Day by day, the walls are closing in. 

Or at least they seem to be. Maybe it’s because I spend most of my online classes looking at my room displayed over my shoulder, shrunk down, like me, to a square on the top-left corner of my screen. 

But that’s not all. 

My phone swells with news notifications, emails and phone calls about Nov. 3, 2020. The fall semester Zooms forward to its bitter end, hurling assignments down at me like a never-ending air raid. 

The stresses pile up like towering trash heaps that grow taller and more unstable day by day. The walls are closing in. 

But I know a way out. 

In the small strip of purple, star-studded sky visible over the landfill that is 2020, a blue police box flies across the horizon. The trash piles melt away, along with the dirt beneath my feet. The police box, a time machine called the TARDIS (Time and Relative Dimension in Space), shoots towards me. Its doors open. And for 45 minutes, I’m free. 

***

Through the years, I’ve thought again and again that I’d grown out of “Doctor Who,” only to be yanked back whenever I needed it most. The show isn’t always great, I’ll admit, but there’s always something great about it. 

Every actor to take on The Doctor, an eternal being called a “Time Lord” who changes their face when their current body perishes (and the previous actor quits), does something fascinating with the role — The Doctor has lived for thousands of years, and the actors somehow express centuries of joy, trauma and knowledge in every scene, no matter how terribly written. The Doctor, like the show itself, changes on a dime from episode to episode: Sometimes they’re lighthearted, sometimes haunted, sometimes totally alien and sometimes deeply human.

Take the first season of the rebooted “Who,” which premiered in 2005. The Ninth Doctor, played by Christopher Eccelston (“The Leftovers”), is introduced when he saves a woman named Rose from living department store mannequins. “I’m The Doctor,” he says. “Run for your life.” 

It’s silly, right? The terrible special effects, even for 2005, don’t help much either. 

Yet, in an episode where the villain is an alien made of living plastic, there’s a moment powerful enough to bring tears to one’s eye. When Rose asks who he is, The Doctor says this:

“It’s like when you’re a kid, the first time they tell you that the world is turning and you just can’t quite believe it cause everything looks like it’s standing still. I can feel it … The turn of the earth. The ground beneath our feet is spinning at a thousand miles an hour. The entire planet is hurtling around the sun at sixty seven thousand miles an hour. And I can feel it. We’re falling through space, you and me, clinging to the skin of this tiny little world. And, if we let go … That’s who I am.”

That’s also the comfort of “Doctor Who”: The show is limitless, untethered from our world and its rules. The Doctor and his companions hurtle through space and time in a reliably unreliable time machine, looking for adventure. “Doctor Who” can be about anything. There are historical stories, horror stories, sci-fi stories, love stories and whatever this is. 

A given episode of “Doctor Who” can also be of any quality. In Season 5, for example, a deeply sad, Hugo-nominated episode about Vincent Van Gogh is sandwiched between an episode about lizard people living underground and another where the bad guy is a spaceship on autopilot, disguised as the upstairs room in an apartment. 

When any other popular franchise becomes utter trash, say Game of Thrones or Star Wars, everyone loses their minds. When “Doctor Who” throws out a dud, there’s always next week. Week by week, total shlock exists side by side with the very best TV has to offer. There’s nothing else like it.

Season 4 has an episode where Agatha Christie and The Doctor fight a giant alien wasp, and another, called “Turn Left,” where England becomes a fascist regime due to worldwide disaster and undocumented refugees are sent to concentration camps. 

“England for the English, etcetera,” one character says. “They can’t send us home … (so) they build labor camps.”

Labor camps,” another says, weeping, as the character is shoved into a truck. “That’s what they called them last time … It’s happening again.”

Released in 2008, yet somehow predicting the darkest implications of modern far-right nationalism, episodes like “Turn Left” sometimes make it seem like “Doctor Who” really does time travel. Yet there’s no magic to it; the show’s expansiveness allows for any writer to pilot the TARDIS, sometimes producing piercing political commentary, sometimes delightful escapism, sometimes total cheese or, at “Doctor Who”’s most striking, a mix of all three.  

The Daleks, villains who’ve fought the Doctor since 1963, are the most iconic example. They were radicalized in a never-ending war on their planet, and became fascist Dalek-supremacists, who believe that every other organism needs to be “exterminated.” As horrific as this ideology is, though, Daleks look like candy-colored pepper shakers, with weapons oddly similar to whisks and toilet plungers. 

“Doctor Who” is also unique as, every few seasons, its main character is killed off and replaced. Then, time and time again, after a gut-wrenching death, The Doctor becomes a stranger. Viewers are forced to accept and embrace change, even when it means losing someone they love. The Eleventh Doctor, played by Matt Smith (“The Crown”), exemplifies this just before his regeneration

“It all just disappears, doesn’t it? All you are, gone in a moment, like breath on a mirror. Any moment now, he’s coming, the Doctor. I am the Doctor, and I always will be. But times change and so must I … We all change. When you think about it, we’re all different people, all throughout our lives and that’s okay, that’s good, you gotta keep moving so long as you remember all the people that you used to be … I will not forget one line of this. Not one day. I swear. I will always remember when the Doctor was me.”

In “Doctor Who,” even at its most terrifying, adventure always triumphs over despair, the bad guys lose and the universe is always saved. Above all, things change. 

That’s why I’m back to watching “Doctor Who,” yet again, in the fall of 2020. Even at its worst, the show always has another surprise, or regeneration, up its sleeve. “Doctor Who” is an eternal reminder that there is a whole universe out there — without COVID-19, Donald Trump or Zoom calls, and things always get better. In a time when everything is uncertain and the walls seem to be closing in, it’s a relief to know that the TARDIS still sails through all of time and space. 

Most comforting are the Christmas episodes, where aliens frequently make the bizarre choice to invade on Christmas night, sometimes even using Christmas-themed tech such as Santa-Androids. The specials sometimes get quite dark (The Doctor has been killed and regenerated three times in Christmas episodes), but are always filled with white snow, English Evergreens glittering with ornaments and colorful presents. Thankfully, as 2020 draws to a close, the Doctor is back in the Revolution of The Daleks holiday special. 

Even if they have chosen to ruin Christmas with another invasion, the genocidal pepper shakers are still better than what we’re dealing with.

Daily Arts Writer Andrew Warrick can be reached at warricka@umich.edu.

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