Why Doctor Who is football, but for geeks

In the same way that complete strangers can bond instantly over the latest football news, Doctor Who gives geeks an easy solution to awkward silences in conversation.

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We’re now three episodes into Peter Capaldi’s tenure as the new Doctor and despite sky-high expectations, the reaction is pretty much, “Hey, it’s OK, I guess”. While it would be tempting to spend time speculating on why this is the case (even though we all know it is a case of a great actor being let down by poor writing), I think this fundamentally misses the point about Doctor Who. The show isn’t ever going to be held up with the same critical acclaim as Breaking Bad, The Wire or whatever the hot new HBO production is – because that is not what Doctor Who is for. Doctor Who is football, but for geeks.

Now I know what you’re thinking: how dare I make such a comparison? After all – while everyone knows that all of human existence is futile, sport – especially football – is even more futile than that. Football is a game enjoyed by idiots – not cultured geeks like us, right?

Now steady on there with your geeky arrogance and hear me out. Doctor Who provides the same social function for geeks that football does for normal people.

Crucially, it fulfils a function as a social lubricant. It can be a brilliant ice breaker. Football is perfect for this: complete strangers will bond instantly over the latest football news.

The same is true for Who: it is something fairly universally followed by geeks of all stripes thanks to its accessibility (it is free to air, and on telly on Saturday evenings). This means that whether you’re browsing in Games Workshop or are playing a game on Xbox Live, if there’s an awkward lull in conversation the chances are “So, what do you think of Capaldi?” is a pretty safe conversational bet. Like football, it is completely benign topic. Unlike politics, religion and other stuff that actually matters it is unlikely that the conversation will end with someone throwing a punch (unless you repeatedly insist that Peter Cushing’s Doctor is canon).

The parallels continue: Like football, Doctor Who not only has the “on the pitch” action, but there’s also endless behind the scenes gossip to chat about too: Do you prefer Russell T Davies or Steven Moffat? Isn’t Murray Gold’s score a bit overblown? Aren’t these female characters a bit underwritten? Like football, it is rare you’ll meet someone who doesn’t have an opinion about what they would do if they were in charge. (Since you’re asking, I’d get West Wing writer Aaron Sorkin to write an episode set at UNIT where they have to negotiate an intergalactic trade agreement). And while it may seem bewildering to non-football fans that TalkSport can spend hours every night hosting phone-ins going over the minutiae of the game, you only have to glance at a Doctor Who message board to know that if you want it, there’s someone there trying to explain how Paul McGann’s Doctor is “half-human” by using the chameleon arch we didn’t see on screen until Tennant.

Both the Doctor and the football season have one other crucial similarity: reset points. Regenerations and season finales are Doctor Who viewers’ equivalent of the cup final: a natural high point that will provide a fitting peak before events reset back to zero – so the game can start again with new followers not having to worry too much about the long history beforehand. I guess this would make more minor peaks, like the Daleks turning up, the equivalent of the local derby.

There’s even the generational aspect: Doctor Who has been going for so long that parents and kids will enjoy it together in a rare instance of cross-generational harmony. The parents who buy their kids Doctor Who toys for their own pleasure are the same as the parents who get a little bit too involved with living vicariously at their kids’ football matches on a Saturday morning.

The only major aspect of football that I can’t explain in Doctor Who terms is the public health aspect. Part of the reason why the establishment puts up with many of the negative consequences of football (hooliganism, etc) is because ultimately there is a net positive for public health: the game’s popularity means that millions of people are getting more exercise by playing. Without football, the NHS would be even more stretched and the people of Britain would be even fatter. As I say, I’m not entirely sure what the Doctor Who analogy is here – but I suspect it might be something to do with Doctor Who being a safer outlet for geeks than some the alternatives. Some of the kids who tune in on Saturday night could be at huge risk of heading down a dark path. They could only be a D20 roll away from some of the more dangerous geeky hobbies like D&D or LARPing. So having a safe outlet on BBC One is probably a good thing.

So there we have it. Doctor Who is football for geeks. And if there’s a lesson in this it is let’s not worry too much when Doctor Who isn’t great – appreciate it for what it is supposed to be, and go into each episode like a football fan goes into an England match: with misplaced optimism, but knowing to expect inevitable disappointment.

James is on Twitter as @Psythor and is editor of TechDigest.tv