Posts Tagged ‘Paula Smithka’

As even the most cursory look around this blog will reveal, I have a lot of time for Doctor Who. I also have a lot of time for philosophy, having spent four years studying it (at least in theory). The suggestion to the effect that science fiction is the storytelling of philosophy seems to make a lot of sense to me, but as a fan of both I would say that, wouldn’t I? (I suppose, by the way, this might mean I have to review my default ‘Doctor Who is more fantasy than SF’ position.)

Anyway, I was pleasantly surprised to find a copy of Doctor Who and Philosophy, edited by Courtland Lewis and Paula Smithka, in my local bookshop. So many learned tomes about the series have come out in the last few years that it’s easy to lose track of them, which is the only excuse I can offer. This, by the way, is – I kid you not – is #55 in the Popular Culture and Philosophy series, ranging from the distinctly intriguing (Philip K Dick and Philosophy) to the wild-horses-couldn’t-drag-me-near-it (SpongeBob SquarePants and Philosophy).


In terms of space-time co-ordinates, Doctor Who and Philosophy emanates from the North American zone at some point in 2010: Matt Smith is referenced, but not in detail. This is more of a general look at the Who/philosophy intersection, rather than particular analysis of individual stories. The question, I suppose, that one might want to ask is this: do the essays in this book try to use philosophy to establish a deeper understanding of Doctor Who, or do they use examples from Doctor Who to illustrate some key philosophical problems?

The latter is probably more useful for a general audience, and perhaps easier for the writers, too, but how many members of the general audience are likely to pick up a book entitled Doctor Who and Philosophy in the first place? Anyway, it’s what the majority of the contributors here have chosen to do. Just flicking through this book one comes across arresting line after arresting line – ‘If John Stuart Mill had designed the Cybermen…’, ‘the Master, as a personification of the Will, becomes fully part of our phenomenal world’, and ‘Is the Doctor rigid or non-rigid?’ (as an old school fan, I naturally think he is permanently non-rigid). Some of the Doctor Who references are, well, just plain wrong – one contributor claims Colin Baker appeared in The Invasion of Time, another gets Serial B from 1963 mixed up with Serial NNN from 1972, though given the historic confusion over what B is called this is understandable – which suggests that the writers here are better versed in philosophy than in the series.

The essays themselves are a really mixed bunch, and run the gamut from metaphysics and ontology, through ethics and aesthetics, to a little bit of cultural theory. I have to say that the actual quality of the essays is a little variable too. One problem is that several people choose to cover the same ground. The thematic organisation of the book thus results in the reader being confronted with four essentially very similar essays straight off the bat – all of them deal with the knotty problem of what constitutes personal identity, most of them drawing on the same arguments from Locke and so on, with particular reference to the issue of what exactly it is that makes the first and the twelfth Doctors the same person. Any one of these, alone, would cover the topic very satisfactorily – encountering the same ideas over and over again is really just a bit of a slog.

Past this, though, there is some good stuff on the philosophical definition of specieshood, also causality and the philosophy of mathematics, even if some of the Doctor Who references feel a little laboured. A lengthy run of articles on the Doctor’s ethics (often compared with those of the Master) proves surprisingly heavy-going, but then again as these make frequent reference to Hegel, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche perhaps one shouldn’t be too surprised. A piece on the morality underpinning the ‘choice’ of the Doctor and Rose to part company just comes across as an attempt to provide a fig-leaf for some serious ‘shipping – it didn’t make me reappraise their relationship, but it did bring home just how shonkily written much of Army of Ghosts/Doomsday is. Another attempts to explain why the Angels are the most horrific Doctor Who monster, which is rather begging the question, but rather than the obvious answer (Blink is simply a very well-directed and brilliantly written episode) opts for a laborious trek through notions of personhood and coercion. Robin Bunce’s analysis of the Daleks as antagonists is good, but limited to their first, uncharacteristic appearance, while Deborah Pless’ look at the series as a post-imperial cultural artefact starts promisingly, until startling quotes like ‘the companions prior to [Romana] had largely been attractive but stupid women’, ‘the Doctor became the hero of every man, and Romana that of every woman [in Britain]’ leads one to suspect that this essay has been submitted not just from the USA, but some parallel dimension where Williams-era Doctor Who has a considerably greater cachet.

So it’s a mixed bag all told. Some of the essays are genuinely interesting and thought-provoking, others are just hard work. A tiny minority caused a bit of teeth-gritting and grumbling, but then the same could be said for many recent episodes of the TV show. Open-minded Doctor Who fans should find something to enjoy here, though whether that’s enough to justify the purchase I couldn’t honestly say.

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