Why Doctor Who is Pop Culture Sci-Fi At Its Best

You can keep your Star Treks and Star Wars. Celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, 'Doctor Who' is great popular sci-fiction

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2013 is a year where “big” science fiction properties are getting a lot of attention: There’s a new Star Trek movie. A much discussed and anticipated Star Wars movie is under development.  And, most importantly, Doctor Who celebrates its 50th birthday. Yes, that’s right; I wrote “most importantly” because, when it comes down to it, Doctor Who is the best pop culture sci-fi around.

Sure, in terms of financial earnings or even just cultural awareness, Wars and Trek have the British time-travel series beat. Despite the show’s impressive growth with American audiences since its 2005 relaunch, most here would choose to fly in either the Millennium Falcon or the Enterprise over the TARDIS any day. But in terms of core concept, Doctor Who is filled with possibility in a way that few other science fictions can truly compare with.

The central conceit of the show is a stranger comes to town — except that “town,” thanks to the time-and-space-traveling TARDIS, is anywhere and anywhen the writer wants it to be. Literally anyone and anything (and that includes aliens, future worlds and even retellings of public-domain stories) — is available for use as needed , offering the series the kind of epic scope that is difficult to rival.

In recent years, the show has increasingly played up to the epic tag; “classic” Who — that is, the show as it existed for the first 26 years of its life, before cancellation and revival — was  constrained by both a British tendency towards understatement and budget, and as a result, felt constantly, almost apologetically awkward with actors unsure whether they were to play things seriously or as camp. Since its return eight years ago, we’ve seen the tone of storytelling become far more urgent and exciting, with the weight of the world — no, of worlds — seemingly dependent on what happens in almost every minute of the show. It’s exhausting and ridiculous, but also suitably (space) operatic and refreshingly enjoyable.

For all this excitement, Doctor Who is an oddly kind-hearted show. Its hero doesn’t rely on violence or even might to win the day, but, instead, on what comedian Craig Ferguson described as “the triumph of intellect and romance over brute force and cynicism.” Pop Science-Fiction, in recent years, often has some such idea of pacifism at its core, but Doctor Who manages to make that idea work in a way that avoids Star Wars‘ dreary speeches about “the Force” or Star Trek‘s laughably hypocritical (and often ignored) Prime Directive.

The show also benefits from a deeply-rooted awareness of its own mortality; rebirth and renewal are literally built into the Who concept via the “regeneration” idea, created as a particularly blunt method of dealing with the show’s loss of its original star three years into its run—the recasting explained as “Our hero doesn’t die, he just gets reborn as someone else.”  Regeneration has, through time and familiarity, started to seem curiously elegant. . We expect the show to recreate itself with each new incarnation of the main character, and that in-built drive towards novelty helps it remain sharp, even as other shows trend towards repetition and boredom.

Such renewal is mirrored by the ever-changing “companions” who join the Doctor on his adventures in time and space; while those characters are not reborn, they are easily replaceable, and those shifting characters and dynamics offer additional refreshers to the status quo, without ever contradicting the basic status quo in any way. Who, in many ways, has grown to become a show dedicated to renewal and — to borrow a phrase — “new frontiers.”

For all of its commitment to change, one thing remains constant with Who: The promise of a happy ending. The show matches its hero’s kindness with its own, and there’s something endlessly charming about that choice. At some point, it fell out of favor for science fiction to be kind to its characters and its audience, but Who never lost touch with its origins as a kids’ show. For all the thrills and spills it throws in to entertain, it makes sure to leave the little ones able to sleep well at night when it’s done.

Doctor Who is science-fiction that takes humanity’s finest points — our intelligence, curiosity and kindness — in every conceivable direction. Instead of celebrating combat and strife (Star Wars) or hive-mind conformity (Star Trek, arguably), Who stands for novelty and for being different, demonstrating the benefits of our benefits as a species. At its best, it’s about the best in us — and the endless possibilities when we remain open to them. Isn’t that the point of science fiction?

10 comments
MatthewGordon
MatthewGordon

Liked this article a lot. Although I'm a devout trekkie and have spent many hours trying to catch up to the new releases in the Star Wars Expanded Universe, Doctor Who is arguably my favorite Sci-fi series (also in the running is the lesser-known Space Battleship Yamato series that more sci-fi buffs should know about). It can go from lively and having some jokes than can rival most modern comedies to heart-wrenchingly sad (the one thing I didn't agree with; Who does not always have a happy ending, as demonstrated by Rose Tyler's departure in the episode "Doomsday"). That being said, Star Wars and Star Trek both have aspects of change as well. Star Wars has the scads of canonical fan fiction while Trek has multiple incarnations, many of which (Voyager, DS9), have a much different setting than the Original Series.

MartinHugo
MartinHugo

Not even comparable to Battlestar Galactica which somehow doesn't get a mention >:(

ChristopherHreha
ChristopherHreha

I honestly don't have a problem with the way McMillian compared Doctor Who to Star Wars/Trek. Honestly, how can one write a comparative piece telling society why one thinks something is best without giving them reasons. I have been trying to find a way to simply put why I love Doctor Who, and Whovians can tell you, it's not easy. However, I think this one article on the show has summed it up perfectly. He avoided major specifics while still pointing out the very best attributes of Who. Not to mention, his use of humor was brilliant. Bravo McMillian. 

JonathanGalliher
JonathanGalliher

There's certainly enough love to go around, but let's be fair.  Star Wars has suffered from an excess of George Lucas, to the point where Disneyfication might improve the next trilogy to be released, and Star Trek, especially Next Generation and Voyager episodes, often suffer from a heavy handed moralism.  Doctor Who, for whatever reason, has mostly managed to avoid being dominated by a love of special effects or a need to hit folks over the head with how good and decent human beings should behave towards each other.  That's not to say that I don't love the old Star Wars movies and a lot of the Star Trek I've seen, but if I had to rank them I'd still put Doctor Who at the top of the list.

labyrinthmike
labyrinthmike

I'm with slythgeek. No need to tear down Star Trek and Star Wars to make the case for Doctor Who.

hanko9
hanko9

Not sure why in order to praise Doctor Who (which is absolutely a wonderful show), the writer insists on putting down Star Trek and Star Wars. Each of these has their place in science fiction and pop culture. There should be plenty of love to go around, maybe The Doctor can lend ya one of his Gallifreyan hearts :-P

MatthewGlassman
MatthewGlassman

It is NOT always a happy ending usually do to a companion dying (or being touched by an angel) OR The Doctor regenerating.  I consider Dr. Who to be Sci Fi meets Sherlock Holmes with some cheesiness thrown in.   Also, The Doctor has a limited set of regenerations which I'm sure they will find a loophole for.

Slythgeek
Slythgeek

Yeah, I like most of the descriptions of Doctor Who in here.  I love the show's optimism and portrayal of human kind as ultimately good if occasionally dense compared to the Doctor.  What I love most, though, is its hero - the Doctor is nerdy and effusive and not quite that smooth-talking anti-hero America has come to embrace.

What I don't agree with, however, is the characterization presented of Star Trek in this article.  I am, as with many Doctor Who fans, a Trekkie as well.  Truthfully, Star Trek did become repetitive with Voyager and Enterprise.  Most fans would agree with that.  Doctor Who has also been guilty of repeating story lines and character dynamics, though, so I will chalk that up to a long run.  What bothers me is the insinuation that Star Trek isn't or wasn't innovative and clever and fun in the same ways as Doctor Who.  Indeed, modern Doctor Who owes a lot to the huge changes Star Trek made to television storytelling.  There was no "hive mind" mentality in the original series except maybe the cast of extras, mostly due to the need for people to be busy about the ship.  Time after time, Captain Kirk flew in the face of conformity, and in the process, changed what it meant to be an officer in Star Fleet for future generations.  Mr. Spock spent the entire series and even the movies struggling with his personal identity.  Beyond the original series, we had Captain Picard learning what it means to have a family and Seven-of-Nine being pulled FROM the hive and allowed to think independently again!  With Doctor Who making it big in America now, it's become cool to compare it to Star Trek and say, "Wow!  This Doctor Who is so much better!" but I think it's because we're looking back on Star Trek as something it isn't, a sort of cracked nostalgia filter that has reduced Spock to a catchphrase and the Prime Directive into a joke.

AmalSaud
AmalSaud

@MartinHugo BSG is my all-time favorite show let alone the best Sci-Fi show ever but it's not a franchise, Doctor who became my 2nd favorite

DexterQuinnFerrie
DexterQuinnFerrie

That was so well put that I don't think I've got anything to add. Just wait, in ten years there will probably be a new super popular Trek series and all of those fans will be denouncing Who. It's just the nature of pop culture I suppose.