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The Hero with Thirteen Faces

A look at Myth in Doctor Who

By Alistair Hughes

“Oh Doctor, why did you have to go back?”
“I had to face my... fear, Sarah. That was more important than just going on living.”
The Doctor and Sarah, Planet of the Spiders

“The Hero meets and overcomes his fears and limitations... and (can) thus be born again as a transformed individual.”
The Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell

This article takes its title from author and lecturer Joseph Campbell's The Hero with a Thousand Faces, a book credited by filmmakers such as George Lucas and John Boorman with the inspiration for the mythic images and stories in their films. The opening quotes illustrate one of the most easily recognisable links between Doctor Who and Myth — what Campbell terms as the ‘Death and Resurrection theme’. Campbell explains that the death can be symbolic, or literal, but the hero returns from the ordeal as a different and wiser person.

Myth itself is defined as “A traditional story of ostensibly historical events that serves to unfold part of the world view of a people, or explain a practice, belief, or natural phenomenon”. They deal with astonishingly consistent themes and figures throughout the ages in cultures which had no direct contact with one another. This led Sigmund Freud to believe that Myth taps into a deep unconscious part of the human mind. Carl Jung later theorised that this linked humanity in a ‘collective racial memory’ — a ‘common mental library’ of themes and figures (whom he called ‘archetypes’) which accounted for the similarity of myths and legends across different cultures and time.

Intentionally or otherwise, Doctor Who has touched on many key themes and archetypes in its history, which enrich certain stories and lend a certain familiarity which we relate to on many levels. Doctor Who is essentially about the adventures of the sole lead character, and so the most pertinent Myth theme is probably what Joseph Campbell calls ‘The Hero Journey’.

“There are worlds out there where the sky is burning, where the sea's asleep and the rivers dream, people made of smoke and cities made of song. Somewhere there's danger, somewhere there's injustice and somewhere the tea's getting cold. Come on, Ace, we've got work to do.”
The Doctor, Survival

“As always, the Hero must venture forth from the world of common-sense consciousness into a region of supernatural wonder. There he encounters fabulous forces — demons and angels, dragons and helping spirits...”
The Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell

In The Hero with a Thousand Faces Joseph Campbell adds to Carl Jung's work in understanding Myth by describing the Hero's journey in classical mythology, in four main stages: ‘The Call to Adventure’, ‘Threshold Crossing’, ‘Initiation’ and ‘Return’.

1. The Call to Adventure

The Hero is lured or called from his ordinary life to risk the unknown.

In terms of the series as a whole, we don't actually see the Doctor's departure from his ‘ordinary life’ on Gallifrey. But this ‘stage’ can apply to every one of his companions (bar Susan and Mel, perhaps).

In part of an un-filmed speech credited to David Whitaker, the Doctor promises: “...Come with me and you will see wonders that no human has dreamt possible... or stay behind and regret your staying until the day you die.” In this role, the Doctor becomes more like another Myth Archetype — The Wise Old Man, or Mentor. This is perhaps most relevant in the Hartnell era, when the Doctor literally guides the more obviously heroic companions, like Ian and Steven. And like the mythic Mentors from Merlin to Obi-Wan Kenobi, he ‘passes beyond’ before the quest is over.

Looking at Doctor Who serials individually, the “Call to Adventure” becomes more relevant to the character of the Doctor. The Third Doctor was often coerced into running errands for the Time Lords — sending him to adventures on other planets, and the Fourth was charged by the White Guardian to recover the Key to Time.

According to Myth, at this point in the journey, the Hero is often given a magic talisman. King Arthur, Luke Skywalker and others were given swords, but the Doctor is not a ‘warrior’ in the traditional sense, so he receives more subtle devices. Ky's ‘artefact’ from the Time Lords, the Time Ring, also from the Time Lords, and of course the ‘Tracer’ from the Key to Time Season all fulfil the function of the talisman in Doctor Who.

It's highly characteristic for the Hero to attempt to refuse ‘The Calling’ — which is just what the Doctor does on almost every occasion!

2. Threshold Crossing

Next the Hero must face his own fears, and inner and outer dragons as a test of character.

The facing of fears is another familiar concept in Doctor Who. If the object of his fear is great enough, (The Time Lords in The War Games, the Great One in Planet of the Spiders and foreknowledge of his own passing in Logopolis) it can lead to the ‘death’ and regeneration of the lead character. Fear is shown to have a very real power over individuals, particularly in stories such as Mind of Evil and Image of the Fendahl, and the Doctor often seeks to rationalise or dispel this, though not always successfully.

‘Inner dragons’ is an interesting idea to examine, as it suggests the presence of significant flaws in a Hero, which of course is exactly the case. The Doctor's fatal flaws, generally and specific to each regeneration, could provide an entire article on its own, but this subject is eloquently addressed by Producer Barry Letts in a interview with Adventures in Space and Time. “... A greed to experience all the wonders of these new worlds he goes to... and what is thus wrong in the Doctor's character is his craving for it... the very fact that he stole a TARDIS in the first place, to escape and to satisfy his craving, is the key to the flaw that makes him fallible.”

Letts drew upon his Buddhist knowledge to present the Third Doctor's fatal confrontation with the Great One as a parallel to the Doctor's inner journey to confront his own greed-inflated ego, allowing himself to be destroyed with it.

Outer Dragons are of course what the series has always been about: Monsters! In The Moonbase the Doctor states: “There are some corners of the universe which have bred the most terrible things... they must be fought!”

During this stage of the journey, ‘hero partners’ are also encountered, to give the Hero support in his quest. Jason had his Argonauts, Arthur his Knights and the Doctor has his Companions: Warriors — the Brigadier and Leela, Apprentices — Romana and Ace, and even Fools (in the classical sense) Jo and Harry. They help and sometimes hinder the Doctor in his adventures and provide the essential ‘human’ viewpoint, which make the stories so accessible to us.

3. Initiation

Through the Journey and passing of tests, he finds power and usually after a supreme ordeal, wins his reward.

Every Who serial contains the crucial point, where the hero will succeed or fail and a single choice or action can determine the fate of anything from an individual to the entire Universe. In the earliest days of the programme, the Doctor used his formidable deductive reasoning to save Kublai Khan from assassination and the Sensorite Race from poisoning. The benefits of such actions often prove beneficial to everyone. In the examples above, the results included the return of the TARDIS key and the end of hostilities between Humans and Sensorites.

As the Doctor has always used his intelligence first and foremost, the tests which he has faced are most often of mental endurance or deduction. Gaining places into domains such as the Cybertombs, the Exxilon city and the pyramid on Mars challenge his mind and willpower, while also representing another key mythic theme — ‘The descent to the Underworld’. In the underground Labyrinth, Theseus faced the Minotaur, and in Summerian myth Ianni must also face challengers when she enters the Underworld. These ‘challengers’ are termed as ‘Threshold Guardians’ and must be overcome by the Hero. The reward which the Doctor gains is usually some form of salvation, not just for himself or his companions and friends, but for a planet, galaxy or even the entire Universe!

4. The Return

Where the Hero returns transformed by the overcoming of obstacles, and empowered by his victory and the positive changes he has brought to the world.

Once again, considering the series as a whole, applying this return stage seems difficult, because the Doctor is essentially a wanderer, without a home to return to. He states in The Daleks' Master Plan: “I am a citizen of the universe, and a gentleman to boot”. This statement, and many others seem to illustrate that his loyalties, and the benefits of his victories, are to the cosmos as a whole. More parochially speaking, each Gallifrey story has involved the Doctor saving his birthplace — and in The Invasion of Time he even returns to ‘claim his Kingdom’, another popular Mythic theme.

In terms of returning ‘transformed’, this stage can be very pertinent to ‘debut’ stories from The Power of the Daleks onwards, where the Doctor has been ‘physically reborn’.

Joseph Campbell wrote that the Hero Journey (The Call to Adventure, Threshold Crossing, Initiation and Return) “Is symbolic of the quest which people go onto to find out who they are... The quest involves first going inward, and finding the relationship of your deepest self with that of the Universe, and then bringing that understanding back and putting it into practice in one's daily life”.

The quest to know oneself is an irresistible hook within Myths from all times, and seems particularly pertinent to a programme called ‘Doctor — Who?’.

“The image of the idealised form of a myth creature... takes on substance in a natural environment, solid flesh, blood, clothing and — as you saw — weaponry. The form of the idealised myth, the Hero figure alters with cultural changes assuming the identity and technology of the time. When one culture invades another... the Heroes are made manifest...”
Mythago Wood by Robert Holdstock

The Mind Robber was about literature... a planet where fantasy exists. The travelers find themselves in a land of fiction, where they are hunted by Toy Soldiers and encounter characters such as Rapunzel and Lemuel Gulliver.”
Doctor Who — The Sixties by Howe, Stammers and Walker

Myth archetypes, according to Jungian Psychology, are core figures whose meaning and importance to their originating culture enable us to better understand ourselves. The Doctor has been examined in the context of ‘the Hero’ — the generalised image of the better qualities of humanity, but he can also be identified with other archetypes, including the Wise Guide and the Trickster.

The Wise Guide, or Mentor can also find parallels in characters such as the White Guardian, Kanpo Rimpoche and the Watcher. As mentioned before, this role is often adopted by the older and/or more obviously authoritarian regenerations of the Doctor.

In turn, the Doctor's younger and more active incarnations often display qualities of ‘the Trickster’, a Jungian archetype whose occurrence in the story Kinda is examined in detail by Manuel and Alvarado in Doctor Who — the Unfolding Text. This is a figure who challenges societal taboos, often through humorous means, and can find parallels in the Norse God Loki and the popular image of the medieval Court Jester. Once again, the Doctor himself has represented this archetype, forever challenging authority and tradition, using degrees of humour dependant upon which regeneration he happens to be in at the time.

The dark counterpart of the Hero is ‘The Shadow’. In the quest for the Key to Time, the Doctor's dark counterpart was literally called ‘The Shadow’, and at one point even refers to himself as “The Shadow which accompanies us all...” However, this particular archetype has much better known candidates in the history of the programme.

“Some people were to speculate that they might be two different aspects of the same personality”, wrote Doctor Who Monthly 78, “with the Doctor representing the good side and the Master the darker aspect of that personality”. A personification of the Doctor's darker side is a compelling concept — but this was later literally fulfilled by the Valeyard who was, as the Master remarks to the Doctor: “A distillation of all that is evil in you.”

In Arthurian legend, when Arthur kills Mordred, and is in turn fatally wounded, he is not only Good defeating Evil, but also a good man defeating his own dark thoughts and actions. Not too surprisingly, similar scenarios involving the Doctor in final conflict with the Master and the Valeyard were originally envisaged by the production team as the climaxes to Seasons 11 and 23.

Doctor Who is, on the surface at least, concerned with the eternal struggle between Good and Evil, or Dualism, as this is termed. Although a staple in Myth, this concept actually derives from the earlier conflict between Order and Chaos. Producer Graham Williams introduced his concept of the Guardians as an intrinsic balancing force in the Universe, where Light (in every sense) cannot exist without Dark and so an equilibrium with, rather than victory over darkness is essential. The Black Guardian and other god-like characters like Sutekh add further complexity to this idea, by claiming that what we perceive to be Evil is, to them, Goodness.

Colin Baker makes an interesting observation on the Doctor's own perception of Good in the documentary More than 30 Years in the TARDIS, when he states: “I suppose what sums up the Doctor, really, is an essential belief in the ‘rightness’ of things. And if things aren't right he feels compelled to do something about it. And right doesn't always necessarily mean beautiful, or happy or pretty, but RIGHT — it's got to be right.”

“Perhaps these old Myths are not just old stories of the past, but prophecies of the future. Who knows... What do you think, K9?”
The Doctor and K9, Underworld

“Myths are the Dreams of the Race, Dreams are the Myths of the Individual”
Sigmund Freud

The Classical roots of stories such as Underworld (Jason and the Argonauts) and The Horns of Nimon (Theseus and the Minotaur) are well-documented. Similarly, it's not difficult to enjoy the Arthurian overtones of Battlefield or even the Celtic references in The Stones of Blood.

Perhaps not too surprisingly, regeneration stories are a rich source of mythic themes in Doctor Who, with the final stories of the Third and Fourth Doctors standing out in particular. Producer Barry Letts has made the Buddhist parallels in Planet of the Spiders very clear: “...at the end of the story, the Doctor goes right inside the blue mountain. That symbolises him going right inside himself, even though he knows it will destroy him, just as somebody going right to the end of Zen is willing to allow himself to be destroyed, the false ego being destroyed to find the real self. He knows he will be destroyed, but knows also that he will be regenerated.”

The Doctor's earlier conversation with his old Mentor K'Anpo Rimpoche, where he asks if it is really necessary for him to confront the Great One (and his own death) recalls Christ's conversation with God, just before his arrest and eventual crucifixion. The Christian theme is expanded upon further at the climax of Logopolis. Reviewing his current existence, (via flashbacks) the Fourth Doctor literally lets go of his ‘old life’, before finally reaching out to the ghostly Watcher (the Holy Spirit). Accepting the Spirit into him, the Doctor is then ‘born again’.

The Germanic concept of ‘Wyrd’ is also prominent in Logopolis. This is the foreknowledge and acceptance of one's own fate, and the way in which that individual then chooses to meet it. Although the Doctor is darkly affected by this meeting with the Watcher, presumably because he now knows that his time is up, he still accepts his calling to save the Universe, despite being aware of what the personal cost must be. The TV Movie, itself a regeneration story, is of course jammed full of biblical imagery, from serpents to resurrection and even a crucifixion complete with a crown of thorns!

If a serial is written well enough, it shouldn't diminish our enjoyment of a story if we don't, for example, recognise the Buddhist names in Kinda, or the Teutonic ones in Terminus, or not identify the many literary themes explore in Seasons 12-14 (themselves derived from far older Myths).

But examining such stories in this light can give clues as to why certain images or characters sometimes seem to strike such a profound and personal chord with us, which can resonate on an unexpectedly deep level. It might be that we are subconsciously recognising and relating to the latest in an endless line of ‘Faces’ belonging to key figures and themes from the timeless tradition of human Myth.

“Despite the superficial differences in appearance... at hearts his character is remarkably consistent. He is... impulsive, idealistic, ready to risk his life for a worthy cause. He still hates tyranny and oppression, and anything that is anti-life. He never gives in, and never gives up, however overwhelming the odds against him. The Doctor believes in good and fights evil. Though often caught up in violent situations, he is a man of peace. He is never cruel or cowardly. In fact, to put it simply, the Doctor is a hero. These days there aren't so many of them around.”
The Making of Doctor Who by Terrance Dicks & Malcolm Hulke

This item appeared in TSV 61 (December 2000).