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Who is Dr Who ? (Updated for the first female Doctor)

November 23, 2013


Screen_Shot_2017_07_16_at_11_39_18_AM_1500219436As 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 her never ending travels through time and space.

Enigma is of course at the heart of her character and its appeal.   50 years on, despite hundreds of weekly encounters with the Doctor, we know scant little about her  background and life history.  We know she is a Time Lord from Gallifrey.  We know nothing of her parents.  We know she was a talented but troublesome pupil in the Academy of the Time Lords.  We know she ran off with a Tardis but not really why. We know she was grounded for a while on earth by the Time Lords.  Later on we know she was traumatised in the Dalek Wars and became the last of her people.   Over 50 years we have begun to become familiar with some of her beliefs and preferences but there is still much we do not know.  Her very name “The Doctor” is designed to put us off the scent of finding out who she really is.  Furthermore the ingenuous devise of regeneration deliberately allows her 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 she is exile, a character without fixed abode and indeed without the desire, it seems, to settle in any one place.  One could see her 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 she is happiest to stay, cannot hold her to the chagrin at times of his human companions who when the most feel they are getting to know the Doctor are deserted by her.

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 her inner suffering by constantly moving on.  Perhaps her 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.    Her highest compliment is to call a friend or a foe a “scientist” and she is admirable in respect both of what she knows but also in her 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” her fundamental quality is her intelligence.  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 her 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 she 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 she 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 her great powers and intelligence, the Doctor can only play the part of a bystander in the events she tries to influence.  At times too she can show a level of partiality, in particular in her relations with humans, which can distort her 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 her 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 she has the opportunity to destroy the Daleks for good before they come into existence.  In seems obvious to us that she 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 she will create both negative as well as positive consequences which even she 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 her 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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