When Your Audience Deems Itself a Collection of Professional Critics: Doctor Who (TV Showcase #23)

Yes, that little doodle up there was drawn by yours truly. It’s about the best drawing job I’ve ever managed to pull off. But since there are so many Doctors and companions and title logos, I thought I’d just stick with my interpretation of the show. In case you’re wondering, that’s the first Doctor, who was my first Doctor. That’s right, folks… I’ve watched the entirety of “Doctor Who”. And although the title pertains to my main topic of conversation, a show this long is just gonna have a long blog post. So grab some popcorn, because we’re going to be here for a while.

“Doctor Who” (DW for short) began in 1963, and including all specials as regular episodes  (and throwing in the unaired “Shada” story arc), the show has put out 830 episodes and one movie over 35 seasons as of Christmas 2015. I’ve worked on a basic premise for the show, and here it is: the Doctor is an alien who travels through time and space in a machine that’s bigger on the inside and looks like a police box on the outside. He often takes companions with him to experience the wonders of the universe as he continues to save the day all over it. But the Doctor’s a kind of alien that can regenerate, meaning that when he is killed, his body’s molecular structure changes completely, and he is able to live again, in a different body. So now let’s talk about some interesting concepts from the wonderful Whoniverse. And new-Whovians beware… your small knowledge of what kind of a show “Doctor Who” is will probably be met with some disagreement here.

First, let’s talk classic Who. “Doctor Who” ran from 1963 straight through 1989, which is 26 seasons, and then it was cancelled. DW has always been and still is a low-budget production, and to hear and read about some of the ways that the first few seasons of DW were made are ridiculous. And while the very first episode was OK, it wasn’t seen by alot of people because it aired on the same day as the JFK assassination, so even in Britain, people were tuning in to newsfeed instead of a new family scifi show. And the first four-part story arc really was quite terrible. But what really sold the show was the next story arc, which was seven episodes long ad introduced the Daleks for the first time. The Daleks are literally the first ever DW villain (because the terrible pilot story arc was about starting a fire for cavemen). But was it just the Daleks that sold the show? This paragraph’s getting too long; let me split this up here…

Ah, that’s better. Now, where were we? Oh yes, the Daleks. In its first five episodes, DW had introduced a scary techno theme song, (which was completely unheard of in the 1960s), a time machine that was bigger on the inside (a mind-blowing concept in that era), neato special effects when the TARDIS disappeared (complete with the entirely original sound effect), and then topped it off with the Dalek, one of the first non-humanoid aliens on TV. The Daleks were not some guy in a cheesy monster suit who didn’t have a brain and only wrecked things (sorry Irwin Allen, I’m talking about you); these had no real resemblance to humans at all; they glided, not walked; their voices were unlike anything that had been heard before; and they were highly intelligent. Plus, they didn’t resemble any robot or interactive machine that had been seen before. And this leads me into my next topic.

The Daleks were the first of many aliens on the show that demonstrated the intercultural side of aliens. Since the Doctor was one himself, and since alot of his companions were also (in classic Who anyway), he had reason to try and communicate with other-worldly creatures, because with the Doctor as the main character, suddenly humans became the alien. But since humans are the target audience, they’ll still think of the Doctor as an alien, while still seeing that their own race is also alien. This blurs all line of normal or not, and alien or not, which brings DW from an “Ah! A monster! Kill it!” kind of alien show to one that was simply a look at other cultures. Star Wars has also been good about this intercultural feel of alien life, but Star Wars has also put their main characters within the clique of the Force. For DW, while there are personal story arcs with the Doctor, there’s no overarching goal or presence that is present throughout the whole of the series, so its concept of aliens as other cultures comes through very well, as the Doctor has no alternative agenda.

Why has this show gone on for so long? It was revived in 2005 and still continues to this day, and audiences both young and old, British and American, have fallen in love with the show. But how has the show stayed on the air? Well, it’s the same reason for “Lassie”‘s long run, or any of the major soap operas out there (like “Guiding Light” for instance, which aired over 10,000 episodes). “Doctor Who” has managed to have an interchangeable main cast. Companions come and go easily, and they can return. But the Doctor’s ability to regenerate means that anyone can play him, and he can cross his own timeline and meet past and future versions of himself. The showrunners weren’t really sure what they were doing in 1966 when the first Doctor magically turned into the second. But the concept of regeneration is brilliant, and it keeps the show running for as long as there’s an audience for it. It’s not the characters that have to keep being interesting, it’s the idea of the show itself. And that brings me to my next point.

It’s not easy keeping an audience engaged. Especially since it’s obvious going in that a series of any kind won’t be a winner every single episode. The key to an engaging series is building up a fanbase who will stick with the show even on its off weeks. And somehow, with a terrible pilot both in classic and new Who, the show has managed to build up that kind of audience. But now comes the next problem, which often arises with a complex show like this one: as the audience starts to become more familiar with the show and how it appears to be made, they begin to think that they know what happens behind the scenes and are skilled enough to know whether an episode was good or bad. Now, I’m putting myself into this category: I have no formal training in the art of entertainment or cinema. So in a way, I’m calling myself out too. But I think I can honestly say that these showcases have been presented from a “I was just thinking” perspective rather than a “My opinions are fact” point of view. And particularly with new-Whovians, who know little to nothing about the classics, there tend to be alot of comments that are portrayed as authoritative but are less than factual… like when people say that Rose was a good companion. Sorry, I promised myself I wouldn’t go there. Jamie for the win!

Of all the shows I hear about these days, “Doctor Who” is the most picked-apart show by its audience that I’ve known of. And Steven Moffat, the showrunner from 2011 to 2017, was fully aware of this. So how do showmakers deal with this sort of thing?

Well, for the answer to this, let’s observe classic Who for a moment. Particularly in the 1970s and 80s, the show began to have alot of metacommentary on society, on good and evil, justice, morals, and treating life. Actually, most of DW’s life lessons are about the sanctity of life. And in the days of classic Who, this was expected from a family show (which DW was), and even by the 80s, society still appreciated these kinds of values. Now, new Who could totally get away with leaving these morals out of it (and indeed, there have been questionable societal norms being tossed around for popularity), but the great thing about new Who is that it doesn’t leave these morals out, and in fact, it intensifies the delivery of these lessons. I mean, seeing David Tennant or Peter Capaldi react to villains who want genocide on another race makes lessons on life’s pricelessness stick in my head pretty darn well. But the great thing about this is that the show continues to be relevant, so even in its off-weeks, the audience knows that before long there’ll be an episode in which the Doctor speaks into keeping morals and virtues.

This is almost an illusion: anyone who knows the definition of a timeless classic knows that it means that the story spoke into real-life and has continued to remain relevant through the years. DW constantly does this, and given different situations, the speech is different, and the message sounds like a different flavour of the same lesson, a different take on a timeless idea. Sticking a moral lesson into an episode doesn’t make the episode good or bad by itself, and it’s true that there are plenty of DW reviewers who see through that and read more into the episode. But generally, when a viewer sees the Doctor do his thing and talk about life and values, their heart is won, and no matter how much they pick the show apart, that speech will bias them towards liking the show. And that’s probably the biggest way DW deals with its pick-apart audience, especially considering most Who-viewers these days hardly know anything about classic Who. And it’s quite a masterfully-done trick if you ask me.

Well, kudos to you if you’ve made it all the way down here. There’s lots more I could bring up about “Doctor Who” (I was merciful and didn’t even bring up the 1996 movie… or Adric), but I think I’ve hit the high points here. The show is a great example of confidence in the face of an audience that thinks they know what’s what, and I’m excited to see where the show goes next. What do you think?

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