I admit it; I’m a Star Trek fan. Not as much as my old housemate, though. He collected the videos, two episodes a time, of the original series, The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine, religiously, piling them up against one wall of his bedroom so that they almost reached the ceiling (at least, until the Great Videoquake of 1999). With no reliable access to the new series in the UK in the mid 1990s, thanks to the BBC’s treatment of Trek as a kid’s show, I would borrow these videos nightly to catch up.
I enjoyed virtually every episode I saw, although at times I can still hear Spock’s Brain and the Next Generation clunker Shades of Gray gobbling away merrily, such turkeys were they. I think this establishes my bona fides as a Star Trek fan, although I’d still object to the label Trekkie (much more to Trekker). If forced to choose, I’d probably take Star Trek episodes to a desert island with me over Babylon 5. I’d probably take them over Farscape as well. Given how few episodes were made I’d even leave Firefly behind in favor of a full run of any of the Kirk, Picard, or Sisko incarnations. But there is one science fiction series that would have me leaving the full Trek opus to sink beneath the waves as I rafted to shore with it: Doctor Who.
I am not alone in this view. Harlan Ellison, who wrote the magnificent Star Trek episode, The City on the Edge of Forever, was introduced to Doctor Who by science fiction author Michael Moorcock in 1975. He subsequently told an audience of sci-fi fans, “Star Wars is adolescent nonsense; Close Encounters is obscurantist drivel; Star Trek can turn your brains to puree of bat guano; and the greatest science fiction series of all time is Doctor Who! And I’ll take you all on, one-by-one or all in a bunch to back it up!” I think that might be going a tad too far, but let me explain my thinking.
For those who don’t know about it, Doctor Who started life in 1963, the day after Kennedy was shot, three years before the Enterprise first left space dock. It features “the Doctor,” a mysterious non-human figure with immense knowledge, a few inconsequential gadgets like a sonic screwdriver, and a ship that enables him to travel in time and space called the TARDIS. Handily, the Doctor also has the ability to regenerate into a slightly different persona rather than die when seriously harmed, which enables the show to continue when its lead actor moves on or retires and also allows the writers to take the show in new directions. Because we’re not meant to know too much about the Doctor, or his motivations, he is always accompanied by a fresh-faced ingénue of some sort, normally a pretty young girl (sometimes more than one) through whose eyes and actions we can experience the wonder and danger that traveling with the Doctor entail.
This plot device in itself gives us the first reason why I prefer Who to Trek. There are few figures in any Star Trek incarnation with whom the viewer can identify. Heroes abound, but the plot devices whereby the wonders of the 23rd or 24th Century Federation are revealed to the audience, are clunky at best. Sometimes we were asked to believe that a super-intelligent android who had managed to reach the rank of Lieutenant Commander in Star Fleet did not know some basic facts about life on board a starship. Other times we have to endure lectures, taking ignorant primitives whose ways are being corrected as our surrogates. The one time Trek did give us a figure whose naivety in the ways of the future could double for our own, they gave us Wesley Crusher. Enough said.
And those aforesaid lectures are an indication of another problem with Trek compared to Who. The Federation is, for the most part, viewed as a benign United Nations in space (just look at the emblem of the United Federation of Planets), which competently brings peace and reconciliation to the galaxy and succeeds through the selfish devotion of Star Fleet personnel to its ideals. The implication, of course, is that we are children and the Federation represents us when we’ve grown up. There will continue to be children, like the Klingon Worf, but they will be educated by Philosopher-Kings like Picard and their space therapists like Troi. It is no coincidence that in the best Trek episodes, the Federation is either irrelevant (Cause and Effect), left behind (the Klingon arc, most notably Redemption), or revealed as incapable (Best of Both Worlds). When the writers finally felt open to explore the realities of the Federation, after series creator Gene Roddenberry’s death, it was revealed to have a secret dark side in a compelling Deep Space Nine story arc. The background improved immeasurably as a result.
In Who, by contrast, there is no ideal, but the Doctor knows what he doesn’t like: tyranny. He wanders through space and time, blundering up against murderous despots, races, systems and even corporations and he brings them all down. Nor does he stick around to set up their replacement. He leaves that to the natives, according to their own traditions. He sometimes goes back to see what happened and is often disappointed, but he never imposes his own solution. When partnered with the real United Nations in the 1970s, he experienced frequent frustration and couldn’t wait to get away. To that extent the Doctor is a quintessential Tory Anarchist, suspicious of ideology but also intent to bring down the proud. One monster, Chedaki of the Kraals, even calls him a libertarian in the 1975 adventure, The Android Invasion. Imagine Ron Bailey with the power to travel through time and space.
Part of this worldview, we gather, may be due to his reaction to his people, the Time Lords. Theirs is an idealized society like the Federation, highly advanced (to the extent they have Stellar Engineers as well as control over time and a virtual reality representation of everything called, interestingly, The Matrix) and yet soulless. We learn first that The Doctor is a fugitive, who stole a TARDIS in frustration at the hidebound rules of his people. He then sometimes acts as an extremely unwilling agent for them in their policing of the laws of time. Later he reveals their society to be far from perfect– corrupt in fact. He is elected on several occasions to be their President, but always refuses the responsibility. Finally, in the new series, we learn that he was responsible for the deaths of every last one of them.
And this brings us to the Doctor’s dark side. Kirk was not averse to using his fists to solve problems. Picard would resort to the phaser banks when he had to (and always had Worf around to provide a strong arm). Commander Sisko in Deep Space Nine punched the super-alien Q to show how much tougher he was than Picard. The Doctor, however, abhors violence (apart from the slightly deranged Sixth Doctor), and yet death follows everywhere in his wake. Traveling with the Doctor is dangerous. Several companions have died, and one left the Doctor in revulsion at the carnage that surrounded him. This gives the show a sense of danger that is generally lacking from Trek. Indeed, several episodes should be more accurately described as horror rather than science fiction. The shows could be so atmospheric, even with the BBC’s legendarily cheap production values, that I myself hid behind the sofa as a child on more than one occasion. Generally this was when the cybermen appeared. These were humans cybernetically enhanced to be stronger and more resilient (and if that sounds familiar, yes, Doctor Who had the Borg 20 years before Trek).
Ah yes, those production values. To the casual viewer, Who has often looked cheap, because it was. Stephen Fry once joked that the BBC could make twenty Who monsters from a roll of bubble wrap (in fact, I think they did.) At other times, however, especially in episodes set in Earth’s past, the costumes and sets could look sumptuous. Yet it was the writing that set it apart. Robert Holmes, a frequent author, was the master of crafting supporting characters so interesting that the viewer invested as much in them as the protagonists. Douglas Adams, author of The Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy, brought his own unique brand of humor to the series.
Strong writing is also a hallmark of the show’s revival last year, this time backed up by real special effects. The main writer is Russell T Davies, who made his name with strong writing in controversial shows like the original BBC version of Queer As Folk, and he is backed up by writers like Mark Gatiss, who wrote the cult comedy hit The League of Gentlemen, and Paul Cornell, whose Doctor Who novels helped fill the time when the show was off the air, for this fan at least. The revived show has been excellent television, incorporating all the show’s traditional elements of mystery, danger, terror, wonder, and humor, along with a strengthening of the role of companion in the shape of Billie Piper’s Rose Tyler.
Although attractive, Rose is not eye candy in the manner of Trek’s Seven of Nine or T’Pol. She is an accurate characterization of how a self-confident young woman from London in 2005 would react to suddenly being whisked off for adventures in time and space. The Doctor’s first words to her, “Pleased to meet you, Rose. Run for your life!” accurately summarize what she will face – extreme danger in the company of a friend. Whether she is hanging from a barrage balloon during an air raid in 1940s London with, as she puts it, a Union Jack plastered all over her chest, facing the emotions associated with seeing her father who died when she was a babe in arms, or trying desperately to get back to the Doctor after he tricked her into returning to her own time in an effort to save her life, Rose never becomes unbelievable. Just as no Trek captain ever reached the characterization level of the Doctor, no supporting character in Trek has ever been as well-drawn as Rose.
I hope this brief summary might lead a few readers to try out The Doctor, if they haven’t encountered him before. If you like Trek, there is much to like in Doctor Who. If you don’t, perhaps Who’s different emphases will amuse or intrigue. And to come full circle, Rose herself is a Trek fan. When she meets another time traveler and has to think of an alias for her Time Lord friend, what does she call him? Mr. Spock.
– Iain Murray is director of projects and analysis and senior fellow in Energy, Science, and Technology at the Competitive Enterprise Institute.