Inspiration – Audience Participation in “Doctor Who”


I have to start this post with an entirely personal and subjective opinion – if you are not watching Doctor Who, or have never watched Doctor Who, do so immediately! I will try my best to avoid any spoilers here, but the show is so fantastically done nine times out of ten that it’s really a shame not to be familiar with at least a few episodes. This show shaped my college years and I would not be who I am now if I hadn’t have watched it, consumed it, and become part of its fan culture. There; take that as you will.

Doctor Who originally ran on BBC One from November 1963 until 1989, when it was pulled off the air. A full length movie was made in 1996, but was not very well received by critics and the property was, for the most part, left alone for a decade. Russell T Davies resurrected the Doctor in March of 2005, with Christopher Eccelston cast as the Doctor in his ninth regeneration and Billie Piper as Rose Tyler, the human girl who travels around with him on his mad, dangerous, wonderful adventures, in his ‘bigger on the inside’ blue police box. Since then, there have been three other actors taking on the mantel of the Doctor: David Tennant from 2005 to 2010, Matt Smith from 2010 to 2013, and most recently, Peter Capaldi.

The Doctors over the years, a minimalist representation by Araigen via DeviantArt
The Doctors over the years, a minimalist representation by Araigen via DeviantArt

All in all the show has been running for over fifty years now – a record untouched by any other television show. What is it about Doctor Who that has given it this longevity? A whole book exploring this question could be written, I’m sure, and it wouldn’t surprise me in the least to find that it had been written. But to me, one of the things that make the show infinitely interesting, challenging, and entertaining are the human (and sometimes non-human) companions with whom the Doctor always travels.

Almost exclusively female and human in the new series, the Doctor has always traveled with friends, human or alien, male or female, singularly or in a group. These companions, as they are called by fans of the show and in the show itself, help the Doctor in his quest to save lives, keep time and space intact, and have a cracking good time. It is in these companions that I think one of the main draws of the show lie. They are the Watson to his Sherlock, though to compare the Doctor to this anti-social genius detective may be unfair, depending on which Doctor you mean. The companions keep the Doctor grounded when he might otherwise fly off the handle; they help him investigate, ask questions he would never have thought to ask, and give him a reason to keep traveling. After all, over nine hundred years of having all of time and space open to you, the Doctor’s actually seen most everything worth seeing at this point; sharing these things with others if where he really gets a thrill.

The Doctor and Donna, one of his many companions
The Doctor and Donna, one of his many companions.

It is with these ordinary and extraordinary folks that the audience relates. The Doctor is an otherworldly being with power and perceptions unimaginable; but any of us, at any point in our lives, at any given moment, could be the Doctor’s companion. The show remains popular because the audience is able to connect to the whole universe of the story through these character conduits. Most of the companions are full-fleshed characters in their own right, certainly not blank slates which allow individual audience members to literally insert themselves into the story, but they also share common experiences with us. They have mum’s who nag them too much, exams to study for, relationships to sort out, and rent to pay. Doctor Who remains a successful show because it’s not really about the Doctor – it’s about each of us.

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Published by rsjeffrey

Robin Jeffrey was born in Cheyenne, Wyoming to a psychologist and a librarian, giving her a love of literature and a consuming interest in the inner workings of people’s minds.

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