A/N: FINALLY done with my school paper about DW! Thought y'all might like to see the finished product, just for funsies ;)
The British Museum is full of history and culture. Wonders from all over the world and throughout time are on display, and each is significant for a different reason. Imagine exploring this massive establishment for the first time, wandering through room after room of ancient artefacts. Over in one display case is a small screen, playing a clip from some TV show on a loop. A plaque on the right helpfully states that the unusual banknote above the player was a prop used in that scene. The video starts over.
People are running around in a street with money flying through the air. The bizarre scene fades to black, and words come up on the screen: “Doctor Who, The Runaway Bride, 2006” (British Museum). This display, featured in a section entitled “Money in media”, is an example of the expression of social themes in television, for instance, greed – or so the plaque says. However, despite the apparent randomness of the example, it is only fitting that this incredibly influential form of media be represented in some way due to its role in popular culture.
The change in technology and its influence that has occurred over the past fifty years is staggering. Less than a lifetime ago, black and white TVs displayed Neil Armstrong's first step onto the moon. Since then mail has given way to email, rotary phones to iPhones, and newspapers to twitter. Today's society is dominated by media – internet, music, films, and television are virtually inescapable, and they influence our lives on a massive scale. Television in particular has a resonating effect on our culture. We reflect what we surround ourselves with and view as entertainment.
The presence of the aforementioned exhibit in the British Museum is perfectly understandable in light of this impact that television has on modern life. The intrigue of this artefact from the recent past lies not, therefore, in it being a video player among Greek statues, but rather in the particular clip that was chosen. This display is the only one in the entire museum to feature a video. Since each and every piece has its own significance and reason for being included, how did the curators choose what moment of television is the best representation of the genre's collective influence? Why, out of all shows, would Doctor Who be chosen as the symbol of how television affects society?
The answer is because Doctor Who is the most positively influential show of all – at least in the UK, though its global reach has grown rapidly in recent years. It surpasses mere entertainment and is an integral part of British culture. A popular English tradition involves watching the BBC broadcast of holiday specials on Christmas Day – a lineup which has featured contributions from Doctor Who, such as 'The Runaway Bride', on and off for decades. The show's appeal and influence do not lie in marketing strategies and statistics, but in its essence. Doctor Who bridges gaps to bring people together, and opens them up to thinking about new ideas. It provides the ultimate hero for mankind: a madman in a box, protecting and encouraging the best of humanity.
Doctor Who is about an alien called “the Doctor” who travels with various companions through all of time and space. He is a Time Lord from the planet Gallifrey; he has two hearts and is over a thousand years old. The TARDIS is his ship that looks like a 1960's blue Police Box, but it's bigger on the inside. The Doctor has had many different faces, because a Time Lord can regenerate when dying – a process which involves physically restructuring the cells of his body, giving him with an entirely different appearance and personality while still remaining the same person. No matter what quirks his regeneration has, like wearing celery, shouting 'Allon-sy!', offering jelly babies to everyone he meets, or constantly flapping his hands about, the Doctor always holds to a strong moral code. He abhors violence, and avoids it if at all possible, but he will always take a stand to defend others. A sonic screwdriver is his non-weapon of choice. It opens doors and scans brainwaves and does pretty much anything else, as long as it doesn't have to do with wood.
The Doctor has lived for a very long time, and seen some terrible things. In the Last Great Time War, his home planet was destroyed, leaving him as the very last of the Time Lords. He has lost friends and made impossible choices. But, as one of his companions observed, “What if you were really old, and really kind and alone? Your whole race dead, no future. What couldn't you do then? If you were that old, and that kind, and the very last of your kind... you couldn't just stand there and watch children cry” (Moffat, “Beast”). That's why the Doctor “saves planets, rescues civilizations, defeats terrible creatures, and runs a lot. Seriously, there's an outrageous amount of running involved” (Greenhorn). When asked what he is running from, he answered “I'm not running away. But this is one corner of one country on one continent on one planet that's a corner of a galaxy that's a corner of a universe that is forever growing and shrinking and creating and destroying and never remaining the same for a single millisecond, and there is so much, so much, to see, Amy. Because it goes so fast. I'm not running away from things, I am running to them. Before they flare and fade forever” (Chibnall, “Power”).
He has been running since November 23, 1963, when the TARDIS first appeared in a junkyard, and the Doctor essentially kidnapped his granddaughter's two nosy schoolteachers. Though the path to creating this first episode was troubled, throughout the series' long history it has repeatedly faced and overcome numerous problems that have been the death of other programmes. Doctor Who faced several developmental challenges, such as an inadequate budget, repeatedly delayed launch, “disputes over resources and scripts” later “referred to as the 'Dr Who hassle'”, suggestions that it be aborted because it was “too ambitious”, allocation to a “notoriously poorly equipped studio”, and “lack of confidence […] at the Controller level” (Chapman 21). All these issues stemmed from the inherent uncertainty of a show that was unlike anything that had ever been attempted before. Thankfully, those who were dedicated to the project and saw its potential kept it going.
The first episode, 'An Unearthly Child', aired inauspiciously in the wake of President Kennedy's assassination, but it wasn't long before Doctor Who spread like wildfire. The second story arc, which aired hardly more than a month later, introduced the Doctor's greatest nemesis – a race called the Daleks, whose popularity may very well be responsible for the show's survival in those early days. Essentially, the Daleks are everything that the Doctor is not. They have always been portrayed with a discernible undertone of Nazism – Daleks' primary goal is to “Ex-ter-min-ate” every non-Dalek form of life in the universe. These pepper-pot shaped anti-heroes became incredibly popular in the mid-60s, so much so that for a period of time there was a general “Dalekmania!”, and they inspired songs such as “I Wanna Spend Christmas with a Dalek” by the Go Gos. The famously evil creatures made Doctor Who a household
name, and kept it from being cancelled during its first year.
However, it is important to understand and differentiate between 'how' and 'why' the show has become so popular and widespread. 'How' is a matter of budgets and marketing, a discussion of business plans and strategies. While these are important to the television industry, they are not the critical ingredients that make a show successful. The survival of a programme relies ultimately on the dedication of its fans, and by extension its ability to inspire such loyalty. This is an area in which Doctor Who has excelled, primarily through the characterization of its title role. Over the years the programme has shown itself to be a “popular work of social criticism”, espousing a strong moral code, “cultural sensitivity and curiosity”, fairness, and reason, rather than force or violence (Pless 357,6). The Doctor is a champion of “the triumph of romance and intellect over brute force and cynicism” (Jaramillo).
For as long as man has been around we have created heroes for ourselves, “mystical people slightly better than the rest of us, who can serve as intermediaries between our ideals and us, and in so doing, show us how to really live” (Pless 351). In the last fifty years, television and popular media have seriously upped the scale from oral tradition and local lore, to massive international sagas. People tend to gravitate towards figures that espouse their own values, and “in Britain, […] the national hero has most decidedly been the Doctor, from Doctor Who” (Pless 351). Why this show has become so important was summed up quite elegantly by the current (as of 2014) showrunner Steven Moffat, in a panel following the 50th Anniversary Special of the show. He said, “History tells us who we used to be, documentaries tell us who we are now; but heroes tell us who we WANT to be. And a lot of our heroes depress me. But when they made [the Doctor], they didn't give him a gun – they gave him a screwdriver to fix things. They didn't give him a tank or a warship or an x-wing fighter – they gave him a box from which you can call for help. And they didn't give him a superpower or pointy ears or a heat-ray – they gave him an extra HEART. They gave him two hearts! And that's an extraordinary thing. There will never come a time when we don't need a hero like the Doctor” (Doctor Who).
Moffat's words present one aspect of the concept puzzled over by critics and fans alike – what is Doctor Who's captivating quality? One opinion frequently expressed is that it is the programme's ability to change and adapt, perfectly symbolised by the literal regeneration of the Doctor in the show's mythos. Others claim it's the infinite possibility of having all of time and space to explore that keeps Doctor Who entrenched in our culture. Some believe that the way the programme covers so many diverse debates such as morality, ethics, and what it means to be human is the reason. There's a veritable library of works on the subject, ranging from Doctor Who: The Unfolding Text (1983), to Time and Relative Dissertations in Space: Critical Perspectives on 'Doctor Who' (2007), and Doctor Who and Philosophy: Bigger on the Inside (2010). Though each of these examples focuses on a different aspect of the programme, they all call into question what it is about Doctor Who that makes it uniquely influential.
Even the Time Lord's name sets him apart from other heroes. It sums up his character and what he stands for. Once, in a conversation with another Time Lord called the Master, he said that choosing your own name was a “psychiatrist's field day”, to which the Master replied, “As you chose yours – the man who makes people better. How sanctimonious is that?” (Davies). While he intended it as a taunt, the Master was right – the Doctor constantly tries to make people better. “'Doctor' – the word for 'healer' and 'wise man' throughout the universe,” another character told him, “We get that word from you, you know”(Moffat, “Good”). When the Doctor chose his name, it was a promise: “Never cruel or cowardly. Never give up. Never give in” (Moffat, “Day”). That is who the Doctor is, and why he is so loved – because of what he stands for.
Over the last fifty years, Doctor Who has touched and influenced countless lives. In just 2005, this show fought its way back from a sixteen year cancellation during which it survived only through the commitment of its fans. When it returned it did so explosively – garnering the affections of a whole new generation, while retaining the love of those who had hid behind their couches in fear as children themselves. In the 21st century Doctor Who has reached new heights of popularity, spreading throughout the world and gaining influence across the pond via BBC America. Last year on November 23rd, 2013 Doctor Who set a Guinness World Record for the biggest TV drama simulcast after its 50th Anniversary Special, The Day of the Doctor, was aired in 94 countries across six continents, and in over 1500 cinemas (Lynch). The Editor-In-Chief of Guinness World Records, Chris Glenday, said “This outstanding achievement is a testament to the fact that the longest running sci-fi TV show in history is not just a well-loved UK institution but a truly global success adored by millions of people” (Lynch).
All this goes to show that, whether we know exactly why or not, Doctor Who is without compare when it comes to influential modern media. This show of hope, wonder, caring, and change is only affecting more of the world as time goes on. At its hearts, Doctor Who is for everyone, everywhen, and everything. The world knows we need the Doctor, because he is the ultimate hero: he inspires us to “be the best of humanity” (Chibnall, “Cold”).
Chapman, James. Inside the TARDIS: The Worlds of Doctor Who. 2nd ed. London: I.B. Tauris, 2013. Print.
Chibnall, Chris. "Cold Blood." Doctor Who. Dir. Ashley Way. BBC. 29 May 2010. Television.
Chibnall, Chris. "The Power of Three." Doctor Who. Dir. Douglas Mackinnon. BBC. London, 22 Sept. 2012. Television.
Davies, Russell T. "The Sound of Drums." Doctor Who. Dir. Colin Teague. BBC. London, 27 June 2007. Television.
Doctor Who. “Matt Smith's Final Panel – Full Q&A – The Eleventh Hour – Doctor Who 50th Anniversary.” Online video. YouTube. YouTube, 04 Mar. 2014. Web. 02 Apr. 2014.
Greenhorn, Stephen. "The Doctor's Daughter." Doctor Who. Dir. Alice Troughton. BBC. London, 06 June 2008. Television.
Jaramillo, Vincent. “Craig Ferguson – The lost “Dr. Who” cold open.” Online video. YouTube. YouTube, 01 Dec. 2010. Web. 02 Apr. 2014.
Lynch, Kevin. "Doctor Who - Day of the Doctor Sets World Record for Biggest TV Drama Simulcast." Guinness World Records. Guinness World Records Limited, 25 Nov. 2013. Web. 02 Apr. 2014.
Moffat, Steven. "The Day of the Doctor." Doctor Who. Dir. Nick Hurran. BBC. London, 23 Nov. 2013. Television.
Moffat, Steven. "The Beast Below." Doctor Who. Dir. Andrew Gunn. BBC. London, 10 Apr. 2010. Television.
Moffat, Steven. "A Good Man Goes to War." Doctor Who. Dir. Peter Hoar. BBC. London, 4 June 2011. Television.
Pless, Deborah. "The Decline and Fall of the British Empire, Sponsored by TARDIS." Doctor Who and Philosophy: Bigger on the Inside. Ed. Courtland Lewis and Paula J. Smithka. Vol. 55. Chicago: Open Court, 2013. 351-59. Print. Popular Culture and Philosophy.