Monday, November 18, 2013 10:44 PM
Remembrances of Futures Past
 by Fëanor

My brother and I grew up watching Doctor Who on NJN. It was definitely one of our favorite shows. This was back before DVRs and On Demand when the only way to catch a show was to be lucky enough to turn to the right channel at the right time. The Doctor seemed to appear at random times so it always felt like a wonderful stroke of luck to flip over to PBS and find the blue police box fading into view with that signature groaning sound, instead of Nova or a nature show. Science fiction adventure with monsters and robots and time travel and silliness? It was the greatest.

When they brought the show back in 2005, we were both pretty excited, although I think my brother more than me. He'd become the bigger fan for whatever reason. I tried to keep up with it, but what I saw didn't really blow me away, and I ended up spending my time on other things.

Then poppy got interested in the new show. We watched a few episodes together and soon we were hooked. We're maybe a quarter of the way through the second season now. We're watching it the way you watch shows here in the future - multiple episodes at a time, streaming on Netflix.

The other day poppy and I were talking about the show, trying to figure out what it is we like about it so much. Of course, there's great writing and great acting. David Tennant is tremendous and is probably my favorite of the modern Doctors. The effects are even pretty good, which is something you definitely could not say about the original show; it was made on a shoestring budget and it showed. The monsters, weapons, and sets were infamously lame. Even on the new show some of the computer effects leave something to be desired. But the physical objects they've crafted are amazing - like the clockwork robots with creepy human face masks, ticking gear-filled innards, and saws that flip out of their arms.

Still, none of that is what makes the show truly great. What makes it great is the Doctor. The Doctor, and the host of totally normal people who are always there to help him save the universe.

Even though, as poppy pointed out to me, the show is really more properly categorized as horror than sci fi (a fact I realized was true with some surprise), it is also extraordinarily optimistic, with a wonderfully positive view of humanity. As the Doctor himself says, in 900 years he's never met anyone who wasn't important, and the stories bear out that theme. There are no unimportant characters, and in fact some of the most important characters are the most ordinary, normal people you could imagine, who simply see what has to be done and step out from the background to do it, saving themselves and the Doctor too more often than not.

The Doctor is a man whose true name is a secret, but who's chosen to call himself a healer. That's very important. That's how he sees himself. He arrives in the midst of chaos and trouble and he fixes things. He is the champion of the common man, the protector of the innocent, a radical pacifist who destroyed a weapons factory and replaced it with banana trees, and who goes into battle with nothing but a fancy screwdriver.

But like some real doctors, he can be arrogant, and he can be accused of having a God complex. He sees himself as the ultimate moral arbiter, the judge, the jury, and sometimes even the executioner. This conflict between his self identity as a healer and savior and his occasional habit of murdering his enemies is one of the central themes of the new show.
We meet him at the beginning of the series as the lone survivor of a huge and apocalyptic war, a war which he personally ended by destroying both sides. He's become a man capable of doing terrible things in the name of peace. But then he meets a woman named Rose and for once, the healer himself is healed. She reminds him of the difference between right and wrong, reminds him that there are things worth dying for, but very few things worth killing for. At the end of the season, he's given the same choice again: end a war by slaughtering both sides, or let the bad guys win. Be a killer or a coward. This time, he makes the other choice. "A coward any day." It's a powerful moment. His growth and change is nicely underlined by the fact that after this choice, he literally becomes a different person.

Doctor Who is a show that has the courage to never back away from the hard questions, to never let its heroes off easy. When the Doctor decides to return a criminal to her homeworld to face justice, she points out that that "justice" will be a cruel death, and that he must take responsibility for it. In the end he manages to avoid killing her, even after she betrays him, and instead gives her a second chance at life, quite literally.

The Doctor is not a human being, but he loves humanity, and he and his stories are deeply human, deeply moving, and full of bittersweet wisdom.
Tagged (?): Doctor Who (Not), TV (Not), Video (Not)

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Welcome to the blog of Jim Genzano, writer, web developer, husband, father, and enjoyer of things like the internet, movies, music, games, and books. For a more detailed run-down of who I am and what goes on here, read this.

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