I enjoy science fiction, particularly of the vintage kind, or that of the modern variety which bears the unique quality of possessing classic components.
Some time ago, I was gifted with a rather mysterious elderly woman’s book collection, which included a trove of weird books on mysteries and speculative theories about unexplained phenomena, in equal measure to books by classic science fiction authors of yesteryear like Robert Heinlein, Arthur C. Clark, Pohl Anderson, Isaac Asimov, and a host of others.
There was one rare book based on the British sci-fi television series Doctor Who, which I passed along to a friend, since this was one area that simply hadn’t struck a chord with me at the time.
Years later, when I would be giving lectures at public events, people would approach me from time to time, and always say the same, odd thing: “you remind me of The Doctor.” Which made little or no sense to me at the time, and so finally, I committed to watching a few classic episodes of the famous program: I selected City of Death, a 1979 serial which portrayed the fourth actor to play the role of The Doctor, Tom Baker, which had boasted a particularly high viewer rating at the time.
If you are unfamiliar with the premise of Doctor Who, as I had been at that time, a brief summary of the character entails a brilliant, and eccentric, traveler from a planet called Gallifrey, who stole an advanced transportation device called a TARDIS, meaning “time and relative dimensions in space”. With this time machine, the renegade Time Lord (who pseudonymically adopts a new name for himself as “The Doctor”), leaves with his niece Susan, and they begin traveling together through time. Their travels bring them to London in 1963, where the TARDIS camouflages itself as a blue Police Box; however, due to a technical problem with the vessel’s “chameleon circuit”, the appearance of the TARDIS has remained that of a Police Box since that time.
This scenario introduces The Doctor and his first companion in the first episode of the program, “An Unearthly Child”, which aired on BBC television just one day after the assassination of John F. Kennedy occurred in the United States. It is also worth noting that the program has remained the longest-running sci-fi television program in history, in large part thanks to a unique plot device introduced at the end of actor William Hartnell’s tenure as the first to play the role of the Doctor: when mortally injured (or occasionally due to other reasons), Time Lords possess a unique ability to “regenerate”, where the will transform themselves entirely, taking on the appearance of a different individual with different personality traits, yet still possessing the memories and knowledge of his previous regenerations.
Hence, since 1963, there have been a number of actors to have come and gone that have played the role, offering a rather unique way to restyle the character, and the program itself, as time passes. In truth, the first regeneration had merely been enacted as a way to prolong the life of the series as Hartnell’s tenure with the program began wearing thin. With little doubt, creator Sydney Newman and others at the time probably had little notion that this recasting decision would define the longevity of the program in so unique a way; seldom, if ever, have the various actors to have played The Doctor over the years ever received a negative reception by fans, and the mystery and excitement surrounding the Doctor’s regenerations have helped propel the series throughout its run.
But there were deeper elements at play here, which became more apparent over time. For instance, the “regenerations” that occur periodically, and the notion of a time-traveling character who changes his face over time, bears similarity to themes that appear in world traditions, such as reincarnation and past lives.
In terms of Jungian psychology, there is the “Senex” (Latin for “Old Man”), which is the archetype of the “Wise Old Man.” For sake of simplicity, below I have borrowed Wikipedia’s description of this archetype (I won’t go on another rant about authors citing Wikipedia as a source right now, though I’ll say in this instance the description given certainly hits the mark, rather than serving as cited source material itself). The recurring Senex character motif is described thusly:
“This type of character is typically represented as a kind and wise, older father-type figure who uses personal knowledge of people and the world to help tell stories and offer guidance that, in a mystical way, may impress upon his audience a sense of who they are and who they might become, thereby acting as a mentor. He may occasionally appear as an absent-minded professor, appearing absent-minded due to a predilection for contemplative pursuits. The wise old man is often seen to be in some way “foreign”, that is, from a different culture, nation, or occasionally, even a different time, from those he advises. In extreme cases, he may be a liminal being, such as Merlin, who was only half human.”
The Doctor, in other words, defined roughly.
Even when possessed within the facade of a younger body, The Doctor’s character is an ancient soul, with all the many years of travel and experience throughout his lives compounded within a single, timeless spirit. Critics have particularly attributed this characteristic to actor Matt Smith, who became the youngest to take on the role during the program’s tenure, often displaying a childlike wonder for simple things, juxtaposed against a very, very elderly man (as indicated often in his style of dress, which has been likened to that of “an Oxford professor” with his trademark bowtie and tweed jacket, the latter being replaced in later seasons by a long frock Crombie-style coat, and suspenders being traded for a waistcoat, giving his dress an Edwardian appearance; all of which contrast rather uniquely with the young actor’s appearance.
Another aspect of this “ancient” soul tucked away within a younger body, as well as the recurring theme of regeneration presented in the series, is evidenced through wardrobe occasionally with the presentation of multilayered levels of clothing. This motif has been presented in the past with actor David Tennant’s portrayal of the Tenth Doctor, as seen in the second episode of Series Two, titled “Tooth and Claw”:
The motif reemerged again recently in promotional images for Series Nine, in which actor Peter Capaldi, like Tennant, can be seen wearing many layers beneath his trademark crombie jacket:
In essence, the culmination of various ancient traditions and cultural themes that this character possesses have long been the stuff of legend, and if we are to take that psychoanalytical interpretation of the Senex archetype, we also find that the Wise Old Man is deeply embedded within our individual psyches; he is a part of us, and has been with us since time immemorial. He is closely related to the unseen characteristics within the mind that make us who we are, and help define where we are from, and where we are going.
Hence, I love this video clip, in which actor Matt Smith, portraying the Eleventh Doctor, discusses having spent “all his lives” seemingly wandering, when in fact, the wandering has been a trip home in its own right, albeit doing so “the long way ’round”:
As that portion of another elderly saying of yesteryear goes, “not all who wander are lost.” I think that sometimes a little wandering is good for the soul… especially when it introduces adventures we share with others that enrich us along the way. Living, learning, and growing together in our roundabout path to what, for any one of us, we might call “home.”
Doesn’t that summarize life, in essence? It is an adventure well worth relishing, and with the kind of gusto, of course, that The Doctor himself so often portrays. This, in truth, is no doubt part of what makes the program so appealing in the first place: it provides commentary on life and living, as well as tapping into those archetypal components, and in an adventurous context that presents a fun and entertaining escape from the everyday, while offering deeper levels of uniqueness for those willing to look at the symbolism it presents.