Doctor Who? Why the Question is More Important than the Answer
Doctor Who has won the hearts of countless viewers over the years, despite its sometimes ridiculously unrealistic aliens and settings. Many fans reminisce about the wobbling props and funky costumes that brought the original time traveling Doctor and his companions to life. His TARDIS (Time And Relative Dimensions In Space) only looks like a small UK police box. This space ship, which is much bigger on the inside, has the ability to take passengers through time and space, and even translates languages for them. Its chameleon circuitry broke while it was disguising itself as a UK police box, and it has looked the same ever since. The Doctor does not like to travel alone, so the viewers get to live vicariously through the human travelers he takes with him on his adventures.
The very first episode of the Doctor Who revival starts out anticlimactically with an unexciting plot and terrible special effects. While the cheesy story line is difficult to get into, the first episode is arguably one of the most important episodes in the whole show. In the first episode of series 1, the Doctor runs into Rose Tyler who eventually goes on to be one of his travelling companions. Rose’s character expresses all of the concerns anyone would have after meeting a strange alien, most importantly asking the infamous question “Doctor Who?” The title of the show does not contain a question mark, which implies that the question either is not monumentally important, or that the question is in some way a part of the answer.
When Rose asks the Doctor, “Really, though, Doctor. Tell me, who are you?” she is asking for more than just his name. She is asking for his identity. The question hooks us because it is the same question we ask others and even ourselves. Who are you? Who am I? The Doctors response is beautiful, and sets the tone for the entire series.
“Do you know like we were saying about the Earth revolving? It’s like when you were a kid. The first time they tell you the world’s turning and you just can’t quite believe it because everything looks like it’s standing still. I can feel it. The turn of the Earth. The ground beneath our feet is spinning at a thousand miles an hour, and the entire planet is hurtling round the sun at sixty seven thousand miles an hour, and I can feel it. We’re falling through space, you and me, clinging to the skin of this tiny little world, and if we let go… [He stops without finishing his thought.] That’s who I am. Now, forget me, Rose Tyler. Go home.”
How does one even begin to answer the question, “Who are you?” We could offer a name, a series of letters as a tool of referencing. We can pretend to know the answer, but do we really know who we are?
In ancient India, there was said to be an Indo-Greek King named Milinda who, in periods between his prolific conquests of surrounding villages , would travel many miles to consult the sage monk, Nagasena, for wisdom and guidance. As the story goes, King Milinda stood in the great hall of the Buddhist Monastery, greeting the monk for the first time, asking “by what name do they call you?” The monk answered with the classically wise yet cynical Buddhist rhetoric, clarifying to Milinda that his name is “only a generally understood term, a designation in common use.” (Davis 40:26) Nagasena asks the King a series of questions regarding the identity of the carriage he arrived in, as a way to explain his answer. The monk asks him if the carriage is the axle in itself, the wheels, and so on through all of the individual parts. Each time the answer is no. He asks if it is all of the parts, to which the king replies no again.
They decide that it is not anything outside of the parts that is the carriage either. Finally out of desperation, the king says to the monk, “It is on account of its having all these things—the pole, and the axle, the wheels, and the framework, the ropes, the yoke, the spokes, and the goad—that it comes under the generally understood term, the designation in common use of ‘carriage’”(Davis 44:28). Nagasena and the other monks praise him for his answer, saying that the Buddha would approve had he been present. The interesting thing about this response is that Milinda never says this is the carriage, he instead says this is what is referred to as a carriage. It is because of this distinction that he is praised by the monks.
Like Nagasena, the Doctor refuses to answer the question directly. Instead he describes a heightened awareness of being. While we know that we are zooming around through space, we do not actually feel any motion (thank goodness). We know that the world is composed of particles that are mostly empty space, but we feel like things are solid. The Doctor seems to be suggesting here that there might be a way of describing “being” in terms other than what we typically experience as being. Is it possible that we exist, just not in the way we think we do? It seems like both of these sage responses are better answers for the question “in what way are we?” instead of the question “who are we?”
Philosophers have long sought criteria through which we can establish grounds for personal identity. Some seek to find the persisting “essence” without which we would not be said to exist as ourselves. One of the first criteria to be discussed by philosophers was the “body criteria”. It seems reasonable to say that, in order to exist in this life as a person, we must have some sort of body that persists over time. What about the case of Cassandra, the last “pure human” (the others mingled), in Series 1 episode, The End of the World? On their first adventure, the Doctor takes Rose onto a space ship many years into the future where privileged guests have gathered to witness the end of the world, one of whom claims to be the last “pure human”. When we meet Cassandra, we see that her hundreds of operations have reduced her to eyes and a mouth somehow attached to a piece of stretched out skin that requires frequent moisturizing. Even without seemingly essential body parts, Cassandra exists and is granted the status of ‘human’ by the other characters.
We can also look at the TARDIS from The Doctor’s Wife in Series 6. In the episode, her “consciousness” inhabits a woman’s body and interacts with the doctor as a human would. Before he knows she is the TARDIS, he asks “Who are you?” to which she replies, “do you really not know me just because they put me in here [the woman’s body]?” It takes her a while to come up with an answer, first describing her relation to the Doctor and her qualities like what she does and how she sounds. Eventually the Doctor figures out she is the TARDIS and she says, “Yes, that’s it. Names are funny.”
Later in the episode as they are arguing the Doctor accuses her of never being very reliable. She retorts by reminding him that although she did not always take him where he wanted to go, she always took him where he needed to go. This shows how the TARDIS has always had a sort of awareness or consciousness, and the only difference now is that she can directly communicate through language with the Doctor. At the end of the episode as her body begins to die she says, “I’ve been looking for a word. A big, complicated word, but so sad. I found it now. … Alive. I’m alive.” The teary Doctor says “Alive isn’t sad.” To which she replies, “It’s sad when it’s over. I’ll always be here. But this is when we talked, and now even that has come to an end.” Although the TARDIS is no longer alive without the body to inhabit, she still keeps her identity as the TARDIS as if nothing had changed.
The Greek philosopher, Plutarch, challenges the idea that one must have a continuous body with his famous ship thought experiment. If the TARDIS had a new paint job, would we consider it to be a new TARDIS or the same one? What if, after several thousand years, every single part of the ship was eventually replaced? We might say that, because the parts were not replaced all at once but overlapped through time, we could still safely say it was the same TARDIS . What about the Doctor’s regenerations? When the Doctor regenerates, every cell in his body is transformed, yet each time we still take him as the same Doctor. However, even he considers it to be an extremely radical change. While talking with Donna’s grandfather in the episode The End of Time: Part 1 in series 4, he tells Wilfred “Even though I do change, it feels like dying. Everything I am dies, some new man goes sauntering away, and I am dead.” Even though he feels like he is dying, he still remembers all of his past selves. This brings us to the memory criteria.
Some philosophers like John Locke believe that personal identity requires psychological continuity. Even if the eleventh Doctor forgets memories from his second regeneration, because his “thought stream” continues over time, he could still be said to be the same Doctor. In the Series 3 episode, Utopia, the Doctor finds another Time Lord who eventually turns out to be the Master. When we meet the Master, he is not aware that he is a Time lord. We discover later that he has constructed a watch to hold his life memories. This watch even rewrote his biology to that of a human instead of a Time Lord. Once he reopens the watch, he regains his memories and changes back into a Time Lord. The Master describes his professor persona as “such a perfect disguise that I forgot who I am”.
Even though his memories were not accessible and his body was not that of a Time Lord, we still consider him to be the Master. Is the potential of returning to his previous state enough to say that he is the Master? One could argue this, but that is shaky grounds for personal identity at the least. Some might argue that memories are not enough to constitute personal identity. What if two different people have the same memories?
Even with the body and memory criteria satisfied, certain characters in the series create complex dilemmas concerning identity. In the series 6 episode The Rebel Flesh, the Doctor is introduced to a substance called “the flesh” which is programmable matter that also seems to have a consciousness. The episode begins by showing workers on an earth factory mining dangerous acid. We see one of these “gangers” fall into the acid painlessly (or so we think) and the real person emerge from their peaceful slumber in another room. It is then explained that these workers are using doppelgangers that they “possess” so that they are not personally harmed. When one of their “gangers” dies or is harmed, they simply make a new one. After an electrical power surge shuts the factory down, the flesh gangers continue to function on their own, continuing to remember their original’s memories, instead of returning to liquid flesh per their design. It suddenly is apparent that the flesh has its own awareness and can even develop more gangers of its own.
One of the new gangers looks and acts exactly like the Doctor, including being able to remember everything the original Doctor does. The only seeming difference is the fact that one developed more recently than the other. Amy, the Doctor’s traveling companion throughout several series, asks the Doctors how they could possibly both be real. He cites the fact that they both have the same memories and they both wear the same bow tie (which is cool). Amy considers the Doctor she thinks is the ganger to be “almost the doctor” to which the Doctor replies, “being almost the Doctor is like being no Doctor at all”, going on to say that she “might as well call [him] Smith”. However it turns out that the Doctors had lied to Amy and she had been favoring the ganger instead of the original.
This distinction of originality seems to be what makes all the difference to Amy. Even though the ganger Doctor contained all of the original Doctor’s memories and looked exactly like him, the other characters still did not see him as the Doctor. The Doctor felt slightly otherwise. While he knew he was not the ganger, he seemed to feel as if there was less of a difference between it and him than did the other characters. It was as if he experienced his own reality in a different way by placing less emphasis on what we might call personal identity or maybe “essence”. Some of the gangers go on to live the lives of the originals who did not survive. The ironic part about all of this is that we later find out that Amy is actually a ganger, except she doesn’t realize this. Her real body is off somewhere else being held captive and her consciousness has been residing in this other body the whole time. Amy was existing as Amy, but not in the way she thought she was.
Rory the Centurion presents one of the most thought-provoking puzzles of all. Rory, Amy’s husband, is the timid character who is always apprehensive about the danger the others so willingly throw themselves into. When saving the Doctor from being shot by a Silurian in the series 5 episode Cold Blood, Rory not only dies after being shot but is erased from history after being absorbed by time energy escaping through a crack in the space-time continuum. After this happens, Amy does not even seem to remember him and it is essentially as if he never existed. However, later in the episode The Pandorica Opens, we find that Rory has somehow ended up in ancient Rome despite the fact that he had been erased from history. He does not remember how he got there, only that he happened to start existing one day as a Roman centurion. Later we find that the Doctor’s enemies have used Amy’s memories to construct a trap, and the Romans helping them, including Rory the Centurion, are actually robots who only think they are human. However, as he is being “activated” he fights it declaring “I’m not going, I am Rory!” Amy begins to remember him, but his memories (technically hers) are not enough to stop the programming as he shoots her.
Even though his body is not human and his memories are not even his own, we still consider him to be Rory. However, he does not meet any of the criteria listed before. You might even be able to argue he does not have a soul but is just a programmed replica. If he were to go back in time and meet the original Rory, would we consider them both to be Rory? Maybe this illustrates the fact that thinking in terms of conventional identity is not enough. Maybe it does not matter who is “real” or not. When the Doctor discovers the true nature of the Romans, he says, “They might think they are real. The perfect disguise. They actually believe their own cover story, right until they’re activated.”
What if we simply believe our own cover story? With this line of reasoning it is not simply enough to feel real. There has to be some outside way to verify our own “authenticity”. In fact, being authentic actually implies change over time. Going back to the Utopia episode, the Doctor illustrates this idea when he is talking to Jack Harkness, the man who cannot die. Due to Rose’s attempt to save Jack from dying in Series 1 episode, The Parting of Ways, her use of the TARDIS’s Time Vortex not only revives him but makes him immortal. Jack never changes, which is extremely off-putting to the Doctor. The Doctor tells Jack, “It’s not easy, even just looking at you, Jack, ‘cause you’re wrong. You’re a fixed point in time and space. You’re a fact. That’s never meant to happen.”
Although we are never given a specific answer to the question, “Doctor Who?”, the Doctor does give us an explanation for the name he goes by. He tells Clara, his travelling companion in Season 7, “The name I chose is the Doctor. The name you choose, it’s like a promise you make.” This brings us to the real question. If the Doctor chose this identity, why do we care so much what his birth name is? It is not evident that his original name holds any special meaning except that his parents gave it to him, or as Nagasena might say, a tool for referencing. We are so caught up with finding the answer that we don’t stop to ask if the question is appropriate.
Maybe “just the Doctor” is not the answer we are looking for but the one we need, because it gets much closer to his identity than any general name could. Even if we never have definitive answers to questions of identity, we still have our story, we still feel real. As the Doctor says to 7 year old Amy in The Big Bang, “We’re all stories, in the end…just make it a good one, eh?” As season 7 comes to a close in “The Time of the Doctor”, the 11th Doctor helps Clara come to terms with his looming regeneration. His explanation makes it sort of ambiguous as to whether the Doctor stays the same when he regenerates or not. He tells Clara, “It all just disappears, doesn’t it? Everything you are, gone in a moment like breath on a mirror. Any moment now, he’s a coming.” Confused, she says “but you’re the Doctor.” In an almost contradictory way, he replies “Yep, and I always will be.” It’s almost like he is saying that he is the Doctor in some ways, yet not in others.
“We all change, when you think about it. We’re all different people all through our lives. And that’s okay, that’s good, you’ve got to keep moving, so long as you remember all the people that you used to be. I will not forget one line of this. Not one day. I swear. I will always remember when the Doctor was me.” – The Doctor (The Time of the Doctor)
Even though we are caught up in all of this “wibbly wobbly, timey wimey stuff”, we can still make sense of it and ourselves in our own way. Doctor Who shows us how getting caught up in the specifics is pointless. The adventure is in the uncertainty.
Davis, T. W. Rhys. “The Questions of King Milinda (SBE35): Book II: The Distinguishing Characteristics of Ethical Qualities: Chapter 1.” Internet Sacred Text Archive. January 1, 1890. Accessed January 24, 2015. http://www.sacred-texts.com/bud/sbe35/sbe3504.htm.
What do you think? Leave a comment.