You won’t be surprised that my ideal Doctor Who story would be written by John Dorney, and star Paul McGann and Nicola Walker, Peter Capaldi and Matt Lucas, and possibly Alex Macqueen. It would score high on the campometer but have flashes of cold steel and heart-wrenching shadows of deepest darkness. If you’re salivating already, I apologise, as that’s NOT where I’m going here; by “Ideal”, I don’t mean fantasy – I mean philosophy. Plato, to be precise.
Plato believed there are two worlds; the real one in which we live, and the ideal one in which we patently don’t. In this world, we will encounter many experiences and things – let’s say tables – which are merely real; from a cardboard box with a crate on top, to a priceless antique with Queen Anne legs, exquisite marquetry, mother-of-pearl inlay and a spring-loaded secret drawer. But all pale into insignificance compared with the table in the Ideal world – the world of Ideas. There resides the pure Idea of a table, the very essence of table, the perfect shining epitome of tableness. Here’s where opinions divide; did Plato believe the world of Ideas was a purely human construct, a shared bank of concepts and definitions (a flat surface for putting stuff on, raised to a height convenient for reaching said stuff) or did he believe in a more mystical realm where Ideas have existence, even substance? Either way, any real iteration of a thing we know is merely a reflection of the Ideal one, echoing down through all of space and time. See, I do get back to the Doctor eventually.
We happily argue ’til the cows come home about which is the best Doctor, in which medium he or she shines, and which writer best ‘gets’ their voice. We acknowledge that however brilliant they may be, actors and writers can occasionally let us down, constrained by time, budget, and the BBC. We grieve when the reflection of our Ideal Doctor is distorted; rejoice when it rings true.
The shakiness of some real examples doesn’t matter one jot, because we know that the Ideal Doctor remains, maybe in that mystical realm of Ideas, and any examples we experience are somehow less – er, ‘real.’ Well, you know what I mean. Peter Capaldi certainly does (skip to 6:56):
In fandom the Idea of the Doctor doesn’t merely comfort us; it inspires us too. At any gathering of fandom you’ll find the ‘imitate the Doctor’ gene is strong, and not just a matter of dressing up, though that’s fun.
As Peter says, you don’t just play the Doctor; you represent him: ‘Capaldi truly understands how to make [young fans’] day better, taking the time to answer their questions and to give each one the attention that they deserve. The Doctor is a symbol of hope and joy to the masses throughout the universe. He helps protect and guide the weak and defenceless. Capaldi himself takes that mantra of being there for others to heart.’
Where lead actor leads, fans follow: for a generation now a movement has been growing in some Christian circles called ‘WWJD’ – What Would Jesus Do? It says if you believe in Jesus, don’t just talk about him; ACT like him. If you don’t know what to do, imagine your hero in your situation, watch what he’d do, and emulate him. This concept has been gleefully leapt upon by Fandom, as evident in these creations:
WWTDD? was powerfully expressed by Rose 14 years ago (yes, dear reader, it is that old). At that stage. she had met only one Doctor, but something from him changed her, made her choose to act differently.
This Idea of those who travel with the Doctor being changed – made more Doctor-like – is opened out in The Sarah Jane Adventures.
The influence of the Ideal Doctor is not just for bona fide Companions (or Friends), but all of us. The invitation to go with the Doctor is often featured in the text, but shown in a way that invites the viewer along too:
That image epitomises the era in which the ‘lonely God’ concept emerged, a LONG way from the Third Doctor’s alien scientist working for UNIT, the Eighth’s revolutionary bringing down EvilCorp wherever he finds it, or the mysterious traveller with moral authority whatever his flaws. But writers can’t seem to leave the godlike idea alone. Steven Moffat played with it, even nudging the fourth wall:
However much we might want to, we don’t often live up to our Ideals. When Clara was our audience identification figure, she became almost too Doctor-like, but let him down badly, leading to one of the most tear-jerking moments of Who:
This is where the psychology of fandom gets really interesting; when our concept of the Ideal Doctor is not merely something we relate to, but something we dream could relate to us, return that devotion. In The Husbands of Rover Song, River is the audience identification figure. Her ‘realism’ not expecting him to be there, or care, is met by unexpected Presence, broadcast on Christmas day, when Christians celebrate Emanuel: God With Us.
Like Christmas Specials, devotion to the Ideal can get a bit over the top. Some fans can take it a tad too far:
‘He loves us more than all the other creatures in the universe. He would die for us, but what he really wants to do is live with us. So it’s no wonder the show has fanatics. It’s not a show. It’s a philosophy. A religion.’
‘I love Doctor Who. No, really, there’s a 74% chance that I’d be on my knees worshipping a Time Lord in Gallifrey’s Panopticon if I had access to a TARDIS and wasn’t studying to be a Catholic priest.’
No offence to these lovely people, but personally I’m glad Who is secular, carefully leaving the eternal verities open to interpretation. The Ideal Doctor may walk in eternity, but isn’t a god; maybe more like a bodhisattva; someone who’s found a Better Way and could be free of the real world’s troubles, but comes back time and again to help those who still suffer. Let’s not forget the Ninth Doctor warning, “Don’t worship me. I’d make a very bad god.” Or as the First Doctor puts it:
Maybe young Peter was right; the Doctor is ‘out there’ somewhere, in an Ideal world. Maybe the Ideal Doctor only sleeps in our minds, a meme with a mission to make us better.
Whatever your concept of the Ideal Doctor, relish it, it’s what makes you You, especially when things get tough. As grown-up Peter said, reflecting the Ideal Doctor as best he could; ‘Chin up, shoulders back. Let’s see what we’re made of, you and I.’