I occasionally get into robust discussions as to whether “Doctor Who” is or isn’t science fiction. A pretty important point, up there with global warming and the decline of the West, as I’m sure everyone will agree. I generally take the view that it is SF – more or less, give or take. After all, when the announcer said “And now, the BBC presents a new science fiction series…” was he pulling our legs?
Mind you, it certainly isn’t “hard” SF, at least in my humble opinion; but surely a programme about a time-travelling alien is either SF or fantasy, and IMHO Who has generally tended to emphasise the science rather than the fantasy side. At least, it did so when I used to watch it, back when dinosaurs roamed the Earth.
However, I may have to revise my opinion. I recently came across an interview in which a certain person said:
Traditionally, women aren’t the primary watchers of science fiction, so I’ve addressed this imbalance by filling the series with strong female characters.
My view is that Doctor Who fits very well into the science fiction genre – and that that shouldn’t be taken as in some way detracting from either the programme or the genre. Those who object that Who isn’t SF often say that this is because “the science isn’t the point” (and nor, they may add, are trivia like plot mechanics and self-consistent resolutions). However, this seems to me, at least, something of a straw-man attack. What they’re really saying is that they have read some SF and didn’t like it, they do like Who, therefore Who isn’t SF. QED.
However that seems a narrow view of SF, which is a hugely diverse field, encompassing many sub-genres. It has been, perhaps rightly, characterised as the most important literary movement of the 20th century; perhaps its defining literary form. Of course we aren’t very far into the 21st century as yet, but it looks as though that identification may continue to hold for the forseeable future (with perhaps a swerve towards the post-apocalyptic side of the genre after 2050…) It’s hard to come up with many significant events from the last century that haven’t had at least a passing connection with SF. Obviously one of the biggies was the Apollo moon landing, but also the nature of war, society, politics and religion in the 20th century were all influenced by, and commented on by, works of SF – the best known examples being “1984”, “We”, “Metropolis”, “Brave New World”, “Player Piano”, etc, but there are many others.
Also notable, by the way, is the way that SF has permeated into other genres that wouldn’t have given it the time of day 50 years ago. It is now perfectly respectable to make use of SF tropes if you are a mainstream author (Martin Amis’ “Time’s Arow”) or making a romantic comedy movie (e.g. “Peggy Sue got Married”).
Back in the mists of time, SF was seen as “geeky”. When Doris Lessing started writing it, for example, she found it a very enclosed, ghettoised field, snobbishly looked down upon by the literati. People would talk about it dismissively as being all about space ships and ray guns. And that attitude still clearly lingers in some quarters.
But the fact that Doctor Who is SF (if it is) isn’t something to be ashamed of. SF long ago came out of its ghetto, into mainstream literature and film and popular culture.
Doctor Who clearly has borrowings from many other genres, e.g. fantasy, horror, social comment, satire and so on. But SF that includes elements of other genres doesn’t stop being SF; no one would claim that “Alien” isn’t SF because it’s also a horror film, that “Foundation” isn’t SF because it’s based on “The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire,” or that “The Hitch-hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” isn’t SF because it’s full of humour and satire.
But does it really matter? So long as you enjoy watching the programme, who cares what label is hung on it?
Well, of course, that’s perfectly true. The problem of definitions only arises when you stop just enjoying the programme and try to discuss it with other people, perhaps on one of those new-fangled internet forums. At that point it does help to know what you’re talking about. To give a parallel, does it matter that we identify “Ozymandias” as a poem? Well, not unless someone starts claiming it isn’t. “It can’t be, because I don’t like poetry!” he might say – at which point he might find himself engaging in a robust debate.
Or perhaps the key component is the Doctor, and the other trappings largely irrelevant? It could, one might argue, equally well be set in the time of Marco Polo or the French Revolution, or even on someone’s back lawn with bizarrely shrunken heroes (are you taking notes, Mr Moffat?) – and it wouldn’t matter, because the key thing is the character of the Doctor, and what he represents.
Hmm. I must admit that stopping the Doctor being a 900-year old time-travelling alien and making him, say, own a bookshop in Paris is the 1920s might work. Making Sherlock Holmes Maori or James Bond female might work, too – but would it be the same programme? I must admit to having my doubts. I think too much of “what he is” comes from “what he can do,” personally.
But perhaps I’m misrepresenting the counter-argument here. As the Master said, he’s the Doctor, he makes people better. Does it matter that he does so in a world of SF trappings? The important thing is, as it were, the moral: if everyone thought “What would the Doctor do?” it would be a better world. Whether the science works or not doesn’t matter a jot.
This last point (about the science) is a view with which I broadly agree. In fact, my problems with “new Who” have been almost exclusively to do with the stories and characters; I care not a jot for the technobabble, so long as it’s embedded in a good story, which all too often it hasn’t been since that fabulous day in 2005…
But anyway, let’s see what the new showrunner has to say on the subject.
Doctor Who is not a show for beginners, it’s a show for people who really know what they are doing and who also really ‘get’ Sci-Fi. — Stephen Moffat
Yay! Thank you, Stephen!
Oh, but wait…
For me, Doctor Who literally is a fairy tale. It’s not really science fiction. It’s not set in space, it’s set under your bed. It’s at its best when it’s related to you, no matter what planet it’s set on. Every time it cleaves towards that, it’s very strong. Although it is watched by far more adults than children, there’s something fundamental in its DNA that makes it a children’s programme and it makes children of everyone who watches it. If you’re still a grown up by the end of that opening music, you’ve not been paying attention. — Stephen Moffat
Although, actually, I happen to agree. I think fairy tales have had a bad press (or should that be a too-good press?) since the Brothers Grimm and Disney got their bright, breeezy, sugar-coated hands on them. If Moffat is talking about the real thing, then I totally agree. Doctor Who at its best is a fairy tale which also happens to be SF.