I have just finished watching, over the course of a week, the 2005 season of “Dr. Who.” I didn’t do this voluntarily, of course. At least, not at first. I was cajoled, coerced and cornered into watching it. I was guilted into watching it. And by the time I sat down to watch the first episode I’d heard so much about it I’d stopped listening to what my daughter was saying. But it was when she said, “It’s just so sad because I don’t have anyone around me who will talk to me about Dr. Who!” that I caved. It was that appeal to help allay her existential sadness that put me over the edge.
The first episode is called “Rose.” Rose Tyler is about twenty, given to wearing jeans, pink hoodies, Union flag tee shirts and substituting ‘f’s for ‘th’s. She lives with her mother in a council estate in a dodgy part of London and she sells clothes at a toney Harrods’ styled store near Trafalgar Square. At least she does for the first part of the first episode until she is accosted by mannequins who come to life and try to kill her.
Rescue comes in the form of a humanoid alien called The Doctor. He saves Rose, blows up the clothing store and tracks her down at her apartment to pick up the arm of the mannequin he had broken off as they two of them were fleeing the advancing pack.
He tries to explain to Rose about the war that’s going on, the intergalactic battle aimed at destroying the human race, but he knows she won’t believe him. He knows what humans are like: “You lot,” he says, “All you do is eat chips, go to bed and watch the telly while all the time underneath you there’s a war going on.”
Then he enters his blue Police Public Call Box, Rose hears some strange cranking kind of sound and the Call Box disappears. End of The Doctor. For the moment.
Because the human race really is under attack and the Nesting Consciousness located in the subterranean tunnel under the London Eye is set to activate the signal that will animate every plastic mannequin in Britain for all-out human destruction.
In a stunning act of diplomacy and bravery, The Doctor, aided by some gymnastics from Rose, defeats the Nesting Consciousness, deactivating the mannequins, saving Britain and the world.
Does this sound compelling to you? Credible?
Can you believe that Rose, leaving mother and boyfriend behind, decides to travel with The Doctor in his Police Public Call Box which is not really that at all, but a TARDIS time machine, bigger by far on the inside than on the outside?
Can you believe that Doctor Who is the longest-running science fiction series in the world and that next year it will celebrate its fiftieth anniversary? Can you believe how much I laughed during the thirteen episodes I watched? Can you believe I much I cried during the thirteen episodes I watched?
My daughter was right to cajol and coerce me into watching the show. And not just because it has a cult following to rival the Grateful Dead and a whole line of Doctor Who-related merchandise. (I gave Linnea a TARDIS cookie jar with special sound effects for Christmas.
It’s that this series, for all of its campy theme music, absurd special effects, stock war-of-the-world plotlines, is chiefly about two things: the love that human beings share with one another and our need to hope that disaster will be and can be averted. You might be able to say that same thing about Star Trek, but Doctor Who takes the time to develop relationships that themselves change and deepen . And because The Doctor periodically has to go through ‘regeneration’ (which is why eleven different actors have played The Doctor throughout the years), the theme and knowledge of impending loss is always a part of how we come to know and care about The Doctor. He won’t be ours just as he is forever
We pretty much know how every episode will end: The Doctor makes it better. But along the way there is a very real, very believable development of characters you come to truly care about because they remind you of the people in your own life, the people you love best, the people you’d want most to be protected.