By Austin Gravely
That’s the question characters on the science fiction show have asked on several different occasions since November 1963.
Doctor Who, according to the Guinness Book of World Records, is the longest-running science fiction TV show of all time. When it first debuted in 1963, nobody could have guessed that a few weeks ago the show would air a special episode to commemorate its 50th anniversary.
Along the way, Doctor Who has received countless awards (both for the show itself and the actors), pioneered advances in special effects and electronic music, created a cult following that spans multiple generations of “Whovians”, and – most importantly – shows no signs of stopping anytime soon.
As someone who considers himself a “Whovian”, I have a very favorable opinion of the Doctor, but at the same time, the critic in me cannot help but notice some weaknesses in the show that detract from the otherwise unforgettable adventures of the man in the blue box.
Since the show rebooted in 2005, there have been three Doctors to date: Christopher Eccleston (one season), David Tennant (three seasons, universally acclaimed as the greatest Doctor), and Matt Smith (soon to be replaced by Peter Capaldi). For the first four seasons, Russell T. Davies oversaw the production of the show as well as its writing.
Steven Moffat, who would take over the show at the end of season four, wrote several episodes during the course of Davies’ leadership. One of those episodes, “Blink”, became one of the most successful and highly praised episodes of the whole science fiction genre.
In this episode, David Tennant describes time as “… a big ball of wibbly wobbly timey wimey…stuff.” While the quote has since been etched into the collective science fiction consciousness as a bible verse of sorts, this extremely loose and free understanding of time has led to some terrible plots and storytelling.
When Moffat was writing this definition of time into the episode, it may not have been determined by this point that Moffat was to succeed Davies as producer. He was writing in a “we-can-get-away-with-whatever-we-want-to-even-if-it’s-bad-writing” period. If time, in the Doctor Who universe, is really this mass of moldable stuff, then the central premise of the show can be changed however it needs to be changed, even if it makes little to no sense.
While other modern science fiction staples such as Star Wars and Star Trek have set and rigid rules about the way concepts and terms work within their universes, Doctor Who has the pure opposite – its core element, time, is defined by its looseness and flexibility.
Doctor Who has been likened to a modern fairy tale. In most episodes, the Doctor shows up right as trouble is brewing and through charm, wit, and wisdom ends up saving the day.
Whether or not this criticism holds any truth, one thing is clear – under Steven Moffat’s leadership, Doctor Who has suffered through some of the worst season-spanning plots I’ve personally ever seen. I love Matt Smith as the Doctor, and yet I can’t help but feel that he has been shortchanged a chance to star in some unforgettable stories.
An example of this is season six of the show. Midway through the season, it is revealed that Amy Pond (the main companion for that season) has been kidnapped and replaced by an imposter, and her kidnapper intends to use Amy’s newborn daughter (who is revealed in that same episode to be the Doctor’s wife) as a weapon to destroy the Doctor.
Amy’s kidnapping is never explained, Amy’s pregnancy is never explained, and Amy’s kidnapper, Madame Kovarian, appears as this major villain that should be feared and taken seriously – although up to this point, you have absolutely no idea why you should care. All of what I described happened in just one episode (sadly, that particular season went downhill from there), and while some have praised it for being a technical and complicated plot, it ultimately stems from the “wibbly-wobbly” philosophy of time in the show that allows for anything even if it makes little sense.
Another instance occurs in this past season’s finale where it is revealed that Clara (the current companion) has appeared all throughout the Doctor’s life at various points in time – a fact that is introduced entirely out of nowhere and yet is described as a monumental plot twist and assigned a rather large weight that, unfortunately, just doesn’t make you care.
While these are two examples on a season-wide scale, other criticisms have been leveled at Moffat’s writing for issues such as shallow characters, relying too heavily on one-liners for the
Doctor, and for a phenomenon described by Neela Debnath, critic for The Independent, as “Rory-gets-killed fatigue”, a statement made in light of the fact that Amy’s husband Rory nearly dies in a considerable number of episodes. Personally, I have had a hard time with Moffat’s writing – while Davies had weak points of his own, they were not anywhere near as pervasive as Moffat’s.
Even with its shortcomings, I love Doctor Who. I can’t deny the show has its weaknesses, but the Doctor has captivated my imagination in ways that few other shows have ever done. From the aliens, the locations, the (sometimes awkward) element of time travel, Doctor Who is a wonderfully witty, thoughtful, exciting, emotional, and overall brilliant show. It has survived not because of marketing, or agenda, or tradition (although it has all three of those).
It has survived for 50 years because, over the course of 11 actors, the story of a man who travels through time and space in a blue box that’s “bigger on the inside!” has become a
story that we can all relate to in some form or fashion. The desire for adventure, for travelling to new places, for risk, danger, and satisfying our curiosity — all of the wonderings of the human mind are given free reign in Doctor Who, and we share in his triumphs and defeats as if they were our own. To celebrate 50 years, then, becomes no small feat. If anything, this anniversary is set to revamp the story of the Doctor and ensure that he will be around for many years to come.