Feb 14, 2020
Why Sci-Fi Doesn’t Suck (Video)
Science fiction can be high art. I say this as someone who used to disdain sci-fi; as someone who never could understand why in the hell anyone would actually waste money on a sci-fi novel; as someone who complained noisily about everything from “Futurama” to “Doctor Who” and all possible iterations of the “Star Trek” universe.
Sci-fi was, I thought, a stupid diversion from Important Art, like charming short stories about the author’s memories of abortion and compelling, non-rhyming poetry about the writer’s most recent nervous breakdown. What merit could stories about robots and aliens possibly have when compared to tales of one’s very personal and private feelings about feelings?
And then someone I loved very much showed me a “Doctor Who” episode, and everything changed.
If you do not know who or what a “Doctor Who” is, you are not alone. The basics are this: he is called the Doctor but is not an actual medical doctor; he is an alien Time Lord who looks like a human but is not a human; he can do whatever he wants, almost; he has two hearts; and he regenerates, a nifty trick that allows the guardians of this 60-year-old brand to recast their lead whenever they please (or whenever an actor says, “Fuck this, I’m out,” which is allegedly what Christopher Eccleston once said, although perhaps in different words, and in case you were wondering, his Doctor was brilliant, a battle-scarred veteran plagued with PTSD and intense rage and a deeply irritating companion – oh yes, the Doctor always has a Companion – but that’s neither here nor there).
Basically, the Doctor is Spacey Timey English Jesus, in a nice suit. He travels around in a time machine that looks like a police box from the 1960s. Inside, it is very big. I have earrings in the shape of this time machine, and when I wear them in public, I inevitably attract a conspiratorial smile from a fellow “Doctor Who” fan. These people call themselves Whovians, and I cannot truly call myself one of them yet, because I have too much respect for the fandom and my breadth of knowledge about the Doctor is really quite infinitesimal compared to what I feel it should be – but anyway, on with the story.
This person who I loved very much sat me down and said, “You’ve got to watch ‘Doctor Who.’”
“I do not want to watch ‘Doctor Who,’” I said. “I need to think about my hair.”
“We are going to watch ‘Doctor Who,’” he said. “Just one episode. You will love it.”
“It sounds dumb,” I said, because while I was tolerant enough of “Star Wars” to accept that laser swordfights with one’s estranged half-robot space daddy were totally normal, this whole British alien situation sounded a bit unrealistic.
But I settled into his futon and prepared to watch this show, because that is what you do when you love someone very much.
What he showed me was an episode of “Doctor Who” called “Vincent and the Doctor,” the Richard Curtis-penned tenth episode in the fifth season (or series, which the British say, but I find that confusing) of the modern era “Doctor Who” (there were a bunch of seasons for like a million years in the 20th century, and these are very important for historical purposes, but we are speaking here of 21st century “Doctor Who,” although not necessarily 21st century Doctor Who, a different topic entirely.) It was first broadcast in England on BBC One on June 5, 2010. I suppose I watched it sometime later that year, on that futon in Astoria, Queens.
The Doctor travels through space and time, battling various evil or simply misguided forces throughout infinite galaxies and unknown universes, and in this particular episode he has the task of figuring out a mysterious apparition in a Vincent Van Gogh painting. As one might do if one had possession of a magical time box, the Doctor and his Companion (Amy; she is great) travel to 1890 and find Vincent himself at a café in Arles. He’s lonely, sad, depressed, and struggling with his own growing mental illness.
Much of the episode has to do with fighting a beast only Vincent can see (metaphors are fun and sci-fi is loaded with them). But there is one scene – one truly beautiful scene – that is perhaps the loveliest and sweetest thing I have ever seen on television, and I don’t want to spoil it for you one bit, but it does involve the Doctor’s answer to Vincent’s fear that he will die alone and unremembered.
I’m aware that this sounds ridiculous, and I began the episode thinking the whole setup was truly silly. But I ended the episode crying rather hard, much harder than I am now (and I am crying, just thinking about it, so powerful was the moment that struck me). I suppose the whole thing hit me because I am an artist who suffers from intense bouts of depression and agoraphobia, and I’ve always been captivated by Vincent Van Gogh and his demons and the beauty he managed to produce in his short time on earth. I’ve always empathized with his decision to take his own life, because sometimes it gets really noisy in one’s head and that seems like the only way out (it’s not, but it SEEMS that way, on account of the noise).
If you had told me when I began that episode of that frigging space fantasy dork programme from Jolly Olde Eng-land that I’d end it thinking about my own struggles with suicidal depression, and my own desire to leave something important behind, and my own gratitude for friends who have encouraged me to stick around for awhile – well, I would’ve said you were bananas.
But that’s the fantastic trick great sci-fi pulls. It sucks you in with the time travel and the robots and the aliens and the other stuff. These fanciful elements take down your defenses. And then, when it’s good (and there is a lot of very, very good sci-fi), the story delivers a roundhouse kick to your gut in the form of wrenching emotional truth. The magical technology is just the spoonful of sugar to lull you into a glycemic high, during which the lifesaving medicine of AWESOME LOVING GLORIOUS FEELINGS can truly be delivered.
“Vincent and the Doctor” was my gateway to the “Doctor Who” universe, which is vast and exciting and scary and wonderful. And “Doctor Who” helped me to understand why people are so passionate about “Star Trek” and “Star Wars” and “Battlestar Galactica” and any number of TV shows and films and books that seem so divorced from our reality yet do the best possible job of reflecting it back to us.
So if you’ve resisted sci-fi thus far as a genre – or if you’ve simply avoided “Doctor Who” in particular – do me a favor and watch “Vincent and the Doctor.” If it’s not for you, it’s not for you. But you may find, as I did, that it makes you realize how wonderful sci-fi can be, how strangely compassionate, and how incredibly, deeply human.
SPOILER ALERT: If you’re willing, ready and able to get your face rocked by an out-of-context clip from the episode in question, here it is. It’s the scene I wrote about, and the scene comes near the end of the episode, so it basically spoils the episode for you…but it’s so wonderful that it might just make you a Whovian on the spot. I don’t mean to oversell it, but even out of context, it’s just really lovely. My favorite moment in my favorite episode of TV, brought to you by our friends at BBC America.