Doctor Who is unique in being the world’s longest running science fiction program. That it has lasted such a long time is due to the unforeseen brilliance of the original idea coupled with that most radical of contingency plans: regeneration. More important than this though is the long time devotion of the show’s fanbase, a diverse bunch that has helpfully included some of the most talented TV professionals in Britain, coupled with its championing of feel good values and reflecting an ideal of British national character.
Rescued from the dark days of cancellation, now the programme is designed not only to dominate the schedules at home but also achieve mainstream fame abroad. High budget TV programmes must increasingly hold their own as global brands now that traditional funding models fail to stump up the cash. Hence why TV is proclaimed as the new Hollywood, although Steven Moffat’s attempts to make each episode a ‘blockbuster’ usually results in anticlimax, jettisoning the atmosphere and slight shoddiness that made the show appealing in the first place.
Despite the BBC’s best efforts to turn Doctor Who into a global super-brand, us old time fans cling on, reminiscing about the good old days when the music was electronic, the sets were creaky and the monsters were made of bubble wrap. Okay, maybe not so good. The programme’s failings have never put off fans though, we don’t care if one episode is crap, or even if a whole series is dismal; we will it to succeed, fondly defending even its most silly moments. For us, Doctor Who represents something beyond the sets; somehow its values came to reflect our own, and in the Doctor we have a blueprint for our own behaviour.
Why was I often in tears by the end of an episode from the new series? Partly it’s because I’m extremely soppy by nature, and surging violins don’t help. But I was also responding to the Doctor belting his affirming principles out into the stern faces of his alien foes. I am aware that it’s foolish to get swept up in the words of charismatic orators, but these little sermons from the pulpit, designed to pluck at my liberal heartstrings, used to get me week after week.
It was a guilty pleasure, but during Tennant’s reign at the helm of the TARDIS, things got out of hand. In ‘Last of the Timelords’ the Doctor is literally levitated into redeeming messiah, surrounded by a halo and freed from the clutches of the Master by everyone on Earth chanting his name Tibetan monk style (great use of positive visualisation). Recently Matt Smith’s proclamations have verged into the bathetic, such as in the widely panned episode The Rings of Akheten: “I have seen things you wouldn’t believe. I have lost things you will never understand. […] So, come on, then! Take it! Take it all, baby! Have it! You have it all!” Erm… no thanks.
A lot of fandom on the internet has discussed whether the values of Doctor Who may constitute a religion, for example in this PBS Ideas Channel video, and even Manchester University got in on the act, putting on a Religion and Doctor Who day in November, inviting speakers to talk about the presentation of Buddhism and Atheism in the show amongst other things. It seems commentators are desperate to find gods in all sorts of unlikely places these days, uncertain about the health of our spiritual feelings. Doctor Who as a program does represent some admirable values, but enough of the religion business. This is not a sect. In fact, the program has far more to do with ideals about Britishness.
In his recent article, Simon Winder talked about how in the early classic series’ stories the Doctor would turn up like a colonial British officer, giving the locals a jolly good sorting out, bringing in new technologies and gifting them a post-war Britain style ideology. In many ways the Doctor is the ideal gentleman and not god like at all. He is eccentric, benevolent but aloof, often obscuring his intelligence for the good feeling of those around him, but revealing it in a flash when needed. He can be bad-tempered, but it’s in the service of brilliance. Although writers have tried to carve a darker side into his character he remains a champion of kindness. The Doctor is often mistaken for a god, but actually he is more than likely to have bumbled his way into the situation, and he spends most of his time trying to escape his own notoriety. For the Doctor, freedom is no one knowing who he is. This is a guy who values his privacy.
Some people see sects, gods and religious feelings in Doctor Who, mostly due to the missteps the new series has taken in deifying the doctor and indulging in triumphalism. I however see some pretty non-radical ideas: non-violence, diversity and curiosity. For much of its history Doctor Who has explored how well our deeply felt ideals hold up in some extremely alien places and in the face of nihilistic destruction. The Doctor himself is our missionary in the form of a traditional British eccentric. Loveable the character may be, but like all missionaries he is not infallible.
Enjoy the 50th anniversary and The Day of the Doctor, but don’t get too caught up in it. Remember, the Doctor himself would more than likely be very embarrassed by all the fuss, and would quietly slip back into the TARDIS to pursue far more exciting adventures.