So I pretty much came out of the womb a nerd, though as an adult, I like to consider myself more of a stealth geek compared to my younger days. On alternate Thursdays, I might even seem cool. Then Doctor Who happened.
In a long list of nerdy things I love, this can comfortably claim the #1 spot (unless you count those LOST viewing parties—but you guys! Hurley was there!). For the uninitiated, this long-running English series follows a nine-hundred-year-old alien known as “the Doctor,” who travels through space and time with friends (human and otherwise) he finds along the way, generally running around fighting monsters in rubber masks and saving the universe a dozen times over.
It sounds ridiculous, and it is. But it’s also charming, and smart, and funny, and often scary. I’ve only watched the latest incarnation of the show, launched by Russell T. Davies of Queer As Folk fame and now headed by the brilliant, if frustrating Steven Moffat. And to be honest, I don’t really watch it for the story, though the plots, especially the longer arcs, are often thrilling. It’s really a question of my raging Anglophilia—it’s a cultural institution in the U.K, with all sorts of brilliant actors and writers and directors getting involved (Alex Kingston, Derek Jacobi, Richard Harris, and Neil Gaiman, just off the top of my head).
One of the show’s most interesting gimmicks resulted from damage control—early in the series’ run, the original actor who played the Doctor, William Hartnell, wanted to quit, so the writers came up with the conceit that the Doctor could “regenerate” as an entirely new actor—and here we are 11 Doctors in with the disarming Matt Smith, who took over this year from my boy David Tennant. Doctor Who is even better at reinvention than Law & Order, and only slightly less absurd than your average revolving cast of soap stars, but oddly enough, this type of constant change inspires the fiercest loyalty.
I enjoyed Christopher Eccleston who played the role at the start of Davies’ era, but really fell in love with the show once Tennant took over, all pinstripes and raffish grin, mixing puppyish enthusiasm with gravitas. I didn’t like the look of this Smith character, the stupid Flock of Seagulls hair and…well, simply the fact that he wasn’t my Doctor. Every long-time viewer has a favorite, is one of the first things you learn when you get sucked into this show.
And then I found that Smith’s Doctor was fantastic, with hints of the last incarnation still floating about the place. More physical and serious, but funny in his seriousness. In the season premiere, the Doctor’s new-found companion (played by the lovely, if underused Karen Gillan) scolds him for his prudishness, saying “you’re worse than my aunt!” “I’m the Doctor,” he shouts back, “I’m worse than everybody’s aunt!” Which still makes me giggle.
There are many things I’m proud to be obsessed with—Radiohead, The Smiths, The Lord of the Rings, Arthurian legend. Of all of them, Doctor Who’s the one I’m always a little hesitant to admit. And then I go and write my longest piece yet on this silly little show. And yet it’s a show that has power beyond mindless entertainment—it often gets at the core of what it is to be human, in grand, sweeping gestures. This famous bit from Howard’s End captures the heart of it:
Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon. Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, And human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer. Only connect…
That’s what Doctor Who does. The Doctor’s modus operandi is to find the best people, or the best in the worst people, and bring them together. He sets things right, guides people toward their best selves, even if he doesn’t always succeed. And on a meta level, the essence of this show is connection. What else can bring the same distinct pleasure to several generations and counting?
I love Doctor Who because it makes me say “fuck it” and embrace the nerd I’ve always been. There is no possible way to make this show hip, and that’s what makes it wonderful.
Recommended Episodes “The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances” (Season 1); “Blink” (Season 3); “Midnight” (Season 4); “The Lodger” (Season 5).