The Doctor as Rebel
Back in 2009, David Tennant was chosen as a 'dream headteacher’ in a survey of primary school children commissioned by the National College for the Leadership of Schools and Children's Services. The poll was designed to assess the impact headteachers have on pupils.
This survey would have been held after Tennant gave a brilliant performance in the 2007 Doctor Who episode ‘Family of Blood’, in which he plays a school teacher, having purposefully transformed himself into a human being to evade an enemy.
These were the poll’s results:
1 David Tennant 26%
2 Barack Obama, J. K. Rowling, Cheryl Cole 9%
5 David Beckham 7%
6 Will Smith 6%
7 Michelle Obama, Alan Sugar 3%
9 Lewis Hamilton 2%
10 Alan Shearer, Jamie Oliver, Rebecca Adlington, Angelina Jolie 1%
14 Victoria Beckham, Jamie Redknapp 0%
47% of the nine- to 11-year-olds polled said they chose their celebrity because they were fun, while 33% said they had picked ‘someone they could look up to’. 27% chose someone for their intelligence.
As you can see, Tennant was well ahead. Tennant’s Doctor managed to blend fun and intelligence in a way that must have appealed to the younger generation. But it’s interesting that they chose him as a head teacher, which is essentially an establishment figure. What you want, traditionally, in a head teacher is respectability, stability, orderliness, dignity and predictability. Head teachers have to look after schools, and schools are supposed to represent the epitomy of those qualities, being perceived as the crucibles for the next generation.
It must have been a rebel vote.
The Doctor’s character is the opposite of those qualities: he abandoned his own society and is considered disreputable by them; his unstable nature has actively been increased through his various regenerations. (In the regeneration from Three to Four, for example, there is an explicit movement towards the more erratic end of the spectrum.) Disorder and informality travel with him everywhere. Unpredictability is almost a motto of his, especially when the Tardis follows suit. It’s part of the strength of the character and of the series that we never quite know what to expect.
Voting for someone like this to be head teacher indicates a desire for freedom from established ideas and a desire to break out, to explore, to delve into, which parallel the Doctor’s own impulses. He’s probably a unique protagonist in that he blends these qualities together in new ways with every incarnation. His ‘wild card’ personality makes, of course, for entertaining television, but also enables him to embrace many of the character archetypes found in most fiction -the mercurial comic companion, the older warrior, and the wise old man. The one archetype that he hasn’t (yet) entered into is the female companion. (You can read more about these archetypes here and in the book, How Stories Really Work.)
The Doctor started off as a supreme representative of the Time Lord establishment in his first incarnation (even though we knew nothing about Time Lords back then, and were better for not knowing, I think.), But he always had the seeds of rebellion in him. Expelled, exiled or fleeing, depending on which version you believe, he left that ancient regime and hid on Earth. By the time we get to the Second Doctor, the rebellious side of his nature is explicit in the acting; the Third Doctor, though more restrained, is frustrated by his establishment role as UNIT’s scientific advisor and relishes his freedom to roam time and space when it is granted. Both Doctors are a long way from being ‘establishment types’. (As the First Doctor states in the episode ‘The Three Doctors’, ‘So these are my replacements: a dandy and a clown.’) The Fourth Doctor’s bohemian character was the epitome of unpredictability, and strands of that are apparent in all his replacements.
By the time we get to the modern series, Eccleston’s Ninth Doctor has an ‘outsider’ Northern accent. Tennant tones down accents, but plays the subversive well, as does Smith. One of the interesting aspects of Capaldi is that by age he looks more like an establishment figure, and at first there was an attempt to dress him in a slightly more elegant and authoritarian way. The ‘jaded old rocker’ motif of later episodes suggests that the rebel has come to the surface in his version of the part too.
If the Doctor were a head teacher in reality, what would happen then? He wouldn’t last long. He would end up stealing a caravan and escaping to roam the countryside, leaving the authorities in pursuit and with wild stories of expulsion and exile trailing behind him.
It would be fun, though.
(The facts and figures of this article originally appeared on the website guardian.co.uk, Thursday 17 September 2009)