(Off-Topic) Doctor Who and Mister Who

by admin on November 10, 2013

This morning, as I was lying in my hotel room in London waiting for the sun to come up, I started thinking for the N-th time about the upcoming Doctor Who 50th anniversary special.

For anybody who is not interested in science fiction, not interested in television, not interested in British pop culture, and/or not interested in British televised science fiction, a word of explanation. Doctor Who is a science fiction show that aired on BBC from 1963 to 1989, then had a long hiatus that was interrupted only by a TV-movie episode (which I believe was not produced by the BBC, but has nevertheless been accepted as “canon”) in 1996, then was revived for real (and considerably improved in my opinion) in 2005. Although it has not aired continuously for 50 years, you could certainly make the case that it has remained “alive” as a TV show better than Star Trek, the American science-fiction show of the same vintage. (Star Trek debuted in 1966.)

Anyway, there has been a great deal of publicity this year about the 50th anniversary of Doctor Who, which will be marked with a special episode on November 23 that will be simultaneously broadcast around the world. In addition, the 5oth anniversary special will be shown in select theaters on November 23, and in 300 theaters around the U.S. on November 25, and yes, I’ve already bought my tickets!

One reason the show has lasted so long is that it centers on one character, called the Doctor, who has the ability to regenerate (or be reincarnated, but they don’t use that word) multiple times. Thus the show has been able to use eleven different actors to play the Doctor over the years. Curiously, in the show the name of the character is simply the Doctor — not Doctor Who, which is only used in the show’s title.

In recent years, though, the writers have started to put more and more emphasis on this missing identity as an important mystery in the Who-niverse. It started as a gag. When new characters met the Doctor, they would often, naturally enough, ask “Doctor Who?” But then a few years ago there was a prophecy about a question that must never be answered, and that answer is the Doctor’s real name. Likewise, there was a character (Dr. River Song) who was shown to know the Doctor’s real name, which came as a tremendous shock to the Doctor because there is only one time he would ever reveal his real name to anyone.

Finally, the buildup reached its peak with the series-ending cliffhanger last season, an episode called “The Name of the Doctor.” For anyone who has missed that episode, I don’t want to say too much (spoilers!). However, the episode did not reveal the name of the Doctor. It did show River Song using her unique knowledge of that name to do… something important. And most crucially, it introduced a famous British actor who will play the role of the Doctor in the November special. And it made it clear that this Doctor is nevertheless, in an important way, not the Doctor. He has chosen to do evil, or at least he has chosen to do an act that the current Doctor disavows. There are strong hints from the show’s history what that act was, but it is not entirely clear. Fans like me are, of course, dying to find out the gory details of what this Doctor-who-is-not-the-Doctor might have done, and why.

So I was lying in my London hotel room this morning and wondering for the N-th time, who could this Doctor be? Why would his identity be so important? What would knowing his actual name tell us? Is he a doctor that we have already heard of? So I started thinking… Dr. Frankenstein? No. That would be confusing, because Dr. Frankenstein is not known as a positive figure, and a lot of people confuse him with his monster.

Doctor Jekyll?

Doctor Jekyll! Yes, indeed, that is a doctor with an evil side. A side that is the doctor and yet not the doctor. And if we had known all along that the Doctor’s true name was Jekyll… then yes, we would have known something very important about him that would make us look at his entire past differently. It would be very important for the Doctor to keep this secret.

But surely Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is just a story known on one tiny, unimportant planet? Surely the Doctor’s name would not resonate through the entire history of the Universe? Well, if you think that would stop the Doctor Who writers, you don’t know much about Doctor Who. It would be easy for them to say that this is a legend that has existed in every civilization, perhaps being passed down as just a fictional story, and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde was simply the version in which it was passed down on Earth.

Perhaps, given the Doctor’s fondness for Earth and Britain in particular, he might have visited Robert Louis Stevenson (this kind of thing has happened before on the show — the Doctor visited Shakespeare and Van Gogh in earlier episodes), and Stevenson might have come out of the encounter with the inspiration for his story, the good doctor and the evil alter ego, perhaps without understanding that the Doctor was actually a being from another planet who travels through time, etc., etc. It would not be out of the realm of possibility for River Song to come along for the ride and suggest to Robert Louis Stevenson, “Why don’t you call the character in your story Dr. Jekyll?”

Well, I write all this in full confidence that I’m wrong, and this is not how the 50th anniversary episode will play out. That’s because I always guess wrong on this sort of thing. Nevertheless, it does seem to me that this would be a natural culmination of a theme that Steven Moffat, the executive producer and showrunner since 2010, has been returning to with greater and greater insistency. And I haven’t even mentioned the fact that Moffat previously worked on a TV miniseries for BBC called… Jekyll. (That would be a clue from outside the Who-niverse, and I’m sticking to clues from within Doctor Who.)

Now, stay tuned for November 23 when we’ll find out what Moffat really has in mind…

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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Matt November 11, 2013 at 10:10 am

I used to love Doctor Who when I was a kid in the 80s but never really got into the newer shows. It probably didn’t help that Billie Piper was the Doctor’s sidekick for a while, which was the equivalent of Britney Spears joining the cast of Star Trek. I believe a lot of the newer episodes are available on Netflix so perhaps I will check them out eventually.

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Phille November 14, 2013 at 1:10 am

I enjoyed the first two new seasons, but the quality of the episodes varied so wildly that somehow I never started the third season.
But while we are off topic: Did you solve the grasshopper problem? 😉

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admin November 14, 2013 at 1:59 am

Phille, I haven’t gotten around to working on it yet! I should see if I can find it online to make sure that the statement of the problem is correct. In your earlier comment you said you had found an easy solution, which I think means either that I stated it incorrectly, or else that there is some trap that you fell into … but I don’t know which.

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