I have always been a big fan of science fiction. When I was a kid my favorite movies, TV shows and video games all had some sci-fi component to them. In the early years of my childhood both of my parents were united on their love of Star Trek. They both liked the original series as well as most of the films. Growing up I discovered I could tolerate the Next Generation but I wasn’t that into the others.
I didn’t discover Doctor Who until I was in my 20’s. I didn’t even learn my mom was into the show until I was in college. I had moved back in with my parents to save money while I attended university. It didn’t take long before I started making some comparisons to the two. The biggest difference was how easily I got into Doctor Who yet how hard it was for me to get into Star Trek.
Truth be told my interest in ST goes no further than the motion picture series and a handful of episodes from TOS and TNG. My curiosity has me peek into the different iterations from time to time only to be reminded why it’s such a chore to watch those shows.
Aside from being long running science fiction programs with some theatrical movies in the mix, the two franchises have very little in common.
Star Trek is very much an idealized image of what NASA is trying to be today. Even the most visible character in the pop culture with origins in either franchise, Mr. Spock, is really just a science officer. Now my love for what NASA does is why I continue to be deceived into trying to find some entertainment in the various Star Treks, but I digress lets compare the two.
Star Trek is divided into eras. There’s the Original Series, the animated series, Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, Voyager, Enterprise, Discovery, Picard and unofficially The Orville (which I will get to later.)
Doctor Who is broken down into three eras. Classic Series, the Fox movie, and the revival series. It’s a lot simpler on the surface because it actually lasted several DECADES not just multiple seasons. Star Trek failed to get to its originally intended 5 seasons being cancelled right away then saved by a vehement letter writing campaign only to be ended one season later. The short lived 3-season run certainly had a lasting impact on pop culture as well as the world of science fiction fandom.
In terms of organizational structure Star Trek breaks down by subtitle. You know what to expect with each distinct show, even though there is some overlap and cross overs between many of them.
Doctor Who on the other hand is actually in practical reality a lot messier. You see the Doctor, the main character of the show, is a space alien who basically is reborn every time he, or sometimes she, dies. In other words a new period begins not with a new subtitle and crew/setting, but rather when one doctor “regenerates” into another, usually at the hands of a Dalek. Or is it plunger? Anyways you have I believe 14 or so different Doctors, each one having a distinct personality and each ones adventures playing into that personality.
Then there are the movies.
Doctor Who hasn’t had nearly as much luck with films as Star Trek. The first wave were basically Hollywood attempts to Americanize the show. They were basically retellings of stories that had previously run but changed to fit an American appetite. Star Trek has never had to be altered or revamped to be more palatable to the British audiences, to the best of my knowledge anyways, so that’s a point in favor of the series that gave the world The Wrath of Khan. Pure sci-fi gold.
But, Doctor Who does somewhat redeem itself with some of the modern movies although they too remain convoluted like the show. Mostly they are excuses to have multiple doctors team up for a storyline that tries to tie up loose ends. They tend to be more like extended length episodes than actual full budget films.
Except one, Doctor Who: The Movie, a made for TV film also Americanized but still firmly tied to the U.K. show unlike the previous films. That movie does stand well enough on its own, it’s actually quite entertaining. However, it doesn’t really connect neatly to the rest of the shows and serves more as a bridge between Classic and Revived Who.
With the regenerations and cross over episodes plus the constant nods to what came before, Doctor Who feels like each season more or less rehashes what came before but with a slight twist each time. You’re always going to run into the Daleks, the cybermen, Santarans and a few other recognizable aliens. There is always going to be an episode where the doctor causes some great historical tragedy and has to cope with him being the one that kills innocent people. And there is always going to be an episode where a creature of mythology is explained as some alien being.
Star Trek tends to be formulaic too but in a different way. It’s more like here is a new world to explore and what specifically is special about this world or alien or space ship. They rarely return to earth and when they do it’s either a time travel episode, or a vacation gone wrong.
Doctor Who does spend an unnecessary amount of time in England when it is set on Earth. Star Trek tends to trot the globe while being largely U.S. centric for logical reasons.
Doctor Who also does a much better job exploring time and space. You are taken from the earliest beginnings of the universe clear to the end of time and everywhere inbetween. The show features a barrage of aliens, technology an worlds to explore. There is even an episode where the Doctor goes to Hell and defeats the Devil himself. Oh sure I could bring up the Star Trek movie where they meet God but we all know that isn’t a beloved film.
Let’s talk budgets. Early seasons of Doctor Who look like they would be done by high school art and theater students today. TOS episodes on the other hand still look like care went into the production values. The sets tend to be more colorful and open on Star Trek where as Doctor Who often takes place in cramped spaces in the early days. Even once the show progresses I feel like the Star Trek special effects were doing things the Doctor Who people still struggle with to this day. You can blame some of that, or much of it, on budgets. CBS has tons more money than the BBC.
It’s not just special effects. While the control room of the TARDIS is, unique in its own way, it’s not as fleshed out and defined as the iconic Enterprise. Also, let’s face it the Enterprise looks like a space ship NASA could make some day, the TARDIS is just a phone booth.
It’s almost too easy to give a point to Doctor Who for being continuously on air multiple decades, even with a 20 year gap between the two eras, but Star Trek isn’t really that far off. Even though the Original Series did get cancelled right away, there was an animated show to fill in the gaps until the films pretty quick. Also, the gaps between one Star Trek series to the next is not as prominent as the huge gap in Doctor Who. I’d have to actually sit down and count total years represented but I would be willing to be if it’s close at all the edge still goes to Star Trek.
What about merchandise such as toys, comic books and video games? This one is easy. There aren’t any Doctor Who videos games to speak of. There’s a few slot machines and British exclusive computer games nobody has ever played. Star Trek doesn’t have the best games but it’s been represented in some shape or form in nearly ever major video game era. Star Trek also has a pretty solid comic book presence while Doctor Who’s is spotty at best. Same can be said for toys and other collectibles, the edge goes to Star Trek.
Storytelling and plots.
Both shows are heavy handed and very preachy. One presents a society aspiring to achieve utopia while the other has a God-like being enforcing his will across the universe. All of the Star Trek captains make judgement calls and impose the will of their respective federation ideology onto whichever alien or society is being encountered while simultaneously preaching some prime directive about not interfering.
The Doctor calls himself a Time Lord. And nearly every episode he is called out for lording over all of time and space. As his name implies he has an arrogance about him that indicates he believes it is right to impose his will on the universe. He see’s himself as the enforcer of righteousness and the distiller of vengeance on those who do wrong.
Star Trek presents a hopeful future where humanity learns to use technology to transcend its problems and spread those ideals to the rest of the galaxy. Doctor Who presents a Time Lord who whisks around all of time and space both as an observer and dictator of sorts. He spouts off about fixed points in time as a reason why he cannot interfere yet he too breaks his own version of the prime directive quite often.
Star Trek has spun off into other branches of itself. Each new series loosely connected while free from the boundaries of what came before. Doctor Who basically reinvents itself literally every few years with a complete reboot of sorts. There is one true spin off to speak of in the Doctor Who universe, a series called Torchwood, but that’s a story for another day.
Despite personally enjoying Doctor Who more because of the simpler story telling, easier to approach episodes and fast paced action compared to Star Trek, as I break it down Star Trek just comes out ahead in every measurable category.
Doctor Who’s strength is also it’s weakness. Each time the alien regenerates the TARDIS also has to be rebuilt into a new interior set design. This helps mark when a new run is going to being but it also reminds the viewer the show is not likely to give the audience any closure in story lines. When you have a time traveler who can hop dimensions and basically make his own rules, consequences don’t tend to have lasting effects. At least in Star Trek sure each episodes follows a predictable template, you still know that by the end there will be meaningful resolution to the story leaving you satisfied yet still knowing there is more out there should you crave it. Stay Cool.