Originally appeared in The Peak.
On a continent where some of the most popular shows are about a dying drug dealer forced by desperation into life of crime or the worst people in the world running the worst bar in the world, or a competition to be alone and rich on an island somewhere, it’s understandable that we’re a bit cynical. Indeed, it’s no wonder that in the land of Breaking Bad, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia,and Survivor that a ferociously optimistic television show about an alien adventurer can’t break very far into the mainstream. Of course I’m talking about Doctor Who.
Doctor Who is a BBC series that has been running since 1963 about an alien with a time machine, wandering and running in search of a good time. That is until danger rears its head and The Doctor has to leap into action with his human companions and giant brain to avert disaster. It’s a kind of Golden Age comic book premise that’s just too sickly sweet for a North American television audience weaned into modernity on homicide procedurals and sadness. It’s that aversion to even the hint of optimism in the genetics of a show that is depriving audiences here of some of the best on-screen storytelling in a generation.
The Doctor flies around time and space (all of it) in the TARDIS, a time machine that can camouflage itself to hide in plain sight and just happens to be stuck in the form of a police phone box used by the London Metropolitan Police. He is of a species known as Time Lords from the planet Gallifrey, and is about 905 years old. In that time even he has gotten a bit cynical, and has started to take the wonders of the universe for granted. So he travels with companions, letting the lens of their awe keep his life of relative solitude exciting. Galleries of villains roll in and out of the lives of The Doctor and his companions, but their overall philosophy remains the same: “The universe is awesome and time is awesome, let’s go see all of it.” And when they come across someone who needs a helping hand? “We have to help.”
The problem has a loose American analogy in the rapid degeneration in relevance of the Superman mythology. Moral infallibility and nigh invulnerability are in low demand in the Age of the Anti-Hero, but those characteristics in both The Doctor and Superman are the source of their most interesting trait: their god complex. Showtime and HBO have given us a steady diet of overt crisis, so it’s understandable when subtext seems out of reach.
The Doctor and Superman are both immigrants obsessed with their adopted home world of Earth. Whereas Superman is a sworn protector in title, The Doctor is just a little more dedicated to the protection of Earth than any other planet because of his fascination and, ultimately, envy of the human species. They persevere, survive, and thrive right to the end of the universe and the onset of entropy in the Who universe, and their development and startling goodness as a species is a never-ending source of amusement for someone who has seen it all. The Doctor brings a human to be by his side so he doesn’t get off track, so mortality remains a constant factor and so his ability to violate the interstellar Hippocratic oath he lives by stays in perspective. He desires humanity, and the easiest way to shuck the burden of his abilities is to party with them. Humans are the favourite cause of a being with access to everything.
But even with the refreshing optimism that makes Who a total joy to watch, the newest incarnation of Doctor Who never forgets the sadism that goes along with great drama. Showrunners Russell T. Davies and Steven Moffat make sure that, just like with Superman, the darkness is there, bubbling just under the surface. The Doctor faces the moral dilemmas of omnipotence regularly: if I’m the last one standing, that means I’m the victor and can do whatever I want? I feel a need for these companions, but am I ruining their lives by dragging them into danger? Who am I to decide what is right and what is wrong? Do the means justify the ends when all of time is available to me to see what the consequences are? The personal psychology of an impossibly old and wise man losing his way makes the current Who years a fascinating character study.
The source of that directionless wandering, that constant search for a moral compass? It is the core of what makes The Doctor who he is: When the adventures are done, The Doctor will always be alone, an immortal madman in a stolen blue box meant for a crew.