Movies and TV
Everybody Lives: How Doctor Who Saved Science Fiction From Pessimism

Marshall Lemon | 3 Sep 2014 12:30
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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.

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