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

Marshall Lemon | 3 Sep 2014 12:30
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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.


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