One show to rule them all: why Doctor Who is the greatest thing on TV

Concluding our 31-day countdown to the new series (just one more sleep, people!) Paul Kirkley rounds up everything that makes Doctor Who number one, first among equals, the cream of the crop, the king of the hill and, well, generally brilliant

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“If you care anything about stories or words or jokes or history or romance or Britain or childhood or humanity or imagination, there’s really no reason why Doctor Who shouldn’t be your favourite show…”

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It’s for everyone

Doctor Who was once described by the great television writer Robert Holmes as being “more like Sherlock Holmes than Dan Dare”. What he meant was it isn’t strictly a science-fiction show, in so much as it isn’t about spaceships and laser guns and aliens called things like To’k K-Ha’ataar. Well, except when it is about those things. But Doctor Who is just as likely to be set in Perivale, the Palace of Versailles or a department store…

Trying to define which genre Doctor Who does belong in is like trying to pin a rainbow on a unicorn. Because the answer, at the end of the day, is all of them. What other programme re-builds itself from the ground up virtually every week? New story, new setting, new locations, new cast.

And it’s not just that the Doctor can physically go anywhere at any time – it’s the only show on television that fundamentally changes what it is from story to story. Sometimes it’s horror, sometimes it’s historical adventure, sometimes it’s romance and, yes, sometimes it’s sci-fi.

And okay, while this constant rearranging of the furniture means it can be a bit of a quality control rollercoaster at times, there’s always the knowledge that, if you didn’t much care for this week’s episode, next week’s will probably be brilliant. And whatever happens, you’re guaranteed the show is never, ever dull or predictable.


It makes the ordinary extraordinary

Doctor Who is surely unique in the way it contrasts the domestic with the fantastic – what Third Doctor Jon Pertwee called the “Yeti on a loo in Tooting Bec” effect. Who else but the Doctor, for example, would combine exploring a mysterious underground cavern on a far-flung planet orbiting an impossible black hole with chit-chat about the EastEnders Christmas special? Or shuffle about to Soft Cell records in the year 5 Billion? Or use the universe’s most advanced space and time ship to watch TV programmes he’s missed because he can’t work out how to use iPlayer?

No-one, that’s who.


It’s scary!

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Current showrunner Steven Moffat once said: “Other sci-fi shows take place in outer space; Doctor Who takes place under your bed.” And it’s true: it’s hard-wired into the British public’s race memory to talk in terms of being terrified by the Daleks and, that old chestnut, “hiding behind the sofa” – emotions and actions you’d more readily associate with horror films than the shiny space rockets and jet-packs of sci-fi. The late clean-up TV campaigner Mary Whitehouse once described Doctor Who as “teatime brutality for tots”. Though, weirdly, she thought this was a bad thing.

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