Today’s FFC is going to take a look at a timeless classic, a character that, to me, brings out the absolute best in creative story telling. How heavily that assertion leans on the fact that the man is an eccentric, walking paradox, I’m not sure. Part of me likes to think that a good story requires a certain linear sensibility that doesn’t necessarily allow for the sort of chronological jumps, hints at foreknowledge, and chaotic tumbling that he, and therefore we as an audience, are accustomed to. But, impossibly, it works. It all works, the scattered events and threatening enemies and lurking dangers and unforgettable companions all spinning wildly out of control until somehow they coalesce around his brilliance and fall neatly into place like the Tardis nestling itself amidst the volatile energies of the time vortex. I am, of course, referring to The Doctor.
Doctor who? When you find out, let me know. Getting information out of him about who he is and where he comes from has apparently never been an easy task. We know he is the last of a race called the Time Lords, a race that he himself eradicated in the interest of preventing the literal end of the universe, and that whatever might have been his reasons and whatever might have been the circumstances, he carries a tremendous amount of repressed guilt over what occurred. We know that as a Time Lord, he occasionally regenerates as part of his natural life cycle or to avoid death, an occurrence which leaves him with a different appearance and personality traits that are subtly or not-so-subtly changed. And, we know that he has a fondness for the human race and believes that our capacity for goodness is worth preserving despite our terrifying capacity for evil. Now is probably a good time to point out that my relationship with this character doesn’t extend all the way to the beginning; I’ve only seen the updated incarnation of the show, and as of this writing I’ve only seen The Doctor as portrayed by Michael Eccleston, David Tennant, and Matt Smith.
But that’s been more than enough exposure to convince me that this is a character well worth discussion. His paradoxical qualities alone are enough to fill a textbook on how to write an interesting character. He’s a loner, yet it’s clear that he should never be alone lest he lose the most benevolent parts of himself to the flow of time. He’s a passionate fighter, yet always—always—finds the best way to preserve life and peace. There’s an entire universe full of beings who know, respect, and fear the name Doctor, all while he has yet to even throw a punch or pull the trigger of a gun.
It’s that last one that I think is my favorite aspect of The Doctor. Too often in pop culture, especially in the world of comics and science fiction, conflict resolution never finds its way out of the realm of physicality. It comes down to who can hit harder, who has better aim, or a better vehicle, or maybe just who gets angrier. But the reason that the very mention of The Doctor strikes fear into the hearts of the enemies of peace, the reason that entire alien civilizations formulate entire military strategies based on the mere possibility of his intervention, is not that he has a Superman-like skill set, a dominating physical presence, that can turn the tide of war. He isn’t bulletproof, he isn’t lightning fast, he can’t fly, and the only tool he owns that can be even remotely considered a weapon is something he calls a “screw driver.” In case you’re wondering, the screw driver does nothing lethal. What he does have is unparalleled knowledge of life in the universe, a complete and fundamental understanding of its technology, a sharp wit, natural brilliance, and about a thousand years of experience. Simply put, The Doctor is usually the smartest guy in the room by a light year.
His personalities—all of them, so far—fit what you usually expect to see out of an eccentric genius-type. His attention seems to flit from one thing to the next as he babbles on about intergalactic law, then reverse-engineering an atmospheric stabilization field, then cheese. But hidden under all of his endearing clown antics, idiosyncrasies, and bow ties is a razor sharp attention to detail and a brain that processes information at dumbfounding speeds. Just when you think he’s spent an episode absent-mindedly stumbling around behind enemy lines and inadvertently endangering the lives of everyone he cares about, the enemy force’s power shuts down, their shields malfunction, and three quarters of the infantry fall unconscious. That’s the fascinating thing about The Doctor’s pacifistic brand of combat. No one realizes they’ve made any mistakes until it’s too late to do a single thing about it, and The Doctor wins the battle with just a snap of his fingers, zero casualties, and the dramatic flare of Shakespearean comic relief. The events work in concert like a well orchestrated ball room dance, and when the music stops, everyone simply goes home.
Usually. The truth is that there’s something else buried under all that charismatic fluff as well, something less endearing and more terrifying—rage. The buried rage that naturally grows from living for a thousand years and seeing, feeling, and experiencing the most heartbreaking things as though they are not divided by past and future, but simply…are. All the time. “We’re all ghosts to you,” one of his companions has said. And despite his misgivings about the wisdom of seeing his situation in that particular light, it’s true. And it must be awful. And when he is confronted with a threat from something or someone not due to differing values but from intentional and personal malice, that something or someone gets an unfortunate glimpse of the level of anger that two hearts can hold. The Doctor, the most well-meaning, benevolent, and innocently charming person in the known universe, the man who refuses to use guns as an answer to anything, including direct threats to his own life and the lives of those he loves, does nevertheless not respond kindly to violence, or personal threats of violence. Threaten The Doctor and you will lose. Threaten his companions, and you’ll wish he had simply shot you dead. Which he won’t.
It would be easy for someone with his track record and capability get a little full of himself, and The Doctor would be the first to admit to wearing that particular character flaw on his sleeve from time to time. To be sure, he isn’t perfect. But then, no one who’s fascinating is. What he is for certain, though, is a hero. Even though he has Time Lord physiology on his side that grants him something just shy of immortality, it’s a small miracle he’s survived as long as he has. He takes danger head on, no matter the circumstances, no matter the odds, with an almost suicidal glee. I get the sense that this might be the result of putting on a brave face for his friends when push comes to shove, but that still wouldn’t change the fact that when trouble knocks, he’s the one who answers the door, leaping forward into the unknown with the reckless abandon of a kamikaze pilot and a single, possibly final word—usually, “Geronimo.”
Of course The Doctor is fascinating! He has the farthest reaches of time and space at his fingertips, he can shape the course of human history, he can show you things you never ever thought were possible just by whirling past in that tiny blue box that’s somehow bigger on the inside. He’s the most fascinating thing about the fascinating world he inhabits, yet somehow he finds genuine awe and wonder in the simple pleasure of a normal life, something that will always ironically elude him. He operates on the grandest of scales, yet firmly believes: “I’ve never met anyone who wasn’t important.” He encourages us to be the best version of ourselves, to wonder, to explore, to imagine, to reach for the impossible no matter how distant, unlikely, or dangerous it might seem. He keeps order in the universe entirely without force of arms, standing up for the weak and the oppressed and the invisible who the citizens of the universe take for granted. He is the fictional embodiment of compassion, reason, and the truest kind of freedom as he hurtles through time, showing us in true paradoxical form how much danger we’re all in…yet also how safe we always are. That, by itself, is grounds for induction into the Hero Hall of Fame, and makes for one of the truly great fascinating fictional characters of our time.