Around the Web: “Doctor Who” and The Wheelhouse Review

The season eight premiere of a cult British sci-fi show became a metaphor for how I felt when the ADHD won in front of a new friend.

If you’re interested in learning more about my personal insecurities, finding a foothold on the steep slopes of Doctor Who or just complaining about those darn millennials and their cell phones, you may be interested in the following article, which originally ran in the late, great Wheelhouse Review. Read on to see how Doctor Who‘s season eight premiere is basically the same experience as a trip to a bookstore or a 20-something’s failed relationship.

Global religious persecution. Domestic politics. Game of Thrones. You know, the really important things in life. A friend and I got together for lunch last weekend as an excuse to talk about all three. The food was good, but the conversation was better: We weaved in and out of topics one or the other of us had already thought about (often deeply), so there was a lot to share. When it became clear that the conversation was going to outlast the meal, we went for a good old-fashioned DC walk-and-talk, and, on a lark, stopped by a little bookstore I’d been meaning to visit.

As soon as I walked in, I wanted to live there. The entryway was lined with beautiful antique cloth- and leather-bound volumes. If you could ever stop digging through them, looking for a prettier edition of your favorite classic or a new gem from a favorite writer, you’d realize that the rest of the store was alcove after alcove of used books. Some of them were new releases. Some of them were a hundred years old. All of them smelled exactly the way used books are supposed to smell. It was like The Never-Ending Story. Or “Silence in the Library.” Or, really, any other library from a science-fiction or fantasy story.

Yeah, it was just shelves and shelves of this.

I have no idea how long we spent in there—an hour seems as likely as not. And even though we kept talking the whole while, I don’t think I looked my friend in the eye once. We talked about books and favorite writers and I rambled on about volumes I came across that I love and pestered a beleaguered staff member about rare books I was looking for and bought a few volumes and added more to my mental “buy soon” file.

And after my friend and I parted ways, I felt exposed.

I’m good at guarding information. It’s one of the reasons working in PR and communications has been a decent fit for me: I pick topics I’ve come to terms with that might seem pretty personal and I share them with people, leaving them with the impression that I’ve just taken a huge risk and made myself vulnerable.

Implicitly, they feel invited to do the same.

Most people who have met me don’t take long to figure out that I’m a person of great enthusiasms and little pretense. Something far fewer people know is just how much sway over me those enthusiasms have. I don’t generally advertise the fact that I’ve spent twenty years struggling against ADHD in an attempt to affect some semblance of attention span and self-control. There are certainly people in my life who have seen what I look like when I’m not actively trying to be “normal,” but they are usually the people closest to me. The people I trust the most.

In that bookstore, though, I got distracted. I let my guard down and turned back into a nerdy child who couldn’t sit still, had to touch everything, see everything, try everything, and who didn’t think twice about whether he was being rude to the people around him. All in front of someone I’ve only known for a few months.

As I said, I felt exposed.

You’ve seen who he really is; now how are you going to respond?

That’s the question that hangs over the new season of Doctor Who—and it’s a question I’m willing to bet that many of us are afraid to ever have posed to the people around us.

For those of you who don’t know, Doctor Who is a British TV show that debuted in 1963 and is now airing its 34th season. The show follows a mercurial, indeterminately ancient man known as The Doctor as he takes audience surrogates on rollicking adventures throughout time and space in his phone-booth-shaped time machine. Whenever a lead actor is ready to move on from his time playing The Doctor, the character gets sick, injured or in some other way mortally incapacitated. But instead of dying, The Doctor transforms, taking on a new face, a new body and a new personality, and the franchise lives on.

This season, a new lead actor takes on the role—always a major event that brings with it a bit of a creative refresh. This “regeneration” sees heartthrob Matt Smith, the youngest actor ever to accept the role, pass the torch to Peter Capaldi, the oldest. Suddenly doubling the age of the show’s star is a risky move: With Smith’s youthful visage in the lead, Doctor Who’s popularity has exploded, turning it from a niche Britishism into a full-fledged worldwide hit.

Pictured: Risk

Throughout the show’s history, this “regeneration” concept has been a powerful literary device, allowing writers to explore a wide range of pet themes. Various incarnations of The Doctor have approached their respective transformations as punishment, as adventure, as opportunity for change, and as, well, death.

This time, the regeneration is being used as an opportunity to explore the nature and limitations of
friendships and dating relationships—especially in the lives of the very generation of fans for whom a middle-aged Doctor could potentially be a turnoff.

Toward the end of Matt Smith’s time on the show, his Doctor had been accompanied by Clara, a
schoolteacher played by the absurdly photogenic Jenna Coleman. She and Smith had a crackling
chemistry and the writers leaned into it with gusto. The repartee between the two was witty, flirty and undeniably modern. She was the companion for the hookup culture. Whereas The Doctor’s previous partners in crime would live on his spaceship with him, Clara flitted in and out. Each episode would begin with her calling The Doctor or him popping up in her back yard unannounced. Their adventures together seemed like the kind of online dating overtures that get turned into breathless op-eds.

But the 2014 season picks up moments after The Doctor transformed before Clara’s very eyes, and she has a hard time accepting what she’s seen.

Confronted with the fact that there are aspects of The Doctor that are difficult to understand, perhaps even frightening, Clara spends quite a bit of time wondering why he could possibly choose to be this way. She openly wonders if she even knows him at all. She turns to Vastra, one of The Doctor’s old friends, to ask why would The Doctor would put on the appearance of a young man if that first impression doesn’t really capture everything about who he is.

According to Vastra, the answer is simple: To be accepted.

The Doctor assembled his identity the way we might put together a Facebook profile, highlighting his
intelligence, his sense of fun, his infectious wonder; never advertising his age; hinting at just enough of an edge to be intriguing; hiding his fears, his insecurities and the aspects of himself that are less than charming. Clara witnessing this regeneration is tantamount to getting a look at the #reallife behind the Facebook posts. (Link to

“The Doctor regenerated in your presence,” Vastra explains to her. “The young man disappeared. The veil lifted. He trusted you.”

At the end of the season premiere, after The Doctor has saved Victorian London from a restaurant run by carnivorous clockwork robots (don’t ask), he lays all of his cards out for Clara. We see fear, humiliation and vulnerability in every line on Peter Capaldi’s impish face.

“I’m The Doctor,” he says. “I’ve lived for over 2,000 years and not all of them were good. I’ve made many mistakes.”

Clara has to decide whether to continue traveling with The Doctor now that he has been demystified for her, now that she knows he’s not the charming and romantic young man he projected when they first met.

For both Clara and the audience, this grand figure who “has walked this universe for centuries untold and seen stars fall to dust” is suddenly frail and weak. The man who gave us hope for the triumph of intellect and romance over brute force and cynicism is reduced to begging for a friend.

“You can’t see me, can you?” he asks her, pleading. “You look at me and you can’t see me. Do you have any idea what that’s like? I’m right here, standing in front of you. Please, just, just see me.”

I find it hard to imagine that anyone watching that episode didn’t actively feel The Doctor’s fear of being turned away, and not just because Peter Capaldi is “one of the best actors of his generation.” That fear is at the heart of the way my generation conducts itself socially, longing for deeper friendship but frightened of the exposure that comes with it.

In the social media era, we all play the role of the Great Curator of our own lives. We cherry-pick the
photos we want to represent our days on Instagram. Our Twitter feeds and Facebook timelines are
monuments to our shortest, clearest, pithiest, most broadly acceptable thoughts, and we let people think that they represent the entirety of our personalities.

As much as I love Norm MacDonald’s Dirty Work, it’s hard for me to call it a movie, let alone a film. It’s more a series of disparate jokes held together by a plot that’s described on the back of the DVD case. Early on, Artie Lang, who plays MacDonald’s overweight best friend, spots an attractive woman at a bar and decides to go talk to her. “My name is Max,” he says, reaching out to shake her hand. “I live with my dad.”

That’s it. We cut away to something else going on elsewhere in the bar. “Hello, I live with my dad,” is the entire joke. And it works. The idea of someone revealing something unflattering about themselves is so absurd that it can be a perfectly functioning joke in and of itself. We know we have rough edges but we craft images of ourselves that don’t. Sometimes it’s because we’re afraid that people will reject us if they see them, like in Dirty Work. Other times, it’s because we know that if we let someone in closely enough for them to see our rough edges, we may have to start letting them sand those edges down, and that can get painful.

Anyone who has been chastised by a friend or admitted to mis-treating a significant other knows that that fear isn’t unfounded. It’s guaranteed. Part and parcel of being seen and known. In C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce, a man who has lived his life with a parasite at long last consents to having it removed. He knows it will be good for him, but he also knows that the removal will be certainly painful, probably dangerous and possibly fatal. Even though he thrives as soon as the parasite is removed, the removal still elicits, “a scream of agony such as I have never heard on Earth.”

And this brings us back to The Doctor.

Seeing someone step out from behind the veil and face such frightening exposure head-on the way he
does this season is moving. It’s unsettling. It’s heart-breaking. And in an era when hiding or even denying the messiest parts of ourselves from more and more people seems to be the norm, it feels iconoclastic. It’s a declaration of counter-culture. It’s punk rock.

As ever, this lark of a TV show that should be a space-race-era relic instead remains thoroughly and
entirely modern.



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