Laurie Penny: The best future would be the one imagined by Doctor Who

Saturday 03 September 2011 00:00 BST

Thank God for Doctor Who.

When it disappeared from our screens in June, the television began to fill up with all sorts of frightening and upsetting things: riots, famine, economic meltdown and corrupt billionaire tycoons. The Doctor would not stand for any of this nonsense. "This," I thought as I watched Croydon burn on News 24, "would be a really good time for the Tardis to show up."

But it's all going to be ok now. For just over 50 minutes on Saturday nights, everything's going to be ok. These are nervous timesin Britain, and sometimes it seems that Doctor Who is the one thing you can really rely on. For a little while, we can stop worrying and get back to the really important questions, like: if you had a spaceship that could travel in time, would you go to 1938 and kill Hitler? Questions like: if your childhood friend turned out to be your long-lost daughter from the future, brainwashed by alien supervillains and trained to kill the saviour of humanity, what would you do? Well, what would you do?

Doctor Who is far more than a kids' show about a time traveller.Over three generations, 32 series and 11 leading actors, and especially since the show was re-imagined in 2005, the BBC's flagship drama has been the closest we come, on this godless little island, to a national act of devotion. Occasionally, you meet people who don't get excited when they hear the wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey whoosh of the Tardis, but they are a bit like cybermen: soulless and efficient, their humanity ripped out and encased in cold, clanking metal, and fundamentally not actually people at all. Right now, we need Doctor Who more than ever. In times of social crisis, when the world is frightening and unpredictable, stories about super-beings swooping down to save the human race from itself are reassuring. Hollywood has been pumping out superhero movies faster than Clark Kent can change in a phone booth; this summer alone, we've had Green Lantern, Thor, X-Men: First Class and Captain America.

Like all superheroes, Doctor Who is partly about national mythmaking. After a summer of scandal and civil unrest, The Doctor is fairly obviously how we'd still like to imagine ourselves, and certainly how we'd prefer the rest of the world to see us: tweedy, morally upright, loveably camp, much cleverer than everyone else, and quietly, planet-shakingly powerful, zooming around sorting out the world's problems but never making too much of a fuss about it. Unlike superhero movies, though, Doctor Who retains its sense of moral complexity. The Doctor is a pacifist, abhors violence, and is taken to task by his companions whenever he strays towards the sort of arrogance that might rip a hole in the space-time continuum. Doctor Who is also about imagining that the future can be wonderful. Scary, yes, and dangerous, and in need of saving, but wonderful. In the future that Doctor Who imagines, human beings have evolved beyond racial and sexual prejudice, advanced into space, and built libraries the size of planets and cities that can sail between stars and watching makes you believe that, if we are just brave and clever enough, we can get to that future. I've got my overnight bag packed for when the Doctor arrives to take me adventuring in time and space, but till then, we're going to have to go the long way round.

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