When faced with an evening alone at home, I have become increasingly likely to fire up Netflix and watch past (post-reboot) series of Doctor Who. Rewatching stories like The Doctor’s Daughter or the three–parter where Captain Jack reappears and Martha says goodbye – for all its faults, there are some wonderful moments – leaves me filled with joy, and earlier this week I watched The Eleventh Hour to enjoy Matt Smith’s first outing once again. He had me at “can I have an apple?” but I was never entirely sure why. What exactly is it that makes the whole Doctor Who concept so successful? I mean… why do I never question why anyone would want to travel with the Doctor? Why do we, viewers and companions alike, trust the Doctor? Even when we question the Doctor’s actions and motives – as once Donna did, and as Clara has recently done with Capaldi’s incarnation – we still want to come along for the ride.
[I should say at this point that, although there have been many excellent articles written on the lasting appeal of Doctor Who, I am the first to admit to having read very few of them. So, if anything mentioned here sounds like something someone else said, it’s most likely because we came to the same conclusion independently. However, if you know of any good Who articles that you think I should read, please feel free to share them in the comments.]
I initially thought that the appeal of Doctor Who was imagining yourself as the companion, being taken away from your mundane life to do something more exciting. However, perhaps initially due to the show’s relatively small BBC budget, the Doctor spends quite a bit of time here on Earth and so we rarely fully escape. Instead we are taught to appreciate the day-to-day and see things from a new perspective. Assuming for a moment that the central character is perhaps the main draw for most people, why are we so keen to follow this humanoid alien into the unknown? It’s not just that the TARDIS can travel in time and space – although that helps – or that it’s bigger on the inside and has its own library. It’s more about where the Doctor goes in it and with whom. These aren’t bold voyages intended to seek out new life, they are small jaunts that often happen on a whim. The kind of “ooh, that quirky little museum looks interesting, I must check it out next time there’s a Bank Holiday” type of mini-adventure we all plan when we have five minutes of dreaming time and a copy of Time Out. This is more like popping to the corner shop for milk rather than an epic quest as, without the TARDIS, I doubt the Doctor could be convinced to travel to the likes of Mordor or King’s Landing. Not enough mysteries to solve there.
What we get with the Doctor are journeys of discovery, problem solving and investigation where everyone who is involved, characters on screen or viewers at home, learns something without meaning to. It’s not like the enforced learning of Sherlock Holmes who just wants everyone to ‘be better’ – the Doctor already knows we’re capable of so much more. OK, so the Twelfth Doctor calls us all ‘pudding brains’, but he doesn’t really mean it. Adventures with the Doctor are always about the people – human or otherwise – about right and wrong, and about how the line between the two is so often blurred. Viewers and companions go on a journey of self discovery together, learning to believe in ourselves. Realising that, although we initially wanted the Doctor to save us when things got bad, we can do it alone… in fact, we are needed to help the Doctor. Each one of us is important and the Doctor won’t let us forget that*.
The thing is… everyone has a ‘Doctor’ in their life. They might be a colleague who you go exploring the city with at lunch times, a teacher who has introduced you to what feels like a whole new world, or a friend who truly believes in you no matter what you do. Sometimes your ‘Doctor’ will be the sensible voice of reason, sometimes they will be playful, and other times they will leap with you into the unknown without hesitation. You may even be lucky enough to have several. Just because they don’t carry a screwdriver that is sonic, doesn’t mean these people aren’t bloody marvellous. Just because your adventures together don’t involve Cybermen, doesn’t mean they’re not exciting. But no matter how brilliant that person is, promise me one thing? Never for a minute think you’re second best.
*You may have noticed by this point that I’m avoiding using gendered pronouns when referring to the character rather than the actors. Yes, it’s intentional.