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Doctor Who's Regeneration

One of the joys of traveling is experiencing new things, things that you can't get in your home country.

I'm speaking, of course, of the vagaries of global television licensing. I've fallen behind on Doctor Who the last few years -- the show seemed to be losing momentum and it was increasingly difficult and expensive to keep up. It's not available through the subscription streaming services in the United States, so I would've had to pay by the episode or pick up the Blu-rays.

When I arrived in New Zealand, I was very happy to find that Netflix could suddenly provide me with every season of the revived series up to Peter Capaldi's finale, and that TVNZ, the local public broadcaster, let me stream the latest season, Jodie Whittaker's first, for free.

In the early 2000s, when I first encountered the Doctor, American public television was showing thirty-year-old reruns of the original series late on Saturday night, as they had done for decades. The twentieth-century show was very much a reflection of contemporary British society, with its progressive tendencies and concerns; the Doctor was a vegetarian for most of the 1960s, for instance. On the other hand, episodes like The Talons of Weng-Chiang showed a provincial understanding of the world outside of Britain. It was something comforting for the Anglosphere, like Christmas crackers or digestive biscuits.

I was thrilled when the series was revived in 2005, and as I saw it explode in popularity during the Tennant years it took on much more personal meaning for me: I took advantage of my own resemblance to David Tennant and was able to play a hero myself, a few times a year. At the peak of its popularity, dozens of people would show up in costume at Otakon (even though Otakon is focused on Japanese animation). Strangers treated me like an old friend or someone to look up to.

Over time, though, the formula has worn thin. Doctor Who has chronically suffered from serial escalation; ending each season with the fate of the universe in the balance after a mysterious thread running through all the season's episodes gets realy dull after a while. To me, it felt like the show was beginning to move comfortably into its status not just as a British institution, but a global institution: it might not be as popular as it was in the Tennant or Smith years, but it's comforting to know that it's there. This status has given the writers a freedom they might not have had before, to create a smaller show, more varied and deep in its characterizations.

For instance, in series ten, the show went out of its way to try and correct some popular misconceptions about the past: for instance, the presence of non-English people in nineteenth-century London and the Victorian British army -- not to mention the diversity of the imperial Roman army. The series finale's setting, on an enormous spaceship big enough to suffer time dilation near a black hole, was brilliant and could never have been done in previous seasons. The fate of only a handful of people were at stake.

But it's series eleven that has really turned around the series and brought it new life. When Peter Capaldi left the show and Jodie Whittaker became the Doctor, the writing staff also turned over; there are new voices behind the scripts.

In several episodes the aliens don't matter, or aren't even there; the evils are in humanity itself. Sometimes, the enemy doesn't even know it's the enemy, it's just an animal. Significant events -- moments of division in human history -- play major roles, from Rosa Parks to the partition of India.

It might be possible to think of these stories as exploitative, or of repeating well-worn tropes; who hasn't heard of Rosa Parks? But I don't think so. The horrors of the twentieth century are beginning to fade from living memory. My grandparents lived through the Second World War, and my parents grew up during the turmoil and revolution of the 1960s; it was sobering earlier this year to read about how society is collectively forgetting John Lennon and replacing him with Elon Musk (as much as we need bold science and engineering). These were the scars of the world that I grew up in. But those graduating high school this year are likely to have been born around the same time as the September 11th attacks, an event sharply engraved in my memory. Their parents hardly remember the Reagan years, and the United States has always been in a war on terror.

From the time-traveling white supremacist to witch trials, many of this season's episodes focused on the toxic effects of unquestioning belief or faith. The problem is that the counterpoint, as always, is "I'm the Doctor -- believe in me." That's why I also felt that the companions of this latest season were also the best of the revived series; they were given relationships, personal growth, whole personalities rather than just a few witty lines. They formed a family aboard the Tardis. They made their own decisions, rather than just following the Doctor blindly. (I did notice that this Doctor's catch phrase seems to be ordering "everyone, behind me" whenever danger appears, though).

My passing resemblance to David Tennant and my traveling tendencies have made me feel some sort of kinship with the Doctor for a long time now. I've always felt like I should be out saving the world. These past two seasons have reminded me that there's many different ways to do that; they don't have to be flashy or huge.

At the end, there is always hope. Doctor Who has always been a hopeful series, and this season brought this lesson home. I'm looking forward to what happens next.