Sunday, December 13, 2015

Sunday Best: TV Dramas of All Time #10 - Doctor Who


I am a late convert to Doctor Who.

I had a limited exposure to the original BBC series, which seemed to me to be a scary soap opera.  When the series was re-introduced in 2005, I still didn't jump on board.  But as more and more of the people around me, especially my students, start to swear by the show, I decided to begin watching.

What I found was one of the greatest TV shows that I have seen.

It wasn't that way at first.  It took a while for me to really begin to understand the series.  But once I did, I began to realize how this show was designed to be any kind of show it wanted to be.  Various episodes could funny or scary or action-oriented or tragic.  And all of these worked because the show is able to capture any genre.

For those unfamiliar with the show, it is about an alien who calls himself "The Doctor."  He belongs to a race known as the Time Lords.  He steals a ship that can travel anywhere in time and space called a TARDIS (Time And Relative Dimension In Space) whose exterior is stuck in the form of 1950's British police call call box.  The Doctor is incredibly long lived, with the ability to regenerate after each death.  This allows the show to recast the lead when they want to leave.  Each regenerated Doctor has all of the memories of is previous incarnations, but they each have unique personalities that vary as the series goes on.

Another key to the series is the Doctor's companions.  He choose one or two humans to travel with him in the TARDIS so he can experience the wonder and adventure in their eyes as they travel to the farthest reaches of the universe, past or present.  They also help ground this nearly immortal alien, to keep him from being to isolated from others.

The 2005 reboot does something very interesting in TV.  It is not a pure reboot.  Instead it is a continuation of the original series but with a new style and new special effects.  It begins after something called "The Time War," after which the Doctor is the only remaining Time Lord.  This makes his desperate need for connection even greater.  And then with his companions, we get to experience the wildest things that could possibly happen in science fiction.

"The Girl in the Fireplace"

As I said, it took a while for me to get into this show.  The first season was not very good.  The Doctor (played by Christopher Eccleston), was a bit too goofy and cartoonish.  The stories also tended a little towards the silly (e.g. an invasion of farting aliens), and it would try to be too satirical (e.g. references to defunct shows like The Weakest Link in the far future).

But in the second season we got a new Doctor (David Tennant) and the writers began to find the shows voice and how to balance the comedy and the drama.  The Girl in the Fireplace is a story of incredible imagination that will make you laugh, gasp, and touch your heart.  The Doctor and his companions find themselves on a ship with little windows into 18th century France.  The Doctor goes back and forth between them and encounters a young woman Madame de Pompadour who is being attacked by robots.  The premise is strange, but it will grab you until the very last shot of the episode, which is a doozy.


"The God Complex"

I know that the British tend to have antagonistic view towards religion, but Doctor Who has generally avoided the topic.  But this episode was downright offensive.  The Doctor and others are trapped in an alien spacecraft that is shaped like a labyrinth hotel.  The creature there "feeds" off of belief, often religious faith.  In order to get the inhabitants to embrace faith, it scares them with their deepest fear.  The implication is that faith, particularly religious faith, is merely a response to fear.  Only the truly unbelieving are above the danger and cannot fall into the trap.

"The Silence of the Library" and "The Forest of the Dead"

There are many truly great episodes of Doctor Who, so this decision was very difficult.

But in the end, I had to choose this two-part episode because it is an episode that increases in depth and significance as the series goes on.

Doctor Who is about a time-travelling alien.  But time travel is a messy business.  Things that are in the past for you may be in someone else's future and vice versa.  And that is the situation the Doctor finds himself in with River Song.  In this story, he visits the largest library in the universe that is being attacked by creatures called the Vashta Nerada which live in shadows and eat flesh.  There he encounters a woman named River Song who is incredibly important to him, but he has never met her.  She tells him that in his future she is someone that he completely trusts, to the point that he shares a secret that he would never share with anyone else.

This episode is a fantastic mix of science-fiction, horror, and high melodrama.  The final scene between the two is one the most emotionally charged of the series.  And the episode builds to an end that makes you shout at the TV, urging the Doctor on.

But what puts this episode above the others is that as the series unfolds, we encounter River Song again, in her past but now in the Doctor's future.  We get to watch their relationship inversely unfold, never meeting in the right order, both knowing more about the other's future but unable to share what they know.  As their relationship grows, it fills this episode with even more power and emotion.

The truly amazing thing is that you get to see the events of the show from the Doctor's perspective when you first see it, but as the years go on you now see the show from River Song's perspective.  When you re-watch you know all that is going to happen to the Doctor in the year's to come and you can see the pain of River Song that she is not able to connect to him like they used to.  And this creates such a unique TV watching experience, one that you could only have watching Doctor Who.


There has never been a show like Doctor Who.  And every few years they are able to take the show in new and exciting directions.  If the show is able to keep pushing the bounds of human imagination, it should remain on the air for years to come.

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