Doctor Who: Sci Fi or Fantasy?

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Is Doctor Who more than just a science fiction series? Guest contributor Josh Oren investigates.

Undoubtedly, if you’re reading this, it’s because you’re a regular attendee of this site and you have something that everyone here has in common: the love of Doctor Who. Maybe you stumbled upon the show one day unexpectedly and fell in love once the credits rolled, or maybe a friend recommended it to you. Either way, I’m sure you’ve been on the other end of the latter; You’ve tried recommending it to another friend. How did you try describing it to them? From my experience and what my other Whovian friends have said, we’ve tried describing it along the lines of this: “Well, it’s about this alien that travels through time and space with a police box”. While you may feel odd as you just realised you’re friend may find that description downright silly, you’ve explained the bare-bone genre of the show: science fiction. But as you delve deeper into the series, you start to see more genres involved. And, quite arguably, you’ll see plenty of fantasy elements as well. So is the show sci-fi, or fantasy?

Any Whovian can tell you the show is obviously founded on the basis of science fiction, where we first see the TARDIS in a junkyard and then see it go back in time to the stone ages in the next episode. Although it isn’t clearly explained how this police box can do so, they mention that it’s a space ship that can travel not only in space, but in time as well. Later on in the series, the show tries to establish an extensive explanation as to how some of the science aspects (such as time travel) are possible. They try to explain it in detail, like any good sci-fi story would, but in the end it requires the viewers to have a willing suspension of disbelief and accept the fact that this is possible within the realm of the show, which is nothing different compared to the likes of a fantasy story where magic is involved. While Doctor Who does have science fiction as it’s basic genre, it doesn’t always stick to it, nor constrict itself exclusively to it.

Some have argued that Doctor Who is more of a fantasy, as fantasy is usually known for stories containing supernatural phenomenons or elements of magic. Now, you don’t outright see the Doctor casting magic spells like he came fresh out of Hogwarts, but the basis of Doctor Who is that you have a madman in a box who travels from place to place with his companion(s), whether it’d be Gallifrey or Earth. Although the details of the TARDIS being able to travel in time and space, while also being bigger on the inside, is explained to the best of the writer’s ability, the science of it is still left at a point of ambiguity that requires a supernatural belief that it can just happen because of the made up science that was explained. We’re expected to believe that this man can get into a blue box and go anywhere he wants, and we all have accepted that notion and haven’t complained about it all that much. In fact, we all love it!

Let’s take a look at Neil Gaiman’s episode, “The Doctor’s Wife”. It had some elements of fantasy, such as the glowing golden aura being the TARDIS’s persona, (which Gaiman had tried to explain in a sci-fi format as being the “TARDIS’ matrix”), a big sentient essence within a planet taking possession of the TARDIS,the Doctor and Idris building another TARDIS out of scrap pieces of other time capsules, and more. Although various fans have complained about “too much fantasy” being involved, it worked out very well in the show, and didn’t hinder the story at all nor did it harm the series canonicity in any way.

Another element of fantasy that I’m sure we’ve all come across and enjoyed is one of the backbones of Doctor Who: Regeneration! There have been many times that parts of the regeneration process has been explained a little bit, which I love to find out. But yet again, it isn’t fully explained. Much of it is still a mystery, and after a while, the viewer comes to accept that a Time Lord can do such a thing (with some flashy spectacle to boot!), and in comes a brand new body with a fresh set of cells to continue on their merry way as the madman in a box that we all love and adore.

What’s even more unique, though, is Doctor Who sometimes combines both sci-fi and fantasy. The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit is a good example of this. Here we have the Doctor and Rose stranded on a planet that should be falling into a black hole, yet isn’t. And, more importantly, the Doctor meets the Beast, who is in itself a big element of fantasy. Not much of it is revealed, nor any of it’s powers (such as how he’s able to possess the crew member) is explained in a scientific way, and leaves us to believe that this creature has a power of it’s own beyond our understanding, much like fantasy. The thing is, though, is that this way of explanation is perfectly ok with the audience, as it doesn’t ruin the story at all, nor the series either.

But maybe there’s something else we need to realise. Doctor Who isn’t just science fiction or fantasy. The show has gone to other realms of story telling (and in some cases, quite literally), and has dipped itself into a whirlwind of other genres. Over the years, the show has taken on a unique evolution of blending those genres at times, and as Neil Gaiman himself once said, it is “lurching from genre to genre in a way that is considered very messy in literature, but perfectly ok in real life”. Now, I don’t mean to say that fantasy and science fiction happens to everyone one of us, but the idea of genres (action, thriller, horror, romance, etc.) do blend in our everyday life, and in a lot of cases, if you were to try and write down one of those crazy days into a non-fiction story or movie format, people would have a hard time believing that all of this could happen to someone in real life, yet they could find it perfectly plausible in a fiction novel, which is quite ironic when you think about it.

And yet the show has managed to capture that essence of mixing genres and do it very well within the parameters of the show, which is probably why it’s survived for as long as it has and why so many people love it. Many of us love the idea of our favorite two-hearted alien going into a police box and ending up anywhere at anytime, with a genre surfacing through the adventures. We have horror stories of the Weeping Angels that move when we don’t look at them and The Silence that we forget about ever existing, we’ve had emotional stories of time travel gone wrong in “The Girl Who Waited”, and we’ve had stories about family, given the example of the latest Christmas special, “The Doctor, The Widow, and The Wardrobe”.

In the end, Doctor Who is more than just science fiction, and it’s more than just fantasy; it’s a huge tossed salad of storytelling genres! Sci-fi and fantasy have been the two predominant ones, and you could also argue which of the two is more present, but plenty of valid points could be made for either side.

… And one could argue there’s also one subtle genre that appears throughout the series, one that is probably what Doctor Who was actually founded upon: Mystery.

Just who is this madman with a box?

Step back in time...