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The Doctor as Warrior

We have been tracing the development of the character of the Doctor as part of charting the three successful pillars upon which the programme is built.

With the series’ return in 2005, under the watchful eye of fan and well-known TV writer Russell T. Davies, we glimpsed those three pillars of Doctor Who being rebuilt: human protagonist Rose gave us our eyes, acting as an effective bridge to the audience; the Doctor was the outsider; the story was not centred around him, i.e. our sympathies as an audience were with humanity, not with the cosmic nature of the character who gave the programme its name. The enigmatic quality of the Doctor had been restored; the form of the story had held to its most successful pattern, in which the Doctor intervenes in a crisis already taking shape; and all of this had been firmly anchored in the identifiable world of the viewing audience, full of references to contemporary culture. Ratings soared, and it seems as though the new-born series’ future was assured.

To understand this more fully, and to grasp why this success eventually teetered on the brink of failure again after a few trail-blazing years, we have to closely examine the three pillars again.

In 1963, we saw the Doctor initially introduced to us as the potential antagonist in the series: he had kidnapped Ian and Barbara in the opening episode, and in the following story had sabotaged his own vessel in order to fulfil his scientific curiosity. Then, with the appearance of the Daleks, something began to change: the story gained a real antagonist and moved the character of the Doctor over into the role of the archetypal ‘old man with a stick', the wizard-like role in which he exhibited wisdom, compassion and a deeper understanding of situations than other characters.

This then evolved, under Patrick Troughton’s Second Doctor and particularly with Jon Pertwee as the Third Doctor, into a more standardly heroic protagonist, the central character in the show. In effect, the programme gradually became more and more about the Doctor himself. Tom Baker’s larger-than-life portrayal as the Fourth Doctor, coupled with the loss of vulnerable but likeable human companion Sarah Jane Smith, exacerbated this. Eventually, the situation deteriorated until the Doctor became a caricature, dressed in a clownish outfit as though desperate to draw attention to himself.

We saw, over roughly the same period, the stories move away from presenting the Doctor as an outsider intervening in a crisis which had already commenced, going into orbit around the Doctor himself until, in the time of the Third Doctor, adventures had to be brought to him. In later stories, the pattern of the Doctor as a kind of cosmic interventionist was restored to some degree, but by the late 80s the programme had built up considerable baggage and was highly self-referential in terms of storylines.

As for the relationship between the series and the audience, a large part of this was throughout the 60s and 70s the human companion, who brought with him or her an understanding of the culture of the viewers. When this kind of companion began to be replaced with non-Earthling fellow travellers, along with a pre-occupation with non-20th century Earth-based settings, this pillar too began to crumble and the series began to drift away from the audience.

Closure followed in 1989, but 2005 was a rebirth, as we have seen.

Firstly with Christopher Eccleston and then with David Tennant playing the Doctor, something else then began to take place: the character archetype of the Doctor gradually shifted over into that of the Warrior Figure. This role is familiar from a whole range of other fiction, including Aragorn in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, or Hans Solo in Lucas’s Star Wars, as well as Fielding in A Passage to India and Sirius Black in the Harry Potter books. Warrior figures tend to start off as duplicitous - they are presented to the reader as potentially villainous, not quite to be trusted, shadowy. In the course of the tale, they then gradually emerge from this shadow and become heroes, but it is initial ambiguity which is their chief quality.

In Comedies and Epics warrior types often emerge as the love interests for the female figures - for example, Darcy and Captain Wentworth in Austen’s novels, who begin somewhat overshadowed but who are redeemed by their heroines later. In Tragedies and Ironies, the warriors are often the 'heroic' counterparts to the anti-heroic protagonists: Laertes to Hamlet, Malcolm to Macbeth, Boo Radley to Bob Ewell in To Kill a Mockingbird, Samuel L. Jackson’s Jules Winnfield to John Travolta’s Vincent Vega in Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction.

By the end of the tale, though, they have all become kings, generals or leaders, doers, men of action and command: Aragorn wins the military battles and becomes King, Hans Solo rescues Luke and becomes a general, Fielding stands up against British injustice in the trial of Adela, Sirius Black commands power in Harry Potter. Darcy becomes a mover of events; Boo Radley comes out of hiding to save the children; Jules Winnfield rejects his criminal background and decides to 'walk the earth’.

The Doctor, beginning as antagonist, transmuting into wise old man, evolving into protagonist, was after 2005 presented as a warrior with a burden. In the first series of the 2005 revival, writer Russell T Davies introduced the concept of the Time War, a war across all of time and space resulting in the destruction of the Doctor’s own people, the Time Lords, and their enemies, the Daleks. This wasn’t just a removed military conflict, though: it slowly came to light that the final destructive moment, in which the Time Lord’s planet Gallifrey and the entire Dalek fleet were supposedly wiped out, took place at the hands of the Doctor himself. Burdened by guilt through his Ninth, Tenth and Eleventh incarnations, it was eventually seen that an entire as-yet-unknown incarnation of the Doctor, played by veteran actor John Hurt, had been responsible for the decision to activate a super-weapon, capable of this much annihilation. Such was the revisionist approach to the introduction of this 'War Doctor' that the series was largely remoulded in the light of it: the destruction of the Time Lords was said to have happened between the 1996 television movie and 2005 opening of the new series - even events such as those which occurred in the 70s serial 'Genesis of the Daleks' were said to have been precursors to the Time War. In ‘The End of Time’, Davies' last story as head writer and producer, Gallifrey and the Time Lords were shown on the last day of the war and Tennant’s portrayal indicated that he was indeed a warrior figure, remorseful and burdened, struggling to emerge from a shadow.

What came with this shift of archetype was, slowly but surely, a ‘pull’ towards making the Doctor the centre of attention again. This was amplified by another factor, previously absent from the whole show: romance. Just as in other fiction the warrior figure often ends up as a love interest for any female companion around, the Doctor became a romantic partner for Rose Tyler at first, then Martha Jones, though this was unrequited on his part. When Donna Noble stepped on board the Tardis, the romantic element was stressed as comic. But the Doctor’s archetype remained that of the warrior, and this gradually altered the shape of the story until Davies’ last tale had little option but to be about the Time War in which the Doctor had played such a key role.

That wasn’t the only change. There had been a slow but inevitable centripetal pull in the stories themselves, as we will see.


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