Let me confess up front that I abhor time-travel stories. Whether or not time travel is possible, our ability to adequately tell stories about it is woefully lacking, and so I've managed to avoid getting sucked into Doctor Who mania – until recently. Three years ago, UK television guru Russell T. Davies embarked upon a slick reimagining of the iconic time-travel show, reviving the classic series in all its kitschy glory and imbuing it with a serious philosophical undercurrent as well.
For the uninitiated, Who is described on Wikipedia as "depict[ing] the adventures of a mysterious time-traveller known as 'the Doctor' who travels in his time ship, the TARDIS, which appears from the exterior to be a blue police phone box. With his companions, he explores time and space, solving problems and righting wrongs." Although the more esoteric angles of the show are presented clearly and often are central to the plot, they seem to escape most synopses of the show's content. For example, the Wikipedia synopsis does not mention that the Doctor is a nomadic alien nearly a thousand years old, nor that his "solving problems and righting wrongs" often relate to his fierce protection of the human race, both from extraterrestrial predators and humanity's own misguided actions through the centuries.
The Doctor's companions are almost always human, typically unexpectedly taken from their normal lives to engage in multiple adventures before returning to their homes within hours or days of their departure – a scenario familiar to anyone well-versed in alien abductions or accounts of extradimensional travel. Further echoes of dimensional and spiritual issues are alluded to in the Doctor's ability to "regenerate," changing every molecule of his body upon being mortally wounded while typically retaining all of his memories and most personality traits. Although this ability was originally written in to explain numerous actor changes (there have been ten actors to play the Doctor over the full span of the "classic" and "new" series to date), it has also been expanded into the mythology: there is a limit to the number of times the Doctor can regenerate, and other characters with the capacity to regenerate have chosen to die instead. This can provide hours of philosophical rumination if one views regeneration as a kind of lifted-veil reincarnation.
A slightly different take on metaphoric reincarnation is presented in a particularly startling two-part episode: on the run from enemies, the Doctor chooses to become fully human and completely amnesiac to his previous life in order to hide. Though he cannot remember being the Doctor, he keeps a "Journal of Impossible Things" from his dreams, all of which are real items and events from his "previous" life. When it comes time to change back, the Doctor's human form cannot comprehend why life as the Doctor would be better and begs to remain human. A particularly incisive piece of dialogue sums up what it is about this concept that is so frightening: "So what am I, then? Nothing? I'm just a story?" The human version of the Doctor is also abashed to find that his alien self had not considered that he, as a human, might fall in love. "Then what sort of man is that?" his human self cries. "And now you expect me to die [to become him again]?" Although there are lighthearted and fantastically farfetched elements to these episodes, the plight of a human discovering that he is an alien is handled in a serious and thoughtful manner, easily encouraging viewers to ponder what they might do in a similar situation – not to mention the true nature of dreams and "impossible things."
Despite the frequently geeky nature of the show's plotlines, Davies does not encourage thorough on-screen explanations of exactly how time- or space-travel work, which is an unexpectedly fortunate move: rather than miring itself in complex theories that still confound the most educated scientists, this major tenet of the show is simply stipulated, leaving Davies and company free to use time-travel as a jumping-off point rather than a central feature of their storytelling. The various implications of age, deadly extreme reality shows, the possibility of galactic law enforcement jurisdiction gaffes, the evolution of manipulation of the public by politicians, and the end of the universe itself have all been explored as believable future dilemmas for the human race.
In one particularly startling episode, a "psychic network" is deployed: a major portion of the Earth's population focuses their energy upon the Doctor, which the Doctor receives by tuning into an enemy's global satellite network. This intriguing mixture of technology, biology, and psychic energy operates throughout the show: even the Doctor's ship is both technical and organic, and seems to "know" when its crew members need assistance. A great deal of Who technology might best be described as "steampunk" or retro-futuristic. This melange of old and new style is just one thing that sets Who apart. Unlike many black-and-white pop-culture inventions in which humans are powerless against formidable alien foes (War of the Worlds) or a benevolent and highly advanced species (Star Trek), Who provides a suitably realistic melange of opinions on alien/human relations. The Doctor himself seems somewhat ambivalent about humans, and his sense of superiority is often pithily displayed:
The Doctor: You look beautiful, considering.
Rose: Considering what?
The Doctor: That you're human.
In another instance, after saving the day, he despairs: "The next time you get curious about something – oh, what's the point? You'll just go blundering in. The human race..." Not all of his rebukes are so gentle; after observing a particularly heinous act carried out by humans against aliens, he snarls, "I should've told [the aliens] to run. As fast as they can, run and hide, because the monsters are coming: the human race."
Despite his occasional testiness, the Doctor generally seems to feel paternal toward humans, tending to lecture, punish (fairly), wax poetic, and protect. It is this fierce protective streak that often causes the most action-packed moments on the show and the broadest statements of the Doctor's ethics. After fending off one predatory race from Earth's inhabitants, the Doctor states: "When go you back to the stars and tell others of this planet – when you tell them of its riches, its people, its potential – when you talk of the Earth, then make sure that you tell them this: It is defended."
The fact that Doctor Who can present such a vastly comforting ideal – a nearly indestructible alien passionately defending Earth against the most brutal of interstellar antagonists – in an episode that also involves a terrified woman screaming "I'm gonna get killed by a Christmas tree!" speaks to the singularly kooky angle of the series. Its tone is carefully situated between high camp hilarity and straightforwardly moralistic philosophy, usually striking a balance by providing liberal doses of both – and it is likely this everything-but-the-kitchen-sink attitude that makes the series so accessible.
It is heartening, then, to find Doctor Who filled with passionate, ebullient speeches from the Doctor about the wonder of the human race: "Brilliant humans. Humans who travel all the way across space. Flying in a tiny little rocket into the orbit of a black hole! Just for the sake of discovery, that's amazing! Do you hear me? Amazing. All of you." In another episode, after a woman has commented that her wedding seems insignificant in the larger scheme of solar systems and galaxies, the Doctor explains: "No, but that's what you do, the human race. Making sense out of chaos. Marking it out with weddings and Christmas and calendars. The whole process is beautiful, but only if it's being observed."
"Making sense out of chaos" applies to the Doctor, too: famously averse to planning, he frequently points out that he makes things up as he goes along, even during the most harrowing and complex maneuvers – and yet, things almost always turn out right. Given the show's propensity for cutting-edge consciousness nods, one cannot help but wonder whether this is something more than deus ex machina storytelling. Perhaps after nine hundred years of adventures, one might internalize what we are just beginning to understand about the "law of attraction," quantum physics, and intention-based energy work, and what would appear to be a desultory approach to life's most pressing problems could in fact be a skillful manipulation of the universe.
The wild popularity of Who allows it to introduce a vast number of people from all demographics to some of the most interesting spiritual and technological concepts that may grace our near future. The immensity of its sustained audience – mostly in the UK, but increasingly in the US – implies a hunger for this kind of knowledge, a desire to see potential futures played out and rehearsed so that we might have some sense of familiarity when these things come to pass.
Filled with hope and a constant desire to learn, perhaps the Doctor also offers us a workable life's philosophy in two casual, cheery lines: "Day I know everything? Might as well stop."
Vortex image by Stinging Eyes under Creative Commons license.Tweet