With series 8 of Doctor Who having aired recently (and so far, it’s off to a decent start), I decided it was high time to take a look at this classic show – well, renewed, really – and see what makes it arguably the saddest show on television. And I don’t mean saddest as in pathetic. I mean saddest as in bawling like a baby.
I started watching Doctor Who rather late, and I started with the renewed series rather than the classic one. That’s where the primary focus of this article will be as well, largely because the modern Whovian fanbase is due, at least in part, to the renewed series (both despite and because of Moffat). For those who came in late, the Doctor is the last of a race known as Time Lords. He’s essentially an immortal alien who can travel through space and time, and he constantly saves humanity (among other races) from destruction.
A World of Stories
“We’re all stories, in the end.” – The Doctor, Season 5, Episode 13
Stories require certain elements to be intriguing, as your basic English course may have taught you. Understandable plots, relatable or interesting characters, compelling conflict, and enough other ingredients to make even the most expert chef toss his hands in the air and order takeout – the list goes on. When the elements work in tandem – work well in tandem – we the audience can find ourselves immersed in the story. Granted, a large part of enjoyment still boils down to our subjective tastes, but there’s no accounting for that. We can just upgrade everyone who disagrees with us, right?
Stories don’t have to be grand and far-reaching to captivate us. They don’t have to span all of time and space. They just have to strike an emotional cord that resonates with a person or two. More often than not, Doctor Who manages to do this, and it does it well.
The scope of Doctor Who allows it to tread where few other widely known shows can. It manages to cover both the entire universe, or every universe, and the comparatively smaller but no less significant emotional journey of a single human and/or an ancient Time Lord. This is what gives the show its great potential for comedy, drama, and tragedy.
The Oldest Fear In The Universe
“I’m burning up a sun just to say goodbye.” – The Doctor, Season 2, Episode 13
All of that is very well and good, but it doesn’t in any way lead to the conclusion I made earlier – that Doctor Who could well be the saddest show on television. Well, what’s the biggest fear we have regarding our favorite fictional characters (in their universe, that is, and fanfiction notwithstanding)? Whether moral heroes like…um…you know, that one guy…in that movie…yeah. Okay, so we don’t see any moral heroes anymore. Let’s try that thought again.
We all have our favorite characters, like Walter White, Frank Underwood, Piper Chapman, Clementine, Mufasa – the list is longer than a Victor Hugo novel. And, when these characters are good, we generally are upset to see them suffer. We grow attached to them as we accompany them on their emotional arc. That arc can, at times, be powerful. Doctor Who takes the epitomes of happiness from the simplest of human connections. We may not know how the Doctor himself feels about most of his companions – whether he likes them, loves them, needs them – and perhaps we shouldn’t know. After all, the Doctor is a roughly immortal alien, a madman with a box. He doesn’t have an ending (whether due to money or lore, take your pick), yet endings are an essential aspect of the show.
This balance of good and bad, beginnings and endings, and an eternal flame of optimism in a sea of sadness are all inherent themes of the show. In a standard movie, and even most shows, the biggest fear we feel for the main characters is death – the philosophy of whether death is an ending or not is a topic for your college philosophy class (though the latest season of Doctor Who appears to have an opinion on that).
But for the Doctor and his companions, the biggest fear is change, not death. And since change is an inevitability while death (at least in entertainment) is a possibility, it is change that becomes even more frightening. Our favorite settings, characters, and, ultimately, even the Doctor himself cannot escape its relentless march, as his regenerations change him into a different person.
The Little Ways In Which We Matter
“In 900 years of time and space, I’ve never met anyone who wasn’t important.” – The Doctor, Season 6, Christmas Special.
Doctor Who has a way of making everyone feel important (except when it sidelines characters, but let’s stay positive). As we travel through time and space with them, it’s nearly impossible not to grow attached, even for the most hardcore Whovians. Seeing the 10th Doctor look into the camera and say he didn’t want to go caused many tears to fall.
The choice of words there again testifies to why Doctor Who has a running shot at being the saddest show. The Doctor was afraid to go, not to die. For a being like him, death might well be a mercy. A man who had to annihilate his own people along with their worst enemy, only to have that enemy return time and time again; a man who traveled around the universe not to save it but to see it; a man who inspired a sense of goodness in others so powerful that it frequently led to their demise; a man who must surrender his companions just as he grows closest to them – for such a man, life would seem to be an unending cycle of pain and misery. Doctor Who could very easily depress its viewers every episode instead of during season finales. To the Doctor, it would seem impossible that we humans could be anything other than raindrops in a storm.
And yet that isn’t how the Doctor sees us at all. We’re all giants, we’re all important. The show adamantly maintains that each one of those falling raindrops is its own world. Each one is brilliant. And while, like the Doctor’s companions, people may come in and out of our lives, like the Doctor himself, we’ll never forget how they changed us.
The Meaning Of It All
“Time changes, and so must I…we all change. When you think about it, we are all different people, all through our lives. And that’s okay, that’s good! You’ve gotta keep moving, so long as you remember all the people you used to be.” – The Doctor, Season 7, Christmas Special
Change is saddening. It’s scary because it’s new, uncertain, and yet it’s something we do all our lives without even realizing it.
But it’s important to remember that change is not an ending. It’s just the beginning of a new journey.
“I always rip out the last page of a book; then it doesn’t have to end. I hate endings.” – The Doctor, Season 7, Episode 5