In Life After the Star Wars Expanded Universe, we take a look at science fiction and fantasy, why they’re great, and what they say about where our species has been and where it’s going.
If you don’t know a whole lot about Doctor Who, that’s fine. If you don’t know in a vague way what Doctor Who is, what the hell, man? Maybe not so much in America, but it is a cultural mainstay in Great Britain. What’s the longest-running, most culturally impactful US show you can think of? The Simpsons? The Simpsons has been around forever. It’s still going, and when it started, I was three. When Doctor Who started, my dad was 15. It has been around for over five decades. How the hell do you keep the same feel for the same show for five decades? One answer: regeneration. The main character, the Doctor, is a member of an alien race: the Time Lords. When a Time Lord is grievously injured, he or she regenerates – remaking every cell in their body to escape death, but changing their physical features and even personality traits. Whenever an actor decides to leave, the Doctor dies, regenerates, and comes back slightly different. The Time Lords won their name by mastering time travel, but they are non-interventionist. The Doctor is not. He stole a TARDIS (Time And Relative Dimensions in Space, their time travel devices) from them, and now he pops up in any space, any time, and helps or makes life complicated for whomever he finds there.
The TARDIS: the most advanced spacecraft you will ever see
The primary factor that makes Doctor Who so great is its unbelievable breadth. Not only has it occupied a massive cultural niche for the last 50 years, but the show itself can take its audience to any time or place imaginable. If the writers want to take us to Pompeii the day before the big event, boom, we’re there. If they want to take us to see how humanity is doing in the year 50 bajillion, we’re there. The degree of latitude and writer’s license that exist on this show is huge, and that gives space for the story to be correspondingly huge. The variety afforded by this model enables some truly amazing episodes. The writers can cover an ancient Egyptian ghost story, a far-future murder mystery, a WWII action adventure, or any other combination of events that occurs to them. The Doctor has met Shakespeare, Winston Churchill, Elizabeth the First, Abraham Lincoln, and Vincent Van Gogh, among others.
Another main part of the show’s greatness is the tone of optimism that runs throughout the whole thing. No matter how high the stakes or how dire the consequences, the Doctor himself always believes the best in people, and that the best possible outcome is always achievable. He does not give up, and no matter how cynical a bastard you are, that’s nice to see on television. The Doctor himself is another reason that Doctor Who is such a cultural powerhouse. Competence is something we respect and enjoy to see, and the Doctor has competence in spades. He has intimate knowledge of a limitless number of arcane scientific fields, can completely outmaneuver enemies from stupider races, and manically spouts technobabble with the best of them.
He’s also terrifying. At the beginning of the current incarnation of the show (they took a 10-year break; the version I’m discussing started in 2005), there’s been some huge intergalactic war, and the Doctor is the sole survivor. He’s also the one that killed everyone else to end the war. His general demeanor is silly and happy-go-lucky, but that demeanor is built on the cold, solid granite of someone who will commit genocide if it makes the universe a better place. This major conflict within the personality of the Doctor is a joy to see, and this Darth Vader/Mr. Rogers clash within the character pops up throughout the series. The Doctor likes to eat fish and chips, go on vacation, and be generally nonthreatening, but he also brings down governments and single-handedly decimates armies. The goofiness wrapped around a razor-blade interior is compelling to watch because it’s not just silliness and badassery but who the Doctor fundamentally is covered with a thin veneer of who he desperately wishes he were. The longing and piteousness in that situation give the Doctor an appealing complexity.
He finds your lack of desire to be his neighbor disturbing
Speaking of characters, this show’s treatment of characters is part of what made it great. The Doctor runs about collecting companions, people who travel with him on his TARDIS. The first one for the new series is Rose Tyler. Rose leads a life where she works in a shop all day, goes home, and watches tellie. This is the entirety of her life. Then she is chased by store mannequins come to life, meets the Doctor, and her life changes.
This is how they meet. Notice the Darth Vader/Mr. Rogers dichotomy – all the proper pleasantries followed by him brandishing a detonator he’s about to use and saying “Run for your life!”
Not only does the show do a good job building a full life for Rose outside of the TARDIS – we meet a jealous boyfriend, we see a nice but importunate mother, we learn that her father died when she was just a little girl – but it does a good job having Rose change and develop herself. She starts out as an alright but ultimately boring sort, but the TARDIS changes people. Imagine living life as a normal person when all of a sudden a box falls out of the sky, a man pops out, and that man says that he can take you whenever and wherever you’ve ever wanted to go. One, that would be hard to say no to, and two, being exposed to all of time and space broadens people’s horizons and enables a lot of growth and transformation. Rose becomes more knowledgeable, more caring, and more competent. Her relationship with the Doctor is the ultimate platonic-kinda-but-not-really relationship there is and one of the most adorable things I’ve seen on television. Through her experiences and that relationship, she changes from a normal woman to someone who can hold her own in battles that range through time and space, at one point and temporarily (mild spoiler) basically becoming the goddess of time. To give an idea of the trust and respect the Doctor has for her talent, here he is, facing off against space Satan:
Notice again the conflict at the Doctor’s core – angry and ballsy enough to mouth off to Satan himself, gushy and fuzzy enough to talk about how great his girl is.
Most of his other companions follow this same pattern, but none were ever better than Rose. They all share the main trait that meeting the Doctor enables them to tap their potential and improve themselves while helping the Doctor.
Rose Tyler, ladies and gentlemen
I mention how well fleshed-out and dynamic Rose is because it stands in stark contrast to what has been happening on the show lately. I still watch it because for four seasons it was one of the best things I’ve ever seen, but season seven was un-fucking-watchable. What went wrong, Andrew? You said everything was amazing! Well, it was. Was. The biggest problem with the new season and its betrayal of its own past is its treatment of any character not the Doctor. The show now exists not as a vehicle to explore relationships and change and humanity, but a vehicle to aggrandize the Doctor. The companions from previous seasons all have families, pasts, and people who love them. They all change, grow, and cause you to at least care whether they live or die. Season seven’s companion, Clara, has a great mystery about her, but that mystery is all that defines her. That’s it. “Ooh look at me I’m a companion and I’m mysterious,” says Clara. There, now you know almost literally everything I know about this companion. She doesn’t grow, she doesn’t change, and I want you to show me the bastard who cares whether she lives or dies, because I need to yell at him in a bar about things that are good versus things that are bad and why he’s on the wrong side of history. The emptiness and fluff of this character is not only bad television, it’s a slap to the face when you compare it to how well this show used to do supporting characters.
Pictured: Clara Oswald, newest companion. Or Nancy Drew. I don’t give a shit.
In addition, the plot writing has taken an absolute nosedive. The dialogue can still be snappy and appealing, there can still be some enjoyable set pieces, but writing quality has been steadily falling for seasons five and six, and it plummeted for season seven. The main problem is the growing lack of respect for internal consistency. Internal consistency is a tenet of science fiction (really all fiction) that emphasizes the importance of making sure the universe you are setting up makes sense to itself. Whatever rules you set up for that universe, you’ve got to follow them or everything falls apart. In the first few seasons, the Whoniverse was internally consistent. Can’t change time or cross your own timeline without terrifying consequences? Check, we won’t change time or cross our own timelines. Looks like we’ll have to find some other way to sort our problems. In the earlier seasons, time travel either served as a device to get the cast from problem to problem, or was a problem to be fixed itself. Even in spots where the show bent the rules, the writers supplied a plausible explanation that tied it into the rules that already existed, thus maintaining internal consistency. Now, time travel is the solution to almost everything, and no one gives a shit about crossing their own timeline, which was a universe-ending blunder in the first few seasons. Almost every single episode in the seventh season builds up all these complex problems for the Doctor, stacking conflict on top of terror on top of oh-no-how-will-we-ever-succeed, but invariably one stupid thing that is completely unrelated to the episode’s buildup will solve everything. Often, if you ask the Doctor why he won, the response would be “because Time,” but following is a list of other dumbass plot devices that got the Doctor out of jams: a special leaf from Clara’s childhood that stopped the bad guys with happy memories, a flying motorcycle the Doctor uses to get inside a skyscraper with impenetrable security (it was not mentioned before or after that he had a flying motorcycle), a mother’s love being strong enough to protect everyone, and the Doctor literally just screaming who he was and watching everyone run away in fear. It’s like the opposite of Chekhov’s gun: If you see absolutely nothing in the first act, it will appear in the third act, completely change the rules of the game, and make the play terrible. The show is crap now because, with lazy storytelling in each episode, the Doctor is never really in danger and never truly seems to solve anything for himself; his victory is just handed to him because the episode is almost over.
The lazy writing corrupts more than single episodes. Doctor Who usually follows the standard pattern story arc: a bunch of stories, loosely related, paving the way to a big final conflict. Season seven has no arc. It consisted of a bunch of slapped-together one-and-done shows, and I remember being livid when, going into the season finale, I realized that while a Big Bad and a mystery at the end of the season had been hinted at, nothing had been done in previous episodes to actually elucidate or build towards it. This, along with the new, empty, insufferable companion, have made this show awful.
This gif probably accounts for at least 4% of Tumblr’s total bandwidth and is also how I feel about the current state of this show.
You should still watch this. After season four, do what you want, but you have got to watch part of this. It’s a cultural beast, the time travel / space travel / science fiction elements of it make the only limitation for the show the writer’s imagination, and it’s got one of the most compelling characters ever created. This show has won a level of dedication from me that almost no other form of art or storytelling matches. Even after three years of this show ripping my heart out each time its writers couldn’t be bothered to actually resolve a conflict, I still love it so much that if you asked me which show I liked better, this or something like Breaking Bad or The Wire, I’d have to think about it. If the writers get less lazy and decide that character development and cohesive plots actually matter again, this show will get real good real fast. And here’s the good news: with the cultural staying power it has in Britain and the handy regeneration device around to replace retiring actors, this show will probably outlive you and me. That’s plenty of time for it to return to glory.
Andrew Findlay has strong opinions about things (mostly literature) and will share them with you loudly and confidently.
Image sources: BBC America, Washington Post