[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.
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!