For all the belly aching about the newer, “darker” Doctor Who, it really isn’t very dark. It still clings to the brightness and hope of its predecessors but without straying too far into the blackness of the human condition. More on that in a bit.
The other big sci-fi franchise to get a reboot, Battlestar Galactica, is more black than bright. No character is without a serious flaw, and most have more than one. As the last season continues, the two primary groups of characters who began the series as two distinct groups are no longer as easily described along the lines described drawn by whether they’re Cylon or human. Dark is one thing, but as of now there is really nobody to root for, no cause to support. While things got VERY dark for the characters in the Lord of the Rings, for instance, the audience always had the bucolic innocence of the shire to reconcile against the warfare.
But Battlestar gives us nothing to hope for, no wagon to hitch our horses to. It’s mature and serious and offers no easy answers – you might even walk away from Season 3 thinking that outlawing abortion is a good idea or that suicide bombing isn’t always such a bad thing. But the characters are so dirty that they have more dirty than clean on them. These folks are going to reach earth, but I’m not sure I want them to.
But this is about Doctor Who, not Battlestar Galactica.
I know that Doctor Who, the man, is simply another avatar of Rhodesian Britain. I am well aware that the Doctor represents the English, white-skinned, erudite savior of the world, using his formidable mind and boundless empathy (he has two hearts, you see, which makes him twice as compassionate as any human) to save the savage, stupid races from themselves. He is always a he and always travels with an attractive girl. He is such a representation, such an avatar, such a Platonic ideal that he doesn’t even have a name – he’s just The Doctor.
I know all of these things, but I still love his show.
I can’t speak for the show that most people knew as Doctor Who before 2003. I didn’t see any of those. I don’t think I’ve ever seen those. Every thing I know about these characters and this world is what I’ve learned by watching the first and second seasons of the rebooted show (and a little more from Wikipedia’s voluminous stockpiles of information). Even with that scant survey of the vastness that is Doctor Who, I still love it.
Positive reviews aren’t nearly as fun as negative ones, either to read or to write. I’ll try to condense what I like about the show into something palatable.
- Saving the Universe is Fun. The stakes in a Doctor Who episode can be as small as a single person’s life, but they’re usually way higher – like the lives of every living creature. The Doctor takes things seriously when he needs to, but usually he’s just sort of prancing his way through the universe and its many dangers. It’s this cheerful, fearless, gleeful reaction to new experiences that endears this Doctor to the audience – we discover as he does, though it’s not very often that he’s surprised by something.
- Humans are the Key. One thing that always seems to surprise the Doctor is the ability of human beings to vastly exceed their potential, both as a race and as individuals. When he learns that a group of explorers is risking everything for the sake of a scientific discovery, the Doctor very sternly asks their stoic leader if he can give him a hug. This is not unique to this series – human-centric storytelling colors most modern science fiction. But Doctor Who, as British as anything comes, wears his heart on his sleeve. Even if humans are largely incapable of taking care of themselves without a lot of help, the Doctor is always grinning over the shoulders of humans who manage to do it anyway.
- Science is the Best. Many episodes of Doctor Who resemble episodes of Buffy or the X-Files. The main difference is that there is nothing inherently supernatural going on, despite all appearances. For instance, if the Doctor must rescue Queen Victoria from a rampaging Werewolf, there is a scientific explanation for it. Where Buffy uses Demons as a rubber-stamp explanation for the weird stuff going on, Doctor Who uses Aliens. Lycanthropy is actually an infestation of alien bacteria, for instance.
As I said before, Doctor Who isn’t dark, but it feels mature. It’s not afraid of approaching the darker aspects of its subjects, but it never stands too long in the shadows.
My money is on Rose. She’s cockney.