“You Watch Us Run” – 50 Years of Doctor Who

The universe is big. It’s vast and complicated and ridiculous. And sometimes, very rarely, impossible things just happen and we call them miracles.

– Doctor Who, ‘The Pandorica Opens’

Not many television programmes have the stamina to still be going strong fifty years after they first screened, but then not many have the spectrum allowed by Doctor Who. This is a show that spans all of time and space, equally at home on alien planets as it is on a London housing estate; a show that can change its lead actor eleven times and he’s still the same character. Change is the key to Doctor Who’s success, and change it most certainly has.

When the first episode screened on the 23rd of November, 1963, it introduced us to an enigma: a cantankerous old man, clearly not of this world but unable to return to his true home, intellectually brilliant, morally ambiguous, wrapped up within layers of distrust and cynicism. He had no especial fondness for Earth. At times, he seemed to actively dislike it. The only reason he came there in the first place was as a favour to his granddaughter. He took a long time to warm to his companions, frequently insulting them, and while he did miss them when they left, he was in no hurry to invite anyone else aboard. This was an era of stowaways, orphans and accidental intruders. Once a part of the TARDIS crew, your odds of getting home again were almost non-existent. For all the Doctor’s bluff, it was obvious he didn’t really know how to manage the TARDIS. He wouldn’t even admit it was more than a machine.

A lot can happen in fifty years.

In 2013, the Doctor has never been more alien and yet never more human. We know now that he is a Time Lord from the planet Gallifrey, that he has two hearts and is more than a thousand years old, that when he dies he regenerates into a brand new body. His TARDIS is so, so much more than a machine – and more often than not she’s the one managing him.

These days, companions are welcomed aboard with open arms. Joining the TARDIS doesn’t just mean exploring other times and planets, you get a key of your own and a complementary mobile phone upgrade. Whereas companions of the classic era had to leave their old lives behind, or struggle constantly to reclaim them – think Barbara and Ian’s dogged quest to return to 1960s Earth, and Tegan’s roundabout arrival at Heathrow Airport – New Who companions deal with a much messier juxtaposition. They have families and jobs and relationships outside the TARDIS, and those responsibilities don’t go away just because the world needs saving every other day.

That’s a balance only made possible because the Doctor has learned to compromise with the TARDIS. In the past it was a case of hope for the best and bluff like mad (“we’ll go that way and we’ll call it north!”) – now, the Doctor has a lot more control over where and when he goes, though if he wants a beach it’s almost inevitable he’ll end up somewhere else. The TARDIS doesn’t do beaches.

The companions aren’t the only ones feeling the consequences of this newfound flexibility. The past three Doctors have all been guardian figures to their friends, held accountable for all failures, traumas and deaths. Amy summed up this attitude when, thinking she’d lost Rory, she turned on the Doctor demanding “what’s the point of you?” Because it’s not enough he be a friend, helping out here and there as he can. He has to fix EVERYTHING.

That’s an exceptionally unhealthy set up for any friendship. Also, it’s not sustainable. The Doctor has seen the rise and fall of countless civilisations – he has outlived almost everyone he’s ever known, and to expect that not to affect the way he relates to people is absurd. Why is he expected to keep up with all of his companions after they leave the TARDIS? Why is he condemned for moving on, when that’s probably the only thing that’s kept him sane? His perspective must inherently be different from your average human being, and this is not a bad thing. It’s all right he’s not human! It’s all right he isn’t always 100%, unequivocally on our side! When Harriet Jones, in ‘The Christmas Invasion’, commits an act of genocide in order to safeguard Earth, she doesn’t feel she has a choice. And she’s right. The Doctor may not always be there when he’s needed. But it raises the question, for him: what’s the point of his helping if that’s the result? It’s a moment when nobody can be right. I’d love to see New Who acknowledge more of those moments.

I would also like to see a change in the narrative treatment of the Doctor’s friends. Classic era companions had a right to resentment; they rarely got the option of stepping off the TARDIS rollercoaster, and sometimes didn’t even choose to come along in the first place. In New Who, however, every second episode seems to take place on 21st century Earth. If a companion wants to leave, all they have to do is say so. They are all legal adults. They all have responsibility over their own decisions. To pretend otherwise, as many recent storylines have done, is not only undermining the Doctor’s character, it’s a denial of his companions’ personal agency. That does no one any favours.

So what is it exactly that I want? I’d like the Doctor to start calling people on their unrealistic expectations. I’d like to see him being unashamedly alien again. Over the decades, his companions have been overwhelmingly straight white British girls in their late teens and early twenties, and while this definitely does not make them all alike – each is an individual to be taken on her own merits – there’s a homogeneity there that needs challenging. I want to see some more diversity. I want more companions of colour, of alternate sexualities; companions from the past and the future. I want children growing up in the TARDIS and middle-aged adventurers running off to explore space and time. What about companions with disabilities? How would that work? I’d love to find out.

I want ALIENS. Not aliens being at the root of all things, which is what we’ve got right now and a pattern I’m getting rather tired of – humans are quite capable of creating killer robots and blowing up the planet on their own! – but aliens as official companions. It wouldn’t even be that hard; we have the glorious handwavery of perception filters and Shimmers, now, so why not?

Because that, to me, is the question that has always been at the heart of this show. Not who, but why. Why not? Why shouldn’t a sun burn cold? Why shouldn’t a spaceship look like a police telephone box? Why not run away with a Time Lord?

I have been watching Doctor Who for most of my life, so to celebrate the 50th anniversary, I  spent eleven months watching and reviewing an episode from each Doctor’s era, and if there’s anything it’s made me realise, it’s how much I love this show. It’s an integral part of my cultural DNA, as it is for so many people of so many different ages. It revels in the strange, the eccentric, the absurd and the fantastical. It challenges and charms. It is a show that can be about really anything at all. Next stop, everywhere.

We need a show that can do that. I think we always will.

You watch us run.

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