Five Things I learned from Doctor Who

Five Things I learned from Doctor Who

I’ll admit, I’m new to Doctor Who fandom. A few months ago, after a great deal of urging from a friend, my husband and I finally watched the first episode of the 2005 series reboot. All I can really say is: instant love. My first thought was why did it take me so long to start watching this? Aside from the fact that people have written entire dissertations on which episode you should start with, Doctor Who is chock full of everything that make science-fiction entertaining. The show doesn’t take itself too seriously, even embracing its retro look and feel. Yet it hits with the impact of an emotional sledgehammer.

Though there are many episodes left for me to watch, I’m definitely enamored with the Doctor. I’ve never had this strong an emotional attachment to a show generated so quickly (and not just because I watched the series in rapid fire). Beneath the cheesy special effects, comical interactions and sometimes terrifying story-lines, there’s some really deep meaning of life stuff to take away from the show. To that end, here are five things I’ve learned from watching Doctor Who.

Everything Can Kill You
Every science-fiction universe is full of things lurking in the darkness/space/wherever waiting for a chance to kill you, or take over your mind, or subjugate you to serve their every whim. But no sci-fi universe is quite so deadly as the one the Doctor zips through in his magical blue box. People die in Doctor Who. The show is uncompromising about it; the Doctor can’t always bring them back. In fact, most things which occur in the show are impossible to reverse. At the end of the day, happy endings are rare.

Of course Doctor Who’s universe comes standard with the staples of science-fiction; space invasions, mind-snatching aliens and monsters that go bump in the night. But there are also plenty of seemingly benign things waiting to gobble you up. Take, for instance, the dust you see floating in beams of light. Yeah. Actually part of a massive swarm lurking in the shadows waiting to devour you. And those statues you see down by the local cemetery? Don’t blink or they’ll get you. Just saying. There’s even a pair of episodes featuring aliens you forget as soon as you look away from them, which has got to be the creepiest thing ever.

Every sci-fi writer creates creatures that make us shiver, but it takes real talent to take something we see every day and make it terrifying. It makes me wonder how some of these writers made it through their childhood. But if you take a minute to really think about it, this could be a case of art-imitates-life. After all, just about everything causes cancer these days.

Take Risks
In light of my previous lesson, this one might seem like a head-scratcher. In a universe where everything lurking around the corner is waiting to kill you, why would you ever take a chance? But what’s your alternative? Curling into the fetal position and waiting for death?

Despite the obvious danger, the Doctor is an explorer and he never hesitates to waltz into the unknown. Even when the TARDIS takes him somewhere impossible or further than any Time Lord has ever traveled before, the Doctor strikes out to explore his surroundings, usually with a goofy grin. Nor does he have any shortage of companions willing to follow him in to danger. Despite the reassurance of safety so long as one maintains proximity to the Doctor, every companion who’s ever stepped onto the TARDIS has risked death in some unknown corner of the universe where none of their family members will ever know their ultimate fate. But that has never stopped any of them from continuing the adventure. Even the one woman who initially refused the offer of TARDIS travel eventually changed her mind.

In one episode, a woman expresses her desire to work with animals to the Doctor. She mentions the qualifications and schooling required before she’d get a chance to live her dream. The Doctor replies with an off-hand comment about how she probably won’t fulfill her dream. Because most of us never do. He then proceeds to plant a simple idea in her mind: just do it. Sure, it’s safe to sit at home and do the same tired thing over and over. Without risk, we gain nothing. If the Doctor and his companions can travel the length and breadth of the universe, risking life and limb to learn something new, surely we can step outside our comfort zone to achieve our dreams. It really is as simple as deciding to do it, it’s all our fear and trepidation that complicates matters.

It’s Better Together
If we imagine life as a long road, it’s easy to understand loneliness. Without someone to travel with us, we have no one with which to share our joys and triumphs, and no one to help us bear our burdens. A Time Lord’s life is long. The Doctor is over nine hundred years old at the start of the new series. Not only is he old, he’s lonely. He’s a war survivor and the last of his kind. He may have an eternity to experience, but that experience is empty without someone to share it with.

This is a common theme throughout the new series. At one point, while in between companions, someone tells the Doctor he needs a person to stop him. He even speaks to one of his companions about how she changed him into a better person. Later, we see what happens when the Doctor travels for long periods without a companion; he takes things too far.

For all his knowledge and power, there are times even the Doctor can’t save the world without help. If someone with the potential knowledge of the universe’s entire history occasionally needs an extra set of hands, it’s perfectly reasonable that we all need assistance from time to time. Someone to help when the going gets too rough. Even just a friendly ear to listen while we relieve our stresses. It’s a common misconception that asking for help is a sign of weakness. No one is so strong they can hold all the burdens the universe piles onto their back.

Having someone to share the road with us, however briefly, not only gives us strength, it makes the whole experience better. When you look back on the most amazing things you’ve experienced, the first thing you remember is the people you shared it with. Without a friend to share it, triumph feels mighty hollow.

Violence is Never the Answer
War with aliens is a common theme in science-fiction. Name one famous spaceship which doesn’t have weapons. Even the Enterprise, a ship whose mission was to seek out new life and establish favorable relationships with it, had laser beams for when the going got rough. Most long-running sci-fi shows have a story arc which deals with humanity’s right to fight for their established existence, usually against an unreasonably stubborn race which just so happens to be more powerful than we are.

So it’s sort of refreshing that the Doctor flinches every time someone draws a gun. Then he demands they put it away.

Even when facing an alien race poised to destroy the world, not to mention him, the Doctor offers a choice. Sometimes he begs his enemies; choose peace. Even when destruction seems the only solution, the Doctor insists there is always another way. He challenges us to be the best that we can be. Better than the best. He once held off a horde of Daleks with a cookie. In fact, in all the episodes I’ve seen, the Doctor himself has never pulled the trigger. According to him, he never would. And in one episode, he challenges an aspiring civilization saying “make this the basis of your culture. Whoever you choose to lead, make sure it is someone who never would.” Humans, he says, are good. Deep down in their bones, they’re good.

Talk about words to live by. How much better would the world be if we could live by that philosophy?

No One is Perfect
Finally we come to the most valuable lesson Doctor Who has to teach us. Everyone makes mistakes. Even the Doctor.

A friend of mine once spoke about the underlying theme of Doctor Who, saying it’s a study “on what it means to be human and fallible.” That might seem backward considering the Doctor is an alien, but I think the description is apt. As I mentioned before, the Doctor is far from perfect. He often needs help to accomplish important things. He can’t always save everyone. And sometimes, he makes mistakes. Mistakes that cost people their lives.

Many successful people say they learn more from their mistakes than from their successes. But I think most of us are still afraid of making mistakes. How many things do we neglect to try because we’re afraid of messing them up? We all fear failure even if we’re repeatedly told that success requires us to fail and try over many times. No one can expect to do everything perfectly every time.

We all fall flat on our faces. We all take wrong turns. But you know what? It’s not the end of the world.

I get the impression that the Doctor never forgives himself for his mistakes, though he often forgives others for those. When one human fails his challenge to be the very best humanity has to offer, the Doctor tells her to teach her son why she was wrong, so that he can be better than she was. And after foiling some of his enemies plots, the Doctor proves just how good a man he is by forgiving them their follies.

I think it’s clear the show’s great emotional impact comes from the fact that it’s continuously delivering all these messages to its viewers. It’s saying this is what life is all about. So go live it. And if you take a few missteps along the way, don’t sweat it. It happens to the best of us.

8 Replies to “Five Things I learned from Doctor Who”

  1. It’s interesting how you compare Dr. Who with other shows which deal “with humanity’s right to fight for their established existence”. Of course, the difference here is that the Doctor is immeasurably more powerful than most of the adversaries he goes up against. ;) He does amazing things because of knowledge, more often than not (it’s very much a “pen is mightier than the sword” sort of show!), but that’s still power, and he still uses it ruthlessly on occasion.

    And while he rarely ever pulls the trigger (the only example I can think of is the Christmas special for Tennant, and even there, it was symbolic and a very special case – trying to avoid spoilers!), he does often cause other people to do so (ex. “A Good Man Goes to War”, in the most recent season). Woe to the person or people who truly enrage the Doctor; I think his reserve and restraint come from the fact that he has seen the results of rage, anger, and power – and doesn’t like them. So he avoids them when possible, but…when he’s pushed, watch out.

    1. Thanks for your thoughts Kevin :) You make a lot of interesting points! When I wrote this post, I hadn’t seen the last season with Matt Smith. I do feel like bits of the story went to pieces in the last season. I’m interested to see if they wrap up some of the loose ends when the show resumes this year.

      You’re very right when you point out that the Doctor has an advantage over most of the heroes in other Sci-fi shows. Even if you ignore his knowledge, he has the ability to travel to any place and time pretty much instantly, and that’s no small thing. I do think his inspiration to others to take action is partly accidental. His companions see the things he does and they get inspired to try to do all they can. But intentional or not, it’s impossible to ignore. Look at Martha. He took a bright young medical student and turned her into a soldier.

      I think for me the appeal is in the “pen is mightier than the sword” philosophy. Instead of the battle, specifically, the emphasis seems to be on the decision. The Doctor and his companions are constantly forced to make tough decisions. And the Doctor is constantly forced to deal with the consequences of choosing incorrectly. Instead of scenarios with a clear-cut winner and loser, the Doctor Who universe is full of shades of grey – I like that. Everything is choice and consequence and sometimes those consequences are difficult and life-altering.

      I haven’t seen any of the Old Who yet but I’m looking forward to it. Have you seen it? How do you think it compares to the new Who? :)

      1. I have seen some of the “old Who”, but it was a long, long time ago. Don’t recall it well. I do like the new stuff though. I enjoy shows where the heroes, while fallible, are also genuinely likable. Contrast Doctor Who with, say, the Galactica reboot or the Stargate Universe show (both shows had very few if any truly admirable characters – they went into this “everyone is really a dirty rat at heart” thing that I find fundamentally disturbing).

        The Doctor and his friends are not perfect. But at heart, they are good. They attempt to do good. They are often selfless. They often make or offer to make great sacrifices. In short, they aspire to be the best that they can be, even if they sometimes fail. It’s something I appreciate in my fiction.

        1. I don’t mind a few characters who are jerks. I really liked Rodney McKay from Stargate Atlantis. But he had redeeming qualities. If you have one or two dirty rats lurking around, it can add flavor to the fiction. But if every character is that way? x.x Yeah, no thanks! It’s funny that you mention Stargate Universe. I was a huge fan of Stargate SG1 and Atlantis but never made it past the first episode of Universe. I never could get into the Galactica reboot either.

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