Tolkien in the TARDIS
How Doctor Who and Lord of the Rings reflect one another.
At WorldCon2017 in Helsinki I gave a talk on Doctor Who and Tolkien. I had previously given it at the Tolkien Society a few years ago but thought it needed updating for the modern day. Check it out, with the transcript below.
Two of the most well-known and well-loved imaginary worlds to come out of the last century have been Tolkien’s Middle Earth, and the Doctor Who universe. These two creations walk in parallel, cross paths, and reflect one another; they delve into the inner fire of fairy stories and pull at something that sparks the imagination.
Doctor Who is a science fiction family drama that started in 1963. It is the longest running science fiction drama and has spawned an awful lot of iconic imagery, from the police box time machine, to the pepper pot like Daleks and their obsession with extermination. The show follows the adventures of a time travelling alien called the Doctor as he faces monsters, tyrants and even dinosaurs across all of history. The Doctor often taking companions from contemporary earth (mostly) and shows them the wonders of time and space.
The inspiration for this talk came from some of the tiny references and parallels I noticed over the years of watching Doctor Who. I remember seeing the 1981 story The Keeper of Traken with the Fourth Doctor, Tom Baker. On the planet Traken evil cannot enter. If it tries, an evil source would be turned to stone and left standing as a motionless monument to Trakenite peace.
These evil statues were called Melkurs. The Master’s TARDIS took the form of this red-eyed monster and became a Melkur who terrorised the people and sought to take the secret of eternal life from them.
Tolkien’s first Dark Lord was, of course, Melkor. The similarity in name is quite striking. A dark and evil creature seeking domination and mastery over the universe, searching for the secret fire, and generally making a nuisance; that sounds very much like the Master.
The first Doctor, wore a signet ring of which he was very protective. It was a ring of power. He could use it to open the TARDIS doors, hypnotise and manipulate others and it even protected the Doctor from electrical shock. He was incredibly possessive of it until he regenerated. This little parallel sparked my imagination and I started looking for other ways in which the show mirrored Tolkien more substantially.
And so, with rumours abounding that Peter ‘film adaptations’ Jackson will possibly be directing an episode or two of Doctor Who, it seems that now is a good time to delve into this topic.
I want to talk about how we can see Tolkien through the lens of Doctor Who and vice versa. I want to look at how we can examine the way these two works build on the same foundations and tap into the same creative tools.
For Tolkien, one of the profound effects of fantasy and fairy stories was the way in which one can see again mundane, familiar and every-day things and find something else to see in them. To look again at the world with renewed wonder and strangeness;
“We need, in any case, to clean our windows; so that the things seen clearly may be freed from the drab blur of triteness or familiarity—from possessiveness. Of all faces those of our familiares are the ones both most difficult to play fantastic tricks with, and most difficult really to see with fresh attention, perceiving their likeness and unlikeness: that they are faces, and yet unique faces.
[…]Creative fantasy, because it is mainly trying to do something else (make something new), may open your hoard and let all the locked things fly away like cage-birds.”
― J.R.R. Tolkien, On Fairy-stories
Tolkien was talking often of ‘recovering’ a truth about what may have always been true about a thing in the mundane and familiar. To pull back the veil to reveal what had been lost to time or distorted view. To turn off the chameleon circuit and see the true underlying reality once again.
Bilbo Baggins housed many familiar characteristics of the bourgeois, rich, middle aged gentleman of Tolkien’s day, and yet he was still something else entirely. He was a Hobbit, with furry feet, diminutive stature, and a thirst for adventure, which, though hidden, eventually came roaring out.
A ring may be a mundane item, or it may be the very soul of a dark lord. A tree might be a tree, or it may be an old man with a black heart, or a bearded shepherd. Likewise, a blue phone-box may be a phone-box, or it may be a vast, alien time machine.
The Doctor’s time machine, the TARDIS, has the ability to disguise itself as anything at all. When it first appeared on our screens in 1963 it took the form of a battered old Police Public Call Box. However, it malfunctioned and got stuck on this image from that moment on. Though the Doctor attempted to fix it a couple of times, he never really succeeded.
As the Eleventh Doctor explains in a deleted scene from the 2010 series;
“Every time the TARDIS materializes in a new location within the first nanosecond of landing it analyses its surroundings, calculates a twelve dimensional map of everything within a thousand mile radius and determines which outer shell would blend in best with the environment.
… And then it disguises itself as a Police Telephone Box from 1963. It’s probably a bit of a fault.”
– The Eleventh Doctor (2010)
At the time, a Police Box was a fairly mundane item one would see on street corners or, as it happened, in a junkyard. For the audience of the 1960s, to think that an old police box could be an alien machine from the future would have been a thing of wonder in and of itself.
The TARDIS appears as a small blue phone box, but within is a vast interior. It is bigger on the inside than it is on the outside. Existing in a different dimension, the TARDIS’s interior goes on seemingly forever. It is quite literally another world existing beyond the doors of a simple, battered, wooden phonebox.
Statues, shadows, plastic manikins, trampolines and pepper pots – Doctor Who has always taken the familiar and given them shades of the unusual, the otherworldly, and the frightening. Sometimes the show takes the same track as Tolkien – living trees for example turn up multiple times.
Back in the 2005 story The End of the World, the Ninth Doctor encounters the Forest of Cheem, an intelligent and inquisitive world leader who witnessed the end of the planet Earth. She also helped save the people on Platform One by sacrificing herself. Much like the Ents and their sacrificial attack on Isengard.
In the 2011 Christmas special, The Doctor, The Widow and the Wardrobe, we were introduced to the Androzani Trees. An intelligent species of trees that were able to shape shift into humanoid forms that somewhat resembled Ents. The Wooden King even had a beard. A Tree-Beard, you might say.
The idea of the woods taking over, becoming sentient and living did not stop there. In the 2014 episode In the Forest of the Night, Peter Capaldi’s Doctor faced a worldwide invasion of trees. Ultimately, the trees were benevolent, rescuing the earth from impending destruction, acting as guardians and sentinels.
Trees taking back the world, defending themselves, or causing mischief is something you will find throughout Tolkien. In The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien (#241), he says;
“Every tree has its enemy, few have an advocate. (Too often the hate is irrational, a fear of anything large and alive, and not easily tamed or destroyed, though it may clothe itself in rational terms.)”
– The Letters of JRR Tolkien # 241
This seems very much like something the Doctor would say about many of the monsters he has encountered. So often his reaction is to reason with them, to seek out a peace and understanding. In the words of Christopher Eccleston, the Ninth Doctor…
“It’s a kind of celebration of life in all its forms. [The Doctor] doesn’t react with horror when he sees a blue, three-headed monster. He reacts with wonder, and I think that’s a very important message to send out to children.”
– Christopher Eccleston – BBC Interview 2005
For the Doctor, the wonder of the world – discovering and helping people – is one of his great motivators. He is eternally fascinated with people, with their little lives and their great destinies. For the most part, he doesn’t see simply a young woman working in a shop, but an adventurer who can have more life in a few years than many have in decades. He doesn’t see just a tired medical student, he sees someone who can walk the earth and bring down a tyrant. He doesn’t just see a temp working job after job, but the most important woman in the universe.
Likewise, Gandalf does not see just a little hobbit with funny quirks and a peaceful life, he sees the potential to change the world and bring down a dark lord. He too is a wanderer, a traveller from a distant, otherworldly realm and his powers are beyond those of the people around him.
The wise old wizard figure is so often used in fantasy as the mentor and guide, but in Doctor Who, he is the hero. However, the Doctor does not see himself as a hero and seems to actively resent the idea at times. He is offered praise and power several times – he brings down regimes and dethrones tyrants, often to be offered the throne, and yet turns it down. He does not see himself as one suited to power, perhaps because he has seen what it does to people so often.
In a special extra scene for the 2010 episode Flesh and Stone, the Doctor refers to himself as a ‘space Gandalf’. The comparison makes a sort of sense when you see it from the Doctor’s point of view. They are both wise beyond human capabilities, a little eccentric and silly at times, and possess abilities that many would call magical. They also both have a tendency to come back from the dead in a new slightly changed persona and costume.
The Time of the Doctor (2013) had the Doctor facing his ultimate demise. He sends his companion away so that he might face the enemy alone. He fought an exhausting battle that left him at the end of his life, no more regeneration possible. Clara, his companion at the time, is essentially told ‘Fly you fool!’ as the Doctor fights on. Yet, when his death finally hits, he is given a new life cycle by the Time Lords who have deemed that, much like Gandalf, his task is not yet complete.
A criticism the Doctor often receives from his own people is that he is too fond of and familiar with the people of Earth. Much like Saruman’s dismissive and derogatory attitude towards Gandalf’s view of Hobbits and pipe-weed.
“I know well enough that you have become a curious explorer of the small: weeds, wild things, and childish folk. Your time is your own to spend if you have nothing worthier to do; and your friends you may make as you please. But to me the days are too dark for wanderers tales, and I have no time for the simples of peasants.”
– Saruman; The Hunt for the Ring; The Unfinished Tales
The Time Lords set themselves up as passive, sworn only to watch and never interfere, much like the Valar. However, they do occasionally meddle by sending envoys. For the Time Lords this often comes in the form of the Celestial Intervention Agency (CIA), who often snatches the Doctor up for covert missions. They exiled the Doctor to earth as punishment for his meddling, accepting that there was evil in the universe and he had a part to play in combating it. The Valar, similarly, send their envoys in the form of the Istari, rather than interfering directly.
Gandalf’s rivalry with Saruman might be compared to the Doctor’s eternal struggle against the Master. A fellow renegade from Time Lord society, the Master was once a close friend of the Doctor’s; some have speculated they were brothers, lovers, or otherwise closely bonded.
The Master is generally considered somewhat more intelligent than the Doctor, though his lust for power and control are his foils. They ask one another for help when needed, and respect each other, albeit grudgingly and masked by petty insults and jabs. Much like Saruman, the Master possesses superior technology to the wandering Doctor; a running joke through the original series was that the Doctor’s rackety old Type-40 TARDIS was little more than junk when he stole it, while the Master’s newer model had all the bells and whistles.
While the Master has his superior apparatus, the Doctor is a vagabond, a wonderer and – in his second incarnation especially – a cosmic hobo. Much like Gandalf, he is an underdog within the scope of his own people. The Master, like Saruman, is able to raise armies, build engines of war, and does so from a more secure seat of power.
But the Doctor’s aims are never about power. He goes from place to place, helping where he can. He never stops, and he never stays, he never waits to be thanked. He fights the good fight and moves on. He is offered kingships and power, even the presidency of the High Council of Time Lords, but he runs away. Gandalf could have taken the keys to Orthank, the rods of the five wizards, and the crowns of seven kings, but he did not. He is no king, and has no desire to be one.
It is perhaps worth pointing out that Sylvester McCoy, who played the seventh incarnation of the Doctor, was also cast as Radagast the Brown in Peter Jackson’s adaptations of The Hobbit. McCoy’s Doctor was mysterious; a game player, a chess master, and even a sinister character at times. His relationship with his companion, Ace, was one of a teacher and student, but she was never afraid to call him out on his questionable morals and methods.
Radagast’s brief appearance in the Lord of the Rings and mentions elsewhere, do not paint a particularly detailed picture. He was certainly able to befriend birds and beasts, able to make friends across the animal kingdom. Gandalf refers to Radagast as a “master of shapes and changes of hue”, which may not mean he can regenerate, but it might mean that. It probably doesn’t.
Radagast is not the only character within Middle Earth to have an affinity with animals and birds. Beren son of Barahir was also famous for this ability to commune with nature, and it saved his skin on almost as many occasions as Luthien did.
The Doctor, similarly, has tremendous language skills and is seemingly able to communicate with beasts of thousands of species. From minotaurs to babies. McCoy’s Doctor even took to making birdcalls on multiple occasions
Why chose this kind of figure for a hero? Both Tolkien and the creators of Doctor Who have gone down this path and it has worked, connecting with and inspiring people across the generations. I think this ties in again to the general theme I am getting at; that in both Tolkien and Who we are encouraged to look beyond the familiar and rediscover what might be there. An old man with a walking stick may be a wizard from across the sea, or he may be an alien from across the stars.
Heroes are more than just stories, they are people, and people are complicated. People are strange. Heroes and the stories they inhabit can inspire, they can bring hope, and they can set you thinking. In Tolkien, one of the great tools of fairy stories and fantasy was the eucatastrophe.
“I coined the word ‘eucatastrophe’: the sudden happy turn in a story which pierces you with a joy that brings tears (which I argued it is the highest function of fairy-stories to produce).”
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien – Letter # 89
The Eagles arrive at the battle of the five armies, and at the Black Gate; the Ring is destroyed though Gollum’s fall; and the voyage of Eärendil into the West brings about the cataclysmic end of the War of the Jewels. It is when disaster seemed inevitable that a triumph is achieved.
For Tolkien, things are never perfect and there are always challenges in life, but he insists we never give up hope for the chance things will take a sudden turn from bad to good. The Daleks are defeated, the monster is sent home, or the war has ended – time and time again the solution comes at the last moment when all hope seemed lost. For the Doctor, saving the day comes when the potential for tragedy is at its highest.
One of the moments that stands out to me as a great example of the eucatastrophe comes at the conclusion to the 2008 story, Journey’s End. Here the Daleks, thanks to their creator Davros’ malicious machinations, are about to literally destroy the entire universe. All of the Doctor’s friends are incapacitated or imprisoned.
It is in the moment when all seems lost that companion Donna Noble raises. Dismissed by many as a useless temp, as a loud and shouting figure and not important at all. Even Donna dismisses her own importance. But in the moment of ultimate tragedy, she becomes the most important woman in all the cosmos.
Davros, having shot her with a bolt of electricity, thinking to kill or stun her, has in actuality triggered a “human-Time Lord Meta-Crisis” within her. Meaning that Donna now has the power to deactivate the Daleks’ weapons and save the universe. All right in the nick of time.
This is a common theme. The crisis will build and build, but then the day is saved. The heroics of Donna Noble fit the eucatastrophe better than most, I feel, because it is a direct result of the crisis itself that the solution is made. Without the malicious actions of Davros, she may not have had the power to stop him.
But sometimes things do not work out. All too often in the case of the monsters known as Silurians – the former inhabitants of the earth before humans came along – the result is devastating. In most of the Doctor’s encounters with the Silurians it ends with humans killing them and effectively committing genocide, despite the Doctor’s attempts to avert such an eventuality.
In the 1984 serial, Warriors of the Deep, the Doctor has failed to make peace between humans and Siluraians and almost everyone is left dead in the sea base. Sadly, regretfully, the Doctor laments;
“There should have been another way.”
– The Fifth Doctor; Warriors of the Deep
Because that is the Doctor’s outlook – there should be a resolution, there should be another way. Death and destruction are final, almost unthinkable solutions for him. The Doctor seeks out the eucatastrophe, so when it does not come, he is devastated.
Tom Baker, the Fourth Doctor, was fond of calling Doctor Who not science fiction, but science fantasy. In the show’s history we see mythologies taken on, subverted or revealed true. From Atlantis to Father Christmas, Doctor Who is rarely afraid to look into the human creativity and have a new way of imagining it.
Beyond myth and legends, we see the familiar turned suddenly alien. Within Tolkien’s works, and within Doctor Who, we see cakes and forests become keys to other world, we see showroom dummies become soldiers, and we see old raggedy vagabonds become the stuff of legend.
The familiar regaining lost awe, the old becoming new, and the discovery of new meanings; all these things are threads that weave both Middle Earth and the Doctor’s universe. The fifty-year-old science fiction show more than likely owes a lot to Tolkien, and weather intentional or otherwise, both sources give us reason to look again at the world.
Because you never know – the world might be bigger on the inside.