Mythological Dimensions of Doctor Who
Reviewed by Hugh H. Davis
[This review originally appeared in Mythprint 47:6 (#335) in June 2010.]
In “Tomb of the Cybermen,” from the classic series, the Doctor says, “I love to see the experts at work, don’t you?” Readers of The Mythological Dimensions of Doctor Who may well share the Doctor’s enthusiasm. Despite its longevity (the original series ran from 1963–89, with several spinoffs and continuations through 2005, when the revival series was born), the program has been paid limited scholarly attention, but this collection helps to redress that imbalance. In the more than forty-five years since its debut, Doctor Who has earned many fans and followers of its mythology who are now “the experts at work”. These scholars combine to produce a thoughtful and thought-provoking read, one which raises and answers many questions and also prompts a variety of further topics for discussion.
This volume tackles many fertile topics, both within the corpus of Doctor Who itself and connecting the series to other mythologies, both classic and contemporary. While the idea of discussing the renegade Time Lord in conjunction with Batman comics (Leslie McMurtry, “I Am Vengeance, I Am the Night, I Am … the Doctor?”) seems at first glance an odd comparison (although McMurtry erases doubts by making this case clearly), it is in many ways the most conventional of the comparisons, given the general labeling of Doctor Who as a science-fiction series. However, this collection ably reminds readers/viewers of the limitations of narrow definitions, revealing the mythological aspects of a program which in many ways transcends a single genre. The Mythological Dimensions of Doctor Who intelligently frames the series as fantasy (with a framework that allows the incorporation of different genres), subtly establishing its importance as a conveyor and purveyor of myth.
Other chapters link the series to Campbellian myth and The Lord of the Rings, as in Anthony Burdge’s excellent “The Professor’s Lessons for the Doctor: The Doctor’s Sub-Creative Journey Toward Middle-earth,” a thoroughly inventive and insightful application of Tolkien to both the classic and revived series; the Promethean myth, Vincent O’Brien’s “The Doctor or the (Post) Modern Prometheus,” an illuminating review of mythic possibilities within pop cultural storytelling; and to the Norse legends of the Valkyries, Kristine Larsen and Jessica Burke’s respective parts of “Doctor Who and the Valkyrie Tradition,” two articulate and engaging essays which are both highly readable and educational, both about the mythological Valkyries – contrasting with and complementing popular Wagnerian notions of the warrior women – and how those elements have manifested in the new Who. These essays form the core of the collection, and they overcome an implicit challenge with any work of this type, for these essays must discuss the Doctor Who series in the context of the myths at hand while maintaining balance. Provide too little explanation and the reader can be left behind; offer too much exposition, and chapters bog down. These essays are excellent examples of balancing analysis with explanation, immensely readable and enjoyable while also inviting further thought and discussion.
Other chapters consider the program’s own ever-evolving and developing mythology. These look at the presentations of sacrifice (Melody Green’s “‘It Turns Out they Died for Nothing’: Doctor Who and the Idea of Sacrificial Death”), sentimentality (Matthew Hills’ thoughtful, if theory-heavy, “‘Mythology Makes You Feel Something”: The Russell T. Davies Era as Sentimental Journey”), and moral relativism (Melissa Beattie’s “Life During Wartime: An Analysis of Wartime Morality in Doctor Who”). The back cover suggests this collection occurs “At the Intersection of Canon & Myth.” This is the focal point of Neil Clarke’s “Holy Terror and Fallen Demigod: The Doctor as Myth,” which considers how the show links the Doctor to figures of myth, religion, and fairy tales, noting that the very conception of the character (and, in turn, the show) lends itself to myth. Also intelligently meeting at this intersection is C.B. Harvey’s excellent opening essay, “Canon, Myth, and Memory in Doctor Who,” which discusses the means through which the program’s mythology is determined through collective memory. This chapter also articulates the ever-prevalent (and, for many fans, ever-vexing) canon debate. With Doctor Who’s “transmedia” storytelling, questions of what “counts” as “official” Who are continually posed. As Harvey discusses, the very persistence of that question contributes a further mythological dimension.
The excited fan encountering this collection finds many immediate possibilities to consider, for Doctor Who, as these essays thoroughly demonstrate, is a program which builds—and builds upon—its own myths. These essays offer a mere starting point. This volume, even with its references to the original series, is primarily focused on the first four seasons of the revival. The fifth season, now airing, is built upon mythical allusions, with episodes developing narratives evocative of fairy tales, so the Steven Moffat era is ripe for mythological analysis. Further essay collections could also consider the earlier series and its spin-offs. But in this volume, the experts are at work, and readers/viewers should enjoy The Mythological Dimensions of Doctor Who.