What is the appeal of Dr. Who?

Over the past few years, a number of friends have urged me to check out the most recent version of Dr. Who. I’m on holidays at the moment, and there are some Dr. Who DVDs where I’m staying.

I watched the first two episodes, starring Christopher Eccleston as the Ninth Doctor, and Billie Piper (who I previously knew from Secret Diary of a Call Girl).

I had low expectations. I’m on vacation, after all. But, seriously, both episodes were pretty awful.

Eccleston seems to be acting in an entirely different show–a 30’s vaudeville act?—than the rest of the cast. The dialogue is clunky in an early Star Trek vein, and rarely amusing. Speaking of Star Trek, the special effects look like they belong in The Next Generation, circa 1990. All in all, it felt like television from a different era.

I should interject here that I’m a sincere lover of plenty of British stuff, from Martin Amis to Father Ted. So this isn’t some New World bias.

What is the appeal of this show? Does it depend upon familiarity with earlier versions of the show? Is there a kind of intertextual dialogue that I’m totally missing? The second episode’s story draw from Douglas Adams’s Restaurant at the End of the Universe, but that’s the only reference I picked up.

It seems apt to compare the newest Dr. Who to the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica. I found the latter show consistently terrific–dark, contemporary and culturally relevant–without being dependent on its predecessor.

What am I missing about the good Doctor?


  1. I’ve been a fan of Doctor Who since high school and while I prefer the original series, I have enjoyed the new series as well. That said, I have no solid idea of why the show has found more mainstream popularity, especially in North America. The effects are better, the show is more action-oriented and things are more compact (mostly 1 hour stories versus the movie length stories in the original series); however, it’s still a rather esoteric SF series at heart.

    Eccleston’s version might not have been the best place to start in rying to understand why the show has become popular; he certainly got the ball rolling on the reboot, but I think it was David Tennant who took the show to more mainstream success.

    And ultimately, Darren, isn’t this all just a matter of personal taste? I seem to recall that you don’t get why people are gaga over “Mad Men” (a sentiment that I share — great production values, excellent cast, but it just doesn’t engage me like it does other people).

    1. In terms of preference in art, I think there are two things at work: aesthetic quality and personal taste. I can, for example, see the aesthetic qualities of “Mad Men” or “The Wire”, even though they’re not to my taste. I think we’ve got some culturally-agreed upon standards for what good acting, writing, directing and so forth are.

      I guess I didn’t see much aesthetic quality in “Dr. Who”. Much like, say, “Two and a Half Men”, it was hard for me to understand why somebody would like it.

  2. I only ever watched “Dr. Who” in the late ’70s and the turn of the ’80s. The special effects have always been legendarily cheesy, but at that time I didn’t care. Thing is, I didn’t care much for the show, either.

    What I *did* like was the novelizations, oddly enough. I used to go to White Dwarf Books out on the West Side with my dad (nerd family!) and pick up a stack of them at a time. Stripped of the visuals and the iffy acting and the having to wait between episodes (an entire story cycle would be in one book), the stories are surprisingly good, what appeals about them is that the Doctor solves problems with intellect, empathy, and logic, rather than just by blowing things up.

    Most of the novels I read were of the same era: the Tom Baker version of the Doctor, with the curly hair, big brown coat, and hugely long scarf. Having seen a few of his episodes, I was able to picture the character in a better setting.

    So really, the stories and the dialogue were good, but obscured by the production of the TV show. I have no idea whether that’s true today, since I’ve never watched the new ones or read any novelizations, if they exist.

  3. Funny thing is I’ve also started watching the new series as well after years of not knowing what the big deal was, and I have to say I’m a big fan now. I started with season 4 with the 10th doctor David Tennant and so far I haven’t been disappointed. The writing and acting are terrific, and I’m constantly amazed what can pass for a scifi set and props. In a good way. I think it’s unfair to compare US and Brit scifi because they’re really different.

    Currently watching the 1st season; the 9th doctor is grittier and subsequently less funny. I would skip ahead to “The Long Game” episode which I thought was pretty strong. Eccleston just doesn’t look comfortable in the role.

    I love how humanity and all its issues and stories are told in the most original way. It’s also a bit of a brain tease when the writers feature characters and story arcs from previous seasons and episodes that make you want to go back and watch them. But most of all, it’s about the doctor—despite how alien he is he’s really just like the rest of us, stumbling along in the universe with all his fears and his coping mechanisms… I mean idiosyncrasies.

  4. I think Doctor Who appeals to people who like the cheesey and “out there” stuff quite a bit. Doctor Who was never very consistant with it’s story telling and literally made it up as they “went along”.

    I think Eccelstone and the first series is a lot rougher than later episodes. They tried to re-connect to the craziness that was Silvester MacCoy (though he himself had toned down quite a bit from Tom Baker).

    In the end the appeal of Doctor Who for me is twofold:

    1. It is silly fun, which adds some very good writing in the later series and departs at times strongly from the cheesyness that was Doctor Who in the old days.
    2. The Audio adventures that are done by Big Finish (http://www.bigfinish.com) with the old doctors.

    In the end, like most things, it’s an acquired taste and really not for everyone, but if you want to keep trying I’d suggest to skip the first series and go straight to the Second.

    The fourth Series from last year is also a bit rough, mainly I think because they replaced both the Doctor and the companion and there are a lot of “huh?” moments in there as both characters sort of try to find out who they are and what they are supposed to do.

    Still though. The finale was quite splendid and I am looking forward to Season 5 later this month.

  5. Darren, you might want to try watching the episode “Blink” (10th episode of the third season of the reboot). It features less of The Doctor, but is a real high point for the show in terms of creativity and storytelling. It’s also quite unnerving and will have you looking at statues in a different light 🙂

  6. I’ve had numerous friends over the years try to convince me to watch Doctor Who and I always begged off.

    Then someone suggested I give Torchwood a try.

    Torchwood is also uneven in spots, and at times it is downright amateurish, but then there are episodes like “Meat”, “Captain Jack Harkness” and the Children of Earth miniseries that I watch over and over again.

    Thanks to Torchwood and Captain Jack, I went back and watched the Doctor Who episodes where Captain Jack was featured, and ended up having to watch other episodes that provided necessary back story, and lo and behold, I became a Doctor Who fan through the backdoor.

  7. It seems like most people are trying to find a way in which Doctor Who will become appealing to Darren, rather than answering the question: why do people find it appealing in the first place?

  8. No offense meant to the English but I usually don’t watch British tv shows with just a handful of exceptions. I find them a little boring.

  9. Chris Eccleston was a bit bad – try the Doctor after him (David Tennant). Waaaaay better.

    Also, Torchwood is a good recommendation as well.

    The thing is, some part of this is perhaps a cultural artefact of the time when you grew up. I watched the Doctor with my father as a kid. Are the stories cheesy? Sure. Suspension of disbelief is definitely required. But it’s a nostalgia piece for me – the old show I loved, but with new episodes.

    One recommendation – see the episode “Blink”. Classic Hitchcock-style Doctor Who. Highly recommended.

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