The Other Show on BBC
It’s official: America has Downton Abbey fever. You can’t open a newspaper or visit a culture/books website without reading about how Downton Abbey is revitalizing PBS, or affecting the publishing industry, or reflecting poorly on our “class-stratified” military. This interest is all for the good. I agree with Emily Nussbaum, who writes in the New Yorker that Downton Abbey “is situated precisely on the Venn diagram where ‘prestige’ meets ‘guilty pleasure’: it’s as much cake as it is bread.” (Though I have to disagree with Nussbaum’s adoration of Lady Edith, who not only is the show’s weakest link, but is generally acknowledged to be so by characters within the show itself.)
I want to talk briefly about a different British TV show, however, one that has gotten some publicity in the U. S. but hasn’t captured the popular imagination in the way that Downton Abbey has. If Downton Abbey allows us to figuratively travel to a different time, then the show I’m talking about features literal time travel; if the posh characters of Downton Abbey seem alien to us nowadays, then the show I’m talking about has actual aliens from faraway planets; if Downton Abbey straddles the line between high and low culture, then the show I’m talking about obliterates this line altogether, showing that the most condescended-to of genres, science fiction/fantasy, can create lasting, affecting stories. I’m talking about Doctor Who.
Doctor Who is, at this point, a British institution: it’s aired on the BBC since 1963, with a long hiatus in the 1990s. The show re-booted in 2005, and since then it has been arguably the most enjoyable show on television. It follows the adventures of the unnamed Doctor, a time-traveling, humanoid alien from the future, as he journeys through time and space, regularly saving Earth and other planets and civilizations from harm. The Doctor generally travels with a human companion who, by some accident of fate, has been saved by the Doctor and grows to love him and his mission. They get around by way of the TARDIS, a time machine disguised as a blue police box that is much bigger on the inside than on the outside.
I realize that this all sounds ridiculous and campy, and the show realizes this, too: it regularly jokes about its own absurdities and makes fun of the bad special effects that plagued its earlier days. (Critical and popular success have helped increase the show’s budget, and the special effects are now movie-level quality.) But somehow, all these elements—time travel and aliens and things that go bump in the night—mesh together perfectly. You care about the characters, you care about the plot, you even care about its disquisitions on the nature of time. (One example: “People assume that time is a strict progression of cause to effect, but actually, from a non-linear, non-subjective viewpoint, it’s more like a big bowl of wibbly wobbly timey wimey … stuff.”)
The main reason the show works so well is because of the acting of the Doctors. I say “doctors” and not “doctor” because there is a wrinkle: the Doctor has the ability to regenerate once he has been mortally wounded, emerging with a new body and disposition, though with the same soul. Or something like that. The details of regeneration are sketchy, and you just have to accept the regenerating process for what it is—a way for the Doctor to escape death and for the show to get a new actor to play the character.
Since the re-boot in 2005, there have three different Doctors, each with his own virtues. Christopher Eccleston, the first Doctor in the new series, looked like a soccer hooligan, complete with shaved head and leather jacket. When we first met him, he was prone to brooding and was a bit of a curmudgeon; by the end of his only season, he had warmed up, thanks in large part to his companion, Rose. The next Doctor and my favorite, David Tenant, was like a Shakespearean tragic hero—intense, dark, noble. (Unsurprisingly, he was brilliant as Hamlet in a recent production of the play.) Matt Smith, the current Doctor, is madcap and childlike, buzzing with energy and unpredictability.
Beyond the inspired acting of the Doctors, though, the show works so well not in spite but because of its time-traveling premise. We get to meet figures from the distant past and from the unthinkably distant future; we get to see Pompei the day before it was buried, Venice during the Renaissance, London during Queen Victoria’s reign and during the Blitz, and a far distant time when the universe is slowly dying from cosmic expansion. We meet, among others, Charles Dickens, Winston Churchill, Richard Nixon, Shakespeare, Vincent Van Vogh … The list goes on.
Doctor Who, with its inherently episodic nature, is like a nineteenth-century romance. It has a catholic (that is, universal) sensibility: the show’s main argument is that every creature, whether human or alien, in every time, whether ancient Roman or many millennia into the future, matters absolutely. It makes a strong claim about the dignity of all life in all times, but does so in a way that never sacrifices narrative enjoyment.
For those interested in giving this great show a shot, I suggest starting with Series 5 (2010), the first season with the current Doctor, Matt Smith. The production value is really high, and Smith’s Doctor is a delightfully zany introduction to the world of the show. Then, after watching up to the present, go back to Series 1 (2005), and move forward.