The Hero with Eleven Faces (So Far) : Doctor Who and the triumph of unsettlement
Doctor Who is an unstable phenomenon. This is its great strength, the secret of its enduring success. Resistant to generic categories, merging futurism and nostalgia, its eponymous hero (sometimes anti-hero) is a character who changes his appearance and personality as a means of cheating or delaying death, who is humanoid but not human, who seems to have the potential to transgress boundaries of race, ethnicity, and gender, who is isolated but affable, combative but pacific, endlessly enigmatic but strangely familiar, entirely unpredictable but ultimately trustworthy. His home is a ship that demolishes physics: much, much bigger on the inside than the outside, it can travel anywhere in time, anywhere in space… This paper is part of a wider project proposing a theoretical model of media development based around the idea of ‘unsettlement’. This contends that all media undergo a period of unsettlement or radical instability (typified by formal self-consciousness and experimentation), which is followed by assimilation within a ‘mythic’ world-view (typified by more settled processes of narration, representation, reception). Once a medium has been integrated, the restless energies of its inception are diverted into marginal practices that nevertheless inform and at times challenge the mainstream. Originally conceived as a cheap and temporary gap-filler in the Saturday evening television schedules, Doctor Who was a product of the nascent phase of mass television in Britain in the early 1960s. Its extraordinary revival in 2005 after a 16-year hiatus (broken briefly by the 1996 TV movie) coincided with a period of profound technological and social transition in the television medium worldwide. The aim here is to present Doctor Who as a uniquely and brilliantly unsettled text, its imaginative richness predicated on an innate mutability of narrative form, aesthetic mode and cultural status. With core elements (the Doctor, the TARDIS, the companions) established across fifty years as icons of the changeable, the show has become perhaps the quintessential fantasy of unsettlement.