Doctor Who: An Overview

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I’ve been wanting to do a review of Doctor Who for quite a while.  Ever since I started this blog over a year ago, really.  But that presents a problem: how do you review a show that has been around for fifty years (thirty-four, if you account for the gap between the old and new shows), which has had numerous different styles and storytellers?

You try, and you make it an overview.

The premise of the show, if you’re not familiar with it, is that this man known as The Doctor travels through space and time in his spaceship called the Tardis (stands for Time and Relative Dimensions in Space), which is bigger on the inside, and is disguised as a police call box from the 1960s.  The Doctor is also a Time Lord, an alien species from the planet Gallifrey, which means he looks human but is actually ancient, able to regenerate after so many years (typically 12 times for a total of 13 lives).  The Doctor has a love for humanity, as well as other life in general, and travels the universe with his companions, often human ones, saving lives and having incredible adventures.

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William Hartnell, the first Doctor

When the show started in the 1960s with William Hartnell as The Doctor, it was meant to be a more or less educational show, which shows through in many of the group’s early adventures.  The Doctor’s companions were his granddaughter Susan and two school teachers from England, Ian and Barbara.  They often simply observed historical events and ancient cultures, usually getting caught in some danger in the process.  There were some more ambitious science fiction elements, such as the Daleks, which premiered in the first season of the show, and other foreign planets with alien species.  As the show grew more popular, the show makers left the educational elements behind, opting for more science fiction elements.  This happened as soon as with the second Doctor, Patrick Troughton, and continued throughout the remainder of the show.

The show reached its greatest popularity with the fourth Doctor, Tom Baker, and by that point had established a very dense culture and mythology of its own, including a litany of villains, gaudy Time Lord hats, and a penchant for cheesy science fiction villain plots.

McCoy's Doctor and the Cybermen

McCoy’s Doctor and the Cybermen

The show was cancelled in 1989, in the midst of Sylvester McCoy’s tenure as The Doctor, who in my opinion is one of the best there ever was in the role.  The show remained essentially untouched for many years thereafter, although there was an attempt at revival with a film in the 90’s (which you can read my review of here), but it didn’t go over as well as the creators hoped.  It was, however, revived in 2005 with Christopher Eccleston in the titular role and Billie Piper playing his new companion “Rose.”

A lot changed when the show was revived, however.  The Time Lords had been wiped out in a full-scale war with the Daleks, and The Doctor still retained some of the warrior mindset from those days.  The cheesy nature of the series was still there, however–at least until the loved and loathed Moffat took the series from Russel T. Davies when Matt Smith took the role of The Doctor on, at which point a brand of high-stakes epic realism took over as the series flavor, and has remained ever since.

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So that’s a brief history of the show.  It’s still going strong and is showing no signs of slowing down.  The trick is that the show has changed a lot.  So how do we judge the elements of the show?  There are a few elements that have remained very consistent throughout the show, and those are pretty easy to judge.

For one, The Doctor highly values life.  I would say human life, except that we’re often dealing with alien creatures.  But The Doctor has always (with a few choice exceptions, most of which are very early in the show) shown the utmost regard for life, and an abhorrence for those who accept loss of life as collateral damage.  The thing that defines him as a hero in most cases is his willingness to sacrifice everything and do all he can for the sake of an insignificant race here or a few people there.

Furthermore, the focal villains of the show, in one way or another, tend to show hate for either a certain kind of life, or some aspect of living.  For example, the Daleks are the most radical of racists.  They despise everything that is not Dalek, and value above all, hate.  The Cybermen, while not set against any certain species, have a hate for emotion, and try to assimilate others, also stripping them of all emotion, which is an aspect of living.

Daleks. There's actually a little squid thing in there, believe it or not.

Daleks. There’s actually a little squid thing in there, believe it or not.

The Doctor has also, especially in the old series, shown a willingness to break the rules if it means saving lives or doing some other kind of good.  This is shown primarily in that the leaders of the Time Lords don’t want their kind interfering in time, and The Doctor has often gotten in trouble for doing too much of just that (at one point, even having a regeneration forced upon him, and being exiled to a set time on Earth).  From one perspective you could say that this is a negative thing, perhaps encouraging us to disobey God’s laws when we decide that something else would be better.  However, I would take the opposite side, that it’s encouraging us to disobey the laws of society when they would have us neglect some good.  Take, for example, Peter and the apostles saying in Acts 5 “We must obey God rather than men.”

The show does not come without its problems, however.  The new show has as of late taken to increasing references to homosexuality and other sexually deviant lifestyles as normal, even having a lesbian couple appear occasionally as friends to The Doctor (although there is no depiction of actual romance between them, and you wouldn’t know that of them if it wasn’t specifically mentioned).  This is done in small ways most of the time, but it’s the small ways that are particularly dangerous, steadily wearing down our ideas of what is right and wrong, and what is normal and abnormal.

The show as a whole, though, remains somewhat neutral in regards to its acknowledgement or rejection of God.  The old and new shows are remarkably silent in regards to creation and evolution as a means for explaining the beginning of the universe.  Evolution is occasionally brought into play to explain certain science fiction elements, but not in a way that necessitates an atheistic worldview.  The show also has occasionally brought theological elements into play, including an episode featuring Satan himself, in a more literal understanding of certain passages in Revelation.  It also sometimes acknowledges certain other deities as very powerful alien beings, running contrary to science fiction’s tendency to portray all religions as idiotic submission to a charlatan.

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Ultimately, the show’s good far outweighs its bad.  You can pretty much completely avoid the bad by turning to the old show and the first couple seasons of the new show.  It’s a vast universe to explore, and this is just a brief glimpse at the franchise itself, but it really is a look at a man who has spent his life fighting  for justice and to save lives.  There’s a kind of unquestionable good here that is far too often sacrificed for the sake of making a character more interesting.  We should grab onto it and hold tightly, because these kinds of good characters don’t show up very often.

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