Why I Can't Take Doctor Who Seriously

It was miserably swampy for most of the day today-- when it wasn't actually raining, it was so humid that you expects water to condense out of the air at any moment-- so I spent a while sitting on the couch watching tv with SteelyKid. The best kid-friendly option seemed to be an episode of the new Doctor Who on BBC America, which was pretty much a perfect distillation of why I can't take the show seriously, despite the rave reviews of many people I know.

It's not just that every single episode introduces an alien menace that the Doctor knows all about already, either because it was featured in some pior incarnation of the show, or because the writers imagine some backstory in which he met them before. And it's not just the way that a green LED and a little beeper can magically do anything that the plot requires. Or the way that everyone he encounters quickly decides to go along with whatever plan he suggests, despite the fact that he acts like a babbling lunatic. What really prevents the show from rising about kitsch for me is that they don't appear to have thought through the entire premise of the show.

The bit that really sealed it in the particular episode I was watching, which involved lizard-people living deep beneath the earth, was when one of the just-introduced characters had to effectively sacrifice himself because there was no way to use the magic lizard-people technology to cure him of his poisoning before an explosion of some sort trapped them in the underground city of the lizard-people, which they were about to escape from in their time machine.

It takes a special kind of dumb to construct a plot that relies on a ticking-bomb scenario when your main character is the owner of a time machine. And yeah, fine, mumble garble technobabble, maybe they can't jump forward or back in small increments. But the episode had previously established that the lizard-people had been living underground with their magic technology for millions of years, and once the heros escaped in their time machine, they were planning to go into hibernation and wake up a thousand years in the future. Throw the sick guy in the time machine, and escape the explosion by jumping a thousand years into either the past or the future, and get the nice lizard-person to heal him then.

Fans of the show will probably respond that this was a bad episode, not representative of the best of the series, blah, blah, blah. But, you know, every time I watch the show, I see the same sort of stuff. Even one of the Hugo-nominated episodes from a few years back had this problem. The Doctor conducts a romance of sorts with a woman in 18th century France, while he's trapped in a spaceship in the distant future, looking in on her through time-portals that turn up at different points in her life. In the last visit, she's either really old or recently dead (I forget which), and he sheds a few tears over the end of their romance, then climbs back into his time machine and never sees her again.

If anything, the show is slightly less interesting to me than it was back when I used to catch Tom Baker episodes, because CGI has gotten cheap enough that even the BBC can do reasonable visual effects. The plots didn't make a lick of sense back then, either, but they no longer have the kitsch value of having villains who are just extras wearing giant papier-mache bull heads.

The fundamental problem with the show is that it's really hard to construct dramatic stories when your main character has access to a time machine-- as somebody or another observed recently, Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure does a better job of thinking through the implications of time travel than anyone in the history of Doctor Who. But really, a lot of the time, they don't even seem to be trying.

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why are you taking it seriously? it's a sci-fi/fantasy show. heavier on the fantasy. so what?

stop trying to take it seriously - its' not Cosmos - and maybe you'll be able to enjoy it. enjoy the story.

just my opinion.

You're absolutely correct, but you're missing an important detail: it's not that they can't move in small increments of time, but it's that they aren't allowed to cross over their own time line. This is actually explained to be a law, not of nature, but of the Time Lords, of whom the Doctor is the last one and most of the time believes it to be taboo.

Much like in Arrested Development where entire plots could happily resolve if certain characters commit incest, or Star Trek where everything could be hunky dory if they threw the Prime Directive out the nearest airlock and shot a torpedo at it, because the Doctor is 'nice' he tries to avoid the taboo - in this case, paradox.

Yes, this is an obvious patch for lazy writing that essentially means every episode is basically a holodeck episode, or a Quantum Leap episode. But it does provide interesting insight into the Doctor's character, I think.

As a twenty some odd year fan of the show, I take exception to this:
"Fans of the show will probably respond that this was a bad episode, not representative of the best of the series, blah, blah, blah."

No, sir, we will not. This kind of discontinuity is de rigeur for Doctor Who, and for some fans it is probably part of the charm.

If you are watching for the believable sci-fi/fantasy, you are not going to enjoy it. If you are watching for the Doctor and his lovely friends, for the campy villainous foils, for the silly and sometimes sly humor, for the British accents, and/or for the social commentary, then you shouldn't miss an episode. Speaking of which - gotta go. 9 minutes til season 5 (or 30-something depending on how you count) finale.

Hey, it's not like the TARDIS works properly. He's lucky to hit the right century most of the time.

By Philip Langmuir (not verified) on 24 Jul 2010 #permalink

Oh dear. Never ever take Dr. Who seriously - just hang on for the ride. :P Weee.

I blame the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. The opening music is so good that you really want to believe that that which follows has merit.

I admit to not having watched the show in years; not at all in this country. The last Doctor I saw was William Hartnell. But I'm sure that part of the charm is its history. This is a series which goes back to the '60s and IS STILL RUNNING! You can't say that about Gilligan's Island.

Well, it isn't representative of the best of the series! But the best of the series is maybe one story a year if you're lucky that really does make sense, while most of the rest is, as you say, internally incoherent at best. It can still be fun sometimes, for all that. (The canonical example of a good episode is Steven Moffat's "Blink" from a couple of years ago, which was - as people noted at the time - basically the first DW story ever in which time travel was actually relevant to the plot rather than simply being the way that the heroes arrive. It's also a good story in its own right, and avoids many of the more annoying habits of both old and new Who as well as nicely poking fun at the "particle of the week" and "tech the tech" styles of sci-fi writing. It even managed to avoid egregious scientific errors, as I recall.)

Jim@6 - sadly, they've let Murray Glod do awful things to that marvellous radiophonic theme tune over the last few years. Even worse than the eighties synth-pop versions, monstrous though those were. And the credit sequences aren't as pretty, either :)

It's TV fiction. If you took it seriously, you'd be a candidate for psychiatric intervention.

I wasn't aware anyone over the age of ten needed to take this show seriously. I prefer to make a drinking game and laugh along with the wackiness that invariably ensues. During the Tennant years, drink when they run or the doctor says he is sorry and you will find it much more enjoyable.

The Doctor describes time travel logic at one point as "wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey stuff," which I think tells you all you need to know about how seriously you should take it.

I think this is just one of those things, like Joss Whedon shows, that you need to tell yourself you are unable to appreciate properly due to not being able to shut off the nitpicky-geek portion of your brain when appropriate.

I'm a huge Back To The Future fan; it's just a fun trilogy. Movies that try to take themselves seriously, must live up to a higher standard. For instance, the creature in Alien seems to violate quite a few evolutionary concepts.

But then, I loved The Core for all its unscientific babble. How could you not?

At least David Tennant and Matt Smith have that great sense of humor that makes the show fun. I tried watching one of the episodes from the first episode of this newest incarnation of the series, from 2004 I think, and Christopher Eccleston was SO serious it killed it for me. Tome Baker was the best of the old Doctors because of his sense of humor too. Tennant brought an edge to the Doctor in the last couple seasons that added a lot, but he kept the funny stuff going.

The Master made a Paradox machine out of the TARDIS a few seasons ago and all hell broke loose, so paradoxes have always been very important to the show. Paradoxes are obviously wrong and evil! ;)

If you're annoyed now, just wait until the season finale.

(Which is well worth watching, but not something you want to think too hard about.)

(But do watch Blink if you haven't already.)

Oops, should've spell checked. TOM Baker. Sheeeeesh! Rewatching the first Pandorica episode because I missed some of it the first time, so I was distracted!

Aaron: Thinking too hard about any of the episodes is Not Recommended. It's not a hard-thinking kinda show.

Blink: I really, strongly dislike the fanboy "watch this great episode and you'll like the show" advice. It never works, because the great episodes have zero resonance for people who don't watch the show. If you want to watch a show, you just need to suck it up, start from episode one, and watch the damn show. If you can get more than two episodes into Eccleston's season without saying "Oh, I like this," then you don't like this, and just quit right there, you won't like anything else.

(I feel like this is actually Chad's problem with most of the shows he wrongly dislikes -- he watches individual episodes and tries to judge the series from those. That's only feasible for Babylon 5, which I saw an episode of once, and it sucked, and obviously the show is shit.)

I'm generally with you on the single episode thing, but I think there's a distinction to be made between the sort of episodes which are only great (or comprehensible for that matter) once you've surrounded yourself with years of arcs and mythologies, and the (rare) episodes that can stand on their own. Blink is sort of unique in that it barely features the main characters of the series at all, so I actually do think it can stand by itself as a really good hour of television.

As long as you don't think too hard about it.

(Sometime, I'll have to think about why it bothers me so much that none of Chris Nolan's movies make any sense, but it doesn't bother me nearly as much with Doctor Who. I think it's because Doctor Who rarely takes itself seriously, and Nolan can't escape his own self-importance. But I guess that's that whole context thing you're talking about.

(And I did like Inception; I just didn't love it.)

Doctor Who should be taken approximately as seriously as Star Trek. I'd go so far as to say, as seriously as Star Trek: Voyager, only with a far more engaging cast, setting, and set of writers.

If you want serious-thinking science fiction television, hunt down the (sadly incomplete) Sarah Connor Chronicles.

By John Novak (not verified) on 24 Jul 2010 #permalink

say what you will,but Dr Who saved my life.or rather my sense of humor.sometime back in the 70's80's? i was in a minor industrial accident that left me with two burned hands and no eyebrows.not able to really do much i was staying at my girl friends home watching a lot of daytime TV and feeling sorry for myself.the local public TV station was doing a run of Dr Who.so i'm watching the villain who's brain is now in a fish bowl and walking around with a claw for a hand confront the Dr, who tells to his lovely assistant that they must not shock him as his new form may have unhinged his mind.so the Dr reaches out to shake hands,claw? and said "Dr Mobus old chap how are you" and i fell off the chair in hysterical laughter.--really--there is a lot more to the story as i perked up and got out of the "poor me" mindset and into a better job and life.really.

Forget about taking Dr. Who seriously. My problem is that I can't get any laughs from quantum physics. Am I looking in the wrong place?

The problem with the lizard episode was they named them a Homo species, which seems highly unlikely. Otherwise entertaining and Who logical. Companions saving the day, feeding the ego of humanity being great, and season through lines are a few items that give the show legs.

Chad - do us all a favor and quit watching shows that make you wibbly-wobbly timey-whiney afterward. 'K?

If you have satellite/cable TV and all you can find is shows that make you feel that badly afterwards, it's time to get rid of satellite/cable TV and find some other form of entertainment.

Every single time-travel story finds itself in in *exactly* the same position Doctor Who is in and they nearly all make a balls-up of it. At least Doctor Who doesn't take itself too seriously.

There have been some excellent scenarios, including the season-ender of the season with which you're currently having a spat. The season ender is a double-header where the Doctor comes across something about which he knows nothing, and the show takes time and twists it in knots. It's also hilarious - as long as you're wiling to let go and enjoy it.

So you have to decide if you want to suspend your disbelief a bit more for the sake of enjoying the show, or simply turn off the TV. As a parent, you have that choice.

I love Doctor Who, and always have. i am a scientist, and take the show as seriously as I take any other work of fiction. Doctor Who can be as profound as your imagination lets it. There is nothing wrong with laughing your way through the uncynical universe of The Doctor. There is of course wrong science, but there is also inspiring science, just like any good sci-fi.

I watched old (Tom Baker) Dr. Who and new Dr. Who (currently catching up on all seasons on Space) and have to say that Matt Smith is really engaging. I liked how the TARDIS is integral to the season rather than just a tool for kicking off the ep.

Unfortunately for you, Chad, if you ever decide to watch Dr. Who again you will be stuck seeing this episode - or that's what happens to me when I tune in sporadically to a show I don't particularly enjoy :) It's why I never got into Lost or Heroes in spite of really liking sci-fi.

And then there's "Red Dwarf"...

I'm lovin all the huffy snit-fits from the Dr. Who fans. Way more entertaining than the show. Waaaaay.

You know, I am aware that the show is light fiction, and I don't expect it to be incredibly deep. But there's a point where even light fiction calls so much attention to its flaws that I can't keep my disbelief suspended while watching it.

The only current show that I watch with any regularity is Burn Notice, and in a strict sense, that's no more plausible than Doctor Who, in some of the same ways (Michael can make anything out of a cell phone, and the team can almost always con the target-of-the-week with very little effort). But I enjoy the chemistry between the principal characters (Bruce Campbell is clearing having a blast, and Jeffrey Donovan does a fantastic "I can't believe I have to deal with this nonsense" face), and the "When you're a spy..." tricks and explanations are charming enough to carry the show past the more implausible moments. I don't find anything in the modern Doctor Who that performs the analogous service, though.

The show was a parody of serious TV sci-fi, filmed with a limited resources (hence the odd/whacky costumes and special effects). Never meant to be a serious show, it was a farce - provided you understand dry British humor. And you know your British comics (the colorful magazines, not standup comedians).

It was never my cup o' tea.

Chrisj wrote (#7): "The canonical example of a good episode is Steven Moffat's "Blink" from a couple of years ago, which was — as people noted at the time — basically the first DW story ever in which time travel was actually relevant to the plot rather than simply being the way that the heroes arrive."

"Blink" is indeed an excellent story. But I want to raise a quibble with your claim that it's the first Doctor Who story in which time travel is truly relevant. In "The Pyramids of Mars" (first broadcast 1975), the Doctor defeats Sutek by using a component from his TARDIS to affect his enemy's own time travel.

That's a quibble because, granted, it's a lesser degree of relevance. Perhaps there's a better example, but I don't know of one. And I'm probably taking the show too seriously.

By Chris Winter (not verified) on 25 Jul 2010 #permalink


Not only can't you take it seriously, but they clearly don't expect you to. You're performing the equivalent of eating a great hamburger and complaining it doesn't taste like Lobster Thermidor.

That said, I don't really care what you think about it,and you shouldn't care too much what I think about it either.

By Kenneth G. Cavness (not verified) on 25 Jul 2010 #permalink

Why I can't Take This Blog Post Seriously:

It's not the way that it is written in electrons rather than ink, it's not the way there's too many colours - it's the fact that you cannot turn a page. There is no paper here. I cannot enjoy a blog post unless it is printed on paper, bound into a book shape, and sold to me at a bookstore.

- Which is to say, you're looking for the wrong thing. If you want an examination of the consequences of free for all time travel Dr Who is not the place to be looking for it, just as a blog is not the place to be looking for books - complaining that you can't take Dr Who 'seriously' suggests you have a tin ear for what the show is about - it's like complaining that FTL travel is an absurd concept and therefore you can't enjoy any Star Trek episodes.

Don't you recall the time rip at the end of the episode? It will all be undone sometime in the future.

If you could actually use a time machine to alter history, your existence wouldn't make very interesting fiction.

If it wasn't for the basic premise that the Doctor will not travel into his own past, each and every episode would turn into Primer. And while that movie was great fun, from a plot perspective it's an absolute nightmare.

The issue isn't whether you take the show seriously - it's not really meant to be taken seriously - because your real problem is that you can't enjoy the show. And the reasons for your inability to do so are, frankly, rather silly.

I'm with Chad, Dr Who just doesn't make sense to me for the same reasons that Chad talks about. If you have time travel, then either you use it properly and get convoluted plots, or you don't use it and the audience wonders why he didn't use his friggin time machine.

And to those who say "don't take it seriously", i get much more enjoyment over picking out holes and pointing out bad science than i do out of watching the show (yes, no one invites me to movies).

A minor point, but every so often the do do a story where the point of the episode is to explain why your time travel complaint isn't valid. The best recent example is probably the episode from the first of the new series, called "father's day" which has chris ...

Another quibble is that you put down chris eccleston as being too serious, without taking notice that the basic back story of the whole modern series is that a short time prior to the beginning, he was instrumental in killing off his entire species... You wouldn't be a little dour for a bit?

On th whole though... I would say that you are taking it too seriously... The biggest non-internally logical moment for me in the most recent series was "what exactly did the alien vampire wearing a holographic costume take off when she got in the water anyway?"

What you described is the primary reason as to why I like the show. Does that make me less than intelligent? I think not!