|The 21st Doctor and her faithful K9 companion|
Recently a wonderful franchise celebrated its 50th anniversary. It’s called Doctor Who, a British television show launched by the BBC in 1963. Originally intended to combine science fiction with historical information to create an interesting and educational show for young people, historical elements soon dwindled in the face of fantastical story-telling, but the show has nonetheless remained wonderfully educational, in a different way. And that’s why I’m so happy that my own young daughters are now big fans of the show and of the title character, “The Doctor”.
I grew up loving many sci-fi programs: space operas like Star Trek, Battlestar Galactica, and Buck Rogers, along with super-hero shows like Wonder Woman, the Incredible Hulk, Spiderman, and the Greatest American Hero. These were all the product of the American mind, so problems were resolved when the hero out-shot or out-fought the enemy. With a few notable exceptions, in the vast majority of stories, the heroes won the day by destroying their enemy in battle, albeit using superior tactics or even strength of character to overcome unfavourable odds or find the enemy’s weakness and amplify the effect of their own weapons.
But Doctor Who had a different, British sensibility. Unlike the armed-to-the-teeth spaceships of American sci-fi, the Doctor’s time and space-travelling TARDIS didn’t mount any weapons, and didn’t look like a battleship or missile-with-windows. Instead, it had adopted the camouflage appearance of a normal police box, and although it got stuck in that shape, seeming out-of-place in other places or times, it never looked threatening. The Doctor’s first response to meeting anyone was either to start up polite conversation or run away quickly, depending how dangerous the situation. He would never shoot first, and in most cases, never shot at all, which was helped by the fact that he didn’t carry a weapon. His primary prop was his touch-free “sonic screwdriver”, although his long scarf also saved the day many times.
The Doctor solved most dilemmas by getting the enemy to retreat, or destroy themselves, or simply bringing both sides together in peace. Often the alien threat turned out to be a case of confusion or mistaken identity; once resolved, what seemed a horrible monster was just an alien creature that went away peacefully, freed from a trap or from domination by someone exploiting it for their own evil ends.
And unlike American sci-fi heroes backed by teams of loyal (if less-skilled) soldiers, the Doctor’s companions were just everyday civilians even more inclined to run from danger. His loyalty to them and willingness to risk his own life for theirs demonstrated that despite his talk & run modus operandi, he was no coward.
It was this willingness to talk first, to retreat when possible rather than fight to the death, a will to get to the root of conflict in order to ease it instead of a drive to dominate and defeat, that was the truly educational power of the Doctor Who series. Raised on both American and British sci-fi, my own instincts are mixed, but I try to consider the Doctor’s approach. I’m glad my own children can grow up watching the new stories, as part of the renewed Doctor Who series, instead of filling their minds with the more militaristic, black-and-white, destroy-the-enemy approach that still tends to characterize most American action shows. And I hope in future we all learn to avoid conflict, find the root causes, and reconcile both sides whenever we can instead of instinctively jumping to destroy the “other”.
Published as my Root Issues column in the Barrie Examiner as "Dr. Who can offer some sound advice"
Erich Jacoby-Hawkins is not a time-travelling alien with two hearts, but he does wear colourful scarves.