Words I never thought I’d utter: A little over a year ago, I fell in love with a British children’s scifi show. Doctor Who chronicles the adventures of “the doctor”, the last of the Time Lords, a race of aliens who had the power to travel through time, and served as its stewards. The doctor leads a lonely existence, traveling throughout time and space both for pleasure and to keep others from interfering with the set course of history. He has a fascination with the inhabitants of earth, and will generally invite at least one member of the species along for company.
The show has been on air off and on since the 1960s, but its most recent incarnation began in 2005. Lead writer Russell T. Davies oversaw a show that often reached embarrassing heights of sentimentality, and occasionally veered off into self parody as with this image of the Doctor as Christ figure from the episode Voyage of the Damned:
Despite those shortcomings, the charm of the show’s star, Scottish actor David Tennant, combined with a view of the universe as a romantic frontier and humanity as a young species forever poised on the edge of greatness was irresistible for softies like myself, however corny. In episode after episode, the doctor rescues our fledgling species from the more advanced, and more sinister creatures of the universe. When people were not hapless victims, they were great explorers, spurred by a uniquely human desire to discover the unknown.
Davies and Tennant both left the show in 2009, passing the torch to lead writer Steven Moffat and actor Matt Smith. I don’t generally like changes to my favorite shows, but working in Moffat’s favor was that he was the writer responsible for many of the best episodes of the show, including both my favorite and second favorite of the series. Working against him was my serious abandonment issues brought on by the loss of Tennant (to give some idea of the intensity of my devotion to beloved characters, it wasn’t until well into Tennant’s second season that I’d stopped comparing him unfavorably with his predecessor, Christopher Eccleston).
Having fully mourned the loss of Tennant, and unexpectedly faced with an abundance of free time, I am rewatching the first season and finding an appreciation for the Doctor as written by Moffat and inhabited by Smith that surpasses all my previous admiration for the show.
Though Moffat has said he views the show as primarily aimed at children, under his direction the storylines have taken on a much less romantic, much more complex tone than anything that aired under Davies. Moffat’s elevation precipitated a downgrading of humanity, which has been placed in a universe in which earth is, at best an irrelevant backwater, and at worst, the province of a weak and prejudiced species that is in constant need of scolding and guidance. While human beings continue to be the central characters of each episode, the plots make clear that humanity is incidental to the great events of the universe.
The change is only hinted at in the first episode, which serves mainly as an introduction to the characters. But in the second episode, The Beast Below, we are introduced to an image of humanity that would have broken Tennant’s doctor’s heart. The earth has become uninhabitable, and what’s left of the United Kingdom travels through space on an enormous ship searching for a homeland. The doctor discovers the Queen’s terrible secret—the ship is powered not by engines, but by a space whale that has been continuously tortured for centuries to keep it moving. Horrified, the doctor flies into a rage, at one point thundering, “Nobody talk to me, no one human has anything to say to me today.”
The full extent of humanity’s folly becomes clear when it’s revealed that the whale had volunteered to keep the ship moving. As the last of its species, it took pity on human children as the earth burned, and sought to save what people it could by carrying them through space on its back. Presumably out of fear that the animal would one day tire of its burden, human leaders turned a laser on the pain center of its brain, zapping it repeatedly to prod it on. This distrustful, ungrateful, and cruel species is nothing like the precocious innocents of the Davies era.
Another demotion comes in the two parter, The Hungry Earth/Cold Blood. Here the human drive to explore the unknown has potentially disastrous consequences, as a group of scientists reaching deep into the earth’s core disturb an ancient race of sentient beings, Homo reptilia. Displaced by the rise of the apes, the species retreated underground thousands of years ago hoping that primate domination would be short-lived. The approach of human explorers is taken as an attack, threatening to plunge the planet into a bloody civil war.
Two things struck me about this episode. The most obvious in light the discussion above is that, once again, human moral frailty is on display. When one of the reptilia is taken hostage, rather than protecting her as a bargaining chip to be exchanged for human hostages, Ambrose, a hostage taker who has lost her family to the reptilia,allows herself to be provoked into killing the creature, making war all but certain.
But more interesting is how much less special Homo sapiens suddenly becomes. It’s already been established that human beings are not the only intelligent specie s in the universe, and are in fact not very advanced in comparison to other species. What’s more, the kindness of at least one creature, the space whale, has underlined just how cruel and shameful humanity can be when it’s survival is threatened. With the introduction of another, equally intelligent, equally complex species on our own planet (one that in fact predates us), human beings can no longer make any claim to the centrality granted them by Davies.
The greatest demotion yet comes in the first two episodes of the current season. We discover that there is a species, the Silence, that has existed in the shadows, just outside human consciousness throughout human history, guiding our every move through hypnotic suggestion. The greatest human achievement, the moon landing, occurred not because of the human drive to know, but because, as the doctor explains, “the Silence needed a space suit.”
In a universe teeming with species crisscrossing the stars, effortlessly communicating across space and time, humanity is the equivalent of a small tribe on a remote island, allowed to continue in an ancient way of life because of the mercy of those far more advanced.
Much as I loved the sense of wonder often created by Davies’ far more human-centric universe, Moffat’s gives me so much more to chew on. There is something comforting about a universe that is independent of human faults and prejudices, and a great deal more that is terrifying about a universe in which humanity might be destroyed on the whim of forces we neither understand nor control. That tension makes for great television, and introduces a welcome dose of reality into a show about an alien who travels through space and time in a little blue box.