Why is Doctor Who so popular? As with every cultural phenomenon, it’s hard to pinpoint what’s made the TV show into a worldwide success, but a few elements of it do spring to mind. It could be because it’s all about time travel, or because of the ever-changing character of the Doctor, or maybe it’s the all-ages appeal of the alien monsters.
According to the recently-regenerated Twelfth Doctor Peter Capaldi, though, there’s a much darker reason as to why Doctor Who appeals to people so much. Speaking philosophically on an episode of James Cameron’s Story of Science Fiction, the actor revealed that he believes the show so profoundly effects viewers because of its “powerful death motif,” most obviously displayed through the Doctor’s many deaths and resurrections.
Capaldi aired his interesting thesis in his interview on the documentary, saying the following about it:
“People always ask me what it is about the show that appeals so broadly. The answer I would like to give — and which I’m discouraged from giving because it is not useful in the promotion of a brand — is that it’s about death. And it has a very, very powerful death motif in it, which is that the central character dies. I think that is one of its most potent mysteries, because somewhere in that people see that that’s what happens in life. You have loved ones and then they go, but you must carry on.”
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That’s an unusual argument for why Doctor Who is so successful, to say the least. But it is worth discussing. After all, despite its reputation as a family show, the series does feature a whole lot of death – from the Doctor’s own to all of the “redshirts” who get killed by the Daleks every week. And, even if they don’t die, the Time Lord’s companions always leave him at some point.
The more obvious element that you would pinpoint as unique to Doctor Who, however, is the regeneration, which allows the Doctor to actually beat death. Regeneration is a storytelling device that’s genuinely found nowhere else but in this franchise, and you could argue that it’s a major reason the series appeals in a philosophical sense. But hey, Peter Capaldi is a former Doctor, so he would know the show better than any of us, right?