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Out of Time

The Deaths and Resurrections of Doctor Who

Alec Charles

Doctor Who is one of television’s most enduring and ubiquitously popular series. This study contends that the success of the show lies in its ability, over more than half a century, to develop its core concepts and perspectives: alienation, scientific rationalism and moral idealism. The most extraordinary aspect of this eccentric series rests in its capacity to regenerate its central character and, with him, the generic, dramatic and emotional parameters of the programme.
Out of Time explores the ways in which the series’ immortal alien addresses the nature of human mortality in his ambiguous relationships with time and death. It asks how the status of this protagonist – that lonely god, uncanny trickster, cyber-sceptic and techno-nerd – might call into question the beguiling fantasies of immortality, apotheosis and utopia which his nemeses tend to pursue. Finally, it investigates how this paragon of transgenerational television reflects the ways in which contemporary culture addresses the traumas of change, loss and death.
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Chapter 4 A Fate Worse than Death


← 64 | 65 → CHAPTER 4

Perhaps somewhat curiously, Decker (2013: 2) describes the Doctor as ‘nearly immortal.’ This phrase was no doubt calculated to antagonize those pedants (this author included) who become incensed at those who would, for example, seek to gradate levels of uniqueness (almost unique, less unique, very unique, most unique). Yet Decker’s phrase is not entirely unuseful: indeed, one might go far as to suggest that it is really rather revealing.

The Doctor, as we discovered in 1977, is, like all Time Lords, allotted only twelve regenerations. This would allow him a total of thirteen lives. This artificial limit clearly had some value in extending the dramatic life and impact of the series: if the protagonist is destined to live forever, audiences will feel less in the way of sympathy or suspense. However it also limited the potential shelf life of the series: the Doctor would die after his thirteenth life, and the series would come to an end. This was only ever, of course, a narrative device, one easily overturned by screenwriters less concerned with the fannish niceties of series continuity than with a good plot, a good character or a good joke: it may be noted that the protagonist’s fellow Gallifreyans Romana, Morbius and the Master appear on occasion to have paid scant attention to their own regeneration limits. But this limit slowly became engrained in the series’ own public mythology; and, as the Doctor’s lives ebbed away, it became an increasingly...

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