Doctor Who & Hamlet: Are we who we say we are?

If you’ve yet to watch the 2014 Doctor Who episodes, then you probably should. Or you can enjoy this song Who Are You by The Who, which posits important questions thematically linked to Doctor Who and this post. Like: Well, who are you? (Who are you? Who, who, who, who?). I really wanna know (Who are you? Who, who, who, who?). Tell me, who are you? (Who are you? Who, who, who, who?).

Please note, the post has nothing to do with a band name, nor are The Who cited because they are British, and finally this has nothing to do with CSI theme songs.

Before getting into discussion, this week we learned Robot of Sherwood has been edited for sensitivity over recent instances of beheadings. This is not a thing I will address in this post, but what we use art to react to in the world and what we change in our work because of it are big questions for creative types.

Any who.

Television, as well as being frivolous fun and a drug for the masses, sometimes gets to ask big questions. The Doctor is Hamlet, when he wants to be, seeing dead people (Amy), conversing with ghosts (In Hide, and with River and the Cybermen), sword fighting (Cybermen with umbrellas), upset about sending people crazy (Martha a bit) and upset at not being able to trust his feelings (with Rose especially) and hanging around with his friends (the Paternoster Gang) because he is gloomy about the death of members of his family (the Ponds/Gallifrey) and the burden of responsibility (Gallifrey/Earth).

Mostly though, The Doctor is Hamlet because he questions things, like the meaning of existence and who he is, and where he belongs, and whether he should do the things he feels he must do, damn the consequences. He spends a lot of time pondering these things and pretending to be ‘crazy’ to avoid confronting his real issues:

Though this be madness, yet there is method in’t. Or as Florence the internal shape changing alien notices in Smith and Jones: You’re quite the funny man. And yet, I think, laughing on purpose at the darkness. 

Basically, as Matt Smith’s final episode revealed, the title of the program declares the biggest question – with the name of the main character also being part of an interrogative. A question about identity. Is the Doctor a lonely prince doomed to exile? Or he is like a Renaissance Scholar bounded by responsibilities that make the universe seem tiny enough to fit into a walnut? Will he pursue his revenge or seek another way?

So, like Hamlet, in New Who many characters spend a lot of time pretending, or hiding, or acting, being mistaken or becoming, not to mention lying. On one level this is character growth that drives plots and reflects deliberate (or near as deliberate as can be) planning on behalf of the writers. However, there are other things going on.

I mean as The Doctor says about life and space: Doubt thou the stars are fire; Doubt that the sun doth move; Doubt truth to be a liar, Doubt that the Dream Lord is telling the truth.

Hamlet and Who - see it's not just me.

Hamlet and Who – see it’s not just me!

So far, there was a Dalek who was also Oswald. Clara who became a bunch of different people, including Oswald. There were the Gangers – the almost people who became people after a war with, um, people. Part human Daleks. The Krillitanes who took the physiology of others to improve themselves. There are shape shifting aliens pretending to be horses and Queen Elizabeth. There is the sibling without a memory who thought he was an Android, only to discover he was human, and then forgot. Again. There are the robots across the universe rebuilding themselves out of humans and whatever else they can find, and a Robot of Sherwood (love a good pun).  Endless Cybermen with their upgrades. And let’s not forget Rusty the Dalek, turned against his own kind by his remembered epiphany. Now, The Doctor, who is told he is a Good Dalek, questions what sort of person he is, or tries to be.

Thus, a lot like Hamlet:

  • Who asks us to consider who we are, who we think we are and how others see us – eg, whether we are good, heroic or dangerous, whether we are soldiers or civilians, princes or mad men and what we capable of.
  • There is always times for jokes.
  • Who asks us to examine our prejudices, just as The Doctor is often confronted about his own, for instance, in the episode called The Dalek and by Clara again in Into the Dalek – honestly how much does he learn and retain?
  • Who invites us to see how far identity can be constructed. Like cells replaced in bodies, we remake ourselves or are remade by events. In fact, the story is about a man who chose his own name – can’t get any more constructed than that.
  • Who asks us to see this construction of identity as construction, as building in progress, but actually not quite ever ending.
  • Who asks us to realise these identities – constructed or organic – are always in flux. Not just with The Doctor’s regenerations, but everyone. Clara in her incarnations, River who was Melody, who was Mels, Amy who is also Amelia, Rory as nurse and Roman, Rose – shop girl/super hero, Martha, lovelorn Doctor/Unit Scientist/freedom fighter, Donna to DoctorDonna to Donna again. Etcetera ad infinitum.
  • Who also tells us flux doesn’t negate the proposition of an essential you. Even after so much change, in School Reunion Sarah Jane Smith and The Doctor can start from where they left off.

Identity, like life, is about change and coping with it. I know there are worse ways to absorb important lessons about such stuff than by watching a television program. Beats the hell out of watching your own family get de-materialised by aliens, or, like Hamlet, watch your mother be poisoned by your uncle who happened to murder your father.

Lest you think I am not seriously considering the writing involved, I believe writers should examine how language is deployed in the exploration of the continuing and fluid construction of identity. Steven Moffat and other episode writers often do this overtly, thus making it clear we don’t have to rely on Shakespearean iambic pentameters or even subtext, to convey important stuff.

In this way, it’s convenient and telling so many Who characters say exactly what language does. Go writers for not being afraid to discuss words!

Take for example River Song’s speech from A Good Man Goes to War:

Doctor: the word for healer and wise man, throughout the universe. We get that word from you, y’know. But if you carry on the way you are, what might that word come to mean? To the people of the Gamma Forests, the word doctor means mighty warrior.

In the same episode: Amy tells us directly names are important. Since Melody Williams is a geography teacher, while Melody Pond is a superhero.

And while we’re here, let’s sit beside the river and think about names and language. We know, not just from Amy, as we were told as early as The Shakespeare Code, and in Girl in the Fireplace – that names have magic and power and identity attached to them whether they are given or chosen. Rivers are mostly linear phenomena, as are songs – with beginnings, middles and ends. On the other hand, Professor River Song’s existence is the ultimate contrast to her name.

To us and to The Doctor River lives her life backwards, and in a circular fashion. She is the ourobourous. Her name, a translation of the language of the Gamma people, signifies the beginnings of her life in the forests, stands for the record of her adventures, and ends in the Forest of the Dead (The Library), where her entire history is uploaded, just as her diary – paper made out of trees – is catalogued. This River, who cycles through her birth, life, death, regeneration, new life, death, and post death existence, is full of momentum, but unlike rivers and songs and the rest of us, is never quite headed to one final end.

River, the human with multiple names, the warrior-archaeologist-assassin, who pretends to be Cleopatra, and who is Time Lord-like, who swims along a time stream flowing in reverse to The Doctor’s, is the epitome of paradox. Therefore, given her unique perspective rivalled only by The Doctor’s own, she gets to tell it how it is.

Like Father, like Daughter, Rory, the nurse who became a plastic Roman, existed for 2000 years and grew up with his child, also tells The Doctor who he is. In an episode where alien fish disguise themselves as humans, only to be suspected as vampires, Rory identifies attributes of The Doctor. It’s one of my favourite bits of Angry Rory:

You know what it’s dangerous about you? It’s not that you make people take risks, it’s that you make them want to impress you. You make it so they don’t want to let you down. You have no idea how dangerous you make people to themselves when you’re around.

  • So Who, through Rory’s speech, tells us that Who is about learning to see through disguises, to see through faces that change, and mirages and lies, to how people really are. This is what Clara must relearn with the new Doctor.

I only disagree with Rory in that I think The Doctor does know how dangerous he is to his friends. He just needs reminding. He too, is a paradox because companions make him better, and through him his companions become more than they perhaps ever would have been, but there are risks. But we all know, The Doctor is worth the monsters.

Then there are characters invited to say who they think people are. So The Doctor asks Clara whether he is a good man.

et, even guest characters get to have a go:

Rita: Why is it up to you to save us? That’s quite a God Complex you have there.

Takes a doctor to know a Doctor right? I mean, shouldn’t all doctors believe they can save us? Even characters without their own dialogue get to comment on who The Doctor is, as again, with The God Complex:

An ancient creature, drenched in the blood of the innocent, drifting in space through an endless shifting maze. For such a creature, death would be a gift.

Yeah, right in the feels. What we see in others is what we fail to identify in ourselves.

Speaking of the shifting maze though, the Tardis too tells us about function and name, especially in the Doctor’s Wife, where their non-linear conversation turns on what The Doctor calls his Tardis, which indeed, is another name for what this living, evolving, machine, is: a reflection of who he is which in turn explains everything the program is, and what the writing attempts to do.

In the end, I suppose this post, this program are like life, which had been the tomb of his virtue and of his honour, is but a walking shadow; a poor player, that struts and frets his hour upon the stage, and then is heard no more: it is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

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