OPEN UNIVERSITY SEPTEMBER 28, 2006
by Eric Rauchway
... even if you weren't a certain kind of awkward child who grew up on the old one. Tomorrow the Science Fiction channel starts airing the second new season of "Doctor Who", the speculative fiction series that the BBC first aired in 1963, took off the air in 1989, and brought back, with an actual special-effects budget and award-winning writing, in 2005, to ratings success. I say "speculative fiction" rather than "science fiction" because the science part's a little light (unless you count "reverse the polarity of the neutron flow" as science); the strength of the show is what-if: What if you were invited to travel through time and space with someone who looks human, but (you come increasingly to realize) isn't--what would an alien perspective on human history and the human place in the universe look like?
Before the premiere of the new season this Friday, SciFi is repeating a two-episode story of the 2005 season that best exhibits the program's themes, "The Empty Child" and "The Doctor Dances"; you might try them because if you don't like these, you won't like any of it. The first key theme is the horror of human beings losing their humanity through advanced technology, and becoming monsters. The classic "Doctor Who" villain is a once-human (or humanoid, if you want to get picky) character that, in the pursuit of technological speed and power, has cut itself off from emotional and physical contact with its fellows, and has turned monstrous. The premier example here is the Daleks, a society that has pursued genetic modification and cybernetic augmentation to the point that they no longer look human at all: they're artificially created mutants who ride around in tanks seeking to exterminate lesser (i.e., all other) species. If they sound to you like Nazis, well of course they do: This is a BBC program that originated in the early 1960s, after all, when that nightmare was still fresh.
Which nicely raises the second theme that these episodes so beautifully illustrate: because, again, this is a BBC program, it's as much concerned with what it means to be British as it is with what it means to be human. The Doctor belongs to a species of apparently English heroes who are crypto-foreigners. Like Sherlock Holmes (an expert in deduction, a Continental style of reasoning) he works as a rebuke particularly to the English elements of Britishness; such characters let outsider authors (like the Irish-descended, Scots-born, Catholic-educated Conan Doyle) ventriloquize through an insider their critiques of the culture. (You could probably throw in Peter Pan, James Bond, and even Alice as examples; maybe Flashman.) So too the Doctor, who is in his current incarnation a production of show-runner Russell T. Davies, best known as the creator of "Queer as Folk." The Doctor exhibits a disregard for official British propriety in dress or behavior, a disdain for the isolationist limits of "Little England"--yet like Holmes he has a definite fondness for the damp islands and their inhabitants. If you try out "The Empty Child/Doctor Dances" two-parter, watch for these themes expounded through the weightily named "Albion Hospital" and its place in the plot; listen for the various ideas of Britain uttered by the Doctor and the surrounding cast, and have a think on what the cousins seem to be worried about when they look at themselves in these late days of the Blair government.