By Jez Strickley
When the Doctor, Rose and Mickey crash land on what they take to be planet Earth in Rise of the Cybermen the viewer is treated to a plot device seldom used in televised Doctor Who: the parallel world. In fact, it may come as some surprise to learn that its only other use was in the Third Doctor story Inferno.
The parallel universe scenario is nothing new. The scientific theory of multiple universes (known as ‘multiverses’) has long been debated, and myths and legends of different worlds beyond our own abound in countless human cultures and communities. Television offerings on the subject range from the odd one episode dabble (such as the Red Dwarf season two episode Parallel Universe) to an entire series based on the concept (the US television series Sliders). In literature, examples of travel to other universes come thick and fast: C.S. Lewis' The Chronicles of Narnia and Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Alice through the Looking-Glass are perhaps two of the better known examples.
Fictional wardrobes and mirrors aside, the notion of a parallel reality has a rich and extensive history behind it. The Greek philosopher Plato, for instance, addresses the idea of a perfect existence beyond the physical world in his theory of forms. In fact, the cave allegory which Plato uses to illustrate this theory is almost certainly the inspiration behind feature films such as Peter Weir's The Truman Show and the Matrix Trilogy by Larry and Andy Wachowski. An unseen reality running concurrently with the perceivable world is fundamental to many faith claims, enabling believers to raise up the human condition from the muddy material of the senses.
In the realm of popular television the device of the parallel world offers a number of useful benefits, each of which begs the question of why it is not used more often in Doctor Who:
1. Character Variations
It presents the opportunity to explore character variations which are not possible within the limits of an established profile. Mickey Smith, for example, is generally portrayed as a bungler: running into walls, falling over trolleys and missing the obvious are all in a day's work for Mickey, who is possibly one of the finest examples of coming second place in life. The ongoing list of his failings inevitably contributes to him seeing himself as a redundant member of the TARDIS crew (see School Reunion and Rise of the Cybermen), and being referred to as an idiot by the Doctor certainly doesn't do his confidence a world of good.
On the parallel Earth witnessed in Rise of the Cybermen and The Age of Steel Mickey becomes Ricky: a tough, aggressive individual who is a leader amongst his peers, and who is not inclined to suffer fools gladly — all of which puts him, at least on first impression, a country mile away from his parallel counterpart. It soon becomes clear, however, that Mickey and Ricky are not so very far apart, and it is at this point that the nature of the parallel world becomes clearer. A parallel world means precisely that, namely, one reality lined up against another and each one a variation on the same theme, or in the case of Mickey and Ricky, the same person. By employing the idea of a separate, but essentially similar reality it is possible for the writer to explore how a character could be altered given a different world of choices.
In Inferno, the first Doctor Who story to see the Doctor visit a parallel universe, the viewer is presented with this very scenario. The regular characters of the Brigadier, Liz Shaw and Sergeant Benton shift from the likeable to the loathsome, undergoing enormous personality makeovers made authentic by dint of their inhabiting a parallel Earth. In the course of the adventure the even-tempered Brigadier is abandoned for the dictatorial bully, the forthright scientific principles of Liz Shaw are forsaken for the ideals of the totalitarian state, and the unswerving loyalty of Sergeant Benton is reduced to the mechanical obedience of the jackbooted thug. A parallel world can offer up these kinds of character shifts in a genuine, believable context, allowing the viewer a privileged insight into where their favourite hero might have gone, had they been exposed to a contrasting set of life chances.
2. What If ?
The parallel world also allows for the resurrecting of characters and situations long since consigned to the history book. In Inferno the pseudo-fascist caricatures of the Brigadier, Liz Shaw and Sergeant Benton meet an untimely end, a fate which their UNIT counterparts avoid. In Father's Day we learn of the circumstances surrounding the death of Pete Tyler, whilst Rise of the Cybermen, The Age of Steel and Doomsday show how a contrasting set of circumstances put his life on a different course. It is, therefore, only a short leap from dead and buried to alive and kicking, given a parallel world to explore. This also gives an opportunity to follow up what might have happened, if another path had been chosen. Imagine, for example, a reality in which the Fourth Doctor dispensed with the Dalek incubation room (see Genesis of the Daleks) as quickly as the Sixth Doctor dealt with the Vervoids (see Terror of the Vervoids). Still further, what of a parallel Earth in which the Master was defeated for good at the close of Terror of the Autons? Or a universe in which the Tenth Doctor never encountered Queen Victoria and the Torchwood Estate? The parallel world option affords the writer or producer the chance to explore the results of different choices, revealing how actions and events are not necessarily set in stone.
3. Tackling Canon
Tackling the notoriously difficult issue of canon is a further advantage of the parallel world. In the case of the Cybermen, for example, using a parallel Earth enabled the new series' production team to reinvent the Cybermen concept without having to stick to forty years' worth of stories referring to the genesis of the original Mondasian menace. The new series' use of a parallel Earth echoes the definitive beginning of these chilling cyborgs in The Tenth Planet, which sees the Cybermen threatening Earth from its ancient twin, but Rise of the Cybermen is free to be an independent narrative.
4. Linking Fictions
Finally, there is yet another benefit which, although rather more tenuous than its predecessors, is no less intriguing - the way in which the parallel world can present an apparent link between fictions. An example of this connection is Bill Baggs' The Stranger series. Starring Colin Baker and Nicola Bryant as the Stranger and Miss Brown, these stories arguably present an alternative existence for the Sixth Doctor and Peri. Officially, of course, there is no link between Doctor Who and The Stranger, but from a speculative point of view the parallel world allows the fan to consider a possible relationship between these two series, a relationship which gives the latter a stock of fan interest before it has begun.
A more recent, and ongoing example, centres upon the Doctor Who regular Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart, played by Nicholas Courtney, who possesses a startling resemblance to the equally fictional creation of Detective Inspector Lionheart, also portrayed by Nicolas Courtney, who appears in the acclaimed audio drama series The Scarifyers, by Cosmic Hobo Productions (see www.cosmichobo.com). Set in 1930s Britain, The Scarifyers sees Lionheart battling against all manner of unpleasant nasties in much the same no-nonsense style as UNIT's Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart. The parallel world option furnishes the fan with the chance to argue that, barring a generational gap or two, the Brigadier and Lionheart are one and the same person, only existing in parallel realities. As with The Stranger series, whether there is an actual connection between The Scarifyers and Doctor Who is entirely speculative. On paper they are separate enterprises, but the apparent linkage which exists between them is certainly no hindrance to their popularity, and makes for ideal debating material for the theorists amongst us.
The parallel world presents a multitude of possibilities, ranging from character explorations and resurrections to making new choices and avoiding canonical upsets. It even allows for some harmless and enjoyable speculative links between different fictional series. In fact, in a parallel reality anything goes and, ironically, it is this quality which explains why it has been used on so few occasions in Doctor Who. Writers of Doctor Who already have one enormously popular and unarguably iconic advantage: the TARDIS. In this unqualified Wundermaschine the Doctor et. al. can travel to and from any point in time and space, including the occasional parallel reality. The plot opportunities offered by the TARDIS overwhelm those of the parallel world, which is perhaps the biggest single reason why this otherwise useful backdrop tends to gather dust. Dredging up dead villains, introducing astonishing character contrasts, and exploring any number of alternative plot lines are all well and good, but while there is the TARDIS it is unlikely that the parallel world option will appear very often. This means that for fans of the alternative reality its all too rare appearances must be savoured, for the days in which the Doctor finds himself on a parallel Earth will undoubtedly be few and far between.