Genre Talk

Loneliness, Awe, and the Primal Appeal of Doctor Who

I finally started watching Doctor Who.

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Hey—wait! Don’t take away my Nerd Card! I’ve been busy. And I didn’t have cable or Netflix or anything for a while. And then I had a baby. And…yeah, I know. There really isn’t any good excuse.

You can give me that Nerd Card back, though, because I freely admit that it is amazing. Granted, I’m only on Season 2, but I’m already well and truly hooked (and saying things like “well and truly.”)

I’m also mystified.

Is this a safe space? Can I be honest? The plots are pretty… well…it’s like they aren’t even trying! The Doctor cured freaky space-age clone zombies by dumping IV drugs on them! And the cure was, like, magically contagious! And then there were those bat things that needed human children’s souls to crack some nonsensical mathematical proof! It doesn’t make sense! This show put the deus in deus ex machina. And I don’t care.

The Enabler has been watching me watch the show, and he keeps asking me why, exactly, I’m enjoying this bag of crazy as much as I am. I can only reply: It’s The Doctor. After I’m-not-counting-how-many hours with the Lonely Traveler, I think I’ve put my finger on the appeal of Doctor Who, and it isn’t David Tennant’s *ahem* accent.  Though that is a lovely side benefit.

When fiction succeeds, it’s because it grapples with something primal. In the science fiction and fantasy genres, that primal core is often the fear of death, manifested as some Great Evil. Vampires, Lord Voldemort, the Borg, the Sith. All immortal, unkillable monsters that the hero spends the whole book/movie/seven-season-franchise battling. When The Doctor fights evil, it’s often the kind of evil you can knock over with a sonic screwdriver.

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The show doesn’t even try to make the bad guys make sense. Sometimes, there’s so little internal consistency in the villains’ machinations and eventual downfalls, it’s almost comforting. I don’t have to understand how The Doctor will triumph, because it doesn’t bear understanding. It doesn’t matter. The plot’s just there to keep things interesting while we get to the real heart of the matter, the real primal core of the show: loneliness.

This is a pretty obvious point. The Doctor certainly has enough lines that say it outright, and I’m hardly the first person to mention it. But if the core of the show ended there, I wouldn’t be writing this post (or watching Season Three). The genius of Doctor Who is that it juxtaposes the idea of our essential human loneliness with the equally essentially human experience of awe.

Remember The Girl in the Fireplace, when the Doctor has a happy little rant about snogging the uniquely talented Madame de Pompadour? His thrilled amazement occurs smack in the middle of a story about a woman who waits her whole life to spend four ten-minute scenes with him, scenes that are never even close to enough, for him or for her. But that episode — and, so far, the show as a whole — makes the argument that our ability to experience wonder is the only weapon we have against loneliness. More than that — the two experiences are opposite sides of the same coin.

We all know this is true. Look up at the stars tonight and tell me if you don’t feel a sense of thrilling powerlessness at the great vastness of it all, and a sense of amazement that you’re part of it.

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We are lonely beings searching tirelessly for connections that cannot last. It’s never enough, but we never stop striving, because, as a former Doctor Who companion says in School Reunion, “Some things are worth getting your heart broken over.” That message could easily be delivered (and often is) in a Cormac McCarthy novel. But it’s somehow more pleasant to hear it from a story with goofy robot overlords and slimy bat things.  Doctor Who hides its uncommonly brave message in an silly, heartbreaking, funny, brilliant candy shell, and I know I’ll be going back to experience it many times over.

Then again, maybe I just constructed this elaborate, existential, essentially false argument to conceal the fact that I really want to snog David Tennant.

Do you watch The Doctor?

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13 thoughts on “Loneliness, Awe, and the Primal Appeal of Doctor Who

  1. I haven’t seen it either! I’m sure they’re coming for my nerd card any day now. I keep saying I’ll marathon it some weekend when I have downtime, but where’s the downtime? Thanks for the great writeup, AJ!

    • I wish I could watch the whole thing in one big sprint, but I’m going to have to catch up slowly. It’s worth watching, though! It’s not often you find something so unique on television.

  2. A.J., what a great post! I love your analysis, and I think you are right on.

    But, okay, so I have to admit, being pretty much fully caught up on DW, the silliness of those plots has gotten to me. Every once and a while, there is something so profound and amazing–River Song and Amelia Pond and Rory, and the “Time Traveler’s Wife” type tragedy of that overarching plot line really appealed to me. And in the last season, the mystery of whether or not the companion was really even there. And, I pretty much love every episode set in history, rather than space (although watching the sun blow up was kinda cool). But, in general, all these seasons later, I want the plots to more often and more deeply tie into the core story you are illuminating.

    Perhaps I’ve just never gotten over David Tennnant leaving, and I would agree, he IS worth getting your heart broken for! (Give that man another TV show, somebody!) Lucky for me, my DH likes the show. So I can sit on the couch and edit, etc, and pay attention only when it really hooks me.

    • Great points on this, Amber! I wonder if I’ll overdose on the silly plots,too, especially since I’m currently binge-watching. In some ways I think they’re a nudge-wink to the old B-movie SF tradition, but I also wonder if they aren’t an intentional choice. The decision to make The Doctor the magical plot-solver centers the mystery of the show very firmly in him. He’s nearly all-powerful, and yet he still experiences all of these very mortal, very human sorrows. It makes the foil between his omnipotence and his weakness all that much more striking.

      Or it could be lazy writing. lol

  3. I don’t think I’ve watched since Tom Baker was the Doctor and the show was a little-watched guilty pleasure scheduled at the whim of one’s local PBS station, and that was a LONG time ago. I suspect, though, I could jump in just about anywhere. Maybe if I gave up sleeping? No, I’ve just managed to find enough time for that. Ah, so many TV shows, so many books, so few hours . . .

      • The episodes probably cost about $3.99 apiece to produce, I don’t remember any of the plots (assuming there were any), but Tom Baker, who always wore a hat, an overcoat, a very long scarf, and a look of wide-eyed wonder, was quite endearing. I may have watched a few of the episodes with Peter Davison as the Doctor, but I only remember thinking he was the younger brother from “All Creatures Great and Small” playing dress-up. I do not go back as far as the original pepper pot Dalek villains, though.

  4. It has been over 20 years since I watched Dr Who. I think I stopped when they switched to a new Dr who I did not like as much as the previous one. Perhaps one day, I will start watching again, but for now, I am busy enough as it is.

    • I’ve had to limit my television shows to one. I only have so much free time! For now, The Doctor gets the spot, but there’s heavy competition with all of the new paranormal shows out now.

  5. Big Dr. Who fan here. Husband is, too. Yes, we watched the 50th anniversary special LIVE, with the rest of the fans around the world. And yep, I had twitter rolling, too. AJ, this statement from you had me ROFL –> “This show put the deus in deus ex machina. And I don’t care.” So true. And so fun! My favorite doctor is, hands down, David Tennant.

    • Celia, how awesome! I really wanted to take part, but there was no way I could catch up in time.

      I haven’t been able to choose a favorite Doctor without seeing them all (or at least all of the new ones), but Tennant seems hard to beat. I liked Eccleston’s fierceness, but Tennant’s dorky-sexy-nerd-with-hints-of-grrr thing is irresistible.

  6. Pingback: Doctor Who – The Girl in The Fireplace Review | The Consulting Detective

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