Wednesday, 5 February 2014

Doctor Who: from wizard to superhero


The early Doctor Who (canonical incarnations one to seven - from William Hartnell to Sylvester McCoy) was a wizard - but the revived Doctor Who is a superhero.

This shows itself in many way, but mostly in relation to sex: a wizard is celibate and asexual - the revived Doctor is sexually-interested and sometimes has girlfriends - even a wife.


Obviously a wizard cannot be married!

Think of the great wizards: Merlin, Gandalf, Dumbledore, it imaginable that any had a wife?

Equally, they cannot have a girlfriend nor indeed any kind of sexual infatuation; and if they do, then they will be punished and lose their powers - if they do not repent.

Think Merlin and Nimue - which got him imprisoned in an oak tree/ crystal cave; think Dumbledore and Grindlewald - which led to the death of his sister but then repentance.


The new Doctor Who is all about smutty innuendos, snogging, declarations of undying love to (serial) companions, besotted companions, and so on - that is the stuff of superheroes.

The sex prohibition for wizards is absolutely non-negotiable, because we are dealing with an archetype: a basic, universal, fixed, symbolic figure.

However, in making the Doctor a sexual being, he has changed archetype: the revived Doctor Who is now a warrior, not a wizard - because the superhero is a version of the warrior archetype.

Warriors are, of course, exactly the kind of people to have a string of (ahem) 'girlfriends' and to become the objects of sexual infatuation like the revived Doctor.


So with the revived Doctor Who we have gone from Merlin to Lancelot, from Gandalf to Boromir, from Dumbledore to Sirius Black, and from Getafix to Asterix (sort of...).

A poor exchange, in my opinion.



TE said...

It seems moderns just can't relate to a sexually disinterested character, unless he is old or nonhuman. I was also annoyed that the new Sherlock Holmes (both Hollywood movie and BBC TV show) is a sexual being when a key part of Sherlock Holmes' character is his lack of interest in sex despite being otherwise Bohemian.

Samson J. said...

It seems moderns just can't relate to a sexually disinterested character

A perennial favourite topic of mine - not sex per se, I mean, but the question of why we can't have literature, movies, platonic friendships, etc., without sexuality clouding the picture. At my former blog I had an interesting (to me) post about the character of Boromir and whether or not it was believable that he was celibate for his whole life. Perhaps, perhaps not - but it's striking that I feel the need to ask the question.

The Continental Op said...

Maybe God has given our society in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. There is precedent.

SFG said...

"It seems moderns just can't relate to a sexually disinterested character."

Wisdom, there. He's got to be secretly gay, or something like that, but the idea that one might actually have other preoccupations is not believable.

I do wonder what young magicians get up to before they become wizards. Too much Dungeons & Dragons, perhaps. ;)

SFG said...

But more apropos of Dr. Who (yes, you've got me on this one, sorry):

1. You can partly blame Russell T. Davies, who was gay and inserted a lot of that in there.

2. They're working a lot harder to appeal to women (somewhat successfully, I find). As a result, you need romance subplots, and the Doctor can't get married or he'd be tied down.

3. Nerdy fanboys (or shall we say introverted young men?) are still a huge part of the audience, so there's always something juvenile about the relationships.

Don said...

This is part of the reason I believe they added the elf woman to 'The Hobbit' movies. Every show must have an overtly sexual component. Even, maybe especially the Disney tv shows.


vultureofcritique said...

Epicurean non-celibate wizards:
Cornelius Agrippa
most Renaissance magicians

Celibate wizards:
Comte de St.Germain
Isaac Newton

Married wizards:
King Solomon

Dubious cases that require more research:
Norse magicians
Mahometan magicians
some ancients such as Apollonius of Tyana

Note that many wizards have also been priests (whether Christian or otherwise).

I don't think wizards were always celibate. I think wizards are a subtype of shamans, and shamans often engage in temporary celibacy, and some shamans are permanently celibate.

David stanley said...

I have hardly watched the programme since the days of Tom Baker but does anyone else agree the age of the actor playing the doctor seems to go down slightly with each regeneration. Maybe this is just the effect of my own ageing in relation to the doctors age. William Hartnell,Troughton and Pertwee were grandad figures. The recent versions appear to be quite young men. Perhaps it reflects the collapse in authority of older men in society. I am surprised there is no campaign for an Asian female lesbian Doctor Who. That's my prediction.

Bruce Charlton said...

@voc - Thanks for that contribution - but you cannot refute my point because it is based on archetypes, not empirical data!

(And, of course, I claim infallibility on the subject of archetypes.)


@DavidS - Maybe, but the next Doctor is Peter Capaldi, who is 55 (i.e. in the last quarter of a Biblical lifespan) and therefore older than Hartnell (although he doesn't look as old).

Capaldi has something special as an actor, and is capable of becoming the best Doctor since Tom Baker, in my opinion - but it all depends on the scripts...

Personally, I would like to see a Doctor with a long grey (or white) beard...

JP said...


"Nerdy fanboys (or shall we say introverted young men?) are still a huge part of the audience"

These are precisely the people who should understand and relate to sexually disinterested / celibate / asexual men. That's what they are themselves! Not always by choice, but often enough.

Albrecht said...

Of course Dr. Who is a player.

In contemporary society there is an unstated but well-enforced standard that every single individual (even fictional figures) must have a "sex life." There are perhaps no more despised figures today than the spinster and the openly celibate male (especially if he is avowedly so). On such people it is permissible to dump any amount of scorn and contempt. Even the child molester, though still officially censured, is afforded grudging acknowledgement of his having sexual "needs" which he is compelled to "fulfill", however "inappropriately."

A man may even seduce and marry a child whom he raised as if he were her father (that he was not her father by law is another token of our moral disorder) and still be lionized as the greatest auteur of the age. Were he to declare himself to be not "sexually active" (even when pushing eighty) his smelly oeuvre would instantly plummet in critical esteem to the level of the gutter, where it belongs.

I have it on good authority that these days sexual peer pressure on girls begins in earnest around age twelve. All manner of modes of "sexual expression" are taught to children by the school "authorities" themselves. Those who can't readily attract attention from the opposite sex are encouraged to engage in dangerous and unsanitary para-sexual activities with others of the same sex. All sex is good and all MUST partake. (Pregnancy and birth, however, are evil.)

Sixty years ago, Elvis was barely fit for TV. Today, his words might as well be engraved over the school house door: "If you can't find a partner, use a wooden chair."

Arakawa said...


A long, white beard? Naaw, that would make it way too obvious....


I once saw one of those inane Tumblr petitions calling for the next Doctor to be, and I quote, "a ginger woman of colour"... does that count?

Personally, I can kind of see how a female Doctor-type character might work -- at a first approximation, the result would probably resemble Miss Marple with a sonic screwdriver. But I don't think the Tumblr punters would be very happy with that picture. Certainly, the celibate archetype would be even more of a must. I would point out that, if hypothetically we make it the Doctor as opposed to just a different character, it probably requires angelic levels of celibacy for a character to come across as sufficiently androgynous (in behaviour, not appearance) or de-sexualized to switch from male to female and have the audience believe that the change is organic (to the degree of a regeneration) and they're still the same person.

A young, sexualized lady Doctor, on the other hand, would be... a barrel of groans. Not to mention that there's been no shortage of interesting female characters and interesting female Time Lord characters, and interesting female characters who drive a TARDIS and know enough wizardly technical mumbo-jumbo to outwit the evil aliens, already on the show, and more can always be added... what does making the good Doctor another one of these actually add to the concept, besides political signalling?

I suppose ironically, the people who ideologically are the first to clamour for a female Doctor, are probably the least likely to produce a concept of the character that would actually begin to work.

Arakawa said...

Thinking about this some more in terms of archetypes....

The celibate wizard archetype is someone who acquires supernatural gifts, the price for which is celibacy; in some sense, this symbolizes a 'pure', intellectual existence detached from the life of the body (this is even more clear with the Doctor, because his 'magic' is ostensibly based on science and technology, rather than supernatural charisma over spirits and forces; although in reality he demonstrates such charisma by being able to (implausibly) talk his way out of any situation.)

Logically, this is a bargain that could be made by either a man or a woman. However, it's interesting that all the enchantresses in the Arthurian legends are, on the contrary, sexual archetypes; they're generally seductresses, and their charisma is founded on their sexuality (and their ability to harness it towards a goal -- which is probably the characteristically feminine part of the equation), and definitely *not* from an intellectual detachment from it to the extent of becoming an asexual / angelic being!

(The deep connection between a wizard and an angel -- both are celibate or virginal, both exercise a power over reality -- was aptly drawn by Tolkien, with Gandalf the Grey, of course!)

So in terms of archetypes, the real opposite part to the celibate wizard, would then not be Nimue or Morgan, but something like the prophetesses at Delphi. That's nearest the same idea -- a celibate existence, in exchange for superior power or insight into reality. Have the character employ that insight proactively, in the style of a lady detective like Ms. Marple, and you're getting close to a Doctor-type character. Obviously there are differences, but there is significant overlap where the Doctor's main weapon is already not courage or cunning, but the ability to pull back to understand a situation, and the motivations of the people involved, and solve things by either negotiation or a small, precise technical intervention.

Actually, the real question here is not how a lady Doctor could be made to halfway-work by taking lessons from fictional female detective characters; the question is: why do female detective characters work quite well already? My only answer so far is to refer back to the Sibyl or Cassandra archetype, but that's probably not the best or only answer....

Arakawa said...


"I do wonder what young magicians get up to before they become wizards. Too much Dungeons & Dragons, perhaps. ;)"

Obviously, young magicians are the ones who are too socially inept to pursue the joys of young love, so they don't bother at all, and spend all their time indoors studying complicated spellbooks. Terry Pratchett got this mostly right, I think :-P

In real life, these types of people become computer programmers, which amounts to the same thing.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Ara - Great comments.

Just to note all archetypes are of a specific sex, and are not symmetrical.

As well as the seductive enchantress, there is, of course, the classic witch - an ancient crone.

But one element yet unconsidered is that the Doctor is a time Traveller - he needs to be travelling. I don't think the Sibyl/ Witch works as a perpetual traveller - the sibyl or witch I conceive of as fixed - she is rooted, always in the same place; and you travel to her (she does not travel to you).

I think this is something deep to do with female wisdom.

Arakawa said...

"But one element yet unconsidered is that the Doctor is a time Traveller - he needs to be travelling. I don't think the Sibyl/ Witch works as a perpetual traveller - the sibyl or witch I conceive of as fixed - she is rooted, always in the same place; and you travel to her (she does not travel to you)."

Excellent point -- I would largely agree. But that is partly because I write (badly) to let off steam, and one of my characters follows the schtick I outlined above; and, un-coincidentally, the exact trait you describe of being stationary seems to come out organically, both in the sense of being associated with a specific location, and in the deeper sense of having an invisible but well-defined jurisdiction or territory, and concerning herself only with things that intrude on it. So we seem to be thinking broadly about the same thing.

A different archetype that fits here (strangely enough), in terms of combining power and wisdom with a stationary attitude, is that of a dragon guarding its hoard.

(It's an open question as to whether my writing is at all good. Thankfully, the matter of publication, if it ever gets as far as that, is quite easy to solve -- throw the result out as a $3 ebook and then listen to the sound of crickets.)

Ultimately, the ideas I've been describing are probably valid, but glomming them onto the existing character of the Doctor is a thoroughly artificial idea by this point in the show's development.

Arakawa said...

"Just to note all archetypes are of a specific sex, and are not symmetrical."

It occurs to me that, indeed, while the logic of celibacy as a way to attain an intellectual/angelic/'higher' existence is something that works for either sex, celibacy itself operates differently in the two cases.

i.e. perhaps while the end state is the same (this, I think, is what St. Maximos the Confessor refers to when he speaks of 'overcoming the division' between male and female), the starting points are obviously very different; and because no one (particularly if we consider the more morally ambivalent wizarding trade, rather than the monastic one!) achieves perfect sublimation, the emphasis and traits that are practical/easy to attain ends up being different between the two sexes.

As another wizardly connection, reading up on the topic shows that Jung draws a specific link between sublimation and alchemy. That's fairly apt; it especially captures the fact that the reason the wizard is slightly unnatural is that he tries to attain the angelic estate under his own power, and as an end in itself, rather than it being a possible incidental byproduct of the pursuit of theosis.

That also explains why the wizard is borderline-acceptable in the Christian worldview, or at least the Arthurian worldview, to the extent that Christian knights can make use of Merlin's talents without being guilty of the sin of consorting with sorcerors (i.e. guilty of deviltry), which is held to be a deeply unnatural sin -- unlike a conjuror of devils, the wizard's abilities are not devilry, they rely primarily on a state of being that is not just morally acceptable, but even actively good in a sense, indeed very few people are capable of it; but it was just not meant to be pursued as an end in itself, the way the wizard pursues it, and like any other thing being made an end-in-itself this can result in a subtle spiritual peril.

(This, I think, is different way of looking at things than CS Lewis' theory that the wizard consorts with spirits, which was once "acceptable", but since then things have become more "polarized".)

I don't know for certain. All of these comments are just thinking aloud.

Robert Brockman said...

Without sex we cannot have more wizards.

The problem with sexuality in the modern Dr. Who is that the Doctor is being "paired up" with modern humans, with a fraction of his capabilities and knowledge.

A proper mate for the Doctor would have to be a Time Lady, like Romana. Unfortunately, this wouldn't play to the female audience, which desires the fantasy that a supremely powerful man would find someone like them interesting.

Bruce Charlton said...

@RB - I understand that the recent storyline about the Doctor's 'wife' River Song was of this type. I found it very unconvincing indeed - but then I never liked the actress playing RS.

Wm Jas said...

I think of Faust (decidedly non-celibate) as the archetypal wizard -- but I suppose he is a fundamentally different type from Gandalf, Dumbledore, and company. Vulture's mix of sexual and non-sexual wizards could be a sign that he is conflating two different archetypes: the Merlin-type wizard and the Faust-type magician. (Certainly Agrippa, Dee, and company belong to the latter type.)