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Who is Dr Who?

November 23, 2013


As a contemporary (50 myself this year) it’s great to be celebrating the 50th anniversary of Dr Who, the best thing to come out of British television in my lifetime.  But who exactly is Dr Who and what is the real significance of the narrative of his never ending travels through time and space.

Enigma is of course at the heart of his character and its appeal.   50 years on, despite hundreds of weekly encounters with the Doctor, we know scant little about his  background and life history.  We know he is a Time Lord from Gallifrey.  We know nothing of his parents.  We know he was a talented but troublesome pupil in the Academy of the Time Lords.  We know he ran off with a Tardis but not really why. We know he was grounded for a while on earth by the Time Lords.  Later on we know he was traumatised in the Dalek Wars and became the last of his people.   Over 50 years we have begun to become familiar with some of his beliefs and preferences but there is still much we do not know.  His very name “The Doctor” is designed to put us off the scent of finding out who he really is.  Furthermore the ingenuous devise of regeneration deliberately allows him to display different aspects within a single character.

Long may that continue but let me hazard three ideas about what underpins the character of the Doctor.

First he is exile, a character without fixed abode and indeed without the desire, it seems, to settle in any one place.  One could see him as a modern Odysseus or Gulliver but both Odysseus and Gulliver had a home and were eventually prepared to return to it.  Even Earth, which if anywhere seems to be the place he is happiest to stay, cannot hold him to the chagrin at times of his human companions who when the most feel they are getting to know the Doctor are deserted by him.

The narrative of exile is of course a convenience for the story writers because it allows for an ever changing range of locations for the Doctor’s adventures.  At the same, whether intended or not, there is something disturbing about the Doctor’s restlessness.  Seen through human psychology this is a character who has experienced some great trauma, who is reluctant to commit or settle and who seeks solace for his inner suffering by constantly moving on.  Perhaps his trauma is the consequence itself of travelling both through time as well as space bringing with it, as it does, the forbidden fruit of knowledge of the future as well as of the past.

The second idea is that of the Doctor as an intellectual hero.  The majority of the Doctor’s triumphs are the product of brain not brawn.    His highest compliment is to call a friend or a foe a “scientist” and he is admirable both of what he knows but also in his capability to resolve issues through process of thought and logic.  Indeed although at times the Doctor is shown having special skills such as “Venusian aikido” his fundamental quality is his intelligence.  There is not a small resemblance between the Doctor and the character of Sherlock Holmes – I always thought that Benedict Cumberbatch would make an excellent Doctor.  For a country which, at times, can be contemptuous of intellectuals and intellectual values it is admirable that we have created and sustained a hero of this nature, even if he is one who has fallen out of the system of formal education!

The final aspect of the Doctor to highlight is his moral compass.  This is sometimes more complicated than it might at first seem.  It is clear that the Doctor will seek to defeat the obvious “bad guys” of the universe such as the Daleks or the Cybermen but he can often display a great sensitivity to some of his opponents and may be prepared to go the extra mile to seek a peaceful resolution to a situation.  Very often he fails in these attempts, in part because the demands of  drama demand a more exciting ending to events but in part perhaps because, despite all his great powers and intelligence, the Doctor can only play the part of a bystander in the events he tries to influence.  At times too he can show a level of partiality, in particular in his relations with humans, which can distort his judgement.  Some of my favourite stories are those relating to the Silurians and Sea Devils which include the Doctor’s vain attempt to broker a peaceful co-existence between humans and the previous masters of the Earth.

The Doctor’s conduct is also influenced by the burden of his powers to travel through time and the danger of knowingly interfering in the course of history.  One of the best moments ever in Dr Who is the scene in the Genesis of the Daleks where he has the opportunity to destroy the Daleks for good before they come into existence.  In seems obvious to us that he should go through with the act and rid the universe of the malign influence of these creatures but the Doctor hesitates knowing that in changing the course of history he will create both negative as well as positive consequences which even he is unable to judge the balance of.   The Time Lords have a reason for their doctrine of non-interference. 

At one level Dr Who is an excellent childrens’ television series but I would argue that at its best it has created, by accident, design or evolution, a fictional character whose depth and intriguing qualities put him alongside some of the great heroes of literature.    Like all such heroes the Doctor is both a source of entertainment but also creates a lens through which we can view the moral dilemmas of our own age and perhaps of ages to come. Perhaps the story of Dr Who is like the TARDIS – bigger on the inside.


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