Will Doctor Who get serious?

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Doctor Who: Peter Capaldi

Peter Capaldi, the new Doctor of Doctor Who

The new season of Doctor Who has given us the conclusion to a unique type of cliffhanger that only this show can provide: Who will be the new Doctor when he comes out of the other side of regeneration?

The Doctor has changed actors over a dozen times now, over the course of the TV series and one movie… a unique invention by the producers to replace the original Doctor, William Hartnell, when he was became too ill to continue the role.  With each change of actors has come a change of the character’s mannerisms as well, with the new actor bringing some of his own quirks to the role.  So, since 1965, we have been treated to thirteen men who have all been very different—and yet were always the same character.

And now it’s happened again, with Peter Capaldi taking over the role most recently vacated by Matt Smith.  As well, Smith’s manic, over-confident and endearingly bumbling man-child of a Doctor will be changed to suit Capaldi’s take on the role.  So what does that mean for the show… and for us?

I know what I hope it means: That Doctor Who will get just a bit more serious.  Not that I disliked the more light-hearted, frivolous take on the show—in fact, light-hearted and frivolous has pretty much been its stock and trade for… well, forever—but that, in the midst of a television world that seems to be either abandoning SF for superheroes and fantasy content, or obsessing about the Big Brother mythos, it would be nice to see Doctor Who show us some more serious science fiction material.

Doctor Who: Matt Smith

Matt Smith, the previous incarnation of the Doctor

Not that this show can be totally serious; it is, after all, about a Time Lord, a few-thousand-year-old alien that looks just like a human but has two hearts and regenerates instead of dies, flying around in a stolen relic of a time machine that’s bigger on the inside and allows him to communicate with any alien species as easily as talking to one of us, and provides him tools like a flashlight-sized “sonic screwdriver” that can do anything and a sheet of “psychic paper” that can look like any identification a person wants to see.  Oh, and he occasionally meets himself (and even multiple versions of himself at once), has saved races, planets and entire universes, married the Queen of England once, and has become known alternately as the galaxy’s savior and its scourge.  He’s essentially the most dangerous nigh-omnipotent space pirate the universe has ever known.

So, okay, maybe I’m not expecting serious science out of this show.  But I would like to see serious stories about more than two-dimensional bad guys like the Daleks, Cybermen, Weeping Angels, etc, etc, etc.  The new Doctor hints that he’s made mistakes in the past, and it’s time he changed that.  Bravo: Let’s see a man who travels through time, making changes to history as he goes, who actually cares about how it affects the future; let’s see fewer zombie-mannequins trying to make London even stiffer than it already is… and more challenges that will have serious implications for the future.  Less “timey-wimey,” and more time-and-space-related “concept” stories.

Most importantly, let’s see more characters that have serious dimension to them.  Doctor Who has a host of supplementary characters, but most of them can be summed up in half a sentence.  (New record: Clara=The Impossible Girl.)  Surely the single most complex character was River Song, daughter of two of the Doctor’s companions, kidnapped and raised by enemies to kill the Doctor, finally defeating her “programming” and even marrying the Doctor… but due to some perversity of time travel, always traveling in opposite temporal directions from the Doctor, meeting his younger self as she got older.  A series as potentially epic as Doctor Who should be meeting more epic characters like that, and fewer posturing maniacs like Davros and the Master.

And with these deeper characters should come deeper emotion, feelings that go beyond the usual surface level that tend to be characterized as “feels.”  The kind of stuff that made you think beyond the person on the screen, and reflect them against all of humanity.

When Doctor Who was originally conceived, it was supposed to provide a bit of historical education to its audience.  Maybe the latest season can provide an education into the real effects of one’s actions, into responsibility to a larger world, and into relationships that last longer than a season or two.  And a little historical education, maybe providing some useful perspective of more recent events, can’t hurt.

Anyway, that’s my list of what I’d like to see out of Doctor Who.  Will we get any of that?  Only—hey, you know I have to say it—only time will tell.

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