Looking back, the first time I watched Doctor Who was the first time I felt an artwork change the way I was and the way I saw things. It wasn’t just science fiction, it was provocation; the world took on a new aspect because behind the doors of a police telephone box, all of time and space was waiting, and all of time and space was alive with possibility. That’s true on a narrative level—the Doctor’s ship, the TARDIS, can end up anywhere—but also on a textual level. Doctor Who was intelligent (‘The Sensorites’, ‘Day of the Daleks’), scary (‘The Web of Fear’, ‘Pyramids of Mars’), witty (‘Vengeance on Varos’, ‘The Happiness Patrol’), romantic (‘City of Death’), tragic (‘The War Games’), surreal (‘Kinda’)… Doctor Who was whatever the hell it wanted to be. That’s the magic of it. But I didn’t know that right away.
“Nothing’s just rubbish if you have an inquiring mind.”
- The Doctor, ‘The Invasion of Time’
When I first started watching, the show was like buried treasure. It was old and flickered like candlelight and bits of it were missing. All the same, it imparted secret knowledge of impossible things; when the Daleks came, or the Autons or the Cybermen, I’d be ready. I wasn’t the first to feel that way and I won’t be the last. To be a fan of something is first and foremost a private act—that something resonates with you in a way that it won’t resonate with others. Which is why it stung when Doctor Who came back in 2005; the secret was out. Watching the Doctor ‘live’ in the present meant watching someone else’s take on the character and their universe. But I got over it because, bluntly, I grew up and realised I’d missed the point. Again, not the first, nor the last; people who loved the show in 1965 thought it was rubbish in 1975, people who loved it in 1975 were walking away in 1985, people who love series 2 don’t like series 4 and people who love series 4 don’t like series 6. That’s the other thing about being a fan of something; it won’t always last, especially if that something changes and you don’t. But change is at the very heart(s) of Doctor Who.
“I’d like to see a butterfly fit into a chrysalis case after it’s spread its wings.”
- The Doctor, ‘The Power of the Daleks’
No other show reinvents its central character or tries to outdo itself every other week. Whether it works or doesn’t is beside the point; the point is that it happened and the story is richer for it. When Disney bought Star Wars (as if a universe is something that can be bought and sold!), all prior ‘expanded universe’ material—all those books and comics and odds and ends—was declared “Legends” and whole stories simply un-happened. It was almost totalitarian. By contrast, the Doctor Who expanded universe—anarchic at best—has seen no attempt to weld everything together, or decree that this or that story did or did not happen. In a science fiction universe, the latter makes more sense. These stories are fairytales told in the knowledge that space is expanding and—even at a subatomic level—reality is not what it seems. In a world of many worlds, it seems all the more likely that the universe should contradict itself, that any and all possibilities might be realised. So, the announcement last year of Jodie Whittaker as the first woman to portray the Doctor does, in some way, fulfill the show’s ethos, but it also incriminates it; it took one week to bend time, but fifty-five years to bend gender. Either way, it demonstrates that the TARDIS has still got places to go.
“Do you know I once traveled for centuries without ever knowing where I’d materialize next?”
- The Doctor, ‘The Chimes of Midnight’
Doctor Who resonates with me because it is startlingly honest. Good fiction shouldn’t duplicate reality nor should it be an out-and-out escape; good fiction should remind us that reality is far richer and stranger than we are ever prepared to accept. Life is not static; it’s in flux. Unhappy days can be made beautiful. Past and future can be rewritten. One moment can change everything. Life, like the TARDIS, is bigger on the inside.
And Doctor Who? Doctor Who is intelligent (‘Gridlock, ‘Flatline’), scary (‘The Unquiet Dead’, ‘Blink’), witty (‘Partners in Crime’, ‘The Doctor’s Wife’), romantic (‘The Girl in the Fireplace), tragic (‘Doomsday’), surreal (‘Heaven Sent’)… Doctor Who is whatever the hell it wants to be. Not unlike the Doctor themselves.