Doctor Who and the Art of Change

Change is a natural part of life that we all have to deal with. Change can really difficult to navigate, so can a TV give us better tools to manage the anxiety and grief surrounding change? (Note: this will contain very mild Doctor Who spoilers).

While many shows have dealt with change and the anxieties around it, Doctor Who might be the best example of a show on TV doing just that because change and loss are baked in to its premise. Many other shows certainly have those themes in them or deal with heavy topics in their own way but I don’t feel like any show does it nearly as well, and certainly nowhere near as optimistically, as sci-fi/fantasy wibbly-wobbly timey wimey show, Doctor Who.

In case you’re not aware of the sci fi juggernaut Doctor Who I’ll give you a quick run down on the most relevant information. Doctor Who is a show about a character who calls themself “The Doctor”. The Doctor is a Time Lord from a distant planet and their race, Time Lords, look like humans but have two hearts and can regenerate. This means that instead of dying, Time Lords simply transform in to another body and continue on their merry way. This transformation is not just a change of shape or face but one that often comes with profound differences in mental and emotional composition. There have been over 13 Doctors so this type of drastic but also natural change was originally conceived as a happy accident to continue the show but it’s now a cornerstone of the character. Along with The Doctor changing themself, they also often have companions or assistants that come and go with them on their adventures. Companions themselves can go through drastic changes after traveling in time and space, but mostly we’re going to be focusing on the Doctor in this piece.

Outside of the show, since it’s been running for over 50 years, the changes are sometimes even more dramatic than inside the show. Directors change, the lore changes, the actors change, the companions change, even the tone of the filming type changes. Sometimes those changes don’t go smoothly. The studio has ousted actors, directors, and writers before they were ready to go and those changes are felt like ripples through the show itself. In fact, every time the cast has changed, especially its title character, all of a sudden fans and the media decide its the end of the show or that the show will never be any good again. Once again I’ll reiterate for the crowd in the back, this is a show based on the fact that the title character changes instead of dying and they have done so over a baker’s dozen times at this point.

Now that we’ve gotten all that out of the way, how can a TV show about a time and space traveling alien help us cope with change and loss in our real world linear human lives?

In the best way possible! Doctor Who is a show that often focuses on changes over time both by means its longevity as a show and also because with a time machine you can jump ahead and see the results of any decisions made. The show is always showing us that change is just a part of life and it gives us many templates to help us move forward through those changes. First of all, the main character changes in the form of regeneration are treated as generally confusing at first for both The Doctor and anyone else who witnesses them. Often people react with not just confusion but anger, betrayal, fear, and even outright denial. Eventually though persuasion and acceptance these changes become  joyous both inside and outside the show.

One of the hardest transitions for example was from 10th to 11th Doctor. 10th Doctor had been the Doctor for 5 years and the media had basically thought that Doctor Who would be over because 10th Doctor had been such a big part of the show. Even the BBC worried that audiences wouldn’t accept the change. This bled through in to way that 10th Doctor was written off the show. He self-destructed his means of transport causing 11th to crash land at the beginning of the season. Does 11th Doctor wallow in his sadness? Absolutely not. He immediately embraces the chance to be someone new, to evolve in to something else, and he is excited to explore possibilities that take him away from his comfort zone. Not only does that set up the character to get away from the shadow of the last character but it also gives audiences a gentle push to accept change – which they obviously did as 11th Doctor is now held in good esteem by the fandom.

We all change over the course of our lives and it would be so much better if we all reacted more like the 11th Doctor when we find ourselves at a moment of change. When things change so drastically in our life that we cannot even recognize ourselves in the mirror, we should take that as a chance to explore who we are now and what we want in this moment, not in the past. 11th Doctor can’t go back to being 10th Doctor, so instead 11th Doctor spends his first night on Earth eating a variety of foods, trying to figure out what he likes now. Though it’s also interesting that he only changes his clothes from his old 10th Doctor outfit once he has a pretty good idea of who he is and what he wants to be. What a perfect metaphor for learning about ourselves in a new environment and then letting go of how we perceived ourselves when we’re ready. Allowing ourselves to alter our supposed wants and turn them in to a chance to figure out what we need instead. This point of view turns a possibly terrifying and alienating experience we wish we could stop to a chance for growth and self-discovery. A way to turn in to something better suited to where we find ourselves after a moment we can’t turn back from.

Each Doctor has struggled with regeneration in different ways but at the end of it all they have come out triumphantly to say that they were still the Doctor. Inside, their core values and morals are the same and they can recognize that even if everything has changed about them in ways other people may not like or understand, they can be true to themselves and find a way to move forward. Regeneration is an essential part of Time Lord culture and therefore these changes are not viewed as mistakes or missteps or even stops on a journey, they’re an embrace of where you are now and what you need to be in the moment. Many times in my life I have found myself at a place where I’ve wondered how I got there and wanted to go back to a previous version of myself, but it’s just not possible. We have to accept where we are and work to improve who we are now instead of wanting the past (even if we have a time machine).

In this way I believe that humans should try embracing a little more of the Doctor Who philosophy of regeneration. This ideal transformation where we can shed some of our old baggage that no longer suits us and give ourselves a chance to keep growing and changing. We will always be, in part, the things that we were before but we can’t let ourselves get too mired in them or we’ll never reach the heights and success of a ruddy British TV show.

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