Doctor Who proves that sci-fi doesn’t have to be devoid of optimism, even when it seems like the real world is.
For seven seasons, the new series of Doctor Who has been a series that dealt largely in optimism. Matt Smith publicly stated that The Doctor’s positive nature was his favorite part of the character, and proclaimed it outright as the Eleventh Doctor in season six. “I am and always will be the optimist. The hoper of far-flung hopes and the dreamer of improbable dreams.”
But in season eight, hope is a trend we may be moving away from. Early reports suggest that Peter Capaldi’s run as The Doctor will be darker than we’ve seen before, with the character becoming a frustrated optimist in a seemingly bleak universe. Not that The Doctor hasn’t addressed dark issues and harsh realities before; after all, the final fate of humanity is apparently to be transformed into sociopathic cyborgs at the end of time. But Doctor Who has always balanced the dark with light, suggesting that good isn’t meaningless just because bad things happen in the world.
We’ll have to see how the Twelfth Doctor turns out, but moving away from the show’s hopeful roots might be problematic. The issue isn’t taking Doctor Who into new territory, it’s that Doctor Who filled a gap in optimistic science fiction that had been empty since Star Trek‘s television height. In fact, I suspect a major reason Doctor Who‘s revitalization succeeded was because it said something positive, introducing a sci-fi vision that didn’t reflect a grim and dour outlook.
To understand why, we need to look back at the history of televised science fiction. In the late 90s Star Trek was the undisputed king of the genre, and each series was heavily rooted in optimism. Take away Star Trek‘s warp drives, alien races, and Vulcan neck pinches, and what you’re left with is a vindication that humankind can overcome anything. Using a little technological ingenuity and honest effort, we could one day surpass our base nature and become a true force for good in the universe. For Clinton-era audiences, it was a powerful sentiment that made The Next Generation and Voyager pop culture phenomenons, and kept the darker Deep Space Nine from breaking similar ground. It’s also why fans were so excited that Enterprise would launch in the new millennium, extending the concept to an earlier century.
Except Star Trek: Enterprise premiered in September of 2001, mere weeks after the World Trade Center attacks.
As North America and the entire world reeled from September 11th, Enterprise presented a vision rooted in the 90s optimism. As the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq ramped up, Enterprise said we would find peaceful solutions. As the world became a much darker place, Enterprise said exploration and a positive attitude would solve our problems. It took two full years for Enterprise to address the shock and anger of the terror attacks (see the season two finale “The Expanse”) but by that point it was too late. Enterprise is now largely remembered as the Star Trek series that killed its future television prospects, leaving the franchise in the realm of action movies.
It was in this environment that the rebooted Battlestar Galactica took hold, reflecting the darker world we seemed to live in. Its very first episode presented the near-extinction of humanity, and went on to explore the decade’s most pressing issues: Terrorism, abuses of authority, loss of civil liberties, and many more. Friendly alien races were replaced with Cylons, representing an inability to recognize our true enemies. More importantly, Battlestar Galactica‘s characters dealt in moral shades of gray, with villains who were sympathetic and heroes who did horrible things to preserve the peace.
Perhaps the most stark difference between Star Trek and Battlestar Galactica was simply how each series presented outer space. In Star Trek, space was the final frontier of human exploration. Its opening credits showed gorgeous vistas ripe with possibility, while the episodes themselves implied opportunity lay on every planet. Alien civilizations populated the entire galaxy, even in the distant Delta and Gamma Quadrants. And while threats certainly existed, like the Romulans or the Borg, it was possible to resolve them to most people’s satisfaction.
But in Battlestar Galactica? Space is an absence. It’s a vast, empty void that emphasizes the lonely, precarious nature of human existence. Journeys to other worlds are filled with risks and consequences, and making a wrong FTL jump calculation could kill you instantly. The only traces of other civilizations are from those long dead, while hostile Cylons are the sole non-human species to be encountered. Nobody travels space to satisfy a healthy spirit of exploration; if space is traveled at all, it is for some rare scrap of knowledge to help humanity survive.
At the time, Battlestar Galactica was considered the more realistic sci-fi approach. But if we’re being honest, it’s really just another extreme. Outer space is filled with equal parts wonder and terror, with hostile environments and wondrous possibilities, with dangers and fantastic mysteries. It’s a balance that neither Star Trek nor Battlestar Galactica managed to quite portray, each emphasizing either the positive or negative aspects of space exploration. And the viewers probably knew it too, especially when the world changed again. Barack Obama was elected President with a message of hope. Scientific minds like Neil deGrasse Tyson became pop culture icons. And in the world of sci-fi, Doctor Who surged to the forefront of the popular consciousness.
The revitalized Doctor Who returned us to a realm of sci-fi optimism, but not one that was simplistic or careless. Humans are still a small speck in a universe filled with countless threats that would annihilate them, be it Daleks, Cybermen, or others. Distant worlds knew of a war that drove countless species, including the Time Lords, to extinction. In almost every episode, innocent people are killed by unfeeling enemies, sometimes because even the legendary Doctor couldn’t save them, or sometimes because they’re destined to. And that’s not even getting into classic Doctor Who episodes, like Peter Davidson’s run and its phenomenal body count.
But despite it all, The Doctor still deals in hope. He overcomes impossible problems with ingenious solutions. He doesn’t give up in the face of adversity. He seeks out the wonder of the universe in spite of the terrors he always encounters. And most importantly, he believes in the goodness of humanity, even when we stumble. The universe’s horror doesn’t seem to undercut that belief: in fact, he even suggests that it is the universe’s cruelty which makes human kindness and ingenuity all the more precious and unique.
It’s an incredible balancing act that resonated strongly with an audience tired of darkness, both within its science-fiction and the world. It’s a message that meant enough to fans that the renewed Doctor Who could carry on for almost ten years, where the Battlestar Galactica reboot collapsed on itself in four. It’s a message that Star Trek hasn’t quite been able to return to, with its Abramsverse using bleak realities to build its new fanbase.
But Doctor Who? It’s always been dark, but just so we can appreciate the light.