Trust me, I’m a Doctor… but the same one?

BBC's 'New' Doctor
Image: BBC Publicity Photo

Saturday 3rd of April marked the beginning of a new era in television broadcasting. And no, I’m not talking about the first 3D broadcast of a football (soccer) match being aired in some UK pubs. I am, of course, talking about the first episode of the new series of Dr Who on the BBC, featuring a brand new ‘Doctor’ (played by Matt Smith, to generally warm and enthusiastic reviews). A colleague of mine recently posted on the Philosophy and Popular Culture series; whatever one’s view of the series as a whole, Dr Who – like many sci-fi programmes – is ripe for the treatment (the volume from Open Court is, predictably, on its way in late 2010). For those not in the know, a new Doctor is a different proposition to, say, a new James Bond (where only the actor changes, though this too happens). Each time the actor playing the Doctor – an alien humanoid from the planet Gallifrey – changes, the character himself undergoes a ‘regeneration’, written into the plotline to explain the appearance change. The precise mechanism of ‘regeneration’ is never elaborated in the series, but at the end of the process, the Doctor’s appearance and personality is fundamentally altered. The New Doctor is the character’s eleventh such incarnation.

The introduction of a new Doctor raises metaphysical complications. In particular, how do we make sense of the Doctor’s alterations from the standpoint of personal identity considerations: can we think of a new Doctor being the same person as his pre-regenerative self? Even if the Doctor’s personality fundamentally changes (this is, however, sometimes debated by fans: each incarnation of the Doctor tends to share certain broad character traits, such as an inherent respect for human life), we might hesitate to think that he  literally becomes a (numerically) different person –he is still The Doctor, after all.

Although the literature on the topic of personal identity is vast, theories tend to fall under either the somatic (bodily) camp, or the psychological (mental) camp, emphasising the continuity of one or the other as constitutive of continued personal identity. How does the Doctor’s regeneration fare on either count? As was noted above, the Doctor’s personality undergoes a sudden and dramatic shift at regeneration, and although his memories are usually preserved, after occassional temporary amnesia, it might be thought that the other psychological changes the Doctor undergoes break any sort of psychological continuity.* Perhaps, then, it is under bodily-continuity theories that the Doctor’s continued personhood fares best: although his physical appearance changes, there is no reason to believe that the fundamental material of which his body is constructed (i.e. the matter-energy) changes dramatically, or at least in such a way that violates continuity concerns. However, the general consensus in the philosophical literature on personal identity tends to veer away from somatic accounts of identity criteria, with various alternative thought experiments (brain swaps, thought-transfers, and so on) seeming to contradict any intuitions in favour of a bodily continuity criterion as being necessary for the continued existence of the same person.

Whether or not the Doctor’s regeneration throws new light on our ways of thinking about personal identity (and it is, clearly, our ways of thinking about personal identity that are in question here, given that the Doctor is indeed a fictional character), what is clear is that science fiction yet again presents an exceptional medium for introducing philosophical ideas to a wider audience (alongside jokes about fish and custard).

You can still, until the weekend, catch the first episode of Dr Who’s new series via BBC i-Player (in the UK only).

* Funnily enough, John Locke’s sometimes-called ‘naive’ psychological criterion of personal identity in fact seems to emphasise the role of memory in sustaining personal identity over time.

Related Articles:

Time Travel: Double Your Fun
By Frank Arntzenius, Rutgers University
(Vol.1, Oct.2006)
Philosophy Compass

Just As I Was Getting To Know Me
By Patrick Stokes, University of Copenhagen
Forthcoming in: Paula Smithka and Court Lewis (eds) Doctor Who and Philosophy (Chicago and La Salle, IL: Open Court)

4 thoughts on “Trust me, I’m a Doctor… but the same one?”

  1. Hello there,

    I’m actually thinking of writing a paper on personal identity in Doctor Who and I’ve been trying to get a hold of the article “Just As I Was Getting To Know Me” by Patrick Stokes. Is there any way you could point me in the right direction? I was hoping the database at my school would help but no such luck.

    Great post!


  2. Thanks you, both!

    Caroline: unfortunately, I haven’t actually seen Patrick Stokes’ paper myself yet – the book is due to appear in October/November this year. The only think I can suggest would be to try contacting Patrick Stokes directly (just put his name in a search-engine, and his personal website with contact details should come up!), on the off-chance that he has an electronic pre-print available that he is allowed to distribute. Unfortunately, however, copyright etc restrictions may well prevent this.

    Otherwise, there is a blog which discusses various philosophical issues connected to Dr Who here:

    You may find one or two interesting discussions there!


  3. He’s not human, and not actual. Furthermore his fictional existence defies causality. So any discussion of identity must start from the assumption that The Doctor is not a person in the usual accepted sense of the term and more like a daemon or asura, in which the evident personification is not necessarily the absolute form.

    As with the classic case of the hand partially emerged from water – in which the fingers are indeed all of the same hand, yet apparently distinct – so The Doctor, as a metaconstruct of morality and (most notably) Time itself, emerges in multiple forms. The many human forms, yet all one Doctor. Unlike the hand, the forms are separated by Time, befitting his status and origin.

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