Time Lord at 50: ‘a triumph for brains and hope’

Doctor, doctor: Four incarnations of the Time Lord, from William Hartnell to David Tennant.

Doctor Who’s chaotic Time Lord has been saving humanity from cruelty and despotism for 50 years. Does his mixture of brains and benevolence make him the ultimate superhero?

He has travelled through millions of years and billions of light years, from the birth of the Milky Way to the final moments of the universe. He has died ten times, inhabited eleven bodies and battled 400 monsters and villains from around the galaxy. Now the hero of Doctor Who is celebrating his golden jubilee with an episode which producer Steven Moffat claims will ‘redefine the Doctor’.

The BBC has spared nothing in its efforts to give the Doctor a memorable 50th birthday. Saturday’s bumper 76-minute episode will feature favourite characters from several previous seasons and be broadcast simultaneously around the world to avoid plot details from leaking.

Why all this hype? Because Doctor Who is the longest-running and most successful science fiction series of all time. Despite a 16-year hiatus between 1989 and 2005, three generations have grown up watching the Doctor and loving him.

The Doctor has changed a lot during his first 50 years: every few years the time-travelling alien dies and regenerates into a new humanoid body, with a fresh actor taking on the role. Everything about him might be different, from his accent and physical appearance to his personal tics and tastes. And each new doctor invariably gathers his own set of helpers and companions.

Still, certain things about the Doctor have never changed. He is always accompanied by his trusty TARDIS, a time machine shaped like a 1960s police box. He is constantly mischievous, adventurous and chaotic. And his clownish persona always hides a superhuman wisdom and intellect.

But above all the Doctor has always been a benevolent force in a universe full of danger. He never carries a weapon and only resorts to violence in desperate circumstances, and his immortal life is devoted to protecting sentient beings from despotism and harm.

Rubbish, say less optimistic types: there is no guarantee that good will triumph or that things will turn out right, however positive your attitude. Doctor Who is a nice fantasy, but that is all it is.

The right medicine

Perhaps it is this combination of omniscience and compassion that makes the Doctor so loved. Energetic, endlessly curious and deeply moral, he is like a guardian angel bringing to Earth the message that humanity and the world are fundamentally good.

Some fans share this hopeful outlook: the world is a beautiful place, they say, whatever evils it holds. Live with a sense of generosity and adventure and you are guaranteed to witness wonders. That is the most important thing the Doctor can teach us.

You Decide

  1. If you could travel anywhere in time, where and when would you go?
  2. ‘Humans need to believe that the world is basically a good place.’ Do you agree?

Activities

  1. If you could make one fictional character a reality, who would it be? Discuss the question as a class and put it to a vote.
  2. Write a short story about time travel.

Some People Say...

“Good men don’t need rules.’The Eleventh Doctor”

What do you think?

Q & A

I’ve never been a fan of Doctor Who.
Fair enough. But there are plenty of heroes with similar qualities, from King Arthur to Superman. Why we are drawn to such characters is an interesting question.
Will I ever be able to time travel like the Doctor?
Some types of time travel are scientific fact: whenever you move, for instance, time moves more slowly for you than for an object that is standing still. But unless you travel incredibly fast the difference is so minuscule that you would never notice it. Besides, that would only take you forward in time relative to your surroundings, and few have much hope for moving backward. So no, you won’t ever own your own TARDIS – sorry!

Word Watch

The Doctor
Doctor Who is the title of the programme, but its hero is always known as ‘the Doctor’.
Time-travelling alien
The Doctor belongs to a species called Gallifreyans, who look like humans but have two hearts and can travel through time.
TARDIS
Stands for ‘Time and Relative Dimension In Space’. The TARDIS looks tiny from the outside but is spacious on the inside – a property that some scientists believe may actually be possible one day.
Police box
A small kiosk like a phone booth which can be used to call the emergency services and is sometimes manned by a police officer.
Despotism
Oppressive authoritarian rule. The Doctor has often been described as having a ‘libertarian’ streak; in other words, he is strongly opposed to authority.

Subjects

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