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Popped Culture: Doctor Who – Why We Can All Learn From A 900-Year-Old Alien

Posted November 6, 2012 by Andy Gaffney in Ramp Lists

While the Department of Education spends the next eight years changing a test that means nothing, they could at least do the souls of our future kids a favour and add Doctor Who to the curriculum. Why? The show has the power to not just teach kids a little bit of history, but more importantly, get them interested. Take the stunning episode ‘Family of Blood’; it finished with The Doctor explaining, in a simple way, the origins of World War 1.

Now, of course, no one should gamble their thesis on the accuracy of Doctor Who, but the show also has a lovely habit of showing historical characters in a very cool light. From the likes of Dickens, Churchill and Agatha Christie fighting the baddies of the universe to a genuinely heartbreaking take on the brilliance and the depression of Vincent Van Gogh, it is impossible not to remember and want to know more about these characters. Granted, saying that a show that involves its hero bombing around in a time machine might occasionally teach a child about a pre-Sky+ world is fairly obvious, but Doctor Who has the power to teach an awful lot more.

Here are four lessons we could all take heed of.

1. ‘I wear it and I don’t care… that’s why it’s cool.’

As long it makes you happy, isn’t it brilliant?

Who could have guessed that by simply answering a bowtie-based question in order to distract a scared child from imminent death-by-land-shark that The Doctor would make it okay for you to do whatever the hell you want to do? And how many teachers could you say that about? Who cares if you want to grow your hair to your shoulder, show up to P.E. in a Glee t-shirt or play Planet Top Trumps in the yard instead of kicking a shaved tennis ball at an orphan’s face with the cool kids? As long it makes you happy, isn’t it brilliant?

Recommended Viewing: A Christmas Carol

2. ‘Oh, you never want to listen to reason’

Doctor Who makes you feel like anything is possible and that’s because at its core, it is all about escape.

Frankly, there is nothing worse than revealing an ambition to someone and having them look at you like you just said you wanted to shove a Mars bar up a unicorn’s hole. As people turn into robots who stay in jobs they hate because its ‘unrealistic’ to think they could do otherwise, maybe we need some sci-fi to help us along. While the very nature of fantasy is that anything can happen, from vampire-slaying cheerleaders to Christian Bale slaying dragons in Wicklow, there is something magical about how Doctor Who makes you feel like anything is possible and that’s because at its core, it is all about escape. Since the show’s return in 2005, every main companion’s motivation for leaving with The Doctor has been a chance to escape the dullness of everyday life and a yearning for something better. Even The Doctor himself started out by stealing the T.A.R.D.I.S. and running away from his people in the hope of adventure – which is what we looked for once upon a time before any sort of hope was beaten out of us. In a world capable of extreme cynicism, surely we need something that allows us all of the escape we want, even though in reality we can never hope to see a spaceship full of dinosaurs.

Recommended Viewing: The Lodger

3. ‘A fifty-first century guy, he’s a bit more flexible when it comes to dancing.’

When someone wants to throw ‘gay’ out as an insult, it will call up images of a hero blowing up evil space robots.

Throughout the era of showrunner Russell T. Davies, Doctor Who was often accused of having a gay agenda, mainly because a big family entertainment show had never before dealt with sexuality as well as Doctor Who. Well, that and the fact that he did kind of shoehorn in a few references when it was unnecessary.

The important thing about the show when it comes to gay characters is that they are not camp stereotypes. Take Captain Jack, a handsome bisexual time agent who throughout his time on Doctor Who and spin-off show Torchwood has had genuinely heart-wrenching same-sex relationships while also being the closest thing to Han Solo Doctor Who has had. Just last year, the show introduced the instantly classic Madame Vastra, who is a Victorian time travelling lesbian alien serial killer hunter. This not only meant that Downton Abbey was going to need a different series arc, but also that we got to see a female character who had the same level of charisma as womanising, whiskey-swilling Don Draper from Mad Men. This can be only be a good thing in the playground as not only are gay characters being introduced to kids at a young age, but when someone wants to throw ‘gay’ out as an insult it will call up images of a hero blowing up evil space robots and not whatever idiotic backwards notions went before.

Recommended Viewing: The Empty Child / The Doctor Dances

4. ‘This song is ending, but the story will never end’

Even when we are forced to say goodbye to The Doctor himself, there is always a sense that life goes on.

Relationships are great, aren’t they? It’s brilliant having someone there to a have a pint with on a cold winter’s night, someone to tell you that you don’t resemble Ronan Keating’s just-pulled-from-the-water cadaver. However, for every happy relationship, there is one that is slowly and painfully coming to an end. Romantic comedies, as brilliant as they are, predominantly teach us that the way to deal with heartbreak is to sit around in our own filth and eat ice-cream in a zombified state while feeling worthless about ourselves.

The reality is, of course, that things do get better and no matter how rubbish things are there is always something new just around the corner. Just recently, Doctor Who said a sad goodbye to the brilliant Karen Gillan and Arthur Darvil who have been a part of the show since Matt Smith’s arrival in 2010. Yes, we thought they were brilliant and may have cried like a lonely forty-year-old at a wedding when they left, but the point here isn’t about whether you loved the characters or not, it’s that endings are a huge part of Doctor Who. Just as the idea of escaping the everyday is constantly present in the stories of the companions, so is the idea that it can’t last forever. Likewise, in what started out as a nice way of removing a lead actor while keeping the character, the idea that The Doctor doesn’t die but regenerates into a different person is probably up there with the Daleks as the most famous aspect of the show. Even when we are forced to say goodbye to companion after companion, and occasionally The Doctor himself, there is always a sense that life goes on, that nothing ends for good, and that is a notion we could all take on board.


We genuinely believe that if someone were to study Doctor Who, instead of wasting time on, say, an actual medical degree, they could find advice about everything. Take throwaway lines about everything from being nervous and shaky for your first kiss: ‘It’s going to be like that anyway, so you might as well make it part of the plan’, to essentially how to act on social media: ‘Never knowingly be serious’.

There is also one overarching lesson that can be taken from the show and that is, to quote Pugwash, it’s good to be good. In its fifty odd years on screen Doctor Who has been a show about someone always doing good. Sure, a lot of it with rubbish special effects, but never being anything close to cynical. In a self-obsessed dark world, surely we could all learn from The Doctor and his adventures?

About the Author

Andy Gaffney

  • http://www.lisamcinerney.com Lisa McInerney

    Doctor Who has a lot of heart and it makes brilliant family viewing, so this gets a thumbs-up from me.

    However, I have to say I’m glad to see the back of that awful Pond creature (pun intended). I thought she dragged the whole show down – she was stoppy, abusive, unpleasant and frequently violent. I don’t want my kid thinking that every time she has a disagreement with a man, it’s ok to slap him. Because it isn’t. ‘The Girl Who Waited’ was almost unwatchable for this reason – I genuinely have no idea how anyone could have thought that was touching, considering Auton Rory managed to wait two millennia without making half as much bones about it.

    River is almost as bad, plus the fact that she changed from this fantastically badass woman to this lovestruck, selfish little girl last season is actually depressing.

    Hopefully New Companion Girl will help change all this, but in her first outing she was just too hideously annoying for me. I’ll keep my fingers crossed.

    Also, I think I’m the only person on the planet who hated that Van Gogh episode. I thought it was ultimately disrespectful to the man’s legacy. “Oh wait, he’s not mad, he sees Terrible Beasties for realz, and all he needs is to have his head turned by a Scottish woman. Yay! Art!” Actually, they did the same thing with Agatha Christie’s disappearance. “She didn’t have a breakdown – she just has, like, alien stuff to do.” I don’t know, I’m not altogether comfortable with fiddling with real people’s history.

    • Will Fitzgerald

      How do you even enjoy half the episodes?!
      I would be honoured to have my history tampered with by The Doctor.

      But yeah, that Amy Pond was a hot mess I’m glad to see the back of.

      • http://www.lisamcinerney.com Lisa McInerney

        Hey, I love seeing historical characters having wot-larks in the show, but I am touchy about rewriting mental health issues to make out that it-woz-the-aliens-wot-done-it.

        We’re trying to make mental illness more acceptable and less stigmatised at the moment, so I’m not altogether comfortable with kids maybe thinking it doesn’t really exist, but is merely a symptom of supernatural/extraterrestrial goings-on.

        • Will Fitzgerald

          See, I think they actually handled that beautifully in Vincent and the Doctor.

          Spoiler alert for anyone who hasn’t seen a two year old episode (or 122 years old, depending on your point of view)

          The message wasn’t aliens made him crazy, it was clear he suffered from depression. He still killed himself after they solved the alien problem and the Doctor showed him how valued his work was. And that was heartbreaking.

          • http://www.lisamcinerney.com Lisa McInerney

            Yes – they at least didn’t change the real life ending to Van Gogh’s story, but still, to come away thinking, “Well, at least they didn’t change the real life ending” is rather a small mercy. I disagree that it was handled beautifully. I love to see the fantastical brought into real life and I love the fact that we use allegory and metaphor to both cushion and explain real trials, but tinkering with aspects of characters that are defined by mental illness just doesn’t sit right with me.

            I think it’s a sour note in an otherwise fairly admirable kids’ parable, really. I mean, it’s like the counterpoint to Andy’s point about how the show tackles homosexuality. Not to say that people with mental health issues can’t be heroes, but it rather takes away from a reality that kids and their families can be suffering from in real life. A bit too close to sugar-coating.

            But hey, it’s a personal niggle. As I said above, I think I’m the only person who didn’t like that Van Gogh episode; everyone else seems to have been enchanted by it.

          • http://twitter.com/ElleEmSee Laura

            That bit when The Doctor showed him how valued he was actually broke my heart in two. It may have simply been the performance of the man playing Van Gogh or I’m a sucker for Richard Curtis sop but I burst into tears during that part.

        • http://www.emesq.com/ Colm

          I thought the Van Gogh one was pretty good for this. They saved him from the out-in-the-world monster, and then it turned out that he killed himself anyway, because helping someone isn’t always that simple. I aren’t seen the Christie one.

    • http://twitter.com/SerialBlogamist Catherine C

      I’m coming to the end of the David Tenant episodes – you’re making me not want to go beyond that :(

      • http://www.lisamcinerney.com Lisa McInerney

        Some people love Pond, in fairness. You might be one.

        Personally, I think Rory and (90% of) River make up for it. Plus, Matt Smith is rather fantastic as The Doctor. I prefer him to Tennant in the role (I do have a soft spot for Tennant generally).

        There are some genuinely great episodes in Eleven’s domain. Honestly – you’ll be grand!

  • Sinéad

    Mmmf. Tennant regenerating.

    That picture of Idris and the doc got me right in the feels as well. And when she thinks her name is ‘Sexy’… teehee, aww.

    I loved this.

  • Will Fitzgerald

    ‎”An unintelligent enemy is far less dangerous than an intelligent one, Jamie. Just act stupid. Do you think you can manage that?” – The Second Doctor

    “Courage isn’t just a matter of not being frightened, you know. It’s being afraid and doing what you have to do anyway.” – The Third Doctor

    The Doctor = life coach

  • http://www.facebook.com/mariedromey Marie Dromey

    If one were to start watching Dorctor Who, where should they start? :)

    • http://www.lisamcinerney.com Lisa McInerney

      Tom Baker falling off a satellite dish.

      BUT FOR SERIOUS you’re probably as well off starting with the Ninth Doctor from the 2005 revival. Think the first of those episodes is called ‘Rose’. Though whether or not you’re able for that much Billie Piper is up to you. She goes right into the realm of the Tenth Doctor, so you’re kind of stuck with her.

      Do NOT miss the Donna Noble/Tenth Doctor arc. She’s the best of the modern companions, in this viewer’s opinion. The ending to her storyline is actually heartbreaking.

      By the time you finish with Nine and Ten, Eleven will come as a blessed relief from all the gurning. So. Much. Gurning.

      • http://twitter.com/ElleEmSee Laura

        Donna for the feckin win. She really was the best companion

  • http://twitter.com/ToeMcD Tony McDermot

    I’m not a Doctor Who fan, and anybody who knows me will attest to the fact that I’ve always maintained that it’s utter nonsense wrapped in charm.

    However, the two-parter Human Nature/Family of Blood is extremely well-written, well-acted and well-realised. I’d recommend that to anybody.

    Also, Matt Smith’s Doctor is the best of the modern incarnations. Tennant be damned.

  • http://twitter.com/ElleEmSee Laura

    I really, really loved this Andy. Write more!

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