TV Series Review
Americans like to think that when it comes to science fiction, we're the world's cultural epicenter. We're home to Area 51, Roswell, N.M., and Comic-Con. We were the culture that created everything from Star Trek and The X-Files to Coneheads and Plan 9 From Outer Space. We surely have more geeks per square mile than anywhere else on earth.
But they've never created a franchise to match the once and future king of sci-fi television: the aged yet nearly ageless Doctor Who.
Before Captain Kirk set his first phaser to stun or HAL 9000 sent his first innocent man into the vacuum of space, the good Doctor was cruising through the airwaves of Britain. The show's mammoth BBC run began in 1963 and continues to this day—though it did take about 16 years off, from 1989 to 2005. This isn't just a television show. It's an institution. The only thing that has reigned longer in Britain is the queen herself.
It's somehow fitting, then, that the centerpiece of Doctor Who is an ever-changing yet nearly ageless character known, simply, as the Doctor.
The Doctor is, ostensibly, a "Time Lord," a being capable of hopping through space and time with the help of a contraption known as a TARDIS. (It looks suspiciously like a 1950s London police box.) And while he can be killed just like anyone else, he doesn't "die," precisely, but undergoes a Phoenix-like transformation and becomes an entirely "new" Doctor—one who looks and often acts much differently than his predecessor, but one who still retains all his memories.
When your show lasts half a century, you've got to be able to recast your lead at least two or three times. And, in fact, there have been 12 such incarnations who've traveled time and space with an always growing list of companions (most of them human). The Doctor has saved the galaxy countless times with a curious combination of wit, derring-do and (looking back) laughable special effects.
It's hard to see the older shows now and imagine anyone getting frightened by, say, the evil Daleks (which look like taller, punked-out versions of R2-D2). But back in the day, Doctor Who was considered by many to be fright-night television. Though designed as a family show, in the 1970s Doctor Who came under fire for being too scary and gory for children. British activist Mary Whitehouse declared it "teatime brutality for tots," and she may have had a point. It featured bloodthirsty dolls (Chucky's forebears?), murderous daffodils and plenty of violent mayhem—including the offing of a Doctor or two. The show supposedly spawned the British phrase "behind the sofa"—as in hiding behind the sofa during its especially scary parts. No less than The Economist suggests that "hiding behind the sofa whenever the Daleks appear" is as quintessentially British as teatime.
Now, with special effects being so much better, Doctor Who may be more frightening than ever. But in an age when televisions are littered with serial killers and worse, the creatures here still have a B-movie quality to them: kinda creepy, kinda campy. Are they a little freaky? Yes. Will they force the average adult into years of counseling? Probably not. The violence they perpetrate shouldn't be excused or ignored, but it's only fair to say that their visceral impact is, for the most part, PG.
The show has a few other issues: Sexual allusions and situations (including references to same-sex marriage) are sporadic but still present. Mild profanities (including the British curse "bloody") and misuses of God's name tag along occasionally. More significantly, the series has been known to dabble in religious themes—not always to the comfort of Christians. Its current worldview is essentially humanist, and it sometimes mocks or dismisses certain religious ideas or ideals. And the mere presence of a Time Lord who, essentially, raises himself from the dead every few seasons does in itself provoke a host of theological issues.
Even so, Doctor Who usually feels rooted in a more genteel past. It's a fun, witty show with geek-friendly charm. And there are certainly far worse ways to spend a Saturday night these days than taking a trip on the TARDIS. But as the Doctor would surely warn anyone who glibly steps through its doors, you ride at your own risk, and there are no guarantees of what you might see.
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Peter Capaldi as The Doctor; Matt Smith as The Doctor; Jenna Coleman as Clara Oswald; Karen Gillan as Amy Pond; Arthur Darvill as Rory Williams; Alex Kingston as River Song; James Corden as Craig Owens