I love science fiction and fantasy. They were the bulk of my reading in childhood, and they are still a sizable chunk of my fiction reading. When I go to a movie, it is almost always science fiction or fantasy. In young adulthood, I even went to conventions, although I was never much into fandom. Yet I have a confession that I will be lucky to make without being flamed and receiving death-threats: I’ve never warmed to Star Trek. I much prefer Doctor Who, that other long-running series.
My distaste for Star Trek began with the original series, and has remained largely unchanged in all the subsequent incarnations and movies. With a few exceptions, the scripts are primitive by print standards, with plots barely a step above the pulps of the 1930s and heavy-handed humor. In later incarnations, the quality of the scripts is sometimes hidden by a quotation or reference, but these are like gingerbread along the roof line of a Victorian house – non-functional decoration that fails to fit into anything around it. Mostly, they seem heavy-handed or gimmicky, such as having Stephen Hawking play himself.
As for the characters, how anyone can believe the pudgy and sententious James Kirk as an action hero or a leader is beyond me. Nor am I enthralled by the one-dimensional Spock, whom I suspect must have suffered regular wedgies outside his locker at the Academy. True, Patrick Stewart deserves credit for delivering the clumsy lines that were dumped upon him with some degree of conviction, but he is the only one of the supernumeraries and re-treads who deserves any respect.
But the real problem for me is the military gloss and doctrine of American liberal expansionism that runs through all the series, despite some recent efforts at revisionism. For all the change of costumes, the Star Trek universe has not progressed far beyond the John F. Kennedy era in which it was conceived: The rest of the world (or the universe) needs fixing, and Americans (or humans) are just the ones to do so – for everyone’s own good, of course, but with a firm hand if necessary. This connection is so close that the first series even had an episode in which Kirk encountered a post-holocaust duplicate of the United States, which he helped to put on track by reciting the American Declaration of Independence. Much of the time, Star Trek is all too ponderously self-important for me to take seriously for a moment.
But Doctor Who – that series is everything that Star Trek is not. Even limited as it was by being a TV serial for children for much of its run, Doctor Who has consistently shown more imagination than anything on Star Trek. Whoever invented the silly yet frightening Daleks was a borderline genius – they are frightening even to adults precisely because they are silly. As for the fact that The Doctor periodically regenerates into someone entirely different, that may have been a plot element introduced to explain the change in actors, but it’s an ingenious example of turning a liability into an asset.
Yes, Doctor Who has had its share of weak scripts and poor production values. But what has been surprising is how often, despite the cheap sets, the scripts have managed to be interesting, thoughtful, and even provocative. That is especially true of the modern revival under the direction of Russell T. Davies, which has maintained a level of excellence unparalleled in science fiction TV, and often turned the storyline into a critique of the series itself. But before everything else, Doctor Who has always been about character – not just about the anarchic and eccentric Doctor himself, but about those around him as well. It’s a subtlety that Star Trek’s producers rarely understand.
I have sometimes heard people suggest that Doctor Who captures the spirit of post-empire England, compared to Star Trek‘s echoes of the jingoistic American Empire. I suspect that may be true, but, whatever its origins, the spirit of Doctor Who is far more appealing than Star Trek‘s.
For me, the difference was captured in one episode a couple of decades ago when his arch-enemy The Master invited him to assist in conquering the galaxy. “But I don’t want to conquer the galaxy,” The Doctor replied (or something very similar). “I just want to see it.”
Essentially, Doctor Who is a humanistic view of the cosmos. And while in Star Trek, The Prime Directive seems like a marketing gloss on an essentially militaristic outlook, The Doctor’s ethos suffers from no such contradiction, being consistent all the way through. It is an ethos of loyalty, of being engaged, and of trying despite trauma and odds. Always, it is a story of individuals against bureaucrats and hierarchy — a story that Star Trek could only match if it was about a group of aliens resisting the encroachment of The Federation.
But, just to keep this mix from being too grim, there is always a flamboyant self-mockery in the central figure, from the recorder of the Patrick Troughton Doctor to the scarf of Tom Baker and the verbal free association of David Tennant. Brooding, mecurial, and brilliant, The Doctor in all his incarnations has a complexity that Kirk, Spock, Picard and the others can never match, for all their detailed back stories.
No, give me Doctor Who over Star Trek any day. For me, Star Trek is just cardboard characters moving dully against a rote background. I’ll watch it occasionally, but I have less and less time for it as I grow older. But Doctor Who fires my imagination, remaining fresh where Star Trek long ago went stale.