30 SECOND THEORY: Recurring Themes/Repeated Memes

By David Ronayne

28 January 2006


(Note: In re-editing this article for online publication I have incorporated elements of the 2005 Christmas Special The Christmas Invasion.  While I appreciate that, technically, this is probably viewed as part of the 2006 production block, I feel its authorship, content and air date still make it relevant at the time of writing.  Thank you for your indulgence.)


In 2005, for the first time since the early years of Doctor Who, one individual has held an executive amount of creative influence, potentially unencumbered by cannon and other editorial limitations, with individual control of scripts and production for an entire season.  And what do we get - The Bad Wolf?  In these days of shows with season spanning arcs of varying complexity, and the capability of Russell T. Davis (“RTD”) as writer, there must be more to it than this contrived, plot-resolving shaggy-dog-tale. 

Right from the start of the new series we have been presented with “Repeated Memes.” Simply put, a meme is a concept or an idea, a piece of information that can be transferred from one mind to another (or as William H. Burrows described it, “language as a virus”).  Repeated memes can be described as themes, recurring ideas or imagery, repeated statements or dialogue, catchphrases or even moods.  Perhaps it can be no co-incidence that a series with characters actually called “The Adherents of the Repeated Meme” (a pun on the philosophical argument about the ability of memes to establish themselves and recur) would rely on a plot device that threads the same words repeating throughout Time and Space, growing to the point where they effectively create themselves (i.e. The Bad Wolf).  It’s a predestination paradox – like the Doctor’s favourite Dickens story, The Signalman, about a man haunted by the ghost of his own impending death (in itself a idea that would to see fruition before the end of the first year of the new series).  But there is more to it than that.  While trying to avoid the human failing of “seeing patterns that aren’t there,” closer examination of the new Doctor Who shows many instances of the same ideas, themes and images cropping up again and again.

This article started life as an exploration of the foreshadowing and threading of ideas through the new series.  And they are there; like the gift of the breath of life.  It started as a bit of a joke (“...air from my lungs...” - The End of the World), becoming the method of transmission between Gwyneth and Gelth (The Unquiet Dead).  This would culminate in the resurrection of Jack, the Doctor saving Rose from the Vortex energy with a kiss, and his exhalation of that power back into the TARDIS (The Parting of the Ways).  Post regeneration, it would be repeated with the Doctor still breathing out this energy, and ultimately being saved by an inhalation of tannins and free radicals (hot tea – The Christmas Invasion).  You could push this more metaphorically in other episodes; Rose’s gift of life to her father, and his returning of it (Father’s Day); the “new life” given to Dickens (The Unquiet Dead); and even more literally with Margaret Slitheen (Boomtown), and even the Slitheen’s own unique take on ‘breathing free’ (World War III); the use of gasmasks to filter air for respiration (Empty Child); Margaret’s killer halitosis (Boomtown again); the Dalek’s suffocation of its torturer (Dalek); and even the Anne-droid’s executions being delivered orally (Bad Wolf).

Similarly, there are smatterings of later imagery in certain stories, foreshadowing that makes more sense when the series is viewed as a whole, like the gasmask graffiti and child-sized, snout nosed figure in the Albion Hospital (Aliens of London) (OK it’s a pig, but when you consider it in terms of an innocent, modified and augmented by alien technology, brought in dead from a spaceship crash in Central London and guarded by soldiers, the parallels with The Empty Child become more apparent).  And there are others, like the psychic paper and the Doctor’s conversation about the TARDIS getting inside your head (The End of the World) hinting more effectively at the true nature of the Bad Wolf than having it hammered home at the end of Boomtown.  And while this would still be fertile ground for a decent article, it is just window dressing, and delve a little deeper, and more significant themes for the series become apparent.

Much has been made of the sexual references in the new series (either obliquely or in regards to the relationships forged by and between the Doctor and his companions). From Cassandra’s gender changing (The End of the World), Jack’s omnisexuality and the subtext of “dancing” (The Doctor Dances/Bad Wolf), to some other, more sinister references (“...there was a man...” - The Empty Child, and the Sycorax demand for Earth’s women, cut from the televised dialogue, but still visible on the onscreen translation – The Christmas Invasion).  While some have argued this is just part of the general sprucing up of the series for a modern audience, others have asked if this is part of some other, bigger “gay” or “PC” agenda, but in doing so they have missed more significant themes and concepts that tie in with more than just mere sexuality.


A Question of Family


“I never read you bedtime stories, I never took you on those picnics. I was never there for you.’ … ‘But I can do this for you. I can be a proper Dad to you now!”

Pete Tyler (Fathers Day)


There are regular references to parenthood and family right through the new series; from the Jackie, Mickey and Rose dynamic, to the Doctor having lost all his (first noted expressly in The End of the World, but recurring throughout the series, and mirrored by Doctor Constantine later - The Empty Child); and more overtly between Rose and Pete (Father’s Day), and Nancy and Jamie (The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances).  Not that there haven’t been families mentioned in the show before.  For plot reasons there were a lot of orphans taken in loco parentis under the Doctor’s wing, but never as expressly as he did with Rose, and later Lynda, assuring them of their safety. But in the 2005 series almost every reference is about family loss, often parental.  Consider;


·         Clive’s family losing their jocular father (Rose);

·         Cassandra remembering her parents and their burial (End of the World);

·         Gwyneth feeling guided by the spirits of dead parents (The Unquiet Dead);

·         The Slitheen were a family unit who could feel each others loss (Aliens of London/World War III);

·         Margaret’s comments about how her family formed her (particularly her authoritarian father - Boomtown);

·         Adam’s separation from his family and Rose noting how this has left him all alone (Dalek) and (one hopes) his mother’s acceptance of his modified form (The Long Game);

·         Harriet Jones’ motivation that her mother is in hospital (Aliens of London, and reiterated in The Christmas Invasion);

·         Suki working for her sister’s educational expenses (The Long Game);

·         Pete (Father’s Day);

·         Stuart and Sarah’s wedding and their formation of a new family (and the Doctor’s fascination by it) and the loss of Stuart’s disapproving father (Father’s Day);

·         Nancy and Constantine’s family losses. Constantine’s loss through war counter-pointing the Doctor’s own, and Nancy’s, not only of Jamie, but of her wider family due to the social stigma of being a young single mother at the time. (The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances);

·         The orphaned/parentless evacuees, particularly Nancy’s fostering of them, and the formation of the children into a pseudo-family group; Jim’s letter to his dad and Ernie’s attempts to be an older brother when Nancy threatens to go (The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances);

·         The Controller installed as a child (Bad Wolf);

·         The effects of Blood Control splitting families and family lines (The Christmas Invasion);

·         And perhaps even the Emperor Dalek and his “children” could be considered here. (The Parting of the Ways).


But what does this mean, if anything?  Is it simply a dramatic device that has become slightly overused or can we see this as a hint of something deeper?  Given RTD’s previous work in Queer as Folk, and the Doctor’s gay icon status amongst some elements of fandom could it be seen as somehow being linked to separation or reconciliation with one’s family? Personally I wouldn’t like to hazard a guess, but it may also tie in with something else, another pattern in the tapestry of the new series…


A Monstrous Idea


“All dead.  If the Dalek gets out it will murder every living creature. That’s all it needs... Because it honestly believes they should die. Human beings are different and anything different is wrong.  It’s the ultimate in racial cleansing...”

The Doctor (Dalek)


There is also a definite trend with the new series monsters.  They are no longer content to just kill you because they want to and they can (like the Doctor’s paraphrasing of Terry Nation’s classic rationale to Van Statten).  Now, they don’t simply want too destroy you, but take over your body, get into your skin, empty you out and subvert you to their own ends (The exception to this is Cassandra, who is a hollow skin herself, where other monsters destroy your humanity, Cassandra has had hers surgically removed).  This isn’t a new idea, and had been used in many Doctor Who stories since The Tenth Planet, but when it reoccurs in almost every story of the season something is up.  Consider;


·         Mickey’s Auton Replicas (Rose);

·         The Gelth and the dead (The Unquiet Dead);

·         The Slitheen and their skinsuits (Aliens of London, World War III, Boomtown);

·         The pig (Aliens of London, World War III);

·         The Dead controlled by chips (The Long Game);

·         Adam’s chipping, letting the Jagrafess inside his head (The Long Game);

·         The Infected (The Empty Child, Doctor Dances);

·         The Daleks processing humans in (Bad Wolf, Parting of the Ways);

·         Blood Control (The Christmas Invasion);

·         And ironically, the Dalek being changed by its contact with Rose (Dalek, the first story where the humans are the monsters).


But it’s more than just becoming soulless alien meatpuppets.  Sure, it adds a creepy zombie element to an episode, but when you consider it as a representation of losing control of ourselves, our actions and our own destinies, the same message about manipulation of social and political independence can also be seen on a more mundane (perhaps more real) level, hints at loss of autonomy, loss of determination, loss of identity and self.


·         Clive’s conspiracy theories (Rose), later confirmed by the “official denials” in World War III, and The Christmas Invasion;

·         The Great and the Good (i.e. the rich) and Cassandra’s motivation’s (End of the World);

·         The master/servant relationship between Sneed and Gwyneth, (The Unquiet Dead);

·         The Slitheen subverting local, national and global political power, (Aliens of London, World War III, Boomtown);

·         Van Statten’s monopoly of global technology and his manipulation of politics (Dalek);

·         The control of society through the manipulation of money and the media (“...this has always been your boss...” The Long Game, “...your lords and masters...” Bad Wolf);

·         Nancy’s fear of the German invasion (The Empty Child, The Doctor Dances);

·         The inability to escape history and destiny (Father’s Day);

·         The Sycorax wanting half of humanity as slaves (The Christmas Invasion).


But is this a theme of its own, or is it just a counterpoint to highlight possibly the real meaning behind Davies’ creation?  Doctor Who has always been anti-authority, but this is the first time the authority has been consistently subverted, alien and out to “get” you, suck out your individuality, the distinctive elements that make you “you” and turn you into another one of them.


Being the Doctor


“What do I do?  Get up, catch the bus, go to work, come back home, eat chips, and go to bed – Is that it?... It was a better life.  I don’t mean all the travelling and seeing the aliens and spaceships and things.  That don’t matter.  The Doctor showed me a better way of living your life.  You know, he showed you too.  You don’t just give up, you don’t just let things happen.  You make a stand!  You say ‘No!’ You have the guts to do what’s right when everyone just runs away! And I tried and can’t!”

Rose Tyler

(The Parting of the Ways)


Right from the start the new series has been about making decisions. Even before then the Doctor appeared in trailers posing the question “Do you want to come with me?” and in the UK there was another promo with Rose asking the audience “I’ve got a choice. Stay at home with my mum, my boyfriend, my job, or chuck it all in for danger, and monsters, and life or death.  What do you think?”  Considering these with Rose’s speech above and the Doctor’s line “Die as a human, or live as a Dalek – what would you choose?” (The Parting of the Ways) and you have a series bookended by choices.

But it’s more than that, because not only do you have to make the RIGHT decisions but also live with both the consequences and yourself (“...coz if you do then I should warn you...” - The Doctor in the pre series promo).  Again, I’m not saying that the original series was devoid of decision making, it too was often a morality tale, but never before have core decisions been an integral part of the plot over so many successive episodes. Most of the stories are dramatically reliant on individual characters making a choice, acting (invariably contrary to their own safety), making sacrifices, and living (or in some cases dying) with the outcomes.

People have complained the Doctor always seems to take the back seat in the new series, leaving it up to others to save the day, but that’s not the point.  Right from the start the Doctor has been challenging those around him to make decisions and act, and from his first meeting with Rose the Doctor has shown his contempt for leading a life of inactivity and letting things pass you by (“baked beans on toast” (Rose)and chips (The Parting of the Ways).  While this is probably most explicitly said in his conversations with Dickens (The Unquiet Dead), and Cathica (The Long Game), every story has characters who are challenged to make decisions outside of their normal scope of the world, take a stand out of their comfort zone and risk their own lives to save the world.  This usually involves if not redemption, at least reconciling themselves with some fundamental things about who they are, what they have done, and the events that made them.


·         Rose (throughout the series, but most overtly in Rose, Dalek, Father’s Day, Parting of the Ways, The Christmas Invasion);

·         Jabe’s sacrifice (The End of the World);

·         Gwyneth choosing to be the bridge, and Dickens returning to the house (The Unquiet Dead) Harriet Jones making a stand and ordering the Doctor to act (World War Three);

·         Mickey becoming more heroic and living with Rose’s decision (Throughout but most notably World War Three, Boomtown, The Parting of the Ways, and The Christmas Invasion);

·         The Dalek’s suicide (Dalek);

·         Cathica’s rebellion, and possibly Suki’s final bit of humanity grabbing the Editor’s leg (The Long Game);

·         Pete’s sacrifice and Stuart taking responsibility for his wife and child, despite his father’s protests, (Father’s Day);

·         Jack (The Doctor Dances, The Parting of the Ways);

·         Constantine staying to care for others, Nancy and her acceptance of her relationship with Jamie, (The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances);

·         Lynda choosing to go with the Doctor, and those who choose to fight (Parting of the Ways);

·         Daniel Llewellyn accepting responsibility for giving the Sycorax the blood sample and standing up to the aliens (The Christmas Invasion).


To counterpoint this there are also characters who usually through greed, bigotry and poor judgement, choose wrong, and perhaps more importantly these people often don’t take responsibility for, or try to excuse what they have done.


·         Adam’s betrayal - “You know, it’s not actually my fault, because you were in charge,” (The Long Game);

·         Van Staten – “I wanted to touch the stars...” (Dalek);

·         The Editor – “Simply being human doesn’t pay very well.” (The Long Game);

·         Jack initially – “It’s not my fault!” (The Doctor Dances);

·         Rose (Father’s Day);

·         Cassandra - purity fixated, “it’s all about the money”, and ultimately unable to accept herself as she is (The End of the World);

·         Rodrick and those who stay of floor zero (The Parting of the Ways);

·         Harriet Jones – Britain Golden Age has a price (The Christmas Invasion);

·         And even the Doctor (Dalek).


In many ways it seems fitting that both Van Statten and Adam’s (and possibly Harriet’s) punishment is never to stand out again, being forced to live lives of mundane obscurity after being such high achievers.

This ‘stepping up to the mark’ is exemplified by the main characters, Jack most obviously (from coward to hero in five easy episodes).  Similarly Rose starts out not knowing there is “a war going on” around her (Rose), chooses to go with the Doctor, doubts her actions and is given the choice again, where ironically she chooses “chips” (The End of the World) – a term she would later associate with complacency (The Parting of the Ways).

Ultimately she becomes a better person, growing and learning through the events of Father’s Day, to the point where she tells US (the line that “he showed you too” is not solely directed at Mickey) what it is all about to BE the Doctor.  Her Bad Wolf self would even paraphrase his comment that “everything changes and everything dies” from The End of the World (when he watched Cassandra die, an action she opposed at the time).  In light of her “better life” speech rewatching the earlier episodes gives them a whole new dimension, particularly lines like “England says No” (The Empty Child) and “What is the meaning of this negative?” (Bad Wolf)), she finally seems to have adopted the Doctor’s “new morality” (The Unquiet Dead), to the point where she ultimately tries to stand in his place, standing up against the aliens while he lay dying (The Christmas Invasion).

And even the Doctor is not above this.  The whole series is about his reconciliation with the past and the decisions he (or his prior self) has made.  In many ways it is Rose, and his feelings for her, that are a catalyst for him to face up to, and deal with things. When you think about it, the Doctor taking her to watch the destruction of her planet on their first trip together, so soon after the devastation of his own, or off-handedly taking her to watch her father die after recently loosing his entire family and race are both very dodgy actions on his part. Perhaps it’s even a very cheap form of Time Lord therapy, allowing him to ultimately pick between being “coward or a killer” (or should that have been ‘lover, not a fighter’ - even if this decision is basically repeated from Dalek), before sacrificing himself as he has inspired others to do before him, and emerging as a new man, different but the same, one who knows exactly what kind of man he is (The Christmas Invasion).

Ultimately on some level, we as viewers are being asked to make that decision; do we want to go with the Doctor, to stand with this outsider against the injustices and evils of the world?  Powers that would crush us down, subvert our very selves and make us drones to their own ends.  Can we reconcile ourselves with our pasts, our families, the events that make us, and accept ourselves for who we are?

Would we be brave enough to join him, or would we decline like Mickey?  Would we be strong enough to strand by our decision, or would we let temptation get the better of us like Adam?  Or make a misguided choice like Harriet?  Or fall fighting injustice like Lynda and Captain Jack? If we can do all this, can we be like the Doctor and Rose and find a way to a better life?

Or is this what Russell T. Davis is pointing out Doctor Who has always been?


This article originally appeared in:

Reverse The Polarity! Issue 21 (January 2006)


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Last Updated March 31, 2006