Dr. Who Is An Anthropologist

Clare’s recent post on Lords of Time prompted me to write up a blog entry that’s been frittering away on my hard drive for some time: Dr. Who is totally an anthropologist, isn’t he?

He seems to know everything about everyone but is also totally clueless and seems not to know what he’s doing most of the time, and can’t seem to operate his kit. He arrives at random places and knows someone there a little bit, but no one there very well. He has an assistant or two who he claims to care about, but actually spends a fair bit of time condescending — or screaming — at them. He claims to support social justice struggles but always stops short of direct action, even when violence is warranted. He’s obsessed with not committing genocide. And in fact, he (or people like him) is usually the source of the problem in the first place. He’s eager to pitch in but not a team player — or at least prefers to be in charge of the team. He sees the secrets and patterns that others miss. He’s adaptable to any culture, lifestyle, cuisine, or habit, but also lacks basic courtesy. He ostentatiously demonstrates his insider knowledge of local mores to people who lack it. He loves humanity but is solitary and knows few people. He claims a knowledge so encyclopedic that it is almost omniscient, and yet he is totally opaque to himself. His traveling makes him melancholic. He is a professional stranger. He spurns his own kind and yet his adventures rely on power he derives from being one of them. Sometimes he is scarred. At other times he is manic. He insists on not dressing normally. His assistants are always visiting — they eventually end up somewhere else once their 1-3 year gig with him is up. Half the time he can’t see the forest for the trees, while the other half of the time he’s so focused on what’s in front of him that he can’t see the big picture. He dreams of being the instrumental figure who, in times of total crisis, can save the lesser beings who he patronizes. Too often, however, it turns out that he is caught in the grip of forces bigger than he is.

The only exception to rule is Chris Kelty, who looks and actuals disturbingly like the guy they got to play The Master in the Russell Davies version of Dr. Who


Alex Golub is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. His book Leviathans at The Gold Mine has been published by Duke University Press. You can contact him at rex@savageminds.org

8 thoughts on “Dr. Who Is An Anthropologist

  1. He is The Doctor, but if we say that all the non-SF fans might wonder what we are talking about. That said, I knew I wasn’t the only one here!

    “He is a professional stranger.” This sums it up (and I am feeling that acutely now, starting a new project in a place I have never lived before).

    The only thing the Doctor seems to lack are copious fieldnotes — but who knows, the TARDIS is so big there might be an entire room dedicated to his scribblings. Or maybe he never visited the AAAs in the 1980s.

  2. He’s blown up more than his share of Sontaran fleets; he recently engineered a genocide of the Silence; and the reboot backstory has him single-handedly genociding the Daleks.

    I’m assuming that neglecting to mention these complicities is part of your excellent character-sketch, though.

  3. The franchise is sprawling — especially once you get into all the fan fic, radio productions etc, so there are lots of different Doctors, each of which fit more or less neatly into someone’s opinion of an anthropologist. Jon Pertwee did a stint as a Humain Terrain Systems consultant (“five rounds, rapid!”) while the newer, more PTSD doctor the Brits give us today is, I imagine, a lot more how Vine Deloria sees us.

    As for the fieldnotes — isn’t that something we _claim_ to have more often than we actually have it? (I think in this we’re a bit like the doctor too) 🙂

  4. For another side of the most recent Master, see John Simm in Life on Mars–where he gets to be the time traveler but can’t get home. So either way you cut it…. Still, “The Big Bang” segment in the British Museum did work the Doctor’s mastery of time.

  5. Ha! Some of Dr. Who’s (mis)adventures would make fine case studies for the AAA ethics “cases and solutions” page.

    My only question is: “Half the time he can’t see the forest for the trees, while the other half of the time he’s so focused on what’s in front of him that he can’t see the big picture.” Isn’t not seeing the forest for the trees the same as not seeing the big picture?

Comments are closed.