This review first appeared in Fortean Times
Who is Who? The Philosophy of Doctor Who, Kevin S. Decker, I.B. Taurus, London/New York, 2013
ISBN 978 1 78076 5532, paperback, 243 pages, bibliography, index
Philosophy lecturer Kevin S. Decker, who recalls being hooked after a chance 1980s daytime TV re-run encounter with Terror of the Zygons, is clearly a Doctor Who fan with a sound working knowledge of the show. The philosophical bits do bring a fresh take on most Who stories. It's nice to hear again all those quotes from the show about the shining mountains of Gallifrey, a reminder that the exposition in Who is often better than its effects. But when the book started going on about Derrida, I thought, oh-oh.
I suspect the Doctor would have cocked a snook at all this philosophizing, reasoning simply that a Time Lord's gotta do what a Time Lord's gotta do. (As his Patrick Troughton incarnation said succinctly of the Cybermen, "They must be fought!")
Over an awful lot of pages I learnt that the first six or so Doctors were positivist, the seventh and eighth doctors Romanticist. From the Ninth "post-Gallifreyan apocalypse" Doctor onwards, the Doctor, we are told, ditched Romanticism and became existentialist in the manner of Heidegger, Sartre and De Beauvoir. (Tomb of the Cybermen was apparently Who's "strongest anti-positivist story," while the classic "base under siege" adventures are "Hegelian".)
Philosophy comes off much worse from its encounter with the Doctor. Conte and the foundations of sociology are regrettably bor-ring. I don't think I was meant to laugh at the treatise on the "existential otherness of the Cybermen", nor Decker's attempt to explain through Sartre why the Doctor left Gallifrey, nor the "dialectical relationship between the Doctor and monsters."
Moderately more interesting is the morality and ethics of the Doctor, which change a little bit with each regeneration. The Doctor's companions aren't just eye-candy after all, but are along to provide some kind of moral compass for a rootless, time-wandering alien exile particularly dangerous when travelling alone.
Who is Who picks up a bit on the "Not the man he was" chapter on identity, the individual and "the self", and what they mean when the body and the mind changes with each regeneration. Apparently, Leibnitz and John Locke both dealt extensively with the philosophy of mind swaps and body swaps. And Bishop Joseph Butler's "philosophical trap" accounts for why in The Three Doctors, Pertwee's Third Doctor doesn't at least have nagging déjà vu about the conversation he's had with Omega when he was the Troughton Second Doctor (standing right next to him at the time.)
The standout "timey-wimey" section raises the intriguingly baroque possibility that the Great Time War is somehow an inevitable consequence of the Time Lords' attempts to tinker with history. There are (were or will be) multiple –even infinite – versions of the Great Time War, with different enemies. I got dizzy (in good way) as we got onto "chronological time" – the order in which things happen to the Doctor, as opposed to "external time" and "personal time" (the Doctor experiencing the duration of a given adventure), itself distinct from to the "continuity of non-time-travel-related events."
The history of the philosophy of time is more engaging too, going all the way back to Parmenides, a student of the Socratic school, and his student Zeno, who postulated that future events were already "true" before they had even happened. Parmenides anticipated the concept of entropy, and regarded time as "unstoppable".
We then enter the intoxicatingly complex realms of the constancy principle – "there is only one history", the mind-boggling Space/Time concept (everything is so pre-destined as to make free will pretty much irrelevant,) to the increasingly mainstream "many worlds hypothesis". The 1970s Pertwee Period Who story Inferno was apparently decades ahead of the curve in that it had the Doctor concluding that an "infinity of universes" meant that "free will is not an illusion after all." In a temporal philosophy finale, Decker concludes that when the Matt Smith Doctor restores the broken universe with his "Big Bang Two", he doesn't actually restore it at all, he just creates a very similar universe from scratch. I even found myself reading the "timey-wimey" section's footnotes just for pleasure.
It's a pity the remainder of Who is Who's whizz through of the history of Western philosophy wasn't so thrilling, After a hundred relentless pages of not enough Doctor and too much Goethe, Locke, Kant, Hegel and Rousseau, I felt like one of those walk-on Who characters at that cliffhanger ending of Episode One who screams "Nooooo!"
VERDICT 6/10 - FAST FORWARD THRU' THE PHILO TO THE WONDERS OF "TIMEY-WIMEY STUFF"
© Matt Salusbury 2014
See also my other Doctor Who related articles:
Copyright of the Daleks (for the Freelance)
The Man Who Invented the Daleks (Terry Nation biography, book review for Fortean Times)
Curse of the Daleks - Nation and Whittaker's "lost" children's matinee Dalek play - not their best work!
Father of the Cybermen - profile of Dr Kit Pedler, spare-part surgeon and creator of the Cybermen (for Fortean Times)