A few months back, Eric wrote a lengthy piece about why Doctor Who is the best television show ever. I think he's terribly wrong in that Doctor Who more or less encompasses everything I hate about TV.
Don't get me wrong, now, I like Doctor Who. There's a fair amount of it that I find to be hugely enjoyable. And there are certainly much worse shows than Doctor Who. There's a reason that the character has had the staying power he has, and not the least of it is because of exactly what Eric talked about in it being able to be anything it wants to be. There's something to be said for a show that can be a historical melodrama one week and a space opera odyssey the next. But I think one can get too wrapped up in that sort of thinking as well. After all, after 50 years and a limitless expanse of space-time to explore, one would hope for a few more recurring villains than just The Master, The Daleks, and the Cybermen, which the rebooted series keeps going back to the well for rather than trying to ever break new ground. And the few times they have strayed from that formula, such as with the Weeping Angels, they've never really been able to sustain them as anything more than a creepified CGI version of the monster under the bed.
So, no, as charming and fun as it often is, there is much better television to be had than Doctor Who. Here are four examples:
1. Red Dwarf
Red Dwarf is the other major Sci Fi offering from the BBC. It's often more ridiculous than Doctor Who, it's even more low budget, and considering that it was always run by the same guy throughout it's 9 or 10 or 11 seasons (depending on how you count) it's just as rife with internal plot inconsistencies. The acting is at times dreadful. And by the end of its run it was clear that it had run out of juice in its formula and had run completely off the rails.
And yet, Red Dwarf is a better show than Doctor Who, and the reason is that unlike Doctor Who where anything is possible, Red Dwarf, particularly in it's early years, pursued the perspective of the everyman. And the everyman is a problem that is rarely addressed in major television Sci Fi. TV Sci Fi, driven by the need for flashy visual effects to sell the realism of its fantastical universes, most often hangs the balance of existence or the universe or the survival of the species itself on the actions and choices of its protagonists. And in that sense, it is often quite mythic in that its heroes are larger than life and their exploits are cast on epic scale. Doctor Who is often the worst offender of this sort of nonsense, encapsulating in single episodes brand new, completely unheard of threats to all existence and then the complete annihilation of that threat just inside of 45 minutes later.
Red Dwarf had none of that, and instead posed the question: what is life like for the janitors on those great big spaceships? And what would they get up to if they were stranded in space and left completely to their own devices. As such, even though it's a sitcom, and even though it occasionally went very far astray from this central compelling aspect, Red Dwarf never fails to be Sci Fi that is utterly unlike everything else ever shown on TV and that freshness and character, along with the truly impressive feat of being genuinely, consistently funny while talking gibberish about plot mcguffins such as hallucinogenic mushrooms from the moons of Jupiter.
Because I can't imagine myself being the Doctor. At his most human he is utterly alien, and at his most alien he's often obnoxious. And as for his companions, well, frankly I never liked any of them much. Karen Gillan, who I love, being the singular real exception, and often thats only because she's so breathtakingly pretty and strikingly talented at keeping a straight face through all the nonsense that you can't help but smile watching her do her thing.
But I can put myself in Dave Lister's shoes, and I've been roommates with Arnold Rimmer and the Cat, and as such, Red Dwarf is a window into a mode of living that is both real and fantastical, that possesses real people and has real, if goofball, consequences. Red Dwarf, therefore, is simply a better show than Doctor Who in that I simply give a damn about the characters in the way than I never have about the Gallifreyan and his romps in time and space. By making it more real, more is at stake, and more of it matters than could ever happen in one of the overwrought, all life on earth hanging in the balance, Doctor Who stories.
2. True Detective
I was hesitant to use this example because the show just ended and we have yet to see what will come of its success, if anything. But I think that True Detective could possibly be the next evolution of the television series as a story telling medium, and as such it deserves mention. Because True Detective has finally succeeded in doing something that many shows in the past, ranging from Twin Peaks to Battlestar Galactica to Lost, and even to the Wire have never been fully successful at, and that is telling a long and complex story ranging over numerous episodes that sustain from week to week, bear repeat viewings, and then finally delivers on the promise and mood established in its first episodes. Prior to True Detective, and to a lesser extent Breaking Bad, the Wire probably was the series to come closest as it developed over the course of its run. But where the Wire did that by showing us all sides of a police investigation and the various colorful characters running over a five or six year arc, True Detective managed to hold that all together in a way that told a single, coherent story focused on a single protagonist and his foil. Leave aside the stunning cinematography, the tour de force performances, and the taut, scathing dialog, and what you have left is a story that could not be told in another medium in a more compelling way. True Detective needed all the space it took, but didn't use any more time than it needed. And it functioned in an episodic fashion unlike virtually any other police procedural that has come before. The fact that it took some 70+ years of television production before something like it was achieved demonstrates the difficulty of the task, and now that it's been done, just like the 100th monkey learning how to use the stick, we can expect that narrative in television will now change for the better as a result of it serving as a proof of concept, at least in its first season.
Doctor Who, by contrast, while it can do many things as Eric argued, could never be so coherent, even though it has played with the extended narrative repeatedly in its past. There is something fundamentally different in how the True Detective extended narrative worked, and that Doctor Who writers repeatedly failed to achieve, and it is not just skill and talent. And a fundamental part of that is that because we know that the Doctor can never truly end, there is never anything at stake for him. Therefore even where everything in the world is supposed to be at stake, at the end of the day we can never fully commit to that idea because we know that even if the Doctor failed (which he hardly ever does) everything will be ok anyway. Therefore, much as a series like Entourage or Californication quickly becomes a dull exercise in writer fanboy wish fulfillment, so too does the doctor from time to time grow sodden and weary with the eternal failure to ever really seem like he's in trouble at all. And the show, to its credit at times, has ways of getting around this, and to try to deal with them in a way that doesn't feel like cheating, often they don't succeed and those disappointments are often not worth what the show is capable of at it's best.
3. The Walking Dead Video Games
Telltale Games took their walking dead license and have turned it into an animated, participatory TV show that delivers on the promise of "interactive fiction" in a way that nothing short of full on Dungeons and Dragons only rarely accomplishes among the best and most committed of players. I know it isn't technically a TV show, but the games are an ongoing narrative that are being sequentially released in "seasons" and "episodes" and the dialog, voice acting, and scripting alone would slot it in with the best of any other animated series. It's certainly far better than the piece of shit TV adaptation on AMC has ever been, and it has taken narrative risks above and beyond even those taken in the original comics, which for their own part have been widely and correctly lauded as ground breaking.
Doctor Who, by comparison, is staid and conventional, and to my cynical eye finds itself much to precious a piece of intellectual property to ever truly do much really interesting with the characters. Indeed, the best episodes of Doctor Who are ones where the Doctor and His Companions are rarely seen. My favorite, by far, is the episode from David Tennant's run when a group of Doctor groupies meet to talk about their experiences with the doctor only to end up forming an Electric Light Orchestra cover band and then getting eaten by an alien. The Doctor doesn't show up until the last five minutes or so, and barely manages to save the day as it is. When it does things like that, Doctor Who can really be great. But those episodes in themselves only really work framed by the usual sturm und drag of the main story and as fun as they are, you know watching them that sooner or later its back to the weird alien and his human pet saving the world. Again.
Whereas with Lee in Season 1 of the Walking Dead and now with Clem in Season 2, the accomplishments and commitment become so much more real not just because you're interactively choosing which direction the plot takes through its garden of forking paths, but also because even though it's a zombie survival game, the characters are all rendered with a complexity and a level of commitment that it's difficult even when one of the relatively minor members of the supporting cast inevitably gets torn to pieces by monsters or megalomaniacs. That is to say, as much commitment as The Walking Dead Video Game requires that you give each character, it pays that off with the very real, very actual knowledge that anybody can die at any time, just like in the comic book version. And those stakes are raised to new levels by the interactivity and its seamlessness, in a way that Doctor Who never can accomplish unless it gets the Doctor and his Superpowers out of the way for long enough for real risks to appear.
Community is, currently, the best thing going on American Television. I doubt there's anything better anywhere that's on the air right now. In a lot of ways what makes Community great is exactly the same thing that Eric argues makes Doctor Who great: that on Community, as in Doctor Who, anything can happen. Except that unlike Doctor Who, on Community that can be taken to the level of metafiction with the inclusion of a Doctor Who parody called Inspector SpaceTime with which one of the main characters has a borderline unhealthy fixation.
What Community has that Doctor Who lacks is a level of respect for its audience unlike anything any other show has ever displayed. While it is full of reference humor and at times Simpsons level variety in satire, unlike the Simpsons or any other show that dips into that sort of thing, Community, despite it's occasional wild swings into cartoonish weirdness, never actually becomes a cartoon. The whole thing still, always, fits within the realistic campus of a realistic community college. The characters are real, damaged people, who can believably swing through their wild adventures, commenting on how absurd it is all the time, without ever coming unmoored. It is the strength of the shows writing and conceptual structure, as well as the flexibility and talent of the case, that even during the gas leak year when everything fell apart to some extent, the show continued to pay dividends in real human emotion grounded in real rather than symbolic relationships between people.
So in many ways, what you get with Community is the variety of a show like Doctor Who where anything is possible, along with the grounded humanity of Red Dwarf that makes its surreal landscape at once completely outlandish and insane while remaining capable of the full suspension of disbelief necessary for a TV watcher to become immersed in a half hour episode format.
Doctor Who, by contrast, is so often plotted around a deus ex machina or some high tech mcguffin like the Doctors magic wand, er, "sonic screwdriver," that it is occasionally jarring when the show falls out of its rhythm and relies too much on its Action/Adventure sequences. Community, by contrast, can swing through an episode that is at once both an homage to seventies schlock sci fi like Logan's Run, Zardos, and Soylent Green and a send up of socialist revolutions as they have generally been acted out in the global south, and then sweep the whole thing under the rug a minute later and pick up the next week as if nothing happened in a purely acceptable manner because that simply is the world of Greendale Community College and it is what it is for everyone there. Including Luis Guzman, who apparently got laid like crazy there a long time before Boogie Nights.
So there you have it, a full list of four recent shows that are Better then Doctor Who. Proof Positive that not only is Doctor Who not the Best Show of All time, It probably doesn't even rank in the top five. Also proof that Eric is Wrong, which is always worth pointing out.