Taking a Second Look at ‘Doctor Who’


I started watching Doctor Who in 9th grade, at the recommendation of my friends. The 2005 reboot had already been running for seven years at that point, but I was just starting to get into both science fiction and TV. I began with the first episode, featuring Christopher Eccleston playing the melancholy 9th doctor and Billie Piper as his plucky companion Rose, and I fell in love with the show almost immediately. Its endearing low-budget campiness and earnest convictions drew me in, and over the school year I watched until I was caught up with the series. Doctor Who was my feel-good show: it made me feel better about the world because it made me want to be a more compassionate person. I’m too cynical for my own good most of the time, and Doctor Who was an antidote to feeling like courage and integrity were never enough to save the day.

In general, I tend to like my sci-fi grittier—Battlestar Galactica is my other favorite sci-fi show, and it has just about the opposite tone. But Doctor Who’s commitment to being kind-hearted without being saccharine has always managed to move me. In a media landscape saturated with characters indifferent to the suffering they cause, the Doctor’s insistence that everyone is important and that nobody gets left behind is refreshing. As much as I dislike Steven Moffat’s showrunner abilities, his speech about the Doctor illustrates why he is such a formative character for me:

“It’s hard to talk about the importance of an imaginary hero. But heroes ARE important: Heroes tell us something about ourselves. History books tells us who we used to be, documentaries tell us who we are now; but heroes tell us who we want to be.[…] There will never come a time when we don’t need a hero like the Doctor.”

At its best, Doctor Who is a show about why people are important. The best episodes were always the ones in which an ordinary character saves the day, not the Doctor and all his bravado. Nancy reversing the plague in “The Doctor Dances” by acknowledging Jamie is her son; Sally Sparrow and Larry defeating the weeping angels with just a videotape for instructions in “Blink.” Donna Noble dragging herself out of a parallel universe in “Turn Left.” There were instances of this in later seasons (I’d argue the popularity of Craig, James Corden’s character, is because finally, just an ordinary human) _Women have long had a great deal of very real things to fear; they do not need to make up ghosts and monsters to menace them._ (2)but when Doctor Who started to focus around the Doctor and his companions—who weren’t ordinary anymore, they were paradoxical, mysterious, “impossible” people, it lost a lot of its charm. As popular as Rory and Amy were, I had a hard time feeling attached to them. Their storylines were so convoluted, and the way they seemed destined to be with the Doctor ruined what was so alluring about the companions — the idea that anyone was important enough to travel with the Doctor and be a hero. The Ponds, River Song, and Clara were all engaging characters, but they weren’t relatable in the way that med-student Martha and office temp Donna were. The Davies companions had jobs, families, lives — the Moffat companions all but dropped out of the sky. As Doctor Who continued, it lost a lot of what made it so unique among action shows. The trappings remained, but it felt like its soul was missing.

Gradually the show’s change in tone was enough to make me lose interest. I would still list Doctor Who as one of my favorite shows if asked, but I would no longer DVR the episodes religiously once they came up on BBC America. Season 10 came out while I was away at my first year of college without a television, and I was barely disappointed about missing it.

I started rewatching Doctor Who this past fall, deciding to take advantage of my student trial of Amazon Prime.  My TV habits had devolved into revisiting episodes of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia ad infinitum, a rut I figured I should try and get out of. I hadn’t been able to rewatch any of my old favorites since the show was removed from Netflix, and going back to the beginning, with the 9th Doctor, Rose, and badly-designed CGI aliens, felt like revisiting my adolescence.

_Women have long had a great deal of very real things to fear; they do not need to make up ghosts and monsters to menace them._ (1)I tried to re-watch everything, even the episodes I remembered being dull. As I went through the seasons, I found that it was easier to appreciate the characters and plot lines for what they were, rather than hold them to the expectations I brought with me the first time around. Knowing what was coming gave me the ability to relax into the storylines more and appreciate the variabilities of the different eras. I found things to love in both the people-centric stories of the Davies era and the flashy, bigger-budget arcs of the Moffat era. But when I stopped watching, a part of me still wanted to be back in the TARDIS with the Doctor, Rose, and Jack.

Hearing that Chris Chibnall was coming on board as the new head showrunner for season 11 piqued my interest. The episodes he’d written previously weren’t my favorites (“42,” “Dinosaurs on a Spaceship,” among others) but I didn’t dislike them either, and I was interested to see what a new showrunner could do with the series. But what really got me back on board was the announcement that Jodie Whittaker would play the 13th doctor—the first time the character will be portrayed by a woman.

There’s still plenty that could go wrong—if Hartnell chooses to take Whittaker’s doctor in a more motherly direction I will be furious—but, from the several minutes of screen time she had in the 2017 Christmas special, it appears the Doctor’s devil-may-care attitude is still there. There’s still a long way to wait until season 11, but for the first time in several years, when the new season starts, I will be anxiously awaiting it. •

Carina Julig is a California native studying journalism at the University of Colorado Boulder, where she writes about religion, sexuality, and politics. Follow her on twitter at @CarinaJulig.

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