The thousand faces of Doctor Who
“To define is to limit”, Oscar Wilde
The Doctor is an almost thousand-year-old alien with a policebox-shaped time-space ship and a Deus-ex-machina device in the form of a sonic screwdriver. He* travels through time and space solving conflicts, fixing problems and saving people. Most of the times.
He’s also got two hearts and an uncertain number of “lives”: when he’s lethally injured, he regenerates into a different personification (in a quite spectacular way). Every regeneration is different and has specific personality traits, likes and dislikes, and even fashion style — though he keeps his memories and a fundamental core remains.
Beyond this, his pure essence, the Doctor is not easy to describe or define. Every personification, every actor, adds a new layer to the character that might sometimes cause contradictions. The Doctor is one, no one and one hundred thousand. All in one.
Every reincarnation is a brand new doctor. It’s almost literally a new beginning, a new incarnation still to be defined. A blank canvas for the writers but also for the character, who needs to explore options and possibilities to learn not only his place in the series but in its universe.
Unsurprisingly, every new doctor polarises the fandom, sometimes to the extreme of outrage: the void of now unknowing what was perfectly familiar, recognisable and liked causes discomfort, resistance and anxiety.
As any one of us, every new beginning is the pure hope of what’s possible, what can potentially be but we don’t know yet. Through choices, developments, decisions, trial and error, the doctor can’t help but gradually define himself by putting limits to what he is and is not: the tendency to become one (and only one) from the flowing potency of infinite.
Season after season, the scriptwriters (and the Doctor himself) add layer after layer of meaning and symbolism to the blank canvas that is the Doctor: slowly but surely defining, positioning and delimiting a clear and distinct version of him.
The endless overlap of layers ends up saturating the character to the point of needing a dramatic regeneration and fresh restart.
Constrained by all these limitations, by the weight of all past decisions, the Doctor collapses and erupts into a myriad of new possibilities. His regenerations are literal explosions: breaking out of himself, he is once again free to start the process anew. Self-destruction and regeneration into a blank canvas that offers the chance to explore and experiment from scratch.
Somehow we can relate to such character. Like him, we come to this world in pure potency: being nothing but endless possibility. At least ideally, of course: material conditions will always determine our options.
It’s throughout our journey that we choose paths, we decide and struggle, and hurt and love, and, slowly but steadily, pick what sufferings we endure, decide what we stand for and set our own boundaries: we delimit ourselves to finally carve our place in the world.
Perhaps that’s the only way we can progress: every beginning is never actually from scratch but an embracement of an ever-growing foundation of the essential and a rejection of the irrelevant.
Some of us, perhaps, can’t help but live in this ebb and flow, like a pendulum we swing between creative and destructive impulses, in the never-ending process of building, tearing down and rebuilding: create, destroy, recreate.
As well as its outcome, this process of self-definition can hardly be seen as a linear progress from A to Z (from womb to tomb?) but more like “a big ball of wibbly wobbly timey wimey stuff”.
Only the commitment and the will to knock down the entire edification of our identity enables us to take control over the paradoxical process of the creation of our authentic selves.
* One personification of the Doctor is female, but we decided to use “he” instead of “he/she” or “they” just for clarity in such a short text.
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