A look at Doctor Who and Mythology – DW series 1 and 5
In a previous entry I mentioned that the British scifi series Doctor Who could very well be considered a modern myth. Since then I have watched the entirety of the ninth (Christopher Eccleston) and eleventh (Matt Smith) Doctors’ runs on the show. This is two full series – 26 episodes. Based on this sample alone, which is a drastically small microcosm of the television show, I cannot liken Doctor Who to mythology. It certainly has some mythic elements, but I refuse to let that be an indicator of anything based solely on the fact that writers far and wide decided to consciously include mythical elements into their works after the publication of Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces.
One incredibly strong element the series has going for it is continual use of symbols over the course of its 40+ year run on television and in film. The TARDIS, the Doctor’s time machine, has never stopped being a 1950’s British police box despite the fact that it can resemble anything in order to fit into an environment. At first this was due to something’s being broken in the machine, but currently the Doctor may just have too much bravado – plus he likes it. Because of this, an out of place police box represents time travel, adventure, and possibility to those who follow the show.
The other symbol may be groan-worthy among some fans due to overuse, but it is the form of the Dalek. The Daleks are a race of mutants encased in individual mechanical bodies built for war. Their goal is to “Exterminate!” all other races in order to rule as the supreme beings. (The Nazi allusion is quite clear.) For this reason the form of the Dalek clearly represents danger, warfare, and the other.
The strength of these symbols is quite clear in greater science fiction fandom. I was aware of the police box’ meaning well before I ever watched an episode of Doctor Who. At the very least, I had seen a Dalek before ever watching the show. I did not know its meaning, but I knew that it existed. People want to propagate these symbols, although mostly as a wink to people who might identify them. But I believe the propagation of the story’s elements are essential to becoming a modern myth.
Unfortunately, these are the strongest elements to come out of the Doctor Who mythology. Weaker but also important elements are the Doctor’s ability to regenerate and become a new person, hence the numbering, and his continually bringing companions (from Earth) along with him on his adventures. The actual happenings from episode to episode become lost in the translation. With so many episodes in its run on television, things get muddled. What lessons do we learn from the Doctor? What does Doctor Who tell us about life, the universe, and everything?
Aside from we are not alone in the universe…
* * *
The first series since the show’s return, the one in 2005 starring Christopher Eccleston as the ninth incarnation of the Doctor, makes great sound and fury in order to shout out to the world that the series is back and slightly more edgy than before – but it ultimately signifies nothing. There are incredibly strong episodes in “Dalek”, “Father’s Day”, “The Empty Child”, and “The Doctor Dances”; but the overarching story isnincredibly weak. The story arc is summed up with the words “Bad Wolf”, which appear in every episode until the finale when the Doctor’s companion decides it was a message for her to stare into the heart of the TARDIS and take on godly powers. If a message were to be taken from this, it would be that somehow things will work out (everything is going to be all right) or to have faith in technology. All it said to me was that the writing was not strong science fiction writing.
The series featuring Matt Smith’s eleventh Doctor has a much stronger story arc based on the finale’s explosion of the TARDIS. The TARDIS in all of its godly ability seems to hold time and space together, and the loss of it causes cracks in time that can eradicate people and things from ever having existed. One could take this to mean that killing god renders all things meaningless. I guess that is a valuable overall lesson in this world. It says not to tamper. It says to revere and leave things be. Not the kind of lesson I enjoy, but it at least it says something. And just to have it out there, the episodes leading up to this conclusion were generally unremarkable.
The companions should exist as the show’s mirror of humanity. The Doctor could exist as some sort of ideal, but the companions should be the imperfect person moving toward something better. It does not work that way, which I admit makes for interesting television. Unfortunately, the companions I have seen lead to disappointment. Rose, the ninth’s companion, abandons her boyfriend, Mickey, to frolic through time with a complete stranger in the Doctor. Mickey keeps hanging on, almost obsessively, and Rose just keep proving herself unworthy of him. She also shows the Doctor how capricious she can be by disrupting the timeline and averting her own father’s death. The results are of course bad. But all is forgiven because the Doctor loves her and she loves him.
The eleventh Doctor’s companion, Amy, is nearly as bad. She runs out with the Doctor the night before her wedding and attempts to seduce him when he discovers this fact. Fortunately she has not purposely tried to alter the timeline. Then again, space and time do collapse around her personal timeline. When her fiance is swallowed by the cracks in time, she fails to keep his memory alive. (When the Doctor fixes everything but ends up swallowed in the cracks in time himself, she has considerably less trouble conjuring up his memory and returning him to reality.)
Maybe if Doctor Who is telling us anything at all it is that humanity is weak and selfish? Whimsical and disloyal? But I know that is not true. The characters from the ninth’s time continue through the tenth Doctor’s run, and I am certain that in that time they are almost guaranteed to grow. And Amy’s fiance in the finale shows the true strength of humanity. The feminist in me needs to comment that the difference is that he is male.
* * *
I have trouble considering Doctor Who a modern myth. The weaknesses outlined are actually irrelevant. I have no doubt that someone has published a book casting these ideas and more in a positive light. Not only that, but according to Joseph Campbell’s ideology, Doctor Who serves the function of experiencing the awe of the universe (quite broadly in that it experiences a universe that does not really exist to us) and explaining the shape of the universe (endless). But my view of modern mythology really has to do with the takeaway points of the media. When people watch Doctor Who, what do they talk about with their friends? What would they tell their children about the story? What stories would they iterate to people when asked what they get out of it?
People who talk about Doctor Who talk about how great the Doctor is. That is pretty much it. He is held up to an ideal, so I suppose he is comparable to classic mythological gods. But his ability to overcome the odds is not due to overwhelming feats of strength, intelligence, or skill. There is nothing to which someone can aspire because the Doctor overcomes the odds because of good fortune and happenstance. (This is largely due to the poor story writing mentioned above, and some, like Terry Pratchett, suggest that this poor story structuring suggests that Doctor Who should not even be considered science fiction – which is why I just call it scifi.) Deus ex machina does not make for good mythology because it just says that there are those who gods shine upon and those who go ignored.
* * *
My opinions, and they are opinions, will of course be revised as continue watching the show and reading professionally published works on mythology. Doctor Who is undoubtedly entertaining television once you let yourself get swept up in its momentum. One amazing element to it is its rotating cast. One can say that the ninth Doctor is “my Doctor” and another fan can say number ten. (Note: Eleven, Matt Smith, is my Doctor.) The companions are also negotiable. This is an amazing and unique element of the series that definitely strengthens its fanbase by allotting them sections of the shows to cherish without concern that the elements they love will be tarnished in the future. After all, your segment may be over, and that Doctor is not the one doing those other things you do not like. That may potentially weaken the overall legacy, but only time will tell on that – even at this point in the show’s run.[Note: I am currently watching series 2, featuring David Tennant as the tenth Doctor, and I just watched an episode in which Mickey finally made a stand and left Rose in order to help out a parallel world. She was distraught and asked what does she have then, and he said that she has the Doctor. Then he remained in the parallel world to which they (currently) have no means of returning. My response to Rose’s tears was as mature as can be. “Serves you right, bitch!”]