awesome robots and monsters