Those people down there. They’re never small to me. Don’t make assumptions about how far I will go to protect them, because I’ve already come a very long way. And unlike you, I do not expect to reach the Promised Land.
About two years ago, I found Doctor Who on Netflix. This is a classic better-late-than-never situation. At that point, the Doctor Who notion—calling it a “franchise” feels reductive—had been in a perpetual state of existence for 49 years. Long story short, assuming you don’t know: Time-traveling alien named the Doctor goes on adventures. Real name unknown, possibly forgotten. Long story slightly longer: The time-traveling alien is also a shape-changing immortal, and “death” is just a momentary glowing-light distraction before the alien’s rebirth, with a new body, a new attitude, and a new fashion sense.
On the advice of my colleague Clark Collis—Doctor Who expert and British person—I started with the mid-2000s “rebooted” series, skipping over the first few decades of Who-ness. So on one hand, nothing I write about Doctor Who can really be considered definitive. (ASIDE: There is no high Doctor Who nerd who cannot be bigfooted by some yet-higher Doctor Who nerd, because the sheer breadth-depth of Doctor Who narrative content is beyond Biblical. Paul McGann famously only played the Doctor a couple times onscreen, but there are more radioplays starring McGann as the Doctor than episodes of The Wire.)
On the other hand, it’s easy to make a definitive statement: I love the show. It took me a couple months to watch six and a half seasons of Doctor Who, and I consider that experience one of the transformative pop-culture events of my life. In a sense, I was a bandwagon-hopper. The show’s popularity has surged on these shores; it just had its biggest U.S. debut ever. How cool! And how strange! Because Doctor Who is, by a long shot, the saddest show on television. I mean “sad” like “melancholy,” sad like “tragic,” sad like “will leave you a blubbering mess on more than one occasion.”
This isn’t necessarily Doctor Who’s reputation, and this certainly isn’t science-fiction’s reputation. Generalizing wildly, there’s something very Id, very Hot about the Fantasy genre: Big character, big emotions, the epic hero who radically overturns the landscape of his epic world. Science-fiction has the opposite reputation: Chilly, removed, ships racing through space, future people engaging with each other using social codes we barely understand. (ASIDE: There are exceptions; they prove the rule. END OF ASIDE.)
But Doctor Who —at least, Doctor Who as reinvented by Russell T. Davies and Steven Moffat and an assortment of other contemporary writers —is a show overrun with messy emotions. The typical Doctor Who story begins with the Doctor finding a new friend. Sometimes this friend sticks with him for awhile: They’re called Companions, and they become the show’s co-lead. (Hell, you could argue that for the first two seasons of the rebooted Doctor Who, the show’s lead was Billie Piper as best-companion-ever Rose Tyler.) But that’s the micro-story arc of every episode, also. Every week, the Doctor pops into a new location, meets new people, somehow changes their life…and then leaves.
One way of looking at this: The Doctor is friends with everybody! But another way of looking at this: The Doctor is never close with anybody. And even when he is close with someone, it won’t last. He’ll leave them behind, or they’ll leave him behind; or they’ll just get older, and he’ll grow a young man’s face. The Davies era immediately played up the Doctor’s loneliness by repositioning him as the Last of the Time Lords: No longer a plucky renegade from an elaborate culture, but rather, that culture’s last remaining memory.
Having a lead character who is immortal, semi-omniscient, and essentially omnipresent should create a character who is antiseptic: Devoid of emotion, all too aware of the massive massiveness of human existence. There’s a great moment in a not-great episode when the Doctor suddenly takes his latest Companion on a quick journey through the entire history of the Earth, from birth to death. (The actual plot of the episode is about a haunted mansion, although the mansion is actually “haunted” by a time traveler and a lovesick monster with bones on the outside.) The Companion, Clara, is still new to time travel, new to the Doctor.
Clara: One minute you’re in 1974, looking for ghosts, but all you have to do is open your eyes and talk to whoever’s standing there. To you I haven’t been born yet. And to you I’ve been dead a hundred billion years. Is my body out there somewhere? In the ground?
The Doctor: Yes, I suppose it is.
Clara: But here we are, talking. So I am a ghost. To you, I’m a ghost. We’re all ghosts to you. We must be nothing.
The Doctor: No. No, you’re not that.
In the latest season premiere, the new Doctor had a line that seems to echo that assertion, where he told the latest monster that every person is important: “They’re never small to me.” And part of what makes Doctor Who such a relentlessly emotional experience is how it takes people so seriously–how the Doctor seems to focus simultaneously on the complete sweep of a person’s life, while zero-ing in on the few minutes he gets to spend with them. The show functions in the same way. At its best, the small moments feel weighted with macrocosmic importance, while the massive plot-arc moments feel intimate.
The central tension, I think, is that the Doctor is a character who seeks connection but who also ultimately has to sever connections. He has friends, but no family; his co-stars will ultimately move on, leaving him behind in his funny blue box. Like so many heroes, the Doctor saves lives; unlike so many heroes, the Doctor always seems weirdly aware that all lives end eventually.
This is true of some of the show’s most memorable episodes, like “The Girl in the Fireplace” (an early classic by recent Emmy winner Moffat). The set-up is simple, even goofy: The Doctor walks through a fireplace on an abandoned spaceship and winds up in 1700s France. He meets a little girl named Reinette, saves her life, goes back to the spaceship. He walks through the fireplace again, and suddenly the little girl is a beautiful young woman; years of her life have passed; and she’s in love with the Doctor. Lots of techno-yadda and historical wackiness ensues; the beautiful young woman is Madame de Pompadour, some future robots need her brain. By the end of the episode, the Doctor has fallen in love…and Madame de Pompadour is dead. It’s a weird balancing act, an early example of how Moffat loves to juggle timelines: You see their relationship play out in essentially real time, and you also see the complete sweep of a single human being’s life.
This is the kind of melancholy that resonates throughout Doctor Who: A sense that the Doctor’s happiness will lead him once again to loneliness. I can’t think of any season finale that left me more of a blubbering mess than “Doomsday,” the final Rose-Doctor episode. (Clearly, a sizable part of the Internet agrees with me.) The Davies era culminated in the episode “Journey’s End,” which brought together all of the Doctor’s friends in a scene that plays out as an ode to teamwork and togetherness. (They don’t just save the Earth; they tow it.) But not long after that scene, the Doctor is alone again.
Maybe “sad” is the wrong word for Doctor Who: It’s a show that takes tremendous joy in simple human connection, even as the modern iteration constantly futzes with those connections. (It’s never clear if the Doctor likes his Companions, or loves them, or if he just needs them to be in love with him.) But it’s fascinating how a show that stars an immortal–a higher being whose life will never end–constantly circles back around to endings. Friends disappear, or die; a place you love disappears, replaced by something new; sometimes people forget about you, or you forget about them. Gradually, you become a different person. (The recent season premiere featured a reference to “The Girl in the Fireplace”—specifically, a reference to the fact that the Doctor doesn’t remember “The Girl in the Fireplace,” or anyhow he’s choosing to forget it.)
The central tension of most action-thrillers derives from the fear that someone might die. But because the Doctor will never die, the central tension of Doctor Who is the utter certainty that things will definitely change. Every change is like death, but every change is also like birth. Doctor Who is never bleak—compared to our current apocalypse vogue, it looks positively chipper.
But it’s always aware of the fragility of human life, of how a single human lifespan is like a grain of sand in a desert planet in a universe where every planet is Tatooine. And there’s a hard-earned clarity, a genuine toughness, in how Doctor Who insists that every grain of sand is a universe unto itself.
The Doctor never gets to live a normal life, which is his tragedy. (Tune in to a new episode of Doctor Who, and remind yourself that soon–this year, next year, certainly the year after that–the Doctor and his closest friend will say goodbye.) But I also wonder if that’s why, the longer you watch Doctor Who, you find yourself relating less to the everypeople Companions and more to the Doctor. From our perspective, the world might change, but we always stay the same–as friends come and go, as we move from one place to another. It takes someone else to notice when we become a new person. Maybe that’s why the Doctor always seeks out new Companions: So that the man who never changes can change, over and over again.
Times change, and so must I… we all change. When you think about it, we are all different people, all through our lives. And that’s okay, that’s good! You’ve gotta keep moving, so long as you remember all the people that you used to be.