Why Sci-Fi Doesn’t Suck (Video)

Why Sci-Fi Doesn't Suck (Video)

That’s Tony Curran as Vincent Van Gogh, BTW.

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.

Tag: Doctor Who

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  • jqheywood

    That is truly my favorite Who episode…and that is saying something, as I am a deep Whovian (or maybe a derp Whovian, who knows? Who knows…) I cry everytime I see it.

  • Fred

    yup, definitely the episode with the most ‘Feels’ :)

  • Christian Hanneman

    I’ve watched Doctor Who since 1976. I loved and it and still do. While this is an excellent article I know people who don’t like science fiction who, if they see time travel, robots, aliens and other stuff their defenses will go up rather than go down. It’s hard to believe the author is someone who used to have disdain for sci-fi.

  • CBloom

    Yep, it’s my fav too. I never cry during movies, even less so with tv, but you gotta be totally heartless if that doesn’t get you.

  • Brendan_M

    Sara, you’re a fan of Vonnegut, right? He worked in the science fiction medium quite a bit. A couple of right-wing friends of mine were fans of his, and fans of sci-fi in general, when they went to hear him speak a few years ago. This was in the middle of the Iraq shit-show and Kurt Vonnegut spent much of his time questioning George Bush’s intelligence and intentions in a less-than-respectful manner. As someone who has read Slaughterhouse-Five a hundred times and understands it, this did not shock me, but my politically-stupid friends only considered Vonnegut as a genre-writer and ignored the political implications of his writings. I wonder if you had a similar, but opposite, sort of situation.Anyway, that is a lovely episode of “Doctor Who.” I am a super-masculine and tough manly-man, so I won’t say whether I cried like a baby, as well, but one can speculate. British sc-fi definitely has some gems (“Children of Men” is one of the best movies of the genre in the 21st century).But Phiip K. Dick is the writer you need. He’s Kilgore Trout with a terrible speed problem. It will take a long time to get through his nearly-endless number of stories and novels, but it’s worth it; the film adaptations are…hit and miss.tl;dr – I like lasers and spaceships, too!

  • $16965280


  • It’s so nice to hear that DW lead you into science fiction, making you see beyond that shiny world of robots and aliens! :)

  • Cecilia MaryJane Porta

    That’s my fav episode in the DW new serie, and in my opinion also the best episode. I’m so glad you started with that and I’m so glad it made you love the show and science fiction.Your post is beautiful and I’m really sobbing again right now.

  • Lady Kayla

    The best SF is always character driven. The scenery, the milieu, gives us the opportunity to explore new ideas, to look at things in a different way but none of that matters without real characters that the viewer/reader can relate to. Even if those characters are robots or aliens. All good SF (and Fantasy, though in different clothing entirely) starts by asking “what if?” The best ends without *completely* answering the question, but leaving you thinking about it.I don’t mind that some people sneer at (one of) my favourite genres. I sneer at poetry that smacks of 13 year old angst (I wrote enough of it to recognise it) and prose that takes 1000 words to describe a plate of fish and chips. It can be done, it’s just boring – for the writer as well, try it. And I have zero tolerance for soap operas, no matter which country they come from.My kids wouldn’t read SF&F books while they were growing up, though they did enjoy X-Files, Babylon 5, Farscape etc on television. But now they’ve left home they are constantly borrowing our books or bringing over ones they think we’ll enjoy. I like to think that they’ve finally matured enough to not give a damn what other people think of their chosen reading matter ;)

  • mattmcirvin

    Now I’m preemptively cringing at how you’ll react when you find all the science fiction that actually sucks.

  • Dale Van Brocklin

    Yeah, you might want to just keep watching Dr. Who…..the other sci-fi, very sadly, is lacking. All these genres are able to explore the entire galaxy or universe, but Star Trek mostly stays on the ship, and just keeps repeating Star Trek 2 forever – THIS bad guy is better than Khan! No, this NEW bad guy is better than Khan! Ha, this new bad guy IS Khan, he just looks different! One episode of Dr. Who is more entertaining, engaging, than most massive budget blockbusters. The least of the new Dr. Who’s is better than all four Transformer movies combined. The show is meant to be enjoyed by kids and adults, so the stories are good, but there’s no gore, curse words, the effects can be a tad cheesy, but as Roger Ebert said about Dark City – the effects need to tell the story, if you have a fantastically rendered effect, and no story behind it, who cares, and if you have a cheesy effect, but great story and directing to back it up, it works. I won’t even argue which Dr. was better, I liked David Tenant and Matt Smith equally, but the Tenant stories were better in that he wasn’t “space Jack Sparrow” that sadly Matt Smith became, the writers fault, not his – like in the second and third Pirates movies when Johnny Depp became popular…every single aspect of every character’s lives revolve around an obsession with the Dr., and not advancing a compelling story. The focus was on THE DOCTOR, and not the story. If the Doctor died, the whole universe wouldn’t have a purpose, even the villains. Which kind of sucks, because those were some DAMN good stories – what other TV series or visual media, ever, made Nixon..the GOOD guy?!!! There’s so many good ones to recommend – The Satan Pit was excellent, Blink, starring Michelle Williams, is generally considered the best episode of the modern series, and I certainly couldn’t disagree. And get ready to see more stars than you ever thought wold appear on such a “small” TV series – Andrew Garfield, Sharon Osbourne, most of the Harry Potter cast, many actors from Game of Thrones, Iain Glen being my favorite.

  • Volt Owner

    I also started watching Who-ville again after catching that very same brilliant episode with my son last year. Now I have every one of the new series on DVD and am itching for more…

  • Jado

    Bill Nighy saying the words. That is all.

  • Jado

    FarScape. Find it on NetFlix, or wherever, but FIND IT!!

  • There’s lots of great sci-fi out there, the best of it not even remotely what one would expect. Stanislav Lem is my fav sci-fi writer and he is excellent. Also love Andrei Tarkovsky, who did a sci fi film here and there, most notably Stalker

    • Jack Haldane

      Lem is in a league of his own.

  • UnholyMoses

    One of the greatest Dr. Who episodes ever.And while he (rightfully) gets blasted, showrunner Steve Moffat has THE BEST QUOTE about what makes the Doctor so full of awesomeness:When they made this particular hero, they didn’t give him a gun, they gave him a screwdriver to fix things.

    They didn’t give him a tank or a warship or an x-wing fighter, they gave him a call box from which you can call for help.

    And they didn’t give him a superpower or pointy ears or a heat ray, they gave him an extra heart. They gave him two hearts.

    And that’s an extraordinary thing; there will never come a time when we don’t need a hero like the doctor.