Doctor Who, the Gentleman Adventurer and the Strange Dearth of Science in Media

The revival of the Doctor Who television series in 2005 saw the return of one of the most archetypal and well-recognised science-fiction characters, one who both came with a pre-determined set of expectations of character behaviour and activities, and wanted to break away from ‘the past’. By the time of the reboot, the previous series had been discontinued long enough to exert minimal influence over the new series.

The casting of Christopher Eccleston as the Doctor, with a more physically-imposing, rougher presence than previous Doctor Who actors, was a definite break for the character. The many changes in character between Eccleston and Tennant clearly illustrates how much of a break Eccleston was, particularly in terms of the archetypes embodied by the character. Unless otherwise highlighted, ‘archetypes’ here is intended to mean a particular type of character with defined and understood characteristics, not connected to Jungian archetypal analysis as such.

David Layton wrote an article discussing the (Jungian) archetypes present in the Doctor Who series, both in its original form (1963-1989) and the reboot (2005-present). When discussing character types  more generally, he notes that the rebooted Doctor has narrowed to “late nineteenth and early twentieth century forms in British fiction and drama: the dandified gentleman, the bohemian scholar, the gentleman adventurer, and so on” (Layton 2010).

The Gentleman Adventurer envisioned on tvtropes.com. The Doctor is one of the examples given on this page.

The gentleman adventurer archetype is found in several works of Victorian fiction, from authors such as H.G. Wells and Jules Verne. The other terms used by Layton above are perhaps less common but have similar implications. Gentleman adventurers are casually intellectual, rather than professional. They express their knowledge as required but not in a systematic way. Where such characters do have affiliations to educational institutions, they are often removed from academia by the narrative or otherwise already estranged. They are invariably mavericks. Doctor Who as a series expresses this maverick nature through a regular disdain of the established learning the Doctor and his companions come across, such as John Pertwee’s Doctor questioning the operation of the proton accelerator in Doctor Who and the Silurans (1970). In the episode, discussion of the facility is basic, and only ever supplied in order to move the narrative forward. Knowledgeable characters in the episode are merely there to indicate developments, frequently confining all their dialogue to relaying updates on the status of the plant. The facility director, set up as a nemesis of sorts, never explains the functionality of the plant clearly – all that is required is that it is not working. The Doctor also never clearly articulates his knowledge with respect to power generation; it is something that is effortlessly expressed to service the narrative, and assumed/implied by the other characters. This is also particularly obvious in the 2010 episode The Lodger, where the Doctor transmits knowledge to another character by headbutting him. The knowledge is thereby immediately accepted and transferred, with no learning process involved. These examples make it clear that while there are educated individuals in the series, conventional academic knowledge is neither discussed nor attained by them.

The gentleman adventurer is often expressed as the talented amateur scientist/explorer, who does not need particular qualifications or connections to be brilliant in his field. Within Doctor Who, this characterization is particularly present in the Doctors after Eccleston, who, when in a quieter frame of mind, would not be out of place in a Jules Verne or H.G. Wells novel. The intent and purpose of the characters, however, is quite different from that of Verne or Wells.

Also mentioned by Layton is the ‘Bohemian scholar’ character type – an academic, typically literary, whose lifestyle is unconventional and outside the bounds of “conventional behaviour.” The Doctor’s eccentric manner and unsystematic learning both contribute to this identity. While the Doctor is portrayed as knowledgeable, there is little attention ever given to how he knows what he does, or the application of it beyond the plot in question.

While Verne’s science fiction in particular (such as 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1870)  and Journey to the Centre of the Earth (1864)) was primarily about expounding elements of science in an enjoyable way, the rebooted Doctor Who is primarily intended as an adventure, where story and narrative, rather than scientific exposition, are the primary goals. This can be seen in the way that the various characters’ companions are treated. While Counseil and Ned Land of 20,000 Leagues are primarily written to give the narrator more opportunity to expound on the science behind the wonders they find (a role at times shared by Captain Nemo), the Doctor Who companions are used to clarify the plot, which may include an explanation of the science and learning in the episode. The plot itself, however, is not driven by that learning.

This difference between Victorian and early 20th century science fiction and Doctor Who highlights a reason for much of the science and knowledge in Doctor Who and much modern science fiction media – knowledge exists to drive the plot, not for its own sake or even as an element around which the plot turns. While Doctor Who was originally intended as a tool to introduce children to science and history, the plots were not driven by historical or scientific elements, which served merely as part of a greater plot in the episodes. Some early examples of this purpose, when the education was still an explicit goal for the show, include the discussion of mercury’s properties in the The Daleks serial (1963) and discussion of the ancient Egyptians in The Keys of Marrinus (1964). In the same way, other sci-fi series that use science , such as all the Star Trek series (1966-69, 1973-74, 1987-94, 1993-99, 1995-2001, 2001-2005) and Stargate SG-1 (1997-2007), can  have scientific elements, but scientific exposition is not the main point of them, as it was for Verne.

Samantha Carter and ‘proper’ scientist in Stargate SG-1’s ‘Avenger 2.0’ episode.

As knowledge is used to service the plot, any character whose primary role is to possess or explain knowledge becomes merely an exposition machine, a talking plot device. The Doctor tends to fall more towards a bohemian scholar character type than an academic, and SG-1’s Samantha Carter is a USAF officer first, and a scientist second. Combining knowledge with other aspects of the character allows the same character to fulfil multiple roles in their narratives, and thereby have more depth. The framing of modern storytelling gives no other place for knowledge in its worldview, and character depth always comes from other elements of the character. Abby Siuto from NCIS (2003-) has to have other personality traits apart from academia to make her relatable – the character is explicitly portrayed as a goth, which makes her more interesting than a “mere” forensic scientist. In this instance, however, a case can be made that the knowledge is much more a part of her character’s role in the series, it is not incidental as it is in much science-fiction media.

In the case of Doctor Who, the use of knowledge-as-exposition also explains why the gentleman adventurer archetype happens – his knowledge alone is not enough to make the plot engaging. The Doctor cannot be purely academic because such characters are portrayed as dull. Therefore his knowledge must become effortless to enable it to be brought up when required, but remain out of view otherwise. The role of the companion in relation to the Doctor is frequently to draw out that knowledge, and make it explicit for the audience, in the same way that Jack O’Niell’s character plays dumb to allow Sam Carter to explain SG-1’s latest physics problem.

The framing of the Doctor in terms of the gentleman adventurer also gives the show potentially problematic elements. By drawing from the Victorian archetypes, which rely on uninformed characters who need things explained and/or solved, the Doctor is frequently cast as the only person who can ‘save the world’, who the other characters must then serve. The show does, however, highlight the increasingly frequent number of characters who die to save the Doctor, and question it. This is demonstrated in Journey’s End (2008), where Davros asks the Doctor ‘How many have died in your name?’ While the Doctor’s grief over his dead friends and guilt for his actions is frequently expressed, particularly in the 50th Anniversary Day of the Doctor episode, the series never questions that the Doctor is the saviour for whom sacrifices must be made. Indeed, the Day of the Doctor goes further than this, and removes any consequence or sacrifice as a result of the doctor’s actions. The unquestioned superiority of the Doctor relative to other characters is very similar to the use of ‘white adventurers’ such as Daniel Dravot and Peachey Carnehan in Rudyard Kipling’s “The Man Who Would Be King” (1888), as the ‘White Humanitarian Complex’ is a problem for the whole of the exploration genre, as discussed by Bob ‘MovieBob’ Chipman. Many Doctor Who episodes push this white humanitarian idea further, and have their resolution in the nature of the Doctor himself, rather than the Doctor helping those he encounters towards a solution. The tendency for the Doctor to be the answer to many plotlines was exemplified during Matt Smith’s tenure, occurring so frequently that the motif of ‘I am the Doctor!’ has become a subject of multiple YouTube montages.

The question of how knowledge should be used is rarely addressed in science fiction apart from when Things Man Was Not Meant To Know(TM) are introduced. Such things are framed merely as ‘knowing too much’ and thereby causing cosmic problems rather than thinking too much about how knowledge and learning should be applied, or about how it should be gathered (The recent film Lucy is a notable exception to this form of narrative).

Star Trek’s Prime Directive half addresses the above quandary, but only by silencing debate on the subject. The Prime Directive also has its own problems, as Marie-Pierre has previously pointed out, because knowledge-as-plot-device is still a common occurrence in much science fiction media. The Gentleman Adventurer archetype is a consequence of the use of knowledge as a pure plot device; the amateur angle is needed to give the character more dimensions beyond exposition. While this is acknowledged to an extend within Doctor Who and other science fiction media, what is really needed is a new way to present knowledge and learning within science fiction, without the need for unconnected elements in order to make knowledgeable characters more complete.

 

 

Sources:

Chipman, Bob (2012). “Relics.” The Big Picture – http://www.escapistmagazine.com/videos/view/the-big-picture/5465-Relics

Kipling, Rudyard (1888). “The Man Who Would Be King”. Originally published in The Phantom ‘Rickshaw and other Eerie Tales. A.H. Wheeler & Co.

Layton, David (2010).“Male and Female Archetypes in Doctor Who.”, Consciousness, Literature and the Arts, Vol. 11, No. 2.https://blackboard.lincoln.ac.uk/bbcswebdav/users/dmeyerdinkgrafe/archive/layton.html

Lucy (2014). Universal Studios

NCIS (2003- present). CBS Television.

Renaud, Marie-Pierre (2013). “What I Wish I Could Unlearn From Star Trek TNG / 2: The Prime Directive, Or Conserving Cultures Like A Lab Sample.”– The Geek Anthropologist. https://thegeekanthropologist.com/2013/02/21/what-i-wish-i-could-unlearn-from-star-trek-tng-2-the-prime-directive-or-conserving-cultures-like-a-lab-sample/

Stargate SG-1 (1997-2007). MGM Television.

Star Trek (1966-69, 1973-74). Paramount Domestic Television.

Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987-94). Paramount Domestic Television.

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (1993-99). Paramount Domestic Television.

Star Trek: Voyager (1995-2001). Paramount Network Television.

Star Trek: Enterprise (2001-2005). Paramount Network Television.

Verne, Jules (1864). Journey to the Center of the Earth. France: Pierre-Jules Hetzel.

Verne, Jules (1870), Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. France: Pierre-Jules Hetzel

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About CrucibleofWords

I'm always interested in the birth and expression of new ideas, from world creation to philosophical and metaphysical exploration. Fantasy and its related genres are the perfect vehicle for this sort of thing, and I intend to explore it various ways with this blog, both through positing my own ideas, and reflection on that of others.

There are 5 comments

  1. CrucibleofWords

    Re Moffat, it appears to have gone more towards the archetype, both in aesthetic (which has gone quite steampunkesque with Capaldi) and in how the Doctor is used. This came across quite annoyingly in the 2D villains episode, where Clara could only save the day by performing as the Doctor. The most obvious problem with this is from a feminist perspective – that she had to take on the role of a man to solve the problem – but the role of the Doctor specifically has other ramifications. The idea that there is a certain way for a saviour to behave infuriates me (the mighty whitey brigade of Once Upon a Time does this too but I digress).

    Moffat’s tendency for stuff to “mean something” and all the plot elements and keywords to link to something in the overarching plot has on occasion made the appeal to undisplayed knowledge worse – the way it all gets tied together by the Doctor in hurried exposition during moments of crisis, that sort of thing. And as I say in the essay, the use of the nature of the Doctor to solve episodes is problematic. I don’t remember this being so much of a theme during RTD’s tenure.

    In terms of the overall genre, I don’t hold out much hope. I can’t remember where I found it (could even have been during research at work), but it pointed out that there’s not much in the way of technological vision in sci-fi any more – it’s solidified around particular tropes and capabilities without breaking the mould much. This may just be over-romanticising the science-heavy sci-fi of the late 1800s to the 1960s, but the point remains. This also breaks the link with real science that much more, meaning that any expression of knowledge becomes technobabble.

    I had real hopes for BSG 2004 when I first saw it – the reflection of the military in space and particularly the portrayal of Baltar and Gaeta as characters with knowledge were brilliant (at least until Baltar took up politics). But I think the show got rather confused between knowledge and faith in the broken season, and so wound up doing a disservice to both.

    The problem is that I don’t see shows that consider the lack of knowledge a problem – as long as it services the plot, everything carries on. It’s not something that characters are built around most of the time, which is why you end up with characters like Daniel Jackson, Gaius Baltar and Sigourney Weaver’s Grace in Avatar end up being combinations of anthropologists, archeologists and whatever other scientific disciplines are required. When knowledge becomes an element of a character and used as such is when we’ll see an improvement, but that’s rare currently (at least from what I see).

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  2. Ben Herman: In My Not So Humble Opinion

    This was certainly an insightful analysis. You certainly made some excellent observations.

    In regards to the idea of people sacrificing themselves in order for the Doctor to save the day, you are correct that in the past in was only very occasionally touched upon. But I believe that it has very much come to the forefront throughout the just-ended Series Eight, with newly-regenerated Twelfth Doctor portrayed by Peter Capaldi.

    The Doctor asks himself and Clara “Am I a good man?” In the episode “Mummy on the Orient Express” there is definitely conflict between the Doctor and the other characters over the question of how many people have to die before the Doctor is able to gather enough evidence to deduce how to stop the threat they are facing. There is the continuous tension between the Doctor and Danny Pink, with Danny perceiving the Doctor as an “officer” who keeps his hands clean and sends other people to do his dirty work, to fight and die in his name. In the two part season finale The Master / Missy literally attempts to force the Doctor to take control of the Cybermen army, giving him an unlimited supply of cannon fodder to “do good.” Of course the Doctor is appalled by the idea. That story definitely addressed the internal conflict the Doctor constantly struggles with, that he very much values life, but he also recognizes that sometimes sacrifices have to be made for a greater good.

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  3. asuperhumanlife

    I really appreciate you writing this. Scifi and its portrayals of humanity helped me through my darkest times. I love to think critically about it.
    What effect do you think Steven Moffatt has had on the issues in Doctor Who you describe? Do you have hope for the show, and other shows to rectify the genre?

    Like

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