A few weeks ago, the BBC released a video of Jodie Whittaker—in what was probably her closet or a bathroom—dressed in her Thirteenth Doctor gear to let us all know that she was “self-isolating” (hiding) from Sontarans. It was an emergency transmission, sent because the TARDIS was picking up a surge in psychological signals and “someone somewhere might be a little bit worried.”
It was one of the most relieving things to be found on social media in months.
— Doctor Who on BBC America (@DoctorWho_BBCA) March 25, 2020
There were many reasons for that relief, from the useful advice she gave (tell bad jokes!) to the reminder to trust in science (we forget that a lot lately, as a species). But chief among those reasons was the video’s existence, intent on reminding us that the Doctor is still here. And she cares about us. The Doctor believes we can be strong, and come out the other side of this.
But why is that so comforting to know?
Being a television series that has been around for over half a century, it’s hardly surprising when people are intrigued by Doctor Who. But when they have no knowledge of the series, that interest usually comes in the form of a question like, “So how is that show?”
I do not like this question, or any question related to it. The reason why is simple enough: It’s impossible to answer.
Now, part of the reason for that is the sheer volume of history that comes attached to Doctor Who, its mythology ever-expanding and multi-faceted. It’s like being asked how you feel about Superman comics—well, what era? What writer? What storyline? What artist? There are so many things that make up a good Superman comic, but it’s impossible for each story arc to achieve that pinnacle.
It would make more sense for someone to ask you how you feel about Superman himself.
When it’s hard to get out of bed—which let’s be honest, are most days lately—there’s a funny old quotation that sometimes gets caught in my head:
“There are worlds out there where the sky is burning, and the sea’s asleep, and the rivers dream; people made of smoke and cities made of song. Somewhere there’s danger, somewhere there’s injustice, and somewhere else the tea’s getting cold. Come on, Ace. We’ve got work to do.”
These are the last lines of the Classic Doctor Who series from 1989, spoken by the Seventh Doctor. And I’ve always thought that they resonate deeply because the call to action within them is almost an afterthought. We’re offered imagery to fuel the imagination, and a reminder of the state of the universe, a place that is full of risk (danger) and terror (injustice) and also simple actions of physical being (the tea’s getting cold). And then those final words: We’ve got work to do.
It’s such a useful pronouncement because it’s true, isn’t it? We all have some sort of work that needs doing, and this is a helpful reminder to start moving. It’s not scolding or nagging or mean-spirited. It’s also not saccharine or emotive. It’s just a statement, one that is no less meaningful for its pragmatic approach. We have things to be getting on with, even if that’s a tall order today, or every day. We should try to get on with them.
So people will ask “Is the show good?” when they want to know about Doctor Who. And the answer yes sometimes, and no sometimes, and the answer is also it depends on who you’re asking and when, because not everything will appeal to everyone all the time. But the more important answer is actually: Who cares?
Quality is a beastly metric to judge anything by. And I don’t mean to say that thoughtful criticism or having standards are pointless exercises—of course they aren’t. We should endeavor to make good art, and to absorb good art. We should care about quality, even when we’re fully aware that quality is one of the most subjective concepts we can foist upon entertainment. Also, as a descriptor, “good” is a relatively meaningless word, one that is often used in the place of purposeful discourse.
But what I’m really trying to say is, it doesn’t matter if Doctor Who is good. It has never mattered if Doctor Who is good because the only thing that matters about Doctor Who is that it gave us the Doctor. If a piece of fiction is the beholden to what it leaves behind, then that is what the show bequeaths to us.
And what a beautiful inheritance that has become over the decades.
If you know anything about its origins, you probably know that Doctor Who was initially conceived as a means to teach children about history. A time traveling main character makes it easy to showcase historical figures and events, and the Doctor’s first companions lent themselves to that job nicely—two school teachers and a granddaughter who was eager to learn. But it became clear, very quickly, that the show was a different sort of gift to children; it offered up a protagonist who used wit and knowledge against enemies, who valued what others often overlooked. And most important of all, it gave them a hero who readily admitted to their own fear. Or as the Third Doctor so readily put it:
“Courage isn’t just a matter of not being frightened, you know. It’s being afraid and doing what you have to do anyway.”
The Doctor’s creed has never relied upon might or power at the expense of care. Certainly, the character has the capacity for pomposity and boisterousness (most clever people fall prey to that trap), but that cannot outstrip the Doctor’s need to do as their name demands—to tend to others, to work tirelessly in the defense of people who cannot defend themselves, to make things right. The Twelfth Doctor put it into words as best he could, right before his own demise:
“I’m not trying to win. I’m not doing this because I want to beat someone — or because I hate someone, or because I want to blame someone. It’s not because it’s fun. God knows it’s not because it’s easy. It’s not even because it works, because it hardly ever does. I do what I do because it’s right! Because it’s decent! And above all, it’s kind! It’s just that. Just kind.”
As a child, there is nothing more valuable than having a someone to look up to who is exactly that. Just kind, history lessons or no.
I was watching the show the other day (Classic Who has been a very helpful comfort watch lately), and found myself struck all over again by something the Fourth Doctor put quite succinctly:
“The very powerful and the very stupid have one thing in common: They don’t change their views to fit the facts. They change the facts to fit their views. Which can be uncomfortable if you happen to be one of the facts that needs changing.”
I don’t really think I need to explain why that landed like a sneaky little stab wound. I might still be bleeding over it.
People will ask “Do you think I’d like that show?” and honestly, which show? It’s been at least a dozen different ones, and showcased over a dozen Doctors. I could direct those people toward an episode or era I think they’d like if I know them well enough, but that’s not really how being a Whovian works. We watch because we need the Doctor. We need the Doctor because they remind us to be the best versions of ourselves—not just for our own sakes, but for others.
Right now, most of us are stuck in holding patterns. We’re depressed or exhausted or scared all the time, or some combination of all those things. But the Doctor knows that’s not the full sum of our lives. Look at what the Ninth Doctor has to say about us:
“There’s no such thing as an ordinary human.”
Or the Tenth:
“Some people live more in twenty years than others do in eighty. It’s not the time that matters, it’s the person.”
Or the Thirteenth:
“We’re all capable of the most incredible change. We can evolve while still staying true to who we are. We can honor who we’ve been and choose who we want to be next.”
We watch the show because we need the Doctor. We need the Doctor because their existence, their kindness, their belief in us makes it a little easier to be in the world. There aren’t many fictional figures who fill that need, who offer that manner of comfort, and certainly not with this longevity. Regeneration gives Doctor Who fans the greatest gift of all; there will always be a Doctor here for us, or, at least, there can be. That sixteen year hiatus where the Doctor didn’t appear on television seems cruel in retrospect. Imagining a future where the Doctor isn’t available to soothe our troubled minds seems equally cruel.
The character has transcended the boundaries of their story.
Since the lockdown began, Doctor Who scribes and actors have been banding together to create stories, and Twitter watch-alongs, and helpful PSAs for the world because they know this. They know that people need the Doctor, especially in times of upheaval or crisis. They’re not the only creative teams putting out free content and entertainment for the world right now, but the level of integration and output is different here, unprecedented. They know that seeing her face will make your day brighter, even if she’s filming from a cupboard and her hair has grown out past it’s regulated Doctor-length.
"Stay strong, stay positive. You're amazing".
— BBC (@BBC) April 9, 2020
The Doctor remembered us because we needed her, and that means it’s going to be alright. Maybe not tomorrow, maybe not next week, or even next month. But eventually, it will be.
And for now, she just wanted to remind you to think of others because that’s “rule number one of being alive.” Excellent advice, that. Useful for children and adults. A good way to check in with yourself and make sure that you’re focusing on what matters. Practical, certainly—and still kind.
In the end, that will be the measure of us.