Doctor Who As A Role Model For Children And Adults Alike

a description of what makes Doctor Who as great as it still is, by Dean McIntosh


    I've said it before, and I will say it again: there is a reason why Doctor Who lasted for the better part of three decades on the cut-throat and merciless world that is British free-to-air television. Beginning life as a highly experimental children's television show, and finding itself an audience decades later with the same people it was originally aimed at, it also found an audience amongst their children and the children of the next two decades. Indeed, Doctor Who can almost be looked at as a kind of science fiction equivalent of the James Bond franchise, except that Doctor Who has actually evolved over its thirty years in television, radio, and audio drama formats.

The Message(s) Of Doctor Who - There's Literally Something In It For Everyone

    Perhaps it should come as no surprise that I enjoy a good Doctor Who serial as much today as I do when I was a small child (it is, in fact, one of the few things I remember at all from that era). What makes this show different is that, in spite of being aimed at children in need of a good supervisor in the hours after their daily tenure at school, it never talked down at its audience. Indeed, Doctor Who encouraged learning by giving its audience a series of worlds and situations where some very esoteric arts and sciences could serve a practical purpose. Compared with the Barney And Friends show and its message that "a stranger is a friend you just haven't met yet" when child kidnapping and molestation rates are at an all-time high, or The Wiggles' inability to even teach basic literacy or numeracy due to how dumbed-down their content is, Doctor Who was and still is a veritable MENSA of children's television.

    Although eight different actors have played the show's central figure, simply known as The Doctor, and all of them with scripts of variable quality at that, there is no one actor who could be recommended last. Although many of William Hartnell's and Patrick Troughton's serials no longer exist, and almost all of the serials that feature Paul McGann are independently-produced radio dramas, all eight of the actors brought something unique to the role. However, no character or series can evolve this much without having a basic message or three to fall back upon, and Doctor Who had these things in abundance. Through a series of equally three-dimensional companions and villains, the series had a much more realistic message that in spite of it being a rocky path, there was a way for all of the species in the universe to get along. That, of course, was but one of the many tidbits of understanding and wisdom that The Doctor had to share with his companions and enemies alike.

    The three-dimensional aspect of the other characters in Doctor Who is no accident, whether the character is a nastier renegade Time Lord such as The Master, or a vicious alien that has gone to extreme measures in order to survive environmental catastrophes like the Daleks, there is a certain intelligence behind the way the villains and The Doctor interact. Indeed, one of the Seventh Doctor's serials, The Curse Of Fenric, sees The Doctor in a position where betraying one of his most loved travelling companions may be necessary. Another of this particular Doctor's serials, The Happiness Patrol, makes the extremely valid point that happiness cannot be imposed (unlike what the cast of Barney And Friends will tell you) through the display of a nightmare world where a tyrant uses a paramilitary force to ensure that her citizens will have a good time or else. The First Doctor even goes so far as to drop in on various periods of human history, be it the gunfight at the OK Corral during The Gunfighters, Nero's incineration of Rome during The Romans, or The Doctor's visit to imperial China during Marco Polo. Unlike so many television series that claim to be suitable for audiences of all ages, Doctor Who really has something for everyone.

    Perhaps the biggest clue as to what The Doctor really believes in can currently be found at the end of The Dalek Invasion Of Earth, where the footage that opens The Five Doctors was taken from. Having just defeated an army of Daleks and their enslaved humans on a futuristic Earth, The Doctor's granddaughter, Susan, is torn between her sense of need to care for her grandfather and the love she has for the leader of the human resistance. The Doctor knows that Susan could never willingly leave him, and so he locks her out of the TARDIS, the only home she's ever known, and bids her a farewell far more heartbreaking than anything that has been seen in children's television before or since. "One day, I shall come back, yes I shall come back," he tells his granddaughter, adding "until then, there must be no tears, no regrets, no anxieties. Just go forward in all your beliefs, and prove to me that I am not mistaken in mine." If I ever see another children's television show where the central character shows such faith in the intelligence and resourcefulness of his youngest charge, I'll be shocked enough that it will take years off my life.

The Eight Doctors, Or Nine If You Count Rowan Atkinson

    Another aspect which sets Doctor Who apart from the majority of other children's television shows, or indeed more "legitimate" science fiction series like Star Trek and The X-Files, is that its creators and fans alike don't take it so seriously that they can't take the time out to have a laugh at it. Indeed, the Comic Relief mini-story Doctor Who And The Curse Of Fatal Death not only showed that Doctor Who fans can laugh at the absurdities of their favourite adventures, they can do so with aplomb when its for a good cause. Rowan Atkinson is certainly not the sort of actor you'd expect to see portraying The Doctor, nor are Hugh Grant or Joanna Lumley, but it matters little when you've got such a hilarious parody.

    An aspect of the Doctor Who series that sets it apart from franchises where multiple actors have portrayed the same character, such as the James Bond series, is that although the eight actors who have played The Doctor over the years are very different, there isn't one that I, or any other fan of the series for that matter, would leave until last. Like the James Bond actors, you could also assign humorous descriptions to each of the Doctors, using their unique appearances and traits as a comic foil. Among the first four Doctors, we have the elderly, Darwinian one (William Hartnell); the clown-like one who would later appear in The Omen (Patrick Troughton); the deep-voiced, white-haired one who also played Worzel Gummidge (Jon Pertwee); and the tall, deeper-voiced one who bears the distinction of being the longest-serving actor in the role (Tom Baker). Sadly, of those four actors, the first three are now deceased, and it is actually the ailing health of William Hartnell that gave birth to the whole idea of The Doctor being able to regenerate in the first place. The other four actors who have played The Doctor are known as the young one with the extremely bad dress sense (Peter Davison); the middle-aged one with the wild hair (Colin Baker); the Scottish one who liked to use his umbrella a lot (Sylvester McCoy); and the refined one who was a throwback to the Darwinian style of the First Doctor as well as the victim of a poor script (Paul McGann).

    Although many humans have also accompanied The Doctor on his bizarre adventures, the quality of the actors' performances is much more variable where these characters are concerned. The original companions include a granddaughter who adopted the more human name of Susan Foreman (Carole Ann Ford), as well as two schoolteachers by the names of Ian Chesterton (William Russell) and Barbara Wright (Jacqueline Hill). This team of companions is unique in that it is the only one to include any relative of The Doctor, and thus any connection to his home world of Gallifrey other than the efforts of his fellow Time Lords to keep his nose out of Earthly affairs. Numerous other companions have come and gone since then, ranging from great ones such as air hostess Tegan Jovanka (Janet Fielding), average ones such as cavewoman Leela (Louise Jameson), to downright horrible ones such as Melanie Bush (Bonnie Langford). However, none have come as close to filling the void left by Susan as the bored waitress named Ace (Sophie Aldred), who provided The Doctor with not only a young charge to care for, but also an equal who left no doubt that she had a mind of her own. However, what makes the companion characters so interesting is their development during the time that they spend in The Doctor's company, often starting out as bored Earth-bound characters who feel little point in staying where they are when The Doctor first meets with them, and parting his company as much more intelligent and stronger characters, at least when the script writing was done well.

Other Civilizations Have Intelligence And Beauty, Too

    One thing that sets Doctor Who far apart from Star Trek is that when The Doctor encounters an alien civilization, be it the post-nuclear tribe known as the Thals shown in The Daleks, the alternate version of Earth and its people shown in Inferno, or even the Time Lord society often shown in serials such as The War Games and The Deadly Assassin, they are not just mobs of savages waiting to be shown the error of their ways by our renegade time traveller. Nor are they all shown as being overly peaceful and enlightened compared with the myriad of civilizations on Earth. Indeed, when The Doctor encounters alien civilizations like the Thals, he often has as much to learn or gain from them as they have to learn or gain from him, which is often given as the whole reason he stole a TARDIS and left his own people to travel the universe in the first place.

    Another interesting aspect that sets Doctor Who apart from other television shows that depict alien civilizations is that it makes the great point that just because these civilizations have more advanced technologies does not necessarily make them the superior beings. Indeed, corruption within the society of the Time Lords is repeatedly hinted at during such serials as The Deadly Assassin and Trial Of A Time Lord, and The Doctor even goes so far as to accuse his fellow Time Lords of negligence at the end of The War Games. The Doctor's motivations and ideas are not shown as being completely infallible either, with his act of mischievous deception during his trip to Skaro in The Daleks putting his life, as well as those of his companions, at serious risk. The Doctor is also rather unique in being the only science fiction character on television to look younger in his later incarnations than he does in his earlier ones.

    Perhaps a contender for being The Doctor's most interesting attribute is his faith in the goodness of mankind, in spite of there being demonstrations of the lack thereof readily available for him. Indeed, his role as a scientific advisor for the United Nations International Taskforce shows a level of involvement with human affairs that other refugees from alien civilizations would never contemplate. Nonetheless, The Doctor is also very critical about how humans manage their own affairs, with quotes like "You know, your species has the most amazing capacity for self-deception, matched only by its ingenuity in trying to destroy itself" and "It's about time the people who run this planet of yours realized that to be dependent on a mineral slime just doesn't make sense" being personal favourites of mine. It makes for such a nice change from the usual science fiction staples where either the alien civilizations are unnaturally perfect, or the blonde-haired, blue-eyed human race is a walking blueprint of so-called perfection.

So What Does This Unique Television Series Have To Teach The People Of Today's World?

    There are two places from which the lessons that Doctor Who offers can be derived, and perhaps the best place to start is those that can be derived from the show's production values. The British Broadcasting Corporation was never known for its expenditure when developing or shooting a series, and science fiction is probably the hardest genre of all to make work without throwing lots of money at it. However, as hard as it is to make a science fiction series work without special effects, Doctor Who and its creators succeeded admirably at it, far more so than even the makers of the original Star Trek series. Whereas other television series, Star Trek being a classic example, were limited by budgets into not being able to use anything too bizarre to represent an alien being, the Doctor Who creators had a knack for stretching their resources to the absolute limit. The Daleks, who also rank as being The Doctor's most popular nemesis, represented a species of aliens that were forced by post-nuclear mutations to reside forever inside metallic miniature tank-like vehicles. The Raston Warrior Robot shown in The Five Doctors was another example of superior, imagination-stimulating performances and some simple photographic tricks getting around the limited budgets quite admirably.

    It is therefore quite easy to see that the first lesson which can be learned from Doctor Who is that millions of dollars spent on extraordinary special effects, or extraordinary quantities of special effects (or perhaps both), will not necessarily translate into great entertainment. The total budget spent over a period of thirty years on this television series might just barely equal a reasonable fraction of the budget spent on special effects juggernauts such as The Phantom Menace, but the saga being told by Doctor Who is equally compelling. This is not to say that the series was completely bereft of special effects, far from it, but many of the special effects used were simply of the "stop camera, remove prop or actor, start camera again" variety, used in the most creative ways possible. The ambitions of the series creators were not always matched by the end results, however, as one feature of The Doctor's TARDIS that had to be jettisoned for budget reasons was the "chameleon circuit", which would allow the ship to change shape to fit into whatever environment it had landed upon. However, this was as much a help as a hindrance, as the unique Police Box shape of the TARDIS also allowed it to remain a permanent fixture in science fiction folklore.

    As to what can be learned from the stories being told, that varies according to how one looks at them and their underlying historical or social contexts. The BBC radio drama Slipback, which was broadcast in 1985 when the television show was temporarily in hiatus, features The Doctor trying to prevent a genocidal computer travelling back in time to drastically alter the development of the universe, only to learn that this computer will travel back too far and trigger the Big Bang, thus The Doctor himself learns a valuable lesson about interference in the process. Other serials, such as The Happiness Patrol, should be shown to psychology students in order to impress upon them the fact that what may be right for some people won't necessarily be right for others. Diff'rent Strokes' theme song stated for a fleeting second that the world doesn't move to the beat of a singular drum, but this particular Doctor Who serial showed that the universe doesn't either. However, the lesson to be learned from this television series that strikes the biggest chord with me is that in spite of being hundreds of years old, The Doctor is never condescending to any of his companions, least of all the younger ones such as Susan or Ace. Indeed, he often has as much to learn from them as they have to learn from him, if only because they give him a unique insight into the dominant species on a planet he loves to visit.

    In a nutshell, Doctor Who can teach people that when they encounter others with vastly different lifestyles or ways of self-expression to them, they need not attempt to alter them. It can teach people that just because Joe lives in a place where the rain never stops doesn't necessarily mean he is not happy with it, and it can also teach people that the exact opposite is probably true: Joe may even be made exceptionally unhappy by being dragged to a place where he cannot get out of the sun. By the same token, it teaches the fact that just because a person may want to live in a different environment to what you consider happy or good doesn't make them dull, gloomy, or stupid - just different. The sequences in which The Doctor regenerates are also an excellent lesson that one shouldn't always rely on their first impressions in judging someone's character. Indeed, almost all of The Doctor's incarnations started out as being somewhat confused and even irrational, thanks in part to the traumatic experiences that necessitated regeneration, itself an understandably traumatic process.

In Closing

    There are no limits to the educational properties of a television program, provided it is executed in the right way, and Doctor Who is a great example of this fact. The children who stand to gain the most educational benefit from it are probably those aged between eight and fifteen, or five and ten if they happen to be really advanced in the intellectual sense. However, children of all ages can learn a valuable lesson from Doctor Who, namely how to freely imagine, and that anything is really possible if they recognize set intellectual and artistic limits as being the peak of other people's achievements rather than a cap for their own. As to what can be learned about human interaction and the importance of individuality from this show, this tends to vary from Doctor to Doctor, as well as from companion to companion, but perhaps the following conversation between The Doctor and Ace during The Happiness Patrol is one of my favourite examples:

   Ace: "But I hate that. Lift music! Where are we Professor, anyway?"
   The Doctor: "A planet, an Earth colony settled some centuries in your future. Do you like it?"
   Ace: "No."
   The Doctor: "No, neither do I. Why not?"
   Ace: "Too phoney, too happy."

   Perhaps Judith Sheindlin, that ever-so-loveable Judge on afternoon television, stated the point of this conversation better than the screenwriters who worked on Doctor Who at the time could have done: beauty fades, dumb is forever. It is therefore with a great sense of urgency that I will continue to plead with the British Broadcasting Corporation in whatever way I can to resume production of this classic science fiction series. Sure, those of us who were raised on this television show are by no means perfect, nor do we strive to be, but I cannot help but wonder what sort of problems the Barney And Friends generation are going to have when they discover that being an adult means accepting the rules regardless of whether they can win under them, not to mention thinking enough to make your own decisions. Or perhaps Doctor Who is best remembered as being a relic from a long-forgotten era in which parents took a greater interest in the intellectual and emotional development of their children. In either case, it is good to know that the BBC are finally getting around to bringing the series to a format that will withstand the ravages of time.

© Dean McIntosh (my bio... read it)
June 10, 2001