The Doctor, An Utterly Millennial Hero
The selection last week of actor Peter Capaldi to play the latest Doctor on Doctor Who has made headlines all over the world — and you'd be forgiven for wondering why. It's only a TV show, after all, and it's a sometimes cheesy, often over-the-top sci-fi feature, not 60 Minutes or The West Wing.
But the Doctor is more than a character on a show that millions love, he's arguably the chosen hero of the millennial generation. Every generation chooses its hero, even the fictional ones. Superman was very much a product of the 1940s, just as Captain America was born of World War II, just as Rocky was the perfect working class champion of the 1970s.
Doctor Who has millions of viewers who watch the adventures of the Time Lord on the BBC and millions more who replay it over Netflix, Hulu or cherished box sets.
No other character onscreen has achieved the hero status of the Doctor and he's our first international epic icon since, perhaps, Harry Potter. It hasn't escaped me, of course, that all of these heroes are male, but our world hasn't yet opened its global consciousness enough to bump Luke Skywalker in favor of Princess Leia.
So, if the Doctor is the chosen champion of the millennial generation, then I think it's an interesting choice. The Doctor is at least a thousand years old. He's mostly a pacifist. In all of his incarnations — and there are now 12 different actors who have been named to the role — he is not renowned for his brute strength or imposing physique. The Doctor solves problems through reason, intellect and compassion, not rocket launchers and machine guns.
He couldn't win a football game if he tried, and while he's spry, he'd probably lose a fist-fight with Indiana Jones. The Doctor is cerebral, sentimental and mostly nonviolent. One of the best moments of the series comes at the end of an episode called "The Doctor Dances," with the Time Lord smiling broadly and shouting to his cohort: "Everybody lives, Rose! Everybody lives!" Neither Rambo nor Captain Kirk of Star Trek could ever say the same.
For kids born in the U.S. since 9/11, who have never known peacetime, dogged by headlines of mass shootings and improvised explosive devices, it makes sense their chosen champion would be a reaction to violence and war. But unlike the baby boomers who reacted to war by anointing a hero with a pistol and a big shield, the millennials prefer a skinny alien in a bow tie who's famous for saying: "You want weapons? We're in a library! Books! The best weapons in the world!"
The Doctor is the man of intellect and infinite fancy, totally blind to race and even species. Almost no one knows his name, he's almost the last of his kind and he is the self-described hoper of far-flung hopes and dreamer of improbable dreams.
As chosen heroes go ... well, you could do much worse than the Doctor. Allons-y.
Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.