If you’re a sci-fi nerd, as I am, doubtless there are certain classics which you must know. Star Trek and Star Wars come to mind, although I must admit to a relative paucity of knowledge about Star Trek, my interest in Klingon aside. While Science Fiction took strong root in the 30s and 40s, thanks to Isaac Asimov, who in my opinion is the most influential science fiction writer there ever was(I do not mean to lessen the writing of Robert A. Heinlein or Arthur C. Clarke, contemporaries of Isaac Asimov and hugely important to the science fiction genre). However, Much of the science fiction we know as classic Science Fiction comes from the 1960s, the decade that brought us Star Trek. However, an even older show from that time period is Doctor Who. While Doctor Who had limited appeal outside of the UK until its most recent reincarnation, it dealt with a number of the same issues as Star Trek. They are arguably very liberal and progressive shows: Star Trek was very culturally tolerant in its approach to alien civilizations, and The Doctor, the protagonist of Doktor Who, is known for his anti-violence stance. The Thatcher administration accused the show of propaganda against the state, and accusation to which they admitted only recently.
Star Trek can be summed up by its now famous intro, “Space: the final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Its five-year mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before”. In form, Doctor Who is similar to Star Trek, albeit with a much smaller crew. The Doctor travels to different civilizations (although some of the original shows never left earth, due to budget constraints), and has to deal with their cultural differences, often while dealing with an impending threat to the world/mankind/universe. On the other hand, The Doctor travels not only through space, but time as well (The Enterprise does travel in time on accident, occasionally, but for them, time mostly passed at a linear rate, and in the right order).
What separates Doctor Who from so much of Sci-Fi is The Doctor. Who is The Doctor? I’ll let him tell you: “I’m the Doctor. I’m a Time Lord. I’m from the planet Gallifrey in the constellation of Kasterborous. I am 903 years old and I’m the man who’s gonna save your lives, and all six billion people on the planet below. You got a problem with that?” But absent from Doctor Who, is the weaponry which is so present in other sci-fi classics. The Doktor has rarely held or used a weapon, and often, this has caused more death in the long run. But it has maintained the character of the Doktor, a character which has changed with each few seasons. You see, the Doctor can die, but when he does, he regenerates in a new body. This has allowed the role to continue on despite numerous changes of actors, and has also allowed for very dramatic season finales.
I can truly say there is only one sci-fi TV show I recommend more highly than Doctor Who: Firefly. I may put it on an equal level with the resurrected Battlestar Galactica on some days, but for the most part, it stands over it.
The sci-fi genre, especially on screen, has always been a bit campy, and Doctor Who is no exception. The enemies are the same 60s cyborgs, death machines, humanoid aliens, or aliens posing as deities. And the Doctor’s lack of weaponry leads to hundreds of chase scenes. If there is one thing I recall The Doctor saying more than anything, it is “RUN!”
As such, The Doctor does have an interesting underwhelmingly cinematic feeling to it. With all the derring-do, one expects an equally impressive hero to deal with the inexorably destructive enemies. But instead, one begins to feel that, much like Star Wars stormtroopers, the effectiveness of Doctor Who’s enemies has been exaggerated and mythologized. The action is often interrupted by speeches and arguments, adding very much to the mythological feel of it all, and vaulting it into a very space opera feel. This may sound like a list of complaints, but I see it as one of the high points of Doctor Who. You know he’s going to win in the end, the question is how well his moral character and personal fabric can survive.
There is only one caveat I feel I must add. Doctor Who is certainly science fiction: it relies on science for the ideas to be possible. Without time travel, without the TARDIS, the adventures would be impossible. The Doctor’s Sonic Screwdriver (the Swiss Army Knife of the future) can disarm seemingly any trivial problem, yet fails to offer a real solution to any of the bigger problems. But on the other hand, the science is soft.
This clip is The Doctor’s explanation of time, and this clip, his explanation of a time detector, both from the best episode of Doctor Who, hands down, “Blink”, although the recent Matt Smith episoe featuring the same plot elements is quite good.
This clip is the Doctor’s recovering from cyanide poisoning and is absolutely hilarious.
Doctor Who may depend on science, but that science is soft. If you’re looking for a show with blazing guns, melodrama and mercurial characters, Star Wars, Star Trek, or Battlestar Galactica are probably your cup of tea. But Doctor Who stands out as an cerebral drama, where morals are spliced heavily into action and speeches and plans defeat weapons and power, consequences of actions are well borne out, and everything is had at a cost.