In honor of the just past 50th anniversary of Doctor Who and the final episode of 11th Doctor Matt Smith, I thought I'd take a moment to talk about why it's my favorite-ever television show, and specifically why I prefer to watch it than a more serious, feted drama like The Wire. (Though fundamentally, this essay could just as easily be called "Why I Like Doctor Who Better Than Breaking Bad", "Why I Like Doctor Who Better Than The West Wing", "Why I Like Doctor Who Better Than Game of Thrones" or pick your highly regarded dramatic television show.) In fact, I'm going to make an argument that Doctor Who is the best television show that has ever been made.
Often the distinction between a "serious" show like The Wire and a "less-serious" show like Doctor Who (it's tempting to use the word "genre" in this sentence, but of course The Wire is just as much of the Crime genre as Doctor Who is SF) is often seen in terms of escapist vs. non-escapist. However, as I've eluded to before, I think that distinction is pretty much bullshit and comes more from class distinctions than aesthetic ones. That is to say, the word "escapist" comes from a bourgeois instinct to separate "frivolous" things that are for the rabble and the proles from things that are for the refined elite, that are serious and require thought and study. It has, in other words, everything to do with status and with the middle class's self-conscious anxiety about slipping back into the poverty class that it historically worked so hard to claw its way out of by, among other things, getting a higher education.
That all said, by any standard of values I might care to use, The Wire is an excellent show. It is well written, well acted and explores crime, law, poverty and the way that institutions dehumanize individuals in interesting, even revelatory ways. Strong and thought-out underlying themes bind it together even as it switched viewpoint casts from season-to-season in a manner that almost no other television show has ever done. The Wire shows the lives of many different kinds of people around the central milieu of Baltimore in long, tightly written, "novelistic" story arcs.
By comparison, Doctor Who seems rather silly. Especially if one looks back through the entire 50-year history of the program, the show has often been plagued by cheap sets, costumes, props and special effects, bad acting, reams of historical anachronisms, tons of contradictions in continuity, and ludicrous writing. Unlike The Wire, where nearly every episode is a triumph and the whole thing can be seen as one, cohesive whole, Doctor Who is a sprawling mess that's hard to even get a handle on. It's very easy to point at bad episodes in any era of the show, some of them real howlers. And unlike Star Trek, which debuted three years later and always had a unifying, underlying progressive message, the Doctor sometimes veered not just into reactionary territory but into outright pro-colonial racism. (cf. "The Ark" from 1966, which has a dark-skinned servant underclass overthrow their white skinned masters only to turn out to be not only evil but bungling incompetents unable and undeserving of ruling themselves. Or "The Two Doctors" from 1985, which has a plot that hinges on a scientist genetically modifying a swarthy underclass to be more intelligent and thus lift them up so they can rule themselves, which turns out to be a terrible idea (as the Doctor warns it will be) because the underclass are vicious, nasty human-eaters. And that's just two extreme examples.) It's important to note that unlike The Wire and Star Trek (and those other series I mentioned back in paragraph one), which were singular visions of a highly involved creator, Doctor Who was created by a committee that had little investment in it beyond filling a particular time slot and little to do with keeping it running, with the notable exception of producer Verity Lambert, who didn't co-create the show but helmed it through its troubled beginnings and then left after two seasons.
So why do I love it so much? It's not just, as Craig Ferguson pointed out, that Doctor Who is "all about the triumph of intellect and romance over brute force and cynicism", though that does have something to with why I like the Doctor better than Captain Kirk, who had a tendency to solve problems with his fists. You'd think being a writer of fiction myself, I'd much prefer the unity and tightness of something like The Wire, where the creator makes a clear story with a beginning, middle and end and a narrative trajectory. It's also part of the appeal of a show like Breaking Bad and part of why we feel so betrayed by shows like Lost or the remake of Battlestar Galactica, which make motions toward narrative unity but at the last moment fail to pull it together, revealing that they did not, in fact, have a plan all along. On the other hand, a wildly uneven show like Babylon Five is elevated and made many times more interesting by its clear sense of narrative unity. Compared to any of these programs, Doctor Who is a crazy mess, often getting so lost that even the writers don't seem to know what the show is supposed to be about.
Sometimes the show is full of bug eyed monsters. Sometimes it's serious science fiction. Sometimes it's a light fantasy. Sometimes a comedy, a historical drama, horror, western or mystery. Wyatt Earp strolls through, and Agatha Christy, Vincent Van Gogh, Odysseus, the Beatles, a world-conquering computer, a comic strip superhero, a time traveling monk, the Loch Ness Monster and flying pepper shakers that only ever want to exterminate you.
Sometimes cast members die, or have their brains erased, or run off to found ancient Rome.
Sometimes the lead character never shows up at all.
And in the end, I think this is all actually what makes the show so appealing. It's a show that can be any show and every show. Rather than being rigidly tied in to one aesthetic or idea or even genre, Doctor Who can experiment, play around, push the limits of things. Develop narrative rules only to quickly break or subvert them. Other shows grow stale if they go on too long, wear themselves out, exhaust their core ideas. Doctor Who, on the other hand, can always reinvent itself. Change the lead actors, change the whole tone, it doesn't matter, it's still Doctor Who and if you don't like it wait a week and see what the next episode brings. It can explore issues as serious as genocide, show whole cities being destroyed, and then have a story about killer snowmen that reminds you that even in a horrible world it's okay to have fun sometimes. And always, Doctor Who changes to provide commentary on its time, updating and evolving. Like the work of David Bowie, its very inconsistency is actually its strength and what makes it unique and vital. Even the racist episodes mentioned above are counter-balanced by stories that are just the opposite around the proverbial corner. "The Ark" was followed 3 serials later by "The Savages" which is virtually the same story in reverse. And while reactionary storylines did happen, overall the show is about hope and brains and how we can all work together to make things better. (The Ninth Doctor to Englishmen during World War II: "Right, you lot, lots to do; beat the Germans, save the world, don't forget the welfare state!")
To be fair, what I've just described could also describe a much worse show. Sliders was a show about a group of travelers journeying between alternate universes that could also be a different genre or tone every episode, and also eventually "regenerated" its lead actor. But it wasn't very good. Part of the difference is good writing, and Doctor Who, especially these days, has had some very good writing while Sliders at its best rose to competent mediocrity. But also it's that the character of the Doctor, with his truly original and iconic time machine, are so much more interesting than any character who ever stepped through a (rather generic) portal in Sliders. In fact, the original cast of Sliders isn't all that different than the original cast of Doctor Who: a professorial older man; a young action hero type; a pretty young woman; with the kind and knowledgable schoolteacher replaced by a comic relief, down-on-his-luck soul singer (by itself not so bad a change). Sliders is kind of like if you took the original Doctor Who, drained all the mystery, weirdness and complexity out of the Doctor and made the real lead character the action hero Ian Chesterton. Which was about as boring an exercise as it sounds, really.
It's easy to look at Doctor Who, see some cheesy monsters and bad special effects (or these days cheesy monsters and quite good special effects), and dismiss it as nonsense for children. And, unlike the The Wire or any of those other first-paragraph shows, this program is written so that children as well as adults can enjoy it. But that misses the point.
The Wire with all its careful "realism", with its relentless and undifferentiated seriousness of purpose, can only ever be one sort of thing. But life isn't one sort of thing. Sometimes it's a fairy tale, or a science fiction story, or a mystery or a comedy. Sometimes it switches gears suddenly and abruptly and goes to a place you never imagined.
Doctor Who tells us that sometimes in life you have to run off with someone faintly ridiculous into the deep unknown, that we have no idea what we might face there and that, yes, there are monsters, but you just might be able to beat them if you use your wits and keep a screwdriver handy.
It's not always the best written show, with the best production values or acting, it may not always make sense or be in any way consistent. But in its very weirdness and willingness and ability to change, in its flights of fancy and absurdity, in its function as an inexhaustible story engine, it becomes a better reflection of the weird, changing and multifarious world we live in. And for that reason, it's the greatest television show that has every been made.