I don’t watch a ton of live TV, if any, but I watch a lot of shows on Netflix and DVD, usually at night when I’m painting miniatures (or, alternately, when I’m too lazy to do anything else). This gives me the chance to try out a lot different shows and characters and actors and writers, and because I am who I am I can’t help comparing them; I don’t just like or dislike something, I try to think long and hard about why I like or dislike it, and why other people might disagree with me.
One of the shows that I’m very lukewarm on–and I know this is going to get me pilloried in the geek community–is Doctor Who. What, you say? A sci-fi/fantasy geek who doesn’t like Doctor Who? Sort of. It’s not that I don’t like it, I just don’t love it. I can watch an episode and feel no compelling need to watch another. The ideas are invariably brilliant, some of them so much so that I’m still thinking about them weeks later: the episode “The Empty Child,” for example, was an alternate history horror story zombie apocalypse wonder, more original and clever than any similar story I’ve seen in ages. But something about it, like I said, just doesn’t drive me to come back. When I’m in the mood for an SF puzzle I’ll watch an episode, but the shows I really like are the ones that keep me up until early in the morning, watching one more episode and then one more episode until I have to force myself to stop. Why doesn’t Doctor Who do that to me?
My first guess was the lack of ongoing story. People tell me that Doctor Who eventually gets one, but I’m only 7 or 8 episodes in and haven’t seen it. I like ongoing stories because of the depth they can create, and television is uniquely equipped to provide that in a way that no other visual medium can. We’re in a golden age of TV right now, due in large part to creators’ willingness to serialize a long, detailed story, and I’m loving it. But the thing is, some of my very favorite shows aren’t serialized; the sitcom Community is one of the best things on TV, even being hiatus, and while that has some long-form emotional through-lines it doesn’t have a true long-form plot. Put more simply, it’s not a show you watch for the plot, you watch for the humor and the characters and the amazing writing. It’s less “I need to see what happens next,” and more “I wonder what they’ll think of next,” if that makes any sense. I watch serials to have my expectations fulfilled, and I watch Community to have my expectations subverted. Since this is essentially the same reason I watch Doctor Who–to see where they’ll go next and what new idea they’ll have to grapple with–I don’t think I can say that the lack of an ongoing story is the problem.
Comparing Doctor Who and Community points out a more striking difference that I think hits closer to the mark: the characters. The characters in Doctor Who are, to me, essentially blank slates; their job is to encounter a weird new thing, react to it, “solve” it, and move on. The weird new thing is the part that takes center stage, and the characters are defined only by their relationship to it. I understand that this changes later on, particularly with Amy Pond, who’s gotten more press than every previous companion combined–she and her husband are apparently very strong, interesting, complex characters. Please keep in mind here that while I haven’t watched a lot of the new Doctor Who, I watched the old one religiously, and they suffered from the same problem: the Doctor always has a distinct personality, but not a lot of depth. The characters in Community, on the other hand, are incredibly round, fully-realized people. They can do entire scenes that are screamingly funny and/or touching, not just for what the characters say, but for what we know about them. Their personalities and desires and flaws help not only to make them rich and interesting, but to make the subtle nuances more important.
Put more simply, Doctor Who is about what the characters do, and Community is about who the characters are. Neither is inherently better or worse than the other, I just happen to like the latter more.
I had intended to also talk about two other shows–they were, in fact, supposed to be the entire post, but my introduction got out of hand and, well, here we are. So next week I’ll come back and compare two more TV shows, probably my favorite two shows currently running, which have deep, interesting, wonderful characters and yet could not possibly be more different from each other if they tried: Breaking Bad and Parks & Recreation.