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Doctor Who? Doctor Jew

The iconic sci-fi hero is the greatest Jewish character in the history of television

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(Collage Tablet Magazine; original images Shutterstock)
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There are few undertakings more daunting for a writer interested in popular culture than to attempt to write, coherently and elegantly, about Doctor Who. For one thing, the sheer size of the monumental television series is daunting: To date, 796 episodes have aired, clocking in at various lengths and representing divergent runs, story arcs, and seasons. Famously, the Doctor, a member of a superior race called the Time Lords, occasionally slips into a new body, acquiring not only a new face but also a new personality. Eleven actors have portrayed him thus far, making any attempt at coherent characterization an exercise in footnotes and futility. Finally, being not only one of the most successful science-fiction franchises but also one of the most intellectually intricate, any attempt to dive into its philosophical depths is fraught with risk—the show’s universe is so rich and dense that unless a writer is very careful, he or she may very well end up finding hidden meanings in everything.

And yet, here I go. With the series’ seventh season ending next week, and with a stunning twist promising to rock the tenets of the Doctor’s world, allow me, by way of playful tribute, to suggest that the esteemed time-traveling do-gooder is the most compelling Jewish character in the history of television.

He was created by Sydney Newman, who was born in Toronto to Russian Jewish immigrants who struggled to get by, running a small shoe shop. He dropped out of school at 13, enrolled in a technical academy, and studied art and design. He was good enough to secure a job with the Walt Disney Company but failed to gain a work permit. Defeated, he returned to Canada, joined the National Film Board there, and spent World War II making a series of propaganda films named, in an anodyne and unmistakably Canadian way, Canada Carries On. A talented director and producer, he eventually found his way across the sea, taking a position with the BBC. In 1963, a few months after his arrival, he came up with the idea for Doctor Who.

It’s not too difficult to spot traces of Newman’s own roots in his creation. His hero is wildly intelligent, intergalactically cosmopolitan, with a biting sense of humor and a commitment to quite literally repairing the world. He is constantly wandering, never at home. His relation is not to space, a place to call his own, but to time, which makes him highly dependent on memory. In one revealing exchange, a companion tells the Doctor that “before this war began, I was a father and a grandfather. Now I am neither.” Nodding sympathetically, the doctor replies: “Yeah, I know the feeling.” On another occasion he suggests that his family sleeps in his mind, a haunting intimation of loss.

Naturally, a gentleman such as this is never wanting for enemies. The Doctor is surrounded by a host of belligerent warlike species who view him, alternatively and sometimes simultaneously, as both pesky and effete and oddly omnipotent. Most celebrated among these baddies are the Daleks, mollusk-like beings who encase themselves in an armored suit slightly resembling a salt shaker. Their creator, a writer named Terry Nation, grew up in wartime Wales and was never able to shake off the profound terror of observing Germany and witnessing an entire nation unite under a murderous maniac and seek to exterminate everyone whom it regarded as inferior. When Nation joined Newman at the BBC, he wasted no time introducing “the unhearing, unthinking, blanked-out face of authority that will destroy you because it wants to destroy you.” Armored, slow-moving, and infinitely menacing, the Daleks’ catchphrase is “Exterminate!”

With this timeless conflict at its center—the canny Jew versus the canned Nazis—Doctor Who ran for 26 seasons, finally fading away in 1989. By 2005, however, the British were ready to reunite with their seminal cultural icon, and the Doctor was revived. All the old enemies were back for another run—including the Master, a self-hating Time Lord who despises the Doctor’s charitable endeavors—but new and infinitely more terrifying ones were also introduced, making the show’s Jewish themes even less subtle.

Chief among them were the Silence, a deformed race that has been living alongside humanity for millennia. Their terrifying quality is that they’re only remembered when they’re seen and are forgotten immediately thereafter. They travel the world with the sole purpose of assassinating the Doctor, lest he answer the oldest question in the universe. That question? It’s right there in the show’s title: Doctor Who?

Without getting too theological—although the show has, casting The Silence as a religious order devoted to ancient prophecies—it is hard not to think of the whole affair as a meditation on God, a riff on that old Exodus chestnut in which the Creator insists that no man shall see his face and live. Learning the Doctor’s name—in 796 episodes, it is not mentioned once, and it is strongly suggested that he himself neither knows it nor wishes to know it—means unlocking all of the universe’s secrets, shedding light on its mysteries, closing the distance between mere mortals and other, higher beings whose job it is to watch over us humans and shower us with kindness and light.

And yet this is precisely what is going to happen next week. Steven Moffat, the creative force behind the series’ current reincarnation, has promised that the revelation will shake the show to its core, sending fans into fits of speculation: Once we know the Doctor’s name, does he cease to be the wondrous being that he is? Do The Silence die off? Would the world still exist?

To those not blessed with the Who obsession, the whole premise may seem silly. But it’s been a very long time since a television show took metaphysical questions so seriously and answered them in a way that was so profoundly Jewish. I won’t be surprised if the Doctor’s name turns out to be Shlomo; whatever it is, I’ll continue following him religiously, and so, dear reader, should you.

***

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Null says:

Nice! A Doctor Who article where I can’t type ‘EXTERMINATE!’ without invoking Godwin’s law.

marjorie says:

Liel, I love you but you are insane. Let’s have a contest, a la latke vs hamentash, in which we argue that the absolutely unlikeliest things are actually Jewish. (PS. Love the graphic, though.)

If I may also add: Dr. Who is like the Jews in his views on memory, empathy, and freedom. http://oholiav.com/2013/03/the-last-of-his-kind-doctor-who-empathy-and-the-ultimate-freedom/

I love it! I’m a rabid Doctor Who fan and I’ve never heard a Jewish take on the show. Plenty of Jewish interpretations of Harry Potter, but this is the first time for DW!

By that reasoning, he would be Melchizedek. A guy who shows up out of nowhere but has complete authority, with no obvious connection to the world.

Feisty says:

“it is not mentioned once, and it is strongly suggested that he himself neither knows it nor wishes to know it”

I’m assuming then, that you missed the episode where River Song whispered the name to The Doctor and also the episode where he whispered his name to River Song.

hikarugenji says:

Tom Baker, Doctor number 4 – was half Jewish.

hikarugenji says:

Not the half that counts, unfortunately.

Yiftach Levy says:

I want to simultaneously vote this comment up AND down, which I think is very fitting for this article.

Liel, I love you and don’t think you’re insane at all. This is a terrific reflection!

liel_leibovitz says:

Thank you for your very kind words. And sometimes the unlikely is the most likely thing — just look at a TARDIS…

I’m sorry, but I think you’re reaching WAY too far with this. The Doctor’s characteristics, even 50 years later, have always been intentionally vague and universal. If you really want to highlight a clearly Jewish character in science fiction TV, you should focus on Susan Ivanova from Babylon 5. From early on, the show makes clear that her faith is important to her, especially with sitting shiva being accurately portrayed, although not in a didactic way as Star Trek would have done. Her “God sent me” speech https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RaSmassvv4w is simultaneously awesome and terrifying, as many believe God himself to be.

Natan79 says:

Liel Leibovitz, imbecile as usual.

Natan79 says:

Liel is not insane. He’s just stupid.

Robert Weaver says:

“…the greatest Jewish character in the history of television.”

Wot, greater than Kal-El and Spock?

SurfSmurf says:

Rule number one… The Dr lies, and so does River.

Robert Price says:

I’ve read some spurious nonsense but this really does take the biscuit… completely idiotic, rather unpleasant and has a slight whiff of bigotry.

I’m hoping this is meant to be tongue-in-cheek – but rather fear it isn’t.

Using this logic, the Daleks are a great example for the disabled – despite their physical limitations they CAN achieve galactic domination!

marjorie says:

TWO comments in one thread from Natan79 about how stupid Liel is! Somebody needs a hobby!

Null says:

He was one of the better-known ones…

Mgm1229 says:

As a Jewish Whovian, I’d like to buy this, but it seems a stretch…

doudie kay says:

Opinions aRe like tucheses, we all have one just some schmeck worse than others. The man is entitled to his opinion no matter the aroma

First, thanks for a terrific article! I’m a Doctor Who fan, but you revealed some things that I never knew about the show.

Second, and here’s the kvetching: The Doctor’s name *has* been mentioned — just not out loud. In an early Tennant episode, a seer in Pompey whispered the Doctor’s name in his ear — or so we were led to believe. I was also a little surprised that you didn’t latch onto the Doctor’s regenerations as analogous to *gilgul neshamot* from Jewish mysticism.

By the way, I’m a regular reader of Tablet but hadn’t seen your article yet when a friend emailed me from Germany to tell me about it. So you’re getting a lot of play.

My own thoughts on the issues in your article are here:

http://ashesblog.com/2013/05/11/who-is-doctor-who/

This comes under “science fiction characters who might be Jewish, or maybe even Rastafarian…” Why not a discussion about real Jewish characters on TV, sympathetic yet unmistakably Jewish? I nominate Molly Goldberg, played by Gertrude Berg, a very successful TV sitcom that probably did more to create a positive image of Jews than anyone else. And at a time when we needed ‘em.

liel_leibovitz says:

Thank you, Noah (if I may), for your kind words, and for a fascinating post! I thoroughly enjoyed it, and agree the facet of Gilgul Neshamot should’ve been explored at greater length. Thank you for doing so in your post.

quesrty says:

Very entertaining but alas does not hold up. I started watching Dr. Who from the original series, back in the 1960s. The original idea was to educate kids with the Dr. and his companions visiting historical eras. Some of those episodes are lost. I still remember the episode when he morphed into the flaky flute playing Patrick Troughton (my favorite actually). Also an episode in Anglo-Saxon England which ended up with the villagers hacking a captured Viking to death (or did they thrown him down a well? Whatever.) The Daleks were an accidental hit – not originally intended to become the quintessential foe. Point being, the grandiose ever wandering philosophical Dr. Who series you are discussing was not the original conception or manifestation. For a long time he was a rather parochial but amazing benevolent mad scientist who took ordinary Brits – sometimes couples, sometimes other, on his trips. The companion thing though, is pretty faithful to the original.

pearl says:

You forgot to mention the rather obvious parallel between the TARDIS and the Ark of the Covenant – both are “boxes” that are “larger on the inside than the outside” (existing outside of normal space/time), and essentially contain the universe (according to Judaism, G-d created the world from the Torah).

Also, there’s a close parallel between the civil wars and subsequent destruction of Dr. Who’s home world of Gallifrey, and the Babylonian Exile from Judea and destruction of the First Holy Temple, resulting in the majority of their populations being lost (most Galifreyans being lost in a time bubble, while in Jewish legend 10 tribes are lost beyond the Sambatyon River).

Not to mention the ancient legend of “the Wandering Jew”…. (the Wandering Who?)

liel_leibovitz says:

Excellent points, pearl! Thank you for bringing them up.

LOVE THIS!

LisaMarli says:

Cute Article. Who knew its creator was Jewish? But there are several inaccuracies. The Doctor does know his name. He has given it to River Song and it is on the cradle that Melody Pond slept in. Amy asks why the name wasn’t translated and River told her that the TARDIS doesn’t translate Gallifreyan. But it will be interesting to see the next Episode. Doctor Who, not knowing his name, has been half the fun.
And you definitely need to do an article on Susan Ivanova, who was deliberately written as a Jewish woman. I’ve spoken to the writers of the show. Joe wanted her Russian, and then another writer suggested she be Jewish and it took off. What is nice is unlike Star Trek, Babylon 5 never forgot that Earth is a religious planet. Parliament of Dreams is Joe’s excellent handling of Earth’s multi-cultural / religious ways. Joe, who studied religion in college, is an atheist. But it hasn’t stopped him from creating a wonderful Jewish character.

ttll says:

FACT CHECK. He told River Song his name when they got married. That is how he knew she was a “good guy” in the Library- Otherwise he wouldn’t have trusted her.

Is every wandering hero who helps those he meets a closet Jew? Yojimbo? Homer’s Ulysses? Eastwood’s nameless cowboy in a Fistful of Dollars? I don’t think so. Still, I enjoyed the article and, like you, am looking forward to this week’s episode. Jew-ronimo!

Alex says:

I’m sorry, but the episode “The Hungry Earth” depicts a hostile race of lizard people who emerge from ancient Earth history to reclaim their rightful homeland. They did all but slap a yarmulke on them and hand them a bag of money and a Christian baby. Whatever subtext may have originally existed must have evaporated long ago.

Ronald Helfrich says:

Of course, a fundamental problem here is that Sydney Newman was not the only force behind the creation of Doctor Who. I give you Verity Lambert and Waris Hussein, who also played important roles in the creation of Who. Newman, by the way, did not like the idea of the Daleks.

This article. It wins life. The Doctor being Jewish. Who would’ve thought?

Hyphen says:

It is true that Verity Lambert was a driving force behind Doctor Who (some would argue more so even than Newman), but that doesn’t negate this piece because Verity Lambert was also Jewish.

There’s a difference between the Silents (the aliens) and the Silence (the religious order.) ALSO, ***SPOILER ALERT*** The Silence that tried to kill the Doctor was actually a renegade SECT of The Silence. This much is hinted at in the 2013 Christmas special.

And this article succeeded, in an elegant language and a coherent and original reflexion, where other authors have failed: to tackle Doctor Who (as it was undermined in the first paragraph) as a subject.

The reason it did is because it chose a specific theme to unite all the ideas together: Jewish influence.

Truly captivating, masterfully executed. Bravo!

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Doctor Who? Doctor Jew

The iconic sci-fi hero is the greatest Jewish character in the history of television

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