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Doctor Who and Philosophy

Doctor Who and Philosophy

Massimo Pigliucci searches time and space to reveal the philosophy of Dr Who.

I vaguely remember hearing about Doctor Who when I was growing up in Italy in the 70s, but I never actually watched it. When the BBC restarted the series in 2005 I decided it was time to see what all the fuss was about. I’ve been hooked ever since; and I occasionally use Doctor Who episodes in my introductory classes in philosophy because it’s a natural (ie, intelligent and entertaining) entry point for discussions about personal identity (qua regeneration), the metaphysics of time travel, and, of course, ethics, ethics, ethics. I was therefore delighted to see this recent addition to the ‘Popular Culture and Philosophy’ series (go to opencourtbooks.com/categories/pcp.htm).

There is much to enjoy in this collection. Besides the obvious topics mentioned above, we are also treated to Doctor-informed discussions of aesthetics (why, exactly, are the Daleks beautiful?), human nature (‘Human beings, you’re amazing. Apart from that, you’re completely mad!’), the relevance of monadology to the Whoniverse, and even a discussion of the Jesus-like (shouldn’t it really be the Socrates-like?) character of the Doctor.

Perhaps my favorite part of the book is Episode 3: ‘It’s a different morality. Get used to it, or go home!’ which comprises a whopping seven chapters on the ethics of our favorite Time Lord. One of the things that is apparently very much open to discussion is what ethical theory best fits the good Doctor’s actions and intentions – a problem that is complicated by the Doctor’s annoying tendency to slightly alter his personality from one incarnation to the next. For instance, Laura Geuy Akers argues in Chapter 13 that we can make sense of what the Doctor does through the lens of the ‘ethics of care’ approach, on the grounds that he “responds to individuals, not abstractions.” She makes some good points, but I’m not convinced. Rather, I find Roman Altshuler’s analysis of the Doctor in terms of Aristotelian virtue ethics in Chapter 25 much more compelling. As Altshuler argues, it’s about the Doctor’s character, and particularly some of the virtues he displays time and again, beginning with compassion, which the Doctor couples with a high respect for people’s abilities to make choices.

It is not difficult to find examples of what Altshuler is trying to show. For instance, in the episode ‘Evolution of the Daleks’ (2007), the Doctor shows compassion for the last Dalek in existence, while in ‘The Christmas Invasion’ (2005) he gives the not exactly friendly race of the Sycorax the choice of leaving Earth forever in order to avoid destruction. (However, his sense of compassion is thwarted in this case by Prime Minister Harriet Jones, who ends up wiping the Sycorax out of the sky anyway.) An Aristotelian take on the show also makes sense of the complex role played by the Doctor’s varied companions. As Aristotle argued, our best friends hold our character up to us for scrutiny, as if in a mirror, thereby helping us pursue a better life. That is precisely what Donna Noble does in ‘The Fires of Pompeii’ (2008) by convincing the Doctor to save at least some of the citizens of Pompeii; or Rose Tyler does, when she is upset with him for not showing mercy to Lady Cassandra in ‘The End of the World’ (2008). The Doctor is not a divine being endowed with perfect morals, nor is he some sort of Nietzschean Übermensch whose actions and intentions sidestep the moral question altogether. He is a good and powerful but flawed being, who occasionally needs his friends to keep him on the right track.

At over 400 pages long the book isn’t exactly light reading, although reading it will pay off handsomely for anyone interested in science fiction and philosophy. Still, my only complaint about the volume is precisely that the editors could have done a better job at trimming it down, particularly reducing the number of largely redundant essays in the first part, on personal identity – a theme that also recurs (again, redundantly) in some of the later essays.

There is so much food for thought in Doctor Who and Philosophy that readers are warmly encouraged to see for themselves just how much bigger this book is on the inside. And remember: “Time travel is like visiting Paris. You can’t just read the guidebook, you’ve got to throw yourself in! Eat the food, use the wrong verbs, get charged double, and end up kissing complete strangers!… Or is that just me?” (‘The Long Game’, 2007).

© Prof. Massimo Pigliucci 2012

Massimo Pigliucci is Professor of Philosophy at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. He is the author of Nonsense on Stilts: How to Tell Science from Bunk (University of Chicago Press, 2010). His philosophical musings can be found at: www.rationallyspeaking.org.

Doctor Who and Philosophy: Bigger On The Inside Courtland Lewis, Paula Smithka, eds, Open Court, 2011, 430 pages. ISBN 978-0812696882.

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