Friday, May 6, 2011

TARDIS and Transcendance 

In 2006, Doctor Who officially became “TV’s longest-running sci-fi show” of all time, according to the Guinness Book of World Records. The British TV series—about a 900-year-old, renegade alien who roams both the space-ways and timelines in a stolen, time-jumping jalopy—has garnered a plethora of awards over the decades it’s been on the air and has gained a global fan-base rivaling those of both the Star Trek and Star Wars franchises since its inception in 1963. In this paper, I will explore what it is about Doctor Who that has entranced millions of viewers in fifty-plus countries and kept the series alive—in various forms and formats—for almost fifty years now. Moreover, I will delve into what it is about the good Doctor (in his various regenerations) that explains the TV show’s unwavering worldwide popularity and televised longevity. I will argue that this success is built upon several determining factors: the overarching flexibility and the thematic underpinnings of the show; the Doctor’s super-heroic and anti-heroic duality, which makes him the perfect protagonist; the show’s ‘exquisite corpse’ infusion of both classic and contemporary science-fiction; the portrayal and conveyance of science and technology via the Doctor’s interactions with his various companions; and those aspects of the series that have influenced other science-fiction franchises and inspired scientists to replicate technology from the show. I believe that the culmination of this data will demonstrate that Doctor Who is the perfect platform for educational science, explorative science-fiction, and exciting entertainment.
As Richard Hanley writes in his essay featured in the book Doctor Who and Philosophy:Bigger on the Inside, “Doctor Who can be treated as a whole bunch of smaller fictions…we [the viewing audience] commonly regard these episodes as summaritive to make a larger story, the story…has multiple authors, has gone into hiatus, then returned, and has looked quite different in different versions…but not just any Doctor Who story counts…In canonical serialization we have symmetry…What’s true in later episodes obviously depends upon what’s true in earlier ones” (p.29). Keeping this thought in mind, it’s difficult to summarize almost 50 years of Doctor Who’s canonical serialization, but let me give it a synoptic shot…
First and foremost, it must be established that there is no-one in the series named “Doctor Who.” As John Kenneth Muir explains in his book A Critical History of Doctor Who on Television, “The main character of the program is always enigmatically referred to as ‘The Doctor.’ He is never called ‘Doctor Who’” (p.2). However, it’s worth mentioning that, during the episode titled “The Fires of Pompeii,” the Doctor—at this point, in his tenth regeneration (more on his regenerative ability soon to follow)—encounters a young Pompeiian woman named Evelina. Gifted with prophetic visions and an acolyte of the oracular Sibylline Sisterhood, Evelina is able to read the Doctor’s mind—an achievement many have tried but few can do—via her inhalation of the Vesuvian fumes carrying microscopic, alien life-forms called the Pyrovile, which, ultimately, gives her her gift of second sight. The young Pompeiian reveals that  “even the word ‘Doctor’ is false. Your real name is hidden. It burns in the stars in the cascade of Medusa herself.” Though, beyond this revelatory incident, little to nothing is known about the Doctor’s family history or personal life, let alone his given name.
Paul Parsons ponders this very issue of the Doctor’s mysterious past in his book The Science of Doctor Who. Parsons mentions, “The Doctor studied at Gallifrey’s [the Doctor’s home-world] Prydonian Academy, where his major was thermodynamics. However…he only just scraped through his final exams—and that was on the second attempt” (p.4), but as Parsons notes, “The Doctor is an enigma, a paradoxical personality” (p.4). This enigmatic quality to the Doctor not only remains crucial element to the show’s longevity but also our protagonist’s charm. For almost fifty years, the Doctor’s past has continued to be a source of mystery and fascination to the show’s viewers; in retrospect, that’s a rather amazing feat. Furthermore, Doctor Who’s writers have faithfully upheld the vagaries of the Doctor’s past, which, ultimately, has contributed to the overall allure of the television series. The Doctor’s impermanent identity—changing his physiognomy from regeneration to regeneration—coupled with his mystifying past are two very important elements to the Doctor’s continued success as a science-fiction series.
Another of these important elements is the premise of the show, which focuses on the Doctor, his companions, and their spatiotemporal exploits throughout the whole of multiversal creation (and in extremely rare cases, even beyond that or there or then). The Doctor is himself an extraterrestrial entity from the planet Gallifrey, which can be found in the (nonexistent) constellation of Kasterborous. There, life evolved much earlier and advanced much further than most other life-forms populating the universe, and on a cosmological timescale that renders evolution and advancement of life here on Earth as nothing more than a blip on the TARDIS screen; however, the exact Gallifreyan timeframe for both their biological and technological evolution and advancements has been withheld and, to this day, still remains veiled in mystery.
John Muir further elaborates on the Doctor and Gallifrey: “He [the Doctor] is a ‘Time Lord’…His advanced race has harnessed the energies of black holes and suns. More importantly, the Time Lords have unlocked the mysteries of time travel” (p.3). Although the Gallifreyans have mastered time as well as space, which, in turn, has made them practically invincible, invulnerable, and nearly immortal, the governing Time Lords refuse to interfere with the natural order of events within the spacetime continuum. Muir notes that “the Time Lords believe firmly in remaining neutral and only rarely do they use time travel for any purpose but peaceful observation of developing cultures” (p.3). This spatiotemporal neutrality instituted by the Time Lords concerning lesser species and evolving races pervades every aspect of Gallifreyan life; from their politics to their philosophy to their culture. It also happens to be the case that any dissenters to the Time Lord’s sociopolitical laws and philosophical views are banished from Gallifrey, and the Doctor just so happens to be one of these dissidents. As Muir observes, “He [the Doctor] is a renegade…an exile...a revolutionary…because he was tired of seeing the weak overcome by the strong, he abandoned his secure life on Gallifrey and decided to intervene in the…dangerous universe. He then set out…to right all the wrongs he encountered” (p.3). Thus, the Doctor has paid the price for his repudiation of the Time Lord ethos; this places the Doctor in a very contentious role as a protagonist. To the Time Lords, he is a vigilante, a rebel, and an anti-hero.
According to Michael Spivey and Steven Knowlton in their work “Anti-Heroism in the Continuum of Good and Evil,” from the book The Psychology of Superheroes,” When analyzed in a continuous state space, it becomes clear that the anti-hero concept is flexible enough to accommodate some rather intriguing variations” (p.61), and the Doctor is a perfect example of this intriguing variation. Spivey and Knowlton note that “what all anti-heroes have in common is that they…balance their evil methods with their good intentions” (p.62). This inability to categorize the Doctor as either a hero or an anti-hero is another key dynamic behind Doctor Who’s longevity and  it’s this uncertainty—this confliction over the boundaries of good and bad (and everything in between)—that makes the series exciting science-fiction.
However, what is considered good and evil to some might be the antithetical opposite to others. Both terms are not only extreme but are also highly subjective and the Doctor is a dual paradigm both of these subjective categories. To his own race, he breaks the laws enacted by his people: he interferes with the order of time; he changes events that have already transpired even if they are for the greater good, permitting life to flourish in the universe; he will  think nothing of obstructing history if life is in danger; he jumps timelines when he deems it necessary; and he doesn’t hesitate to create spatiotemporal paradoxes if it means he can save a life from certain doom. Thus, within the boundaries of Gallifreyan law, he is committing heinous crimes against spacetime. To the Time Lords, the Doctor’s saving of lives is irrelevant; however, to the inhabitants of a small blue planet located in the Orion Arm of the Milky Way Galaxy, he is viewed as quite the opposite.
In Doctor Who, there is little doubt that the Doctor—and main protagonist—is a hero. Even though the Doctor has “been captured by his own people and tried in Time Lord court for his frequent meddling and contravention of sacred Gallifreyan Law” (Muir, p.3), as Katherine Stannard observes in the book Politics, Gender and the Arts, the Doctor “is the prototype of the hero” (p.66). Furthermore, John Muir observes that the renegade Time Lord “has defeated villains as diverse as mutated Daleks, the brutal Zygons, the militaristic Sontarans, the Krynoids, the Silurians, the Martian Ice Warriors, the Borg-like Cybermen and the non-corporeal Nestene. He has also grappled with intergalactic terrorists such as Omega, the Master, Scaroth, the Shadow, Magnus Greel, Eldrad, the Black Guardian, Solon and Morbius” (p.3). Of course, the Doctor’s list of enemies is much larger than the hostile alien races and vile individuals listed above. As one can imagine, 50 years worth of clashing with a variety of antagonistic aggressors with ulterior motives would require several additions built onto the already-crowded rogues’ gallery mentioned above.
In a superheroic sense, the Doctor straddles the line between the classic paradigmatic extremes established in the Superman/Batman dichotomy. In Superman on the Couch, author Danny Fingeroth clarifies, “When Superman punches an adversary’s face…all he sees is the criminal’s face…When Batman punches a foe, he sees the face of the man who killed his parents and left him…as a  7-year-old wailing to the unheeding emptiness: (p.64). This clarification between the two is significant to Doctor Who because, like the Man of Steel and the Dark Knight, the 900-year-old Time Lord is himself newly orphaned. When Doctor Who returned from its sixteen-year hiatus in 2005, then-producer, Russel T. Davies, decided to shake things up a bit by destroying Gallifrey and eradicating the Time Lords in a great (and mysterious) Time War with the Doctor’s arch-nemeses, the Daleks of Skaro.
Though the sole Gallifreyan survivor resembles Superman in the sense that both are alien characters whose respective homeworlds were destroyed, the Doctor was not an infant when this catastrophic incident occurred…as was the Man of Steel’s case. And like Batman, both the Doctor and the ‘caped crusader’ share a common traumatic bond by witnessing their loved ones’ deaths…and in the Doctor’s case, his entire species.  However, it should be noted that Batman witnessed his parents’ murders during his formative years, while the Doctor was a fully-matured adult when Gallifrey was annihilated. Still, it would be rather myopic to suggest that beholding the genocidal extermination of one’s entire race wouldn’t leave massive psychological scarring and/or an overwhelming sense of survivor’s guilt.  All in all, this dichotomous Superman/Batman orphan model, which has now been infused into the re-emergent Doctor lends credence to heroic/anti-heroic duality discussed earlier. Nevertheless,, the Doctor’s embodiment of both antithetical extremes makes for limitless possibilities in character development.
These super-heroic qualities engrained into Doctor Who may also be perceived in its hyperbolic extreme. In Doctor Who and Philosophy: Bigger on the Inside, Ruth Deller furthers this extremity into the realm of religiosity in her piece, “What the World Needs is…a Doctor,” by intimating that the Doctor is semiologically comparable to the imagery associated with that of Christ’s: “Like the Biblical Jesus Christ, the Doctor is a savior. He saves individuals and worlds from peril, and often from their own ‘sins’ or misguided doctrines and actions” (p240). Deller further establishes that “like Jesus, the Doctor is also a ‘redeemer’. He makes people and worlds ‘better’” (p.240); however, Deller does note that unlike Christ, “the Doctor is by no means flawless…Russell T. Davies [Doctor Who producer from 2005-2010] has projected onto the Doctor not only the power and majesty of a god, but the problems that come with such a status” (p.241). Yet another comparison between the Christian savior and the Gallifreyan rogue, can be found in their resurrectional symbolism; although, in the Doctor’s case, the supernatural quality is removed and replaced with a purely biological one exclusive to the Gallifreyan physiology.
The Doctor, like all Time Lords, is genetically imbued with the ability to regenerate his body in the final seconds before death; thereby, cheating it. This regenerative capability is a clever tactic that Doctor Who’s writers have infused into the television series to explain the exiting and entering of actors who have portrayed the Doctor, but as Michael Hand points out in “Regeneration and Resurrection” from  Doctor Who and Philosophy: Bigger on the Inside, “Regeneration…is an immensely powerful dramatic device. It is key to the enduring appeal of Doctor Who, and to its vice-like grip on the imaginations of those who love it” (p.214). It’s hard to deny that Doctor Who has found a rather ingenious way around the often aggravating event of a beloved actor stepping down from the role of a character that he/she has helped to characterize and/or popularize. Such TV show events have dooming consequences: falling ratings and disgruntled fans. Yet, with the Doctor’s regenerative powers, this nightmarish scenario appears to be bypassed.   
And what about his revolving cast of companions? Well, as John Muir explains, the Doctor “holds a special affection for…Earth. He harbors this love because he considers human beings terribly vulnerable” (p.3). This affection the Doctor displays for Earth and its inhabitants is best exemplified by the individuals he chooses to keep company with: his companions…most of whom happen to be Earthlings—in particular, female Earthlings. At this point, one might start to wonder if his favoring human women as companions has the underpinnings of the classic/cliché b-movie absurdity of interspecies eros—or, if you prefer, the ‘beauty and the otherworldly beast’ scenario—prevalent in mid- to late-twentieth-century science-fiction? According to Katherine Stannard, in her piece “Technology and the Female in the Doctor Who Series: Companions or Competitors?,”  this isn’t the case. Stannard states that “Doctor Who abounds with archetypal images and…it may be this perennial mythologic quality that has been responsible for its…immense popularity” (p. 66); however, his companions are rarely, if ever, the assembly-line ‘damsel in distress’. Stannard argues that “his female companions, who change with a fair degree of regularity, represent the Doctor’s anima” (p.66), and are also his “conscious competitors…usurping the masculine prerogatives of the Doctor” (p.66). Gender issues aside, the Doctor’s rapport with his companions serves as the perfect teacher/student platform for relaying and conveying science; though, it’s worth noting that there are a plenitude of incidents where the student educates the teacher in Doctor Who.
When the show’s creators, Sydney Newman and Donald Wilson, first conceived it, they “envisioned Doctor Who as an educational program which would enlighten children” (Muir, p.9) with a heavy emphasis on accuracy in both history and the space sciences. There are even occasions where Doctor Who has inspired future scientists who grew up watching the series to actualize some of the fantastic technological gadgetry employed by the Time Lord himself. For example, not believing in wielding weapons, the Doctor carries on his person a device dubbed the ‘sonic screwdriver’. In an article titled “Doctor Who Sonic Screwdriver could Become Real Device” from The Telegraph, dated December 4th, 2010, Professor Bruce Drinkwater—an ultrasonics engineer at the University of Bristol—is developing an ultrasonic device, which was inspired by the Doctor’s sonic screwdriver. Drinkwater remarks, “the technology is definitely real and there is potential to turn it into something like Dr. Who’s sonic screwdriver” (http:/ Journalist, Richard Grey, notes that “the sonic screwdriver is the latest of a number of technologies that have been imagined by science fiction writers which have subsequently become a reality” (http:/, unlike the sonic screwdriver, the Doctor’s time machine is nowhere near technological actualization.
The TARDIS—an acronym for Time And Relative Dimensions In Space—is “a time machine/spaceship bigger on the inside and smaller on the outside, or dimensionally transcendental, as the Doctor puts it” (Kalyniuk, p.328). The TARDIS is somewhat semiologically indicative of a technology so advanced that it appears more fantastical than factual; however, this is also part of the allure of the Doctor Who series. In Doctor Who and Philosophy:Bigger on the Inside , Alexander Bentland discusses this Levi-Straussian bricolage composite in his piece,“Doctor Who as Philosopher and Myth Maker.” Bentland states that “the Doctor holds that science dictates there’s an element to time he can’t change. However the science that’s doing the dictating isn’t necessarily the actual laws of time and space, but the Doctor’s limited understanding of these laws” (p.370). In other words, even an exceedingly advanced society such as that of Gallifrey’s, still doesn’t know it all.
Nevertheless, the Doctor accepts and respects the fact that there are some things even he cannot explain, and the series imparts the Time Lord’s belief in a science/magic duality of all things within the multiversal construct: “Doctor Who presents an interesting ethical and philosophical response to this: mythical thought ought to balance the power of scientific thought…[and] contains wisdom that helps  one keep from being too decadent and greedy. Indeed, science itself in its quest for knowledge can cause one to lose track of moral goodness” (pp.370-371). This, in fact, was one of the determining factors behind the Doctor’s unresolvable, philosophical disputes with his fellow Gallifreyans whose scientifically-motivated, logical pomposity infuriated and set him at odds against his fellow Time Lords. This philosophical belief the Doctor fervently accepts as truth is yet another signifier of how this television series is the perfect platform for such heady debate.
Yet another example of this cut’n’paste philosophy in Doctor Who can be found in the series’ narrative composition and the appropriational approach the show’s writers take to its storytelling. Muir notes that “popular films and literature aren’t just rehashed in Doctor Who, they are turned on their heads and dramatized in innovative fashion” (p.53). Likewise, elements of Doctor Who have also been rehashed in other science-fiction series and films; take for example, the Borg from Star Trek: The Next Generation. As John Muir remarks, “The main purpose of the Borg is to assimilate humanoid cultures and use them as ‘raw materials’ to build more Borg…The Cybermen [one of the Doctor’s primary foes]…also replaced body parts with mechanical limbs, and they also sought to procure more bodies so they could continue to build more Cybermen. The idea is identical.” (pp.49-50). However, the motives behind Star Trek: The Next Generation’s ‘assimilation’ of the Cybermen is irrelevant; considering Doctor Who has been built upon popular science-fiction films and literature right from the TV shows inception. 
As John Muir states, “Doctor Who did not spring from the minds of its creators…as a completely original, fully developed work of art. On the contrary, its many roots in the cinematic, video and literary forebears are fairly obvious” (p.42). with its main protagonist being a nameless time-traveller who refers to himself by a title rather than a given name coupled with his misadventures in a makeshift time machine, the most obvious and immediate comparison would be to H.G. Wells’ literary classic, The Time Machine. Muir reveals that “Doctor Who came about as a kind of cathode tube version of director George Pal’s hit movie The Time Machine” (p.42), which is quite clearly a filmic adaptation loosely-based on the Wells novel; however, this is just an example of previous source materials utilized in the composition and creation of the series, and but one instance of Doctor Who’s story-telling appropriation.
In the four-part story, “The Ark,” the First Doctor lands his TARDIS in an ark set adrift in space, due to Earth’s destruction by the Sun. The Ark space vessel is a generational ship headed for the planet Refusis 700 years away from its current location. The plotline is highly reminiscent of George Pal’s Oscar-winning film When Worlds Collide. A similar story, “The Ark in Space,” would later re-examine elements from both When Worlds Collide and “The Ark,” transmogrifying them into a tale of scifi horror with the introduction of the vespoid/humanoid alien species, the Wirrn. When the fourth regeneration of the Doctor—along with his companions, Sarah Jane and Harry—find themselves transported onto Space Station Nerva, they discover that the Wirrn have invaded the space station and begun impregnating their larave into the ship’s crew while sleeping in cryogenic freeze. Though,  neither director, Ridley Scott, nor writer, Dan O’Bannon, has ever made mention of it in any interviews or commentaries, it’s hard to believe that neither were inspired from “The Ark in Space’s” plot when creating Alien. There are too many similarities between this Doctor Who tale and the 1979 film to believe otherwise. Also, keep in mid that “The Ark in Space” aired in 1975—that’s four years prior to Alien’s release.
Possible unacknowledged science-fiction appropriations aside, Another infusion from classic science-fiction cinema that has made its way into the plotlines of Doctor Who has been Invasion of the Body Snatchers, which has influenced several story arcs throughout the series’ run. The most overtly inspired by the 1956 scifi classic being “The Faceless Ones.” In this six-part story from 1967, the Second Doctor ‘faces’ a race called the Chameleons who have sinister intentions for Earth. As the Doctor & co. stumble into the Chameleons’ rather mysterious plot—by way of their airline front, Chameleon Tours—it is discovered that the shape-shifting extraterrestrials plan to remove 50,000 humans from the face of the Earth, store them in a spaceship in Earth’s orbit, and assume the kidnapped humans’ identities. Another similarity to Invasion of the Body Snatchers revolves around “people who should be familiar, yet are not. The face is the same, but what exists behind it is horribly evil, horribly wrong” (Muir, p.141).
Elements of Invasion of the Body Snatchers were also utilized in “The Android Invasion” a four-part story arc from 1975. This time around, the Doctor—in his fourth regeneration now—and journalist, Sarah Jane Smith, materialize on what looks to be Earth, but later turns out to be a simulated environment duplicating the small English village of Devesham. There, the time-travelling duo are confronted with villagers who are acting oddly when their not aware they’re being watched, and displaying abrasive and anti-social behavior once they realize that they’ve guests in town. It later is discovered that the villagers are, in fact, androids created in pod-like devices by an aggressive alien race named the Kraal who are planning to invade Earth with pods that will fashion the formless androids housed within their shells into human doppelgangers. Once this has transpired, the Kraal plan to release a virus into Earth’s atmosphere—via the androids—which will exterminate all life on Earth in a matter of weeks, making the third rock from the Sun ready for the Kraal taking. The oversized walnut-shaped pods that house and refashion the androids into their human duplicates is heavily influenced by the look of the pods housed in the green house scene from Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Furthermore, the town square scene from the 1956 film was an obvious homage to the village square scene in “The Android Invasion.”
In keeping with the mechanoid mayhem from Kraal, the Doctor Who story, “Robot,” draws on several different science-fiction sources; most notably, King Kong. The focus of this four-part story from 1974 revolves around a robot created by the reclusive Professor J.P. Kettlewell. The robot is being controlled remotely by the Think Tank Organization to purloin advanced British military weaponry and top-secret documents—unbeknownst to Kettlewell, I might add. The robot itself was obviously influenced by Robbie the Robot from Forbidden Planet…including its emotionless, baritone voice…while its programming is reminiscent of Robbie’s and Isaac Asimov’s “Three Laws of Robotics.” Elsewhere in “Robot,” influences of King Kong appear; specifically,  between the Doctor’s companion, Sarah Jane, and her interactions with the robot. This intercommunication between Sarah and the robot can easily be paralleled with that of Ann Darrow’s and the gargantuan gorilla. Kettlewell’s creation also is mysteriously endowed with the ability to grow in mass and size, which is reminiscent of the robot character, Jetjaguar, from Godzilla vs. Megalon (1973) and/or the Japanese series, Ultraman. At this point in “Robot,” the mechanoid man has become Kong-like monster and grabs Sarah Jane with its metal claw. Even the robot’s demise at the end of the four-part story is met with sobering, downtrodden looks by the Doctor and Sarah Jane, recalling King Kong’s death in the 1933 film’s finale. Only in this case, it was beauty that killed the robot.
From king-sized gorillas to human-sized apes, the three-part story “Survival” pays homage to Planet of the Apes by having an other-dimensional, super-intelligent, and nameless race of Cheetah People on horseback hunt down humans for sport. Yet another of this 1989 story’s inspirational sources can be found in the H.G. Wells novel, The Island of Dr. Moreau. In this instance, the gradual regressive transformation of any life-form exposed to the atmosphere of the other-dimensional feline home-world into that of the savage Cheetah People themselves. A further parallel between “Survival” and the 1896 Wells novel occurs when the Seventh Doctor implores his companion, Ace, to remember her humanity and to not fall prey to her heightened feral instincts. Later, even the Doctor must face and battle his bestial side when he too succumbs to the savage planet’s transmogrifying. Recalling “Are we not men?” from The Island of Dr. Moreau, the Doctor now questions himself while fighting the urge to yield to his bestial side. “Survival” happened to be the final story of the original series before it was unofficially cancelled in 1989.
During its sixteen-year hiatus from 1989 to 2005, Doctor Who was mostly kept alive by its ardent fan-base, which continued to flourish via: international fan-clubs and local meeting groups; VHS/DVD releases from the show’s back catalog; by reruns in syndication; and, most notably, the advent of the internet, which constructed a  public forum for fansites, blogspots, webisodes, and, of course, message boards dedicated to Doctor Who. It was also during these years that saw the exponential increase in the cable television market; more importantly (and rather pertinent to the Doctor’s return to TV), the 1998 launching of BBC America—a haven to British television and an anglophile’s version of paradise.
Meanwhile, back across the Atlantic, when Doctor Who was finally re-commissioned by BBC back in 2005, it returned to the airwaves and re-emerged with a ratings vengeance, and, when Doctor Who was finally given a timeslot on BBC America, it had finally found its niche here. This new interest in Doctor Who introduced the Doctor—now on his ninth regeneration—to a new generation of internet-savvy viewers who hopped online to find out what all of the ‘who- abaloo’ was about. In the process of Doctor Who’s new ratings success, several spin-off series were created (Torchwood, The Sarah Jane Adventures, K-9); all centered around the Doctor’s former companions. However, without a doubt, a vast majority of Doctor Who’s recent resurgence in popularity is due to the technological progress that transpired during the show’s sixteen-year absence from the airwaves. Then again, as the Fourth Doctor once extolled, “Progress is a very flexible word, you can make it out to mean just about anything.” Perhaps, he was correct.

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