The reason Doctor Who is the best thing on TV

[A revised and improved version of this essay appears in my book The Eleventh Doctor: a critical ramble through Matt Smith’s tenure in Doctor Who.]

Here’s the real reason that Doctor Who is, by a huge margin, the best thing on television. Even a rather forgettable episode like The Rings of Akhaten can provoke such different reviews as (in chronological order) Millennium’s, Andrew Whickey’s, mine and Andrew Rilstone’s.

Meet_the_brand_new_Doctor_Who_aliens_from_The_Rings_of_Akhaten

None of us was blown away (“It definitely wasn’t anything like as terrible as the previous episode” — Andrew Hickey) and we all had significant criticisms. But we all found interesting things to discuss about it. And this is the important point: we all somehow landed on different interesting things.

Even when Doctor Who is off its game, it generates discussion like no other program: not just discussion of the plot-speculation kind (“what is Clara?”) but investigations of the nature of drama, of metatextuality, of morality, of the nature of the “soul”, of whether scientific and moral worldviews are in opposition or mutually reinforcing, and so much more.

Much as I love Veronica Mars, The West Wing and Arrested Development, none of them do this. I admire all those shows more than Who, but I don’t love them as much. No other show throws out so many issues for the unsuspecting viewers to chew on, or catalyses anything like the same breadth of discussion.

Doctor Who, I salute you!

17 responses to “The reason Doctor Who is the best thing on TV

  1. Agreed. Who is the best thing on Television right now. The only shows I remember being this consistently good (and deep) were: Babylon 5, Deep Space Nine, Star Trek The Next Generation (season 3 and after), and pre “final-five” rebooted Battlestar Galactica.

    Ironically, I think there is nothing pre-90’s that can compare to any of these shows or the modern Dr. Who. Not even the original Dr. Who (original Star Trek maybe?). I think TV as a whole has upped its game over time.

  2. So jwerpy, all of your top five TV shows are science fiction? No love for Veronica Mars, The West Wing, Arrested Development, Buffy, Firefly or Dollhouse?

  3. _Game of Thrones_? The gratuitous HBOness gets toned down after a while and the acting, directing and production are epic. Being an adaptation of a series of novels gives it a consistency and structure to the writing you seldom see on television.

    Re: jwerpy… TV is new. We’ve only had a couple generations to get the hang of the medium but really seem to be hitting our stride lately.

  4. Mike,

    Yep, all sci-fi. Yep, biased. There are other shows I really like, but I just don’t feel they’re transcendental like sci-fi can be.

    Oh and Firefly, yeah, that was a total miss on my part. Fantastic show….

  5. Granted, there’s a psychic-paperness to ‘Dr. Who.’ But it seems to me there’s a half-empty as well as a half-full reading of this. Don’t we all tend to pitch in because it’s essentially incomplete? … made up on the hoof, throwing up some semi-considered concept then chasing to the next one in the whirlygig rush of everything. You have to make up how those dots can join across those great gaps, which inevitably results in some quite different pictures getting drawn.

    This seems almost certainly true of plot speculation. We can argue about things which happened seasons ago, and in fact we do. But also, I think, it’s tue of the worldview stuff as well. Which is okay in itself. If ‘Rebel Flesh’ didn’t come to any great conclusions about the nature of identity, well it was only a Saturday night TV show to start with. But there’s got to be some dots, some semblance of a picture, or we might as well all separately dream up TV shows then act surprised when they vary.

    And I have to confess I find myself leaning more and more to the butter-side-down view as the show continues…

  6. For me, it’s just the all-round adaptability and changeability of the programme which ultimately makes it so attractive. Don’t like the companion? Don’t worry, there’ll be a different one next year. Don’t like the Doctor? Take a deep breadth, he’ll be someone else before you know it. Don’t like stories set in the future? Here’s one set in the past. Don’t like stories set on Earth? Here’s one from the other side of the galaxy. All you need to really like is the outside of the TARDIS and you’re sold (actually everything else now seems massively dull by comparison).

  7. I’m not sure I buy that at all, Gavin. The world is not at all short of shows that fail to connect their dots. But none of them attracts the kind of critical attention that Doctor Who does. What other popular TV series even attempts to explore issues of humanity and identity as The Rebel Flesh did? The only candidate I can think of is Dollhouse (and that hardly qualifies as “popular”, sadly).

  8. I think a lot of us who grew up watching the old show have an emotional investment in it, which kind of pulls our critical faculties along with it. There’s also the feeling that those emotional investments vary in themselves, that at a young age we were using the show as a trigger for our imaginations and were being encouraged to do so by elements like the Doctor’s mystery. So we’re kind of used to making stuff around it.

    Plus the new show is always selling itself as not just another adventure story, as something whose dots will connect. (Principally in Moffat’s comments, but also within the show – it’s attitude to itself.)

    And lastly it should be said – sometimes it does. I just think it’s not doing that great a job of it at the moment.

    I don’t watch so much TV drama, and haven’t seen ‘Dollhouse’. But I can think of other shows which deserve critical attention. ‘Walking Dead’, a lot of the Nordic Noir stuff.

  9. I’m not sure you’re giving enough credit here. When Who rebooted in 2005, I watched it with curiosity, not devotion. It took an episode or two for me to starting thinking “Hey, this is really good”. I wasn’t reading it through Baker-coloured glasses, but seeing it for itself.

    I might look into Walking Dead. In return, I highly recommend Dollhouse, which I think you will find provoking. You can get series 1 on DVD for £10.80, which comes to 83p per episode. I think that’s great value.

  10. True enough, I did the same. I was first expecting something much more akin to the TV movie. But I think as soon as I did buy into it, all the old feelings came back. It was like bumping into a childhood friend who had done an equal amount of growing up in parallel time.

    Now I feel more-or-less as I did over the later Davies years, like an old friend has turned up out of the blue but now they’ve been crashing on my sofa for three months and I really wouldn’t mind them leaving. Or at least the immediate creative team.

    I wrote something about the first season of ‘Walking Dead’ here. I don’t think you need to be a zombie fan to get into it.

    Has ‘Dollhouse’ been on terrestrial?

  11. I do know what you mean about the later Davies years. By the end of series 4, it seemed apparent that he’d long run out of ideas that he wanted to do, and was just making stuff up to keep the wheels turning. (Although: Midnight.) I don’t yet have that feeling regarding Moffat, and yet … I can see that it could go that way. For me, looking back, I now realise that The Wedding Of River Song greatly diminished my respect for Moff, not just because as an episode it was incoherent, but because its failure to properly answer the questions posed by the rest of the series retrospectively rewrote The Impossible Astronaut et al. to be less than they were. So as late as Closing Time I was prepared for series 6 to be the best of them all; but now it looks much less then series 5.

    Where to now, Saint Steven? I’d like to see him take some inspiration from his first few scripts, the ones produced during the RTD era. Looking back at The Empty Child now, it feels almost claustrophobic compared with the absurdly wide reach of recent Moffat episodes, and that claustrophobia is used to good effect. With the space afforded by the two-part format, the ideas are fully developed, the plot makes complete sense in its own terms, and the whole has a clarity to it that more recent wham-bam episodes have lacked. I wouldn’t want him to try to go back to what he was doing then; but I’d love him just to look squarely at it, recognise the properties that made it great, and let that inform the direction he takes from here on.

    The thing is, when RTD stepped down, I was delighted — like most people, I think — that Moff was replacing him. I can’t think of anyone on the current writing roster who would similarly excite me. I know Mark Gatiss has been mooted, but honestly his episodes (The Unquiet Dead, The Idiot’s Lantern, Victory of the Daleks, Night Terrors) have not been the greatest. I think I heard someone say Chris Chibnall was under consideration, which would be a disaster.

    Given my personal choice, I’d love to see Paul Cornell do it when Moffat’s had enough. He’s only written three episodes (Father’s Day and the Human Nature/Family of Blood two-parter) but I loved all three, and I particularly like the more contemplative approach that he takes.

  12. Oh, and thanks for the Walking Dead link, which I will now go and read.

    I don’t know of Dollhouse ever having been on terrestrial TV; but then literally the only things I ever watch on TV are Doctor Who and live sporting events. Everything else, Dollhouse included, I either buy DVDs or download.

  13. I understand your feelings with Wedding of River Song, but… I dunno. I keep looking back on Series 6 with growing fondness for the fact that it actually tried to go outside the box that Davies seemed comfortable in. When Let’s Kill Hitler aired I thought we were going to be the first ones to witness one of the greatest accomplishments of modern TV. 

    Oh well, we still have Breaking Bad for that. (Do give that a go if you’re checking out Walking Dead)

    Sure it failed (Why, oh WHY was the finale not a two parter? The first 20 minutes of the episode was perfect television. The other 20…) but at least he tried. 

    And yes, a failure is a failure regardless of intention, but think of it this way. Davies later years were just poor ideas to begin with. 
    Series 6 was a brilliant idea which only just failed. But it shows that Moffat is willing to keep going out there. And as long as he’s doing that, I still continue to believe in him. 

    [EPISODE TITLE SPOILER]
    Having the last episode of this series called “The Name of The Doctor” does raise some concern…

  14. Well, Julian, I have a lot of sympathy with your perspective. Something that fails through over-ambition is much easier to forgive than something that succeeds by not trying anything difficult. But still: we know Moffat can do this right, and he could have made Series 6 fly if he’d just reined himself in a bit, introducing only those concepts that he was going to actually work with.

  15. ”Looking back at The Empty Child now, it feels almost claustrophobic compared with the absurdly wide reach of recent Moffat episodes, and that claustrophobia is used to good effect. With the space afforded by the two-part format, the ideas are fully developed, the plot makes complete sense in its own terms, and the whole has a clarity to it that more recent wham-bam episodes have lacked.”

    Yes indeedy. Crazy freaky inexplicable stuff happens. Then it all gets explained. Perhaps Moffat’s best instincts were always better employed as a writer, rather than a showrunner.

    Given one of the show’s main weapons is it’s ability to reinvent itself, I think I’d most like to see a total reboot. Give someone else a go. Give a whole bunch of someones else a go, showrunners, writers, central characters, the lot.

    I am of course always available.

  16. I don’t think there was a way to fix Series Six.

    I actually guessed much of what eventually happened at the end very early on.

    What makes everyone so frustrated with Season Six is that the Doctor being dead was a compelling idea, but its one that Moffat couldn’t really realize because we didn’t actually want the Doctor dead. In the end a handwavy fix was always going to be needed. There was no way Season 6 could live up to expectations, unless it was to have been final episode of Doctor Who.

  17. I dunno, Gavin. I am still hoping that the Moff will pull the rabbit out of the Series 7 hat.

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