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.
I want to see Disney bring Doctor Who into the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It’s been done in the comics, why couldn’t a movie crossover work?
8th season was undoubtedly the BEST season since the show came back. Capaldi is PERFECT as the Doctor and the writing has MASSIVELY improved from the mediocre Smith years. Robot Of Sherwood and the forest episode were both pretty bad, literally everything else was EXCELLENT, which isn’t something I can say for most seasons. I’m also glad they turned Clara into a FAR better character than she was last year. And credit to Moffat for actually writing a story arc well for once. Best series yet.
Worst season of Doctor Who to date.
Terrible plots with ri-di-cu-lous resolutions and waaaaaaay too much time spent on Earth.
If I want to see England, I watch literally any other series than Doctor Who.
That was definitely the worst season of Doc Who ever! Terrible scripts, annoying focus on Clara and Danny Pink and ridiculous storylines. In no way was this season “dark” the episodes themselves may had dark themes however they had no consequences! All issues were resolved within the episode i.e. Clara chose to BLOW UP THE MOON and it was “magically” replaced with a new moon! That’s not dark it’s ridiculous! I cannot believe this show is written by the same people who write Sherlock!
I agree. Something went wrong in the writing dept.
I agree. Something went wrong in the writing dept.
I’ve seen the show only once and it was so bad that I’ll never watch it again.
Only recently got into Who but marathoned all 7 seasons. Now my daughter is a Whovian.
I’d love to see am episode where the Doctor finally puts an end to the poison of humanity. i.e religion.
The poison isn’t religion, it is money.
No, love of money.
I thought broad brushing was the poison of humanity?
I have a question, I really want to watch this show but I don’t know where to start. What season should be the first to see?
Just start with the first series of the new who. It was made to be a good starting point. People tend to not be a huge fan of the 9th Doctor but it’s important for the plot of the 10th Doctor and you should not miss David Tennant’s run. 9 regenerates at the end of the 1st series.
Start with Eccleston. If you have the same tastes as me, it will be a continuous improvement until you reach season 7 (the last with Smith, which I really didn’t like).
Watch the episodes “Blink,” “Silence in the Library,” “Midnight,” and “The Snowmen.” All on Youtube, I think.
Start with the reboot by Russell T. Davies, hence the ninth Doctor.
One thing I felt these past seasons were missing was an epic soundtrack. I used to get goosebumps listening to that music when Matt Smith was about to deus ex machina his way out of a problem. But, apart from that, it’s been decent, and Capaldi sure is a top bloke!
Yeah, the “Matt Smith is about to do something badass” theme is my favourite too ! This just gave you wings. 🙂
I like watching Doctor Who mostly because it suspends reality, and I do not even care. It somehow submerges you into this ridiculous world where reality is not longer important. It I ever stop to examine it or even try to explain the show to someone, it sounds outrageous. Just watch it and enjoy.
I know the feeling, it is the funniest thing trying to explain the show to someone. I usually just give up and tell them to watch it. Even though it does suspend reality at times, in the near distant future we will acquire technology that brings us similar dilemmas that the characters in the show face. So, while it is fun to think about now, it is also very important for the future.
That last quote that you mention, from The Time of the Doctor, is so lovely for its ability to relate to it, but it is, as you say, also very ambiguous, in particular when he says, “I will always remember when the Doctor was me.” He doesn’t say he’ll remember when, “I was the Doctor.” Such a distinction has to have meaning, and I’m sure that a lot of it can be found in the points you make throughout your article.
I recall that in my high-school, freshman biology class, the teacher was explaining what a genus was, which he described as a hierarchical ranking of different species. We didn’t exactly get what he was saying, so he described an animal, let’s just say the gray wolf, whose designation would be Canis Lupus. Canis would be like your surname, he said, which describes the larger family you come from. Lupus would be the name that describes who you specifically are, whether it be a Sarah, Harold, or Danielle and how that makes you an original being in your family’s ancestry. But even then, we are still above our names in that we are given the duty of creating who we are. In the vast, incomprehensible history of humanity, there has undoubtedly been another August Merz (though who knows if they shared my middle name, Francisco). But can they be said to be the same simply because they possessed my name before I did? Did they enjoy the same things I did, or to the same degree? I like reading, maybe they liked horseback riding, in the end, it wouldn’t really matter since we were our own selves, and we aren’t bound by the distinctions that our names give us.
Similarly, one could extend this idea to psychology, as you point out. If two people enjoy the same things, but aren’t even related, can they still be said to be exactly the same people? Even then, I’d figure, the answer is no since they both come from different backgrounds, and unless they lived together through a series of parallels, they cannot be truly called the same person.
Which brings us back to the Doctor, and his promise that he’ll never forget when he had the chance to be the Doctor (quite the conundrum). In essence, what I think he’s saying is that he belongs to a specific genus (the Time Lords) and, in a way, to a species (the Doctor), and yet, he is still something deeper. He’s isn’t the same Doctor just because there have been 10 other iterations before him, but rather, is an individual who shares similar traits, and who did his best to be his own person.
In the end, there is no straight answer concerning the question “who am I?”. Philosophers, theologians, writers, and scholars have all wondered what that truly means. But while there may not be any one answer, the best one could be that it is what we make of ourselves, and how we choose to honor the gift of life.
This was a very good article, and found it both stimulating and enjoyable.
This is a great perspective! I never thought about it that way. I know there are a lot of philosophers who might argue that, over the course of our lifetime, we are constituted of a multiplicity of selves. From a psychological viewpoint, this could be seen as adopting different personalities or personas within different contexts. From this perspective, each Doctor is like an embodied “persona” arising out of the Doctor’s “essence” if you will. This kind of seems similar, yet less organized, than your perspective. Thanks for sharing!
I think another character that works interestingly in relation to the ganger Doctor and Rory the Centurion is Jackson Lake from the 2008 Christmas special “The Next Doctor.” He is ostensibly the Doctor in that he fully “believes his own cover story” (ie. that he is The Doctor, with a TARDIS of a different kind and a sonic screwdriver that is sonic in only its ability to make sound). But what he doesn’t have access to, and what ultimately makes his cover story only that and not a real identity, is the memories that makes the Doctor innately the Doctor. When he does gain access to these memories through the Doctor’s intervention and the Cybertechnology infostamp, the illusion is shattered and his true identity is made readily known.
This was a truly fascinating read and very accessible to someone who knows as little about philosophy as I do. Great work!
That’s a great example, too! Doctor Who is basically one giant philosophical thought experiment. That’s one of the reasons I love it so much.
I felt as an adult now watching Capaldi as I did being a kid watching Tom Baker. Chicks loved Tenant, nerds loved Smith, but Capaldi was a man’s Doctor, one with vulnerablities, confusion, moral dilemmas that weren’t easily solved but a big-ass pair of brass balls to boot.
More people loved Tennant than chicks.
I remember when I was youger, everyone was mad about Tennant and Doctor who. He won a BAFTA for it I think, or was nominated. In fact its because of him that the show’s fan base is so large now.
But I do really like Capaldi.
Season 8 was one of my favourite seasons so far and Capaldi nailed it.
My issues with this Doctor weren’t as much his mean personality as there was no reason for it. Before regenerating the Doctor discovers that the mass destruction he believed himself responsible for that haunted him for so much if his life never happened. All that weight was lifted. This should be the happiest Doctor there has ever been. There’s no reason to become a nasty grump. But he did manage to bring me around in the last half of the season. It took a while but I really like this Doctor now
CAPALDI! EYEBROWS! Nuff said…
I’m really into the doctor atm. Good thing is, the episodes I liked, I REALLY liked. Bad thing, the ones I didn’t, I REALLY didn’t. Overall, it ended up being pretty much half an half which was annoying. But already Capaldi is my favourite Doctor since the reboot.
It’s weird,this latest doctor feels like he cares very little about Earth or life in general.Just kinda off from the others.
On the contrary, the doctor usually acted like this, but then the new series writers turned him in a “protector of earth” type superhero (namely RTD) but now we’ve gone back to the classic type of doctor.
This is a fantastic article. I really really enjoyed this and the connections you made between philosophical concepts and the development of Doctor Who are convincing and persuasive. Indeed – we preoccupy ourselves with searching for answers we definitely forget to examine the questions and what they, themselves convey. This has definitely left me musing for a while, thank you.
Thank you! It’s good to know that I’ve been able to give some decent food for thought.
I like Capaldi as the Doctor, but this series was underwhelming as a whole.
Wow most interesting philosophical elements presented here. Great stuff!My favorite part about last series was not only capaldi’s excellent and different take on the doctor, but also how each episode was relatively self contained, save for the finale pt 1 and 2. It didn’t let its self get bogged down by an overarching plot that was a bit to complicated for its own good (though I like them, it was a fault I had in seasons 5, and 7). The new monsters that were introduced, like the 2 dimensional zombies and the moon spiders were really creepy and creative as well. Over all a great season, but one complaint was the insistance on making clara the main character. She’s fine and I don’t hate her as much as other fans do (Jenna Colemann is very easy on the eyes) but I wanted to see more of capaldi’s doctor in action. Also I never came to like danny this season even when he acted heroically at the end. I hope in the christmas special he gets more screen time and maybe it will give me more of an opportunity to come to like him.
Can’t wait to see where 12 goes from here.
Capaldi’s Doctor is reminding me a little bit of Rick (Rick & Morty) and honestly, I would love if the doctor was even more like Rick 😀
Liked Capaldi Disappointed with the writing again. It really needs a new injection of energy in my opinion.
Capaldi is exactly the sort of doctor the show needs right now, as much as I loved Matt we needed a doctor who’d be less openly friendly and really shake things up for the companion. Having the doctor be a bit of a prick really brought out the strength of Clara, who I felt was very “vanilla” in series 7.
Capaldi is great and made the most of what he had to work with.
A very strong article that has rejuvenated my excitement for the show!
Dr Who works best when it plays it close and personal.
Doctor Who has always been hit or miss and I’m glad recently there was more hits.
I wish that Clara hadn’t found out the Doctor’s name. It’s like you said – the question is more important than the answer.
I agree with you. Before reading this article I’d never considered the philosophical implications of the implicit question “Doctor Who,” but I’d always recognized the question as an important premise for the show. As a scifi show with a main character that isn’t human but so closely resembles human kind, the mysteries of the Time Lords are an essential part to its adventurous fiction. Naming the Doctor takes away part of this mystery, and places emphasis on the Doctor as an individual rather than an idea or amalgam of character traits and actions.
Great use of different philosophical perspectives–especially with Nagasena! I have not seen Dr. Who…but after reading some of these lines from the show I am intrigued. I always thought that I was the only one in the dark about his name, since I didn’t watch it. Now I realize that being “The Doctor” is his identity that he makes for himself. You delve well into the complex matter of identity and the fact that knowing someone goes far beyond simply knowing their name. When I finally get into Doctor Who, I’ll be thinking about this article…
Thank you! I’m glad you enjoyed it.
I’d love to see them do a film with McGann.
“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?”
Auton Rory did have his own memories, though. Constructing him based on Amy’s memories caused Rory’s actual soul to be pulled in through the time cracks, because her mind had been affected by exposure to the crack in her bedroom. Hence her ability to bring back the Doctor by remembering him, and Rory’s memories of his existence as an Auton after being restored as a human to the timeline.
I like your perspective. Now we are not only thinking about personal identity, but identity in relation to others. Can someone else’s mind control or affect someone else’s soul/essence/etc? The Doctor makes it clear to Amy that he believes Rory still “lives in her mind”. The writers left it a bit vague as to what exactly happened with Rory’s memories. Was it his actual essence that was pulled through, or was it simply memories perfectly reconstructing a copy of his essence? While writing this I had a thought experiment in mind by Derek Parfit. My short and sweet version probably can’t do it justice, but it’s basically this: A teleportation machine is built in Utah designed to entirely reconstruct a copy of someone (body, memories, the whole deal) and send that information (not the actual matter) to the teleportation machine in London. A person steps into the machine in Utah, is scanned for information, and that information is sent to London where the copy is constructed. The catch is that the person’s body in Utah is actually destroyed, but from the perspective of the copy person in London, nothing actually happened. The question then becomes this, if the Utah machine malfunctioned, so that the original person was not destroyed, would the copy still be considered the same person? Would we take it to mean that one person’s soul could inhabit two bodies?
I think from that perspective, I would ask this; would it be possible for both Auton Rory and human Rory to exist at the same time? I was simply trying to go a step further with Rory’s situation and suggest that we might not consider him to be Rory if the original Rory were also present. The point of this passage was to think about originality and how that matters in personal identity. If you took it to be the case that his literal soul was pulled through the time cracks by Amy, you might not see Rory’s situation as being much of a problem for his identity. The question then becomes, what is a soul? I obviously have no answer for that, but it’s fun to think about. Thanks for your perspective!
Well, the Doctor outright said that was what happened. And human Rory remembers being Auton Rory, which means there was an essence that was in the body of the Auton and is now back in the body of the human. Therefore they could only coexist through time travel.
(Read in River Song’s voice) “Rule one: The Doctor lies”. Haha, just kidding. I hope you don’t think I’m trying to push any specific perspective. I really like yours and it feels awesome to see something I’ve written causing others to think on a deeper level. I appreciate your comments. 🙂
“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.”
That would be true except that the Doctor and others have hinted there’s a terrible secret attached to his birth name and that’s why he doesn’t tell it to anyone (except River Song).
I’m glad you brought that up. His name does have secrets attached to it. I should have worded that passage better. It might have been better for me to focus on attitudes of characters who had just met the Doctor. They lacked this context yet were still uncomfortable by the fact that he refused to give them his name. From that perspective, you can see better what I am trying to get at. They want a normal name so badly that they don’t stop to think if that will really tell them who someone is. Thanks for the comment!
Very interesting article, great job!
Even when I watched the show religiously I never fully understood the story arch when Rory was erased and came back as a Roman, it seemed a bit too convenient. That aside though this is an interesting argument and I think it’s something the show tries to make a point of a lot, that it doesn’t actually matter who the Doctor is and that it’s more important what he decides to do (but the mystery of who he is makes it even more compelling to watch).
First thing about Doctor Who I’ve read in a while that actually made me think. Sweet article.
The show certainly questions the nature of identity and how it’s affected by everything from physical change to our names to what we decide to make of ourselves.
A great deal of this thematic work has its origins in the basic facts of the production – namely that the actor playing the main character changes and that change is acknowledged within the story world as opposed to something like James Bond. And the idea of identity has always been a more or less acknowledged underlying theme in the series, but the revival has made it a much more central thematic point.
When looked at this way, Doctor Who almost seems to take on a fable like role. Where it continually discusses identity in changing ways that parallel the way identity changes over-time. Even the way the shows viewership’s collective identity warps and changes as new people start watching and others stop watching.
Excellent article! I’ve always thought the question of who the Doctor “is” is a central theme in the show. Not so much his name but, as you point out, his identity. You’ve given many examples.
Another that comes to mind is is in the episode “A Good Man Goes to War,” in which someone (maybe Madame Kovarian?) says that based on the Doctor’s past behavior, “doctor” appears to mean “soldier.” The Doctor is taken aback. He chose the name “The Doctor” because of the belief that doctors help people, not hurt them. Now the name is interpreted to mean the opposite of what he intended.
Incidentally, I know everyone has different preferences for one actor over another. But I’m puzzled by those who consider Peter Capaldi the best. I’m sorry, whatever one says about his interpretation of the particular Doctor he plays, Capaldi just isn’t in the same league (in acting ability) as Matt Smith or David Tennant.
There’s a great episode entitled Deep Breath with the twelfth Doctor that exemplifies the Ship of Theseus thought experiment that I think you referred to. The Doctor is the embodiment of the question “who am I?” With the emphasis on the question “Doctor who?” in the revival of 2005, people are able to identify more with this mythic sage. He’s thousands of years old, and still has no idea who he is. He reminds me of Alice in Lewis Carroll’s eminent books; Alice can’t give an accurate account of who she is because she has changed so often. With the Doctor’s many faces, he is a reflection of all of us at once.
Great read 🙂 gotta say though, I’ll be glad to see Clara gone… She was much better as a Victorian nanny… Amy and Rory 4 lyfe!!
woah…. that makes sooo mcuh sense. I luv DW even more now…
I can’t believe I’ve never thought about Doctor Who through more philosophical means. This article was very eye-opening! Thank you! I’d never thought too much about analyzing the themes of identity outside of the character of the Doctor and I really enjoyed looking at Rory’s own identity in particular since he was always a favorite of mine.
Good article about the Doctor’s identity. My brother and I began watching DW a few months ago, and we enjoy it immensely. The show carries some interesting themes. Going into it with the mindset of it being quirky, cheesy, and fun, I was surprised by some of the darker elements and the depth.
All true and yet still mind-blowing and exhiliratingly beautiful as you are unsure if it is true. Dr who or the article? Both 😄
I’ve loved this show for so long but now my perspective has completely shifted ever since I read this article. I always thought the show was more than just an adventure show for kids but to see all these philosophical concepts being applied so well to the show just proves how this show is meant for absolutely anyone! Thank you!
Whenever the doctor regenerates, he’s completely different.
Enjoyed reading about the different instances throughout the show where various characters have difficulty defining their identity and the philosophical questions that raises – great article!
I’m just gonna say, i love capaldi and i hate clara. I hate her with both of my hearts!
This is a fantastic analysis of a complex topic. Well done!
The question is always more important than the answer for all doctors.
Wow, I loved this article! It was incredibly poignant and it really hits home on the nature of identity. As a huge Doctor Who fan, I liked the way you contrasted the Doctor’s identity with elements about the TARDIS as well. 🙂