Anthony Burdge, Jessica Burke, Kristine Larsen (editors), The Mythological Dimensions of Doctor Who

With essays covering the entire span of the various Doctor Who television series from 1963 onward, The Mythological Dimensions of Doctor Who addresses various ideas of The Doctor as a mythic figure. Unfortunately, the central premise — the idea that he is in fact mythic — is one that is never successfully supported.

To some degree, this question can be argued as a matter of semantics. How does one define myth? The opening essay, C.B. Harvey’s “Canon, Myth and Memory In Doctor Who,” attempts to establish this by referring to sundry episodes’ excursions into subject matter pertaining to historical myths, such as the Greek gods and Atlantis. Neil Clarke’s “Holy Terror and Fallen Demigod” addresses the question in terms of Campbell’s idea of the Hero’s Journey.

By the time we reach Anthony Burdge’s “The Professor’s Lessons For The Doctor: The Doctor’s Sub-Creative Journey Toward Middle-Earth,” we are presented with logical leaps so extreme as to suggest that, because one character in one episode makes a reference to J.R.R. Tolkien’s work, it then follows that the Doctor and Middle-Earth exist essentially in a mutually compatible set of universes. “The Doctor who travels freely to the past, present and future Earth, can then easily access the Ages of Middle-Earth.” Further, Burdge draws on Tolkien’s principle of sub-creation — that is, mankind emulating the Creator through acts of personal creation — to ask, “Yet, is the world presented on the pages of Tolkien, or in an episode of Doctor Who, a fiction?” He goes on to tell us, “. . .these worlds . . . must be tangible places, parallel to and within our primary world, which likewise suggests that hobbits, wizards, Time Lords, Gandalf, and the Doctor exist as we do. . . .”

As it happens, I have read Tolkien on the subject of sub-creation, and I don’t recall him ever suggesting so extreme an interpretation. On the contrary, not only did the late Professor use his term sub-creation as explicitly distinct from primary or Divine creation, he didn’t even approve of the inconsistent mythological roots of his friend C.S. Lewis’s Narnia. It’s hard to imagine him agreeing that a TARDIS popping up in Gondor or the Shire would be possible within the self-contained reality of his Middle-Earth . . . let alone that his fictive creations are on an equal footing of reality with Divine creation.

With logic like this, it is no wonder the book does not persuade. If you do not already regard the Doctor Who series as mythic, you are unlikely to think otherwise by the time you finish reading. And if you do think of the series in that light, the book is essentially preaching to the choir.

Some of the essays are better than others, to be sure. Melissa Beattie examines the ethics of the Doctor and his race using a consistent set of examples and solid logic, discussing moral relativism and moral lapses in “Life During Wartime: An Analysis of Wartime Morality In Doctor Who.” And while I didn’t find Melody Green’s discussion of sacrificial death as comprehensive or convincing, nonetheless she makes a respectable case for her premise in “‘It Turns Out They Died For Nothing’: Doctor Who And The Idea Of Sacrificial Death,” addressing the causes for which certain characters voluntarily give their lives in the course of the series.

The problems come up whenever anyone tries to justify the title of the anthology. To me, it seems that in order to qualify as mythic, a tale must address some aspect of the eternal human condition on a deeper-than-rational level. It must successfully reach into something akin to Jungian or Platonic archetype and either express that archetype afresh or expand on it in some effective and enlightening way. It can be done in fiction, to be sure. Among living authors (at least), Neil Gaiman manages it on a regular basis; so does Charles de Lint.

These essayists take a more liberal view. In this volume, Russell T. Davies (who is primarily responsible for the series as it stands today, beginning in 2005) is quoted as saying, “Mythology is simple and emotional! Mythology makes you feel something.” But even aside from the fact that the simplicity of myth is (at the very least) debatable, those two sentences do not constitute a definition. Any decent piece of art makes you feel something: be it something as simple as disgust (over a piece of bad or mediocre art), or something as complex as the evocation of tears or laughter, or inspiration of thought or spirit. That doesn’t make it mythic. It could be argued, in fact, that that’s merely what makes it art.

The Mythological Dimensions Of Doctor Who does offer some interesting insights and a good deal of information that — to me, at least — was news. Like Christopher Eccleston, the actor who opened the new series as the Doctor in 2005, I’d never cared for Doctor Who before, and as such, I’d paid no attention to the novelisations. Some of those appear to be worth a look in and of themselves, and I would never have found that out without reading this book.

Still and all, in the course of these essays, examples from the various series are given to suggest that the Doctor is Merlin (based on some references in an episode or two), and that just about every strong or forceful female character who’s ever appeared in the series is some variety of manifestation of the Valkyrie myth (based on some very questionable research and even more questionable interpretation of the myths in question). Parallels are drawn between the Doctor and Prometheus, between the Doctor and the Batman. Indeed, the terms used to make this last comparison succeed in stating a decent case for the Doctor having achieved the status of cultural icon. But it’s a long step from cultural icon to myth.

So while The Mythological Dimensions of Doctor Who fails to make its case very effectively, it does offer some intriguing history for those who are unfamiliar with the details of the series and its developments from the black & white days to the present.

Russell T. Davies’ re-envisioning of Doctor Who has produced some excellent science fiction and fantasy. At times it has moved me and delighted me. I do not believe that it qualifies as mythic. The most essential argument presented in this collection — to wit that incorporating elements of ancient myth into a storyline are sufficient to render the storyline itself mythic — would seem to suggest that such works as Xena, Warrior Princess and Battlestar Galactica are also mythic . . . and my brain simply won’t stretch that far.

(Kitsune Books, 2010)

About Gereg Jones Muller

Gereg has been teaching international weaponry arts for over thirty years, playing traditional and original music for over forty years, and writing for nearly fifty years. He plays several musical instruments, and has performed at Renaissance Faires, pubs, high schools, and the Ben Lomond Highland Games. His poetry has been published in Charles deLint’s short-lived “Beyond the Fields We Know” magazine, The Chunga Review, and the Towne Cryer. In 1980 he founded the Yeomen of the Queen’s Guard at the original Renaissance Faire in Agoura, California; he’s been Musical Director for the Guild of St. Luke at the Northern California Renaissance Faire; he played Morris music for Seabright Morris and Sword in Santa Cruz, California, and taught teen martial arts programs in International Swordplay for several years through the Santa Cruz Parks and Recreation Dep’t. At present he’s working on a novel combining Renaissance sword arts, the Reformation, historical paganism and English Fairy traditions. Inevitably, it’s predicted as a trilogy. Dedicated to developing a tradition of marital romantic poetry, he’s generally working on a sonnet or a song for his wife. He’s trying desperately to win the Renaissance Man Sweepstakes, and continues to labour under the delusion that that will get him something.