British humor and intrigue of ‘Doctor Who’ finds attentive audience in U.S.

By Asher Elbein

Running in one form or another on the BBC for nearly 50 years, “Doctor Who” has recently exploded in popularity, growing from an obscure British sci-fi to one with a significant American audience. It’s not hard to see why the show has caught on. “Doctor Who” is a particularly addictive mix of comedy, adventure and horror with separate threads held together by its endlessly compelling main character. Armed only with his wits, a blue police box time machine, and a succession of enthusiastic young women, The Doctor is an anarchic, mercurial force for good in a hostile universe, a symbol that brains and heart can triumph over repression and power.

What truly gives the show longevity, however, is a clever story-telling trick. The Doctor’s alien biology, it seems, gives him the ability to regenerate into a new form (and more importantly, a new actor) when he’s gravely wounded or killed. With a new face often comes a new mood; one era of the show played at gothic horror, while others have leaned more on science fiction trappings. Most recently, the prevailing mood of the show has been one of conspiracy and deceit, with unseen enemies playing mind games with the Doctor for the fate of worlds.

This variability is the secret strength of “Doctor Who,” because not only is it free from relying on any one actor for too long, it is possible for the show to switch direction quickly and easily. All you really need to tell a “Doctor Who” story is The Doctor himself, and many episodes run on the simple conceit of dropping The Doctor into a random story and watching what happens. The result is essentially an anthology show with a basically consistent set of main characters.

The Doctor’s companions, usually women and often British, are also an integral part of the mix. At their best, characters such as Amy Pond and Donna Noble are relatable and offer human perspective on the insanity they find themselves thrust in. While the show takes the occasional turn into damsels-in-distress style sexism, for the most part it offers refreshingly un-sexualized and capable female characters. The relationship between The Doctor and his various companions is seldom anything but platonic, and one of the strongest elements of “Doctor Who” is the affection between the characters. Beneath the clever banter, alien threats and endless running through corridors lurks a show that is deeply concerned with morality and family. “Doctor Who” at its best spends a lot of time examining ethical questions and exploring the deep bonds of friendship that can grow between very different people.

It would be easy for these heavier themes to weigh down the show, but the writers keep the tone light. “Doctor Who” thrives on a snappy format of thrills, chills and laugh-out-loud silliness. Between the mixture of sci-fi farce and moral themes, “Doctor Who” stands out as deeply rewarding and compelling television.

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