(originally written for Space Zine, and dedicated to Elizabeth Sladen)
I can’t say there are a lot of times I would turn down watching Doctor Who, but I do know that there are times I am drawn to it like a low-down sad and cynical moth to a dopey British sci fi flame. We’re all bombarded every day by all the horrible stuff that we do to each other, and tt’s nice to get a little relief. Doctor Who’s portrayal of humanity is optimistic, the kind of faith in the human spirit that makes you sit up a little and say, “Yeah! People are all right!” The Doctor sees and respects the strength of the human spirit. We may not be all that bright – he thinks of the human race as essentially childlike – but despite our shortcomings humanity reaches the stars and keeps pushing. Humans survive the death of the sun. Humans are the last race left when the universe ends. Humans, as the Doctor says over and over again, are “brilliant.”
Doctor Who doesn’t try to sell its audience an overly idealistic view of us Earthlings, however. There is no utopian Star Trek society, no united planet best friends with all the Nice Aliens. Doctor Who exposes our savagery, selfishness, and greed. It might have been individuals who enslaved the Ood hivebrain and captured the space whale for Starship Britain, but it was humans in the aggregate who bought the Ood and used them as slaves without asking questions; it was Future British Society who voted to keep torturing the space whale so the ship would continue its flight. It was human curiosity that opened the door for the Cybermen’s invasion of London, and it was human greed that invited the Sontarans to turn the Earth into a breeding ground.
But Doctor Who suggests that humans can be more than that. That message is the primary difference between Doctor Who and its rated-R spinoff, Torchwood. What makes Torchwood for adults and Doctor Who for kids isn’t the sex or the grittier (if not necessarily smaller!) death toll, but its cynicism. Torchwood – a secret organization defending against aliens led by a former companion of the Doctor – doesn’t believe in the innate goodness of humanity. The problems facing the Torchwood team are just as often directly caused by humans as they are alien – back-country Welsh cannibals; the British government giving children to interstellar drug dealers and then killing people to cover it up. Even the members of Torchwood are not exempt: Suzie, who kills people to see how the Resurrection Glove worked; Owen, with his date-rape spray; even Jack himself. Sure, Jack Harkness and crew tend to save the day more often than not. But teammates stay dead, and people are still shitty.
Unlike Torchwood, Doctor Who gives humanity the opportunity to redeem itself. People get invested in him because he sees the best in them, and leaves them with the compulsion to prove him right. Harriet Jones, Prime Minister, shoots a nonthreatening spaceship out of the sky, and the Doctor, in anger, ruins her political career. Several seasons later, she sacrifices herself to bring him to Earth. Captain Jack Harkness goes from time-traveling con man and professional cynic to the kind of man who takes a detonating bomb aboard his ship and later leads a suicide mission against the Daleks. The Doctor makes people want to be better.
Humanity – in the form of his traveling companions – also acts as a redeeming force on the Doctor himself. The Doctor has a pronounced dark side. He does things in the name of his moral code that he finds personally repugnant. In the revived series, the Doctor is the last of his kind. Before the series began, the cataclysmic Time War between the Daleks and the Time Lords (of which he is one) threatened to spill out and annihilate the universe, and forced the Doctor to destroy both races. He starts the series a broken man, wracked by the guilt of genocide. Rose Tyler travels with him, humanizes him, and allows him to love. (Twice, actually – it’s complicated.) Another companion, Donna, pulls him away from drowning while he stood and vengefully watched the Racnoss young die. “Promise me you’ll find someone,” she said. “I think you need someone to stop you.” His quest for what’s right often brings him close to the edge of destruction. You can’t travel alone for centuries without losing yourself. The Doctor’s companions have proven time and again to be crucial to his survival.
These themes – the earnestness, the optimism, the importance of friendship – can run towards cheesy, but the notorious cheesiness of Doctor Who is more a result of budgetary constraints on special effects. (Which can really be kind of endearing.) Even when it does get cheesy, when the former companions call the Doctor to Earth Captain Planet-style and it turns out that the reason the TARDIS flies all shitty is because it needs six pilots and they tow the Earth back to our solar system with face-splitting grins and swelling music and nary a hitch – well, at that point you’re so invested in the characters you don’t hardly give a damn.
Our culture is a pretty cynical one, and I would guess that I am more cynical than most. Doctor Who challenges my pessimism with a worldview that allows for darkness, for death, for shittiness, but that is, in the end, positive. Things will turn out okay.