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 kindhearted 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?