Many “Doctor Who” fans have embraced the title of “cult” TV show, but former “Doctor Who” executive producer Russell T. Davies says in his book, “The Writer’s Tale,” the show is more than just a science fiction show. I agree, and would argue that the newer series of “Doctor Who” should be considered a drama that’s based in sci-fi.
Strip away the outer sci-fi shell and here’s what you have: a very smart man, who travels around and helps people in need. He never carries a gun, but fights evil with his intelligence. From time to time he gets himself, and his friends, in tough situations, but they always seem to find a way out. He inspires the people around him to live better lives and appreciate life. At its core, that‘s “Doctor Who.”
The writers use the device of science fiction to weave their tales of drama. Add back in the sci-fi: The Doctor is from the planet Gallifrey, and he travels through time and space in a ship that’s bigger on the inside. The Doctor is the last of his kind. His home has been lost to a long and bitter war, what could be more real then that?
In an interview with the BBC’s radio 4 show “Front Row” former executive producer, Russell T. Davies, explained how they approach the series in modern times.
“It’s treated as real, every time you come to a great big science fiction moment you say what would you really be feeling, what really happens.”
Russell’s past TV credits have only been drama. “Doctor Who” was his first science fiction type show, but in his book “The Writers Tale,” he says he sees “Doctor Who” as drama that uses the setting of science fiction. Which he approached as a drama, not a sci-fi show, his other most notable TV credits include, “Queer as Folk” and “Bob and Rose.” Both focus on the lives of gay men living in England. It was his life long love of “Doctor Who” that helped bring the show back from the dead in 2005.
“Doctor Who” first aired in England on November 22, 1963. Due to the assassination of President Kennedy, the show flew under the radar. The BBC tried it again a week later. It was presented as a “tea time” children’s show, “but not being produced by the children’s department, which caused a certain amount of aggravation within the BBC.” Verity Lambert, the show’s very first producer, talked about how the show came to be in the documentary “Doctor Who at The BBC.” Verity goes on to say the BBC wanted the show to have an element of education. When the characters would travel back in time, there was a little history lesson buried in the background of the plot.
The show lasted 26 seasons and was cancelled in 1989. BBC One, the BBC’s drama department, brought the show back in 2005. Under new direction and a polished “feature film” look. Russell T. Davies and Julie Gardner served as executive producers and show runners.
Some would argue the special effects in the show would detract from my reasoning. Neil Harris of “Doctor Who Magazine” recently wrote an article called “Special? Effective?”
He asks the question “are special effects such a crucial part of Doctor Who?” Neil cites a recent poll the magazine did where the top favorites were episodes featuring little to no special effects. The highest ranked story was called “Blink.” The plot involves stone angles called “The Weeping Angels,” they are motionless stone when you are looking at them, but if you turn away, or even blink, they attack. They are gentle killers, in the blink of an eye, you are randomly sent back in time where you live out your days. Only one special effect was used in the entire episode. Neil goes on to cite many of “Doctor Who’s” emotional scenes, or dramatic moments, built around the tension of the plot. Will our hero die? Will his friends survive the situation they have gotten into?
It’s that tension that keeps us coming back for more. It’s the drama of having to say goodbye to the woman The Doctor loves. She lived through their latest adventure, but became trapped in a parallel world. Unable to get to her, The Doctor does find a way to communicate with her one last time. As Rose stands on a beach, crying out her love for him, he can’t even bring himself to tell Rose how much he loves her.
In “The Writer’s Tale,” Russell said of that scene: “(if your emotional) if you’re, empathizing, you’re feeling it, there’s an echo of every loss you’ve ever had in that. If it’s successful then it’s saying something about you, about the world.”
Yes, we can scoff at things like “parallel worlds” or “Weeping Angels,” but it’s great fun and even better dramatic television. As head writer, we would see The Doctor through Russell’s eyes. That often meant loads of fun, but also the effect of one man’s actions. Running from his past, never standing still long enough to reflect. Davies wrote The Doctor as a lonely man, who had no place to call home. He would have friend’s come and go, but in the end he was alone.
The character has an ability to regenerate when he is near death. Even within that, Russell’s writing shows us just how devastating this ability can be. In the episode “The End of Time: Part 1” The Doctor knows he is to regenerate soon and says: “it feels like dying. Everything I am, dies. Some new man goes sauntering away, and I’m dead.” Sure enough the time came and the regeneration occurred. As the tenth incarnation of “The Doctor” turned into the 11th, his final words were “I don’t want to go.” It was a very emotional scene, a death scene. For fans of the show, it really was like a close friend had died.
When a TV show can make you feel that much emotion, how can it just be classified as science fiction? As William Zinsser points out in “On Writing Well,” some of the best writing is found in science. Then it can be argued that some of the best drama is found in science fiction. “Doctor Who” is simply the best there is. When you strip away all the science, its just good drama.