An Inauspicious Start
Imagine you are tasked with starting a new series. You are sent off to the hinterlands and the worst studio facilities. You are given actors who don’t want to play the parts. Your main actor is “difficult,” and will eventually become a depressed alcoholic who needs to be retired. Your script is nonsense. Your budget is so low you can’t afford props. Nevertheless, you finish your show and it gets scheduled... for the night after JFK gets kill. That’s an inauspicious start for a show. Incredibly, that same show is still running 50 years later with only a short break in the 1990s.
The Doctor, we never do find out his real name, travels around the universe in a stolen time machine called the TARDIS, which stands for Time And Relative Dimensions In Space. This time machine can go anywhere and anytime. It is also vastly larger on the inside than it is on the outside. In theory, it can blend into the background wherever it lands, but that circuit is broken, so the Doctor’s TARDIS looks like a blue British police box wherever it goes.
When the story began in 1963, William Hartnell played the Doctor. He was old and nasty. He traveled the universe with his granddaughter Susan and two of her teachers who end up stuck aboard the TARDIS: Barbara and Ian. Their episodes were plodding and unfocused, but were enough to attract attention. After awhile, Hartnell needed to be retired for personal reasons. But how do you replace the main character for whom the show is named?
So what is Doctor Who? Well, it’s a kids’ show that also pulls in adults by being much smarter than it deserves to be. It’s the kind of show you can’t help but like if you can get over the cheap effects and low budgets. It’s a solid action show in which the Doctor is called upon to save someone from catastrophe each week. It’s a solid science fiction show which deals with an amazing array of aliens and ideas. It’s a philosophical show where the Doctor will constantly be forced to ponder whether or not he has the right to take some action.
Despite spanning 50 years as of tomorrow and despite the feel of the show varying greatly over the years, the show has retained its core throughout. That core is this: the Doctor comes from a corrupt but brilliant race of people known as “The Time Lords.” They (falsely) claim noninterference is their highest rule. The Doctor wanted to help people, but was told he could not interfere. So he stole the TARDIS and fled Gallifrey (the home world of the Time Lords). Now he goes around the universe helping people who need it.
The purpose of the show is to tell interesting stories. Sometimes there is a moral, sometimes there isn’t, but there’s always a bad guy who needs to be stopped. Indeed, the Doctor has amassed an amazing array of enemies and he has taken on whole civilizations at a time, such as the Daleks, the Cybermen and the Sontarans. The Master is his nemesis.
Philosophically speaking, I can’t tell you that the show is conservative because it’s not specifically. There are some elements that are, like a strong libertarian streak, an opposition to man playing God, and an opposition to tyranny. But there are just as many moments that feel standard-liberal. For example, the third and fourth Doctors were insultingly anti-military. The seventh Doctor was deeply politically correct. The Ninth Doctor was pro-gay. But these issues tend to be rarely raised and they tend to involve just moments rather than being the point to plots. Indeed, the main thrust of the show, philosophically speaking, has always been a combination of a respect for the sanctity of all life (no, it’s not about abortion) and an opposition to tyranny
But the older episodes really are meant as a series. You need to get to learn who the characters are and what their histories are for the shows to have their full impact. By comparison, the reboot episodes work much better as standalone episodes. And in that regard, you can find some amazing stories: “The Empty Child” is unbelievably creepy. “The Girl in the Fireplace” is a heartbreaking romance. “The Satan Pit,” “Blink,” and “Silence in the Library” are amazing horror films. “Midnight” is an intensely strong drama about how people behave when they are scared and under pressure from those around you. “The Time of Angels” is a heck of an adventure story. And so on.