The latter begins with the Eighth Doctor (Paul McGann) avoiding the Time War, describing himself as “one of the nice ones” rather than part of the bloodshed. As he flies about, avoiding the battle and helping where he can, he’s a renegade and the self-proclaimed coward of “The Parting of the Ways” (Ninth Doctor) rather than a warrior. He’s fleeing in order to remain good. As my book Doctor Who and the Hero’s Journey explains:
Joseph Campbell’s monomyth, also called the hero’s journey, is a basic pattern found in epics around the world. It’s also known as the Chosen One plot. This pattern was described by Campbell in The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949): “A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man” (23). This “monomyth” is a metaphor for facing the dark side of the self and gaining self-knowledge from the struggle. It’s a staple of modern fantasy, appearing in Harry Potter, Star Wars, and The Wizard of Oz.
Step one is known as the Call to Adventure: there’s a summons to travel to a strange place and undergo a mission. Campbell scholar Christopher Vogler explains, “The hero is presented with a problem, challenge, or adventure to undertake. Once presented with a Call to Adventure, she can no longer remain indefinitely in the comfort of the Ordinary World” (15). Traditionally, the call signals “the awakening of the self,” an eagerness to cross over into the realm of magic or deeper thought (Campbell 51). The Doctor has many of these calls: He receives distress calls on psychic paper in shadowy bars and even on his TARDIS telephone.
The Sisterhood of Karn act as the Heralds of the story. Traditionally this is the one to call the hero to the quest, as Gandalf does for the different hobbits, or as Hagrid does for Harry. The Herald gets “the story rolling by presenting the hero with an invitation or challenge to face the unknown,” as Christopher Vogler explains in his book on the hero’s journey (101). Thus the sisterhood’s leader tells the Doctor he can no longer remain separate, warning him, “You can’t ignore it forever…You are a part of this, Doctor, whether you like it or not.” He finally accepts her offer of aid and drinks her offered potion to transform him into the War Doctor.
Most often, the talisman offered is a sword like Excalibur or a lightsaber. For the screwdriver-wielding Doctor, it’s a potion of rebirth, like Lucy’s water of healing rather than an instrument of death. With a salute to former companions, the Doctor drinks, changes, and prepares to go off to war.
Of course, within that war, he takes a gun to shoot “No More” into the wall. Whether he’s been fighting for years or only an instant, he comes to the point at which something must change. Here his talisman is the Moment, the most devastating weapon of the Time Lords. Usually, this is offered by a Mentor, but the Doctor fittingly steals it as he did his original TARDIS. When the Moment speaks to him, his real journey begins—not outward to the stars but inward to his own core.
Creator and episode writer Steven Moffat told journalists, “I thought the story of Rose, which was beautiful, was done. I didn’t want to add to it…But we did want Billie Piper, one of the absolute heroes of Doctor Who, back in the show without interfering in the story of Rose Tyler.…Billie represents the revival of Doctor Who, more than anyone else.”
Rose frequently acted as the Doctor’s conscience, especially in “Dalek.” It’s fitting therefore that some version of her appears to the War Doctor. Just as Galadriel brings Frodo to her sacred pool to test his heart or the white doe leads Harry into the forest to find the Sword of Gryffindor, the Moment appears as a woman to test the War Doctor.
Rose is sounding board and eager listener, counselor, sister, and best friend. Jung called this figure the “anima,” the female who echoes the feminine voice of compassion and empathy coming from within. “This inner feminine figure plays a typical or archetypal role in the unconscious of a man,” he adds (186).
With his self-awareness, he is the only one who can use the weapon with a conscience that has the power to stand in judgment on him. The other Time Lords, selfish and sanctimonious, don’t have his inner strength. He in turn is weary and traumatized as he faces his choice. “I’ve been fighting this war for a long time. I’ve lost the right to be the Doctor.” She threatens him not with death but with survival, a more disturbing concept for him.
Instead of giving him a mirror, the Moment forces him to face himself as his future lives, Ten and Elven. The War Doctor is absolutely an inverted reflection of Ten and Even, as Gollum is for Frodo. He’s the Mordred to their King Arthur, the younger killer to their wiser old kings. They contrast as old and young (opposite of how they look), Doctor and Not-Doctor, grave and goofy. In fact, John Hurt represents the original style of Doctor—a grouchy curmudgeon like the First Doctor who’s too asexual to engage in Ten’s romances. He lacks their jokes and catchphrases and considers the childish Doctors an embarrassment:
War Doctor: “Oh for God’s sake!
At the same time, only they know every inch of his soul and understand what his act will mean. As he sees their horror at their past, he witnesses his own future.
When they’re locked together in the dungeon, they’re forced to confront their rejected selves—the warrior and the joking adolescents. As the War Doctor puts it:
We might as well get started. Help to pass the “timey-wimey.” Do you have to talk like children? What is it that makes you so ashamed of being a grown-up? Oh. The way you both look at me. I’m trying to think of a better word than “dread.”
Indeed, Ten and Elven reacted to their guilt by retreating into a silly child state, especially Eleven, who tries recruiting the child Amy as his companion and functions as her imaginary best friend. “They’re what you become if you destroy Gallifrey. The man who regrets and the man who forgets,” Bad Wolf warns, like the voice of his conscience.
These Doctors in turn must face their past. This half of the story is Eleven’s, as in four hundred years he has blocked his guilty act from his conscious mind. He gets by on his antics until he’s forced to face the War Doctor and accept what he did. At this point, he and Ten can no longer act morally superior, or pretend that this other person, separate from themselves, committed the act.
Ten: All those years, burying you in my memory.
Eleven: Pretending you didn’t exist. Keeping you a secret, even from myself.
Ten: Pretending you weren’t The Doctor, when you were The Doctor more than anyone else.
Eleven: You were The Doctor on the day it wasn’t possible to get it right.
The War Doctor realizes that his future selves have become truly moral because of his act and their refusal to ever let it happen again. As he notes, “Great men are forged in fire. It is the privilege of lesser men to light the flame. Whatever the cost.” He is the Doctors’ flame, the catalyst that changes them into true figures of morality.
The hero’s journey is a metaphor for growing up by facing pain and darkness, then overcoming it through strength of will. “All things considered, it’s time I grew up,” the War Doctor says. This is his rite of passage to adulthood, as he stops fleeing Gallifrey and faces it at last.
He makes his fateful decision, and Bad Wolf returns him to the Moment (in more ways than one). There at the ultimate moment of crisis, the hero always stands alone, forced to act without aid and face himself honestly. However, Bad Wolf acts as his anima and savior, reminding him that the TARDIS is a beacon of hope and joy to everyone who hears it (in a self-referential moment, including the fans themselves). “That sound brings hope to anyone who hears it. Anyone, Doctor. Even you,” she says. She allows his allies to join him and the Doctors unite, joining as a team to press the button. “You don’t have to do it alone,” they say. In this instant, they grant the War Doctor absolution and acceptance, as his later incarnations face what he has done. As they begin to press the button in the name of truth and goodness, “in the name of the many lives we hope to save,” they’re saved by Clara’s protest.
Now she acts as anima, first for the War Doctor then for all three, as she guides them to find another way. “Look at you the three of you. The warrior, the hero, and you,” her Doctor, the Eleventh. She calls on them to be a Doctor and reminds them of what they are, the promise their name means:
Never cruel or cowardly.
Never give up.
Never give in.
Traditionally, the hero faces his shadow and through accepting it, grows stronger. Frodo acknowledges that he could become Gollum, and Luke embraces Darth Vader as his father. As the Doctors accept one another, they shut the Moment, then stride into battle side by side and win the day. To fully integrate, they don’t just acknowledge and welcome their modern selves—War Doctor and clowns—but all the aspects that have ever been from the very First from the Thirteenth to be. In a delightful moment for fans, all the sides of the personality strive to save Gallifrey and succeed. Thus the War Doctor finds a way to be a force for goodness. “For now, for this moment, I am the Doctor again. Thank you,” he tells Ten and Eleven.
This leaves Eleven with a final quest, and a final self to face as the art museum’s curator becomes a new Herald. “In some stories, the Herald is also a Mentor for the hero, a wise guide who has the hero’s best interests at heart” (Vogler 101). The Curator, another self from his past, or future, or both, guides him to find Gallifrey. “You have a lot to do…I can only tell you what I would do if I were you,” he smiles. Just as Eleven faced his younger self and the horrible act he committed, he’s now led to make restitution and face all his people, restoring them to their place in the world. As Ten mentioned in his arc with the Master, he started running and never stopped. Since the first episode, the Doctor has been a renegade, running from the strict Gallifreyans and their orderly, strict society, empty of compassion for other races. Now he sets out on a quest to find them and make peace with them at last.
Having survived all the ordeals, having lived through death, heroes return to their starting place, go home, or continue the journey. But they always proceed with a sense that they are commencing a new life, one that will be forever different because of the road just traveled. If they are true heroes, they return with the elixir from the special world: bringing something to share with others or something with the power to heal a wounded land. (Vogler 221)
As Eleven announces, “I have a new destination. At last I know where I’m going. Where I’ve always been going. Home. The long way round.” Soon he too will regenerate and go on this quest as a new person, with new adventures ahead. In a final shot he stands with his fellow Doctors and gathers his spectrum of personalities for his last, greatest quest. One assumes he will offer the Gallifreyans the wisdom he’s gained from interacting with so many species, and he will heal them, just as he uses up his final lives. Through meeting his people he will finally heal himself (perhaps with a new set of regenerations!).
One last thought for fans—imagine how well this story would have worked with Christopher Eccleston as the Doctor born for war (in contrast with the sweet and befuddled Eighth). Imagine Bad Wolf telling Nine she’s his future and he must go to earth to meet her. Nine, Ten, and Eleven working together to save the universe and end the Time War. Imagine the Doctor of “Dalek” and “The Parting of the Ways” created to be a battle Doctor and finally giving that up as he rejects committing genocide and regenerates into Ten. John Hurt did a fine job. But Eccleston left a hole, suggesting his presence would have put a stronger cap on the story…and certainly improved the confusing count.
This article serves as a sort of epilogue to my new book Doctor Who and the Hero’s Journey. Check it out to see Doctors Nine, Ten, and Eleven embark on other hero quests.
Read everything you’ve ever wanted to know about Doctor Who in Valerie Estelle Frankel’s new book here.
- Campbell, Joseph. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. New York: Princeton University Press, 1973.
- Frankel, Valerie Estelle. Doctor Who and the Hero’s Journey. Thought Catalog, 2013.
- Jung, Carl. Memories, Dreams, Reflections. Ed. Aniela Jaffe. Trans. Clara Winston. USA: Vintage, 1989.
- “Steven Moffat explains Billie Piper role in ‘Doctor Who’ 50th” CultBox. 25 Nov 2013.
- “The Day of the Doctor” and “The Night of the Doctor.” BBC, http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p01m3gnt
- Vogler, Christopher. The Writer’s Journey. Studio City, CA: Michael Wiese Productions, 1998.