Doctor Who

Originally published as part of the Digestable newsletter

If you told me a year ago that I’d be writing this column from day 11 of quarantining in a Dublin apartment I would not have believed you.  Of course everything that happens these days is pretty unbelievable – so much so that unbelievability has become pretty… unremarkable.  I’m pretty antsy to get out and see the city and I’m having to resort to a constant diet of stimulation to keep myself distracted from the fact that I haven’t been outdoors for more than 30 seconds since I got on a plane in Minnesota back in August.  Luckily Irish Netflix has all of the new seasons of Doctor Who which has allowed me to escape into an embarrassingly nerdy but comforting part of my high school self.

For those of you who didn’t go through a tea-drinking bowtie-wearing phase in 10th grade, Doctor Who is a British sci-fi show that follows a time traveling alien called The Doctor and their usually-human-always-British friends as they fight monsters, save worlds, and have a cute quirky time.  The Doctor has the ability to regenerate into new bodies, which has allowed 14 actors to cycle through the role and kept the show evolving throughout its 41 collective years on the air.

In high school I loved that show prominently featured queer characters and narratives – it’s been able to do so since 2005.  Part of the power of the show is how it deals with difference, when you’re dealing with a universe of alien species across all of time, contemporary human ideas of sexuality are only a blip.  The show, especially in recent seasons, is also able to use time travel to interrogate historical narratives of race and ethnicity.  For instance, in the episode Thin Ice, we’re shown that Victorian London was much less uniformly white as traditional histories claim – but the show doesn’t try to omit racism for the sake of comfort.  In the same episode contemporary black human Bill Potts, played by Pearl Mackie, confronts a villain who tics every box in the racist and sexist attitudes that defined power during the Victorian era.  The villain then is eaten by the giant aquatic creature his family had enslaved for generations and his wealth is redistributed to a multiracial group of homeless orphans – the show can be a bit ham-fisted with the symbolism at times but really I’m not mad.

My favorite thing about the watching the show as an adult is that it feels almost like conditioning for these predictably unpredictable times.  Pretty much every episode involves some world ending catastrophe, on Earth or a spaceship or another planet and the characters have to band together, grapple with difficult concepts and dig for common values to act with ingenuity and love to set things right.  One of my favorite recent episodes Smile involves a human colony established on an alien planet after the Earth is evacuated from an unknown disaster, I picked climate change, you can draw your own conclusions. 

Agnes Denes is absolutely QUAKING

 Some AI robots were sent up ahead with a team of humans to build the city before colonists arrive, but because of their inability to understand human emotion they kill their human crew when they show signs of distress – thinking it better to turn them into fertilizer than leave them unhappy.  The Doctor (Peter Capaldi), Bill Potts (Pearl Mackie), and the surviving crew then have to figure out how to stop the robots from killing all the colonists (all that remains of the human race) when they arrive.  The solution they come up with is to erase all knowledge of humanity from the robots’ memory, effectively making them their own sovereign species indigenous to the planet.  Then when humanity arrives, instead of having a servant population of robots they are forced to have meaningful dialogue with the robots and are transposed from the role of colonizer to refugee.  In this one episode are themes of immigration, indigeneity, colonization, slavery, language, and refuge.  The episode was also shot at the Santiago Calatrava designed Palau de les Artes in Spain – which amplifies all of the futurist dystopia/utopia themes.

I think the power at the center of Doctor Who is how the show makes use of the foil between The Doctor, a 2000-year-old time traveling alien, and their companions – usually contemporary everyday humans.  The Doctor’s outside perspective allows us to call into question things humans take for granted – our fears, prejudices, and narratives – and the Doctor learns things from the humans, how to hope, how to forget, how to persevere.

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