St John Karp

Ramblings of an Ornamental Hermit

The Anarchist Doctor Who

or: Matt Smith Stole My Jimmy-Jams

Shockeye o' the Quawncing Grig
Shockeye, ship’s cook, about to get chloroformed by the Sixth Doctor (“The Two Doctors”).

Doctor Who is an amazing show with almost as many flaws as perfections — but I refuse to trash-talk Doctor Who. There’s enough of that on the Internet and I have no intention of adding to the sad whinging about “Russell T. Davies ♥ David Tennant”, “Steven Moffat eats babies” or “Matt Smith stole my jimmy-jams”. Any particular actor or writer will only ever be a phase in the show’s potentially infinite lifetime. If you still don’t believe I’m not having a go, I can safely reveal that I’m a massive fan of the show and always will be. I love it, pure and simple. It was a huge part of my childhood and is one of the delicious pleasures of my adulthood. Visitors come from far and wide to gawk at my Doctor Who wall with a mixture of awe, pity and sexual envy. The thing is, having watched, read and listened to Doctor Who in all its incarnations, I’ve noticed two problems at the core of the show — two contradictions that run deep and are essentially irreconcilable. One is the Doctor’s xenophilia vs. Doctor Who‘s xenophobia. The other is the Doctor’s status as both a rebel against and a symbol of the status quo. El problemo.

It’s hard to describe the essence of Doctor Who to people who don’t understand it. Where do you start to talk about a show that’s run for nigh on 50 years? How do you sum it up in 30 seconds at a crowded party? This is the best I’ve figured out: it’s a show about libertarianism; a love of strange things; a love of exploration; a love of eccentricity; and the defence of the rights of the individual against the establishment. This is probably why gay people have always felt at home with Doctor Who, because it defends diversity and doesn’t preach any Earth-bound political or religious agenda. Compare that with Star Trek or Stargate, which are chock-a-block with dogmatic, imperialist claptrap. Doctor Who doesn’t play tin soldiers.

Xenophilia ties directly in to everything I’ve just mentioned. If you’re a libertarian eccentric who loves exploring new things, you can’t help but love aliens. And the Doctor does. His first reaction upon seeing deadly, monstrous and infernal creatures is inevitably a sort of wonderment. He gushes at the City of the Exxilons. He raves about space-age clockwork. He is practically orgasmic upon discovering werewolves. The Doctor can’t help but love all the strange, cool things that the universe can produce. But: the show can’t abide this. It is an Earth-bound show and it needs to entertain its audience to get ratings. It needs adventures, and you don’t get good adventures without good baddies. Sure there are plenty of stories where the aliens are good guys or the Earth-men are bad guys1, but overwhelmingly the aliens turn out to be bastards. Even if the monsters aren’t specifically evil, we’re all too happy to regard them as disposable — things we can kill and forget without worrying our consciences too hard, like in “Vincent and the Doctor”. There’s no getting around it, it has to happen for the show to maintain its drama. And that’s a problem.

Unfortunately it’s not a problem with a ready solution. I suppose you could create more character-based villains rather than defaulting to “funny-looking = evil”, but that would require so much more depth and subtlety than the show has really had. Which isn’t a criticism — that’s just the kind of show we bought into. It started as a half-hour tea-time family entertainment and carries on today in adventure-packed one-hour episodes. Scary monsters are just a part of that. Doctor Who doesn’t have the time to become a character-driven drama and even if it did manage to turn itself into Downton Abbey it would be a totally different show. Despite the Doctor’s own xenophilia, Doctor Who has to be a xenophobic show.

The Doctor's glee at causing the Great Fire of Rome.
The Doctor’s glee at causing the Great Fire of Rome (“The Romans”).

The Doctor’s anarchic, rebellious tendencies are a slightly subtler problem. It’s harder to tackle and to reconcile because the Doctor, like real people, is capable of behaving in contradictory ways at the same time. On one hand the Doctor is a rebel and an anarchist. He ditched his own stuffy planet, he topples dictatorships and bureaucracies with glee and has no qualms about seeing the best laid plans go to hell in a handbasket. This is probably the Doctor I love best, the one who is never happier than when he’s stirring up shit. I’ll never love him more than in “The Macra Terror”. Here I lay down my pen because I can’t do better than quote Robert Shearman in Running Through Corridors:

[The Doctor] arrives in a place that is happy, and the first thing he does is seek out the one man who believes in monsters. And it isn’t with any fear, or out of a sense of concern, no — he listens to Medok’s tale about swarms of insects with eager glee. This is the anarchist Doctor, never in his element more than when he can be the fly in the ointment, the one man in an idyllic society who’ll find its weakness and bring it crashing down around everyone’s heads.2

So why does this man go and flip-flop on us? Why does he maintain the course of history at all costs3? Why does he back away from rewriting the base code of the universe4? Why does he strive to preserve the status quo rather than tear down a stagnant world and watch something new grow up in its place? It’s another significant contradiction at the very core of Doctor Who. I suppose mere chaos would be boring, but realistically I think there are two constraints on the Doctor’s anarchy. One is imposed by the show — it has to reflect the real world. The Doctor can’t rewrite the Earth’s history because the show has to reflect the timeline as we know it. The other constraint is the Doctor’s own character. He is the last symbol of the conservative order of the Time Lords. Even though he rebelled against them he has been too heavily programmed by them to totally reject their laws. The Doctor’s one attempt to ditch the laws of time in “The Waters of Mars” did not encourage him to repeat the experiment.

The Gatherer.
The Gatherer gets lynched as his empire topples (“The Sunmakers”).

I’ve mentioned “The Waters of Mars”, but does Doctor Who make any other experiments in pure, pleasurable chaos? My favorite has to be the Meddling Monk, a Time Lord who acts like an unethical version of the Doctor. The Monk is a schoolboy who kicks ants’ nests just to watch them scurry. He’s not actually evil, he just thinks it would be a hoot to give atomic bazookas to King Harold and watch him stick it to William the Conqueror. I kind of agree, though that’s probably more telling about me than it is about the Doctor. This is the Disney version of Doctor Who when rewriting time was still just for fun. We get a much darker version of the same thing if we’re allowed to delve into more dubious canon — Grandfather Paradox, the leader of Faction Paradox5. While the Monk is an interesting parallel to the Doctor, Grandfather Paradox actually is the Doctor, only corrupted by an evil Gallifreyan death cult. By crossing the timestream and saving even one life the Doctor would render time meaningless and paradox supreme. “On Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays we’ll knock the universe down, and Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays we’ll build it up again.” The Doctor’s response is telling: “In a life where death has no meaning? Where heroism is redundant, sacrifice a joke?”6 It is his familiar appeal to preserve the status quo.

Doctor Who‘s ephemeral problems do interest me, but they come and go. Only two real conundrums go right to the show’s core and span its entire lifetime. While the Doctor loves aliens, our beloved show can’t help but cast them as villains. While the Doctor loves anarchy he also defends the status quo. I’m not out to change these — after all, this is the show I fell in love with — but I do wonder what Doctor Who might have been in a different world. I wouldn’t ever want to see Doctor Who recast as Downton Abbey, but subtler villains can’t go amiss and can be just as cool as big scary monsters. I wouldn’t want to see the Doctor stand for nothing at all, but at the same time I live for the day he’ll set the world on fire just to watch the pretty colors it makes as it burns.


  1. These date as far back as “The Rescue” and “Galaxy 4” to more recent stories like “The Beast Below”. 

  2. Shearman & Hadoke, 197. We also get a strong hint of the Doctor’s sheer glee at destruction in “The Romans” when he seems positively tickled that he might be responsible for the Great Fire. 

  3. From “The Aztecs” on, the Doctor rants endlessly about the importance of maintaining the timeline. If the timeline were altered, wouldn’t some new timeline arise in its place? Would that be a bad thing? 

  4. “School Reunion”. So what if our failures define us? Why couldn’t we be defined by something new? 

  5. For Faction Paradox see the BBC’s range of Eighth Doctor Adventures published in the late 90s and early 2000s. For Grandfather Paradox in particular check out Peter Anghelides and Stephen Cole’s gripping novel The Ancestor Cell

  6. Anghelides & Cole, 237. 

  • Anghelides, Peter & Cole, Stephen. The Ancestor Cell. London: BBC Worldwide, 2000. Print.

  • Shearman, Robert & Hadoke, Toby. Running Through Corridors vol. 1. Des Moines: Mad Norwegian Press, 2010. Print.