By Erik Grove
Welcome back to another edition of Erik’s Weekly Watch! Next week I’m going to start diving into the Fall TV season with some picks and recommendations for the best new TV shows but this week brings a very special Doctor Who edition!
When I was nineteen I went on a backpacking/ road trip/ drunken pub crawl across the UK. I was with a bunch of Aussies, Kiwis, Canadians and Brits and we were stopped for a bit in Glasgow. I said I needed to find a trash can to throw away some stuff from lunch. The guys started snickering. I asked them what was so funny. They said I called it a “trash can.” They call them “rubbish bins.” This was apparently hilarious and stood out of all of the “Americanisms” I unintentionally let out as especially noteworthy to them. I didn’t get it. Yeah, the terms were different but I was at a loss for why the phrase “trash can” was inherently ridiculous. I wasn’t talking about fanny packs (look it up, Internet) but the way they responded made me feel like a weird American imbecile that might as well have peed in the refrigerator and poured tea in my trousers. It was the moment when I was most baffled by the cultural divide and it’s how I feel when the topic of Doctor Who comes up. I just don’t really get it.
Being a regular contributor (and reader) of Bleeding Cool it’s apparent to me that I’m the odd man out. Everyone loves Doctor Who here, not just our esteemed English head writer Mr. Johnston. The adoration of Doctor Who really seems to permeate this site and beyond to general fandom. When I go to conventions I frequently see cosplayers that I don’t recognize at all. Most of the time they’re Doctor Who cosplayers. Doctor Who has become even more prominent and celebrated in comic and so-called geek culture over the last several years and I find myself squarely outside of the trend.
I’m not hostile to Doctor Who, I just don’t understand it or connect with it the way other people do. I’ve tried. I’ve watched episodes from different Doctors doing different Doctor-y things but when the episodes end all I can think is, well, that was certainly Doctor Who. People tell me that I need to watch episode X of series Y first (and other people give me entirely different directions with the same degree of certainty) and I swear, I have made an earnest attempt but I just … *shrug* …. it’s certainly Doctor Who.
So, here we go for another season of the Doctor. I know that the websites I go to and my social media will be all about Doctor Who. I decided to give Doctor Who another shot with this new season (cue contradicting advice from Whovians about whether that was a good idea) and mentioned it to some of my friends. I was surprised to find that while most of my peers have the same Doctor Who fever that the rest of the world has right now, there were a few, meek and apologetic friends of mine that expressed the same confusion and lack of connection to the material. We talked in secret places about Doctor Who and mostly said a lot of the same things. This column then, is a response to the premier of Doctor Who, “Deep Breath”, from that point of view. Please, Doctor Who friends, put down your sonic screwdrivers and hear me out. I do this not to mock or disrespect the Doctor and his delightfully Doctor adventures but to bring the sad, lonely voices of the Who confused into the light and bring us all a little closer together.
There are certain tropes or expectations that I have for a Doctor Who episode. These are not entirely flattering (or even accurate) but they float around in my head before the opening credits. I expect a lot of vaguely Dickensian London, a little bit of slapstick, wild and imaginative but not always internally consistent sci fi camp, problems solved by a deus ex sonic screwdriver, slow moving bad guys with less-than-dynamic fight choreography, budget special effects and gratuitous tea drinking. “Deep Breath” represents all of these tropes perfectly. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it’s just, well, it certainly is Doctor Who.
There’s nothing in “Deep Breath” that deviates from all of my previous Doctor Who experiences. If anything this is a perfect microcosm of my expectations. The new Doctor, Peter Capaldi, an actor I quite enjoy from other work, is charming and enigmatic. There’s an ambiguity to the way he plays the role that is appealing and seems, to my inexperienced eyes, to be fresh. The script meanwhile, is not surprisingly, well-crafted by one of the greatest working TV writers, Steven Moffat. I thought the quips were clever if safely inoffensive and staid, the action was fun but in a predictably stilted middle ground between a community production of Hamlet and old episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer way while the plot treads the familiar territory for most genre entertainment between heavy-handed character and plot development (the mirror shows reflections of them both, you guys) and fantastic whimsy with confident aplomb. Across the board I could see care and enthusiasm on display on the screen. Critically, looking at all of these parts, I don’t see anything wrong with this formula. This episode was in fact, generally entertaining and while it seemed about twenty minutes too long to me, it was well-created television that I expect most Doctor Who fans will very much enjoy.
Doctor Who has endured and in fact blossomed over fifty years. It’s comforting in its predictability and maybe even brings the pleasant embrace of nostalgia for simpler times. I know there are many in and outside of Doctor Who fandom that cry out for more diversity in casting and I will admit if Idris Elba or Helen Mirren took on the role of the Doctor I would certainly be inclined to give the show a twentieth look because I find both of them to be so fascinating and talented, but for me not connecting with Doctor Who isn’t about racial or gender in casting – it’s about the intangible things. My wife, an enthusiastic Whovian, calls Doctor Who the cilantro of television – you either love it or you hate it. I don’t know if it’s that polarizing but I think there’s something in the tempo, the tone and the flavor of it that either works for you or it doesn’t.
People love Doctor Who and they should. I love comics, movies and other TV that could stand to receive the same scrutiny I’m giving Doctor Who now. Month and month out I happily read stories about men and women in garish costumes that punch things for justice. There’s nothing judge-y for me in my failure to resonate with Doctor Who but rather a lack or emptiness. The Doctor Who people are having an awful lot of fun with it and I wish I could too. But I can’t. I have a friend that talks about his responsibility as a nerd to watch and support any and all sci fi, fantasy or geekdom approved content. I don’t feel that responsibility and I think that’s the greatest compliment for Doctor Who: when it started there was a dearth of content like it and now there’s a glut. Doctor Who, Star Trek, Star Wars and more fired up the imaginations and opened the minds of people for generations and some of the stuff those minds put out are right up my alley. That’s how this is supposed to work and I love and respect Doctor Who for that even if I don’t get excited when the TARDIS zips or zaps or TARDISes its way into an episode.
So, here’s the bottom line: “Deep Breath” is certainly Doctor Who. It’s probably especially good Doctor Who. There’s nuance and placement within history and precedent for the fans to debate but for the rest of us, nothing much has changed. There are going to be kids wearing bowties and fezzes wandering around for Halloween saying catchphrases that we will not recognize. There will be Daleks roaming around at comic conventions making Dalek noises and 90% of the people I know are going to be gushing or critical or gushingly-critical about this new series for the next few months. To all my Doctor Who friends, know that I love and support your fandom but that I’m other side of the glass looking in and I’m not alone. To all of my non-Doctor Who friends, don’t be jealous of their enthusiastic geekery, just tip your vaguely Dickensian hat to them as they pass and return your focus to your kind-of-hard-to-relate-to property of choice.
Erik Grove is a writer from Portland, OR. You can follow him on Twitter @erikgrove and check out his website for fictions, bloggery and coupons for discount socks. Please don’t pelt him with bow ties at comic book conventions.