The ‘Whoniverse’ is awash with debate on the kosher roots of Doctor Who. Richard Cawthorne looks inside the box to discover his haimishe credentials.[divider]
It is a famous sight. The Wailing Wall, seen across its sunlit square, is dotted with worshippers and sightseers making their pilgrimage to one of the ancient world’s most revered monuments. On the other side of the square stands an old-fashioned, dark blue British police box.
Unless you’ve been on another planet recently – Gallifrey, say – you’ll recognise the police box as the Tardis. And the photo-montage of it in Jerusalem is just one item occupying a large section of the internet at the moment in a continuing debate on the Jewishness of Doctor Who. Why the sudden upsurge of interest?
Well, Whovians (the name given to Doctor Who fans) are beside themselves. The Whoniverse is vibrating – and all because the Doctor is celebrating his 50th anniversary.
It’s been a hectic half-century. The time-travelling chief character (who travels in his time machine, the Tardis) and his ‘companions’ in the enduring BBC television science-fiction saga have not only graced the small screen for that long, but have featured in two cinema films, one made-for-TV film and a huge collection of linked books, radio shows and comics.
It all began in the mind of a Canadian Jew named Sydney Newman, whose career path took him from school drop-out to technical academy to the BBC and an idea for a new science ficton drama series. From the beginning, many of the worldwide multitude of fans have devoted time and energy to finding the links between the stories and the Jewish faith.
Some of their discoveries are persuasive.
Prize-winning author Naomi Alderman, whose novel Disobedience – about the turbulent life of a rabbi’s daughter from north London – won the 2006 Orange Award for New Writers, is one follower who has joined the throng, to the extent of producing a Doctor Who novel, Borrowed Time, published in 2011. In a follow- up interview, she indicated that part of her interest had been fired by the idea the Doctor’s adventures were Talmudic, in that “his method is obviously one of chevruta –he doesn’t need the companions to solve things, but he enjoys exploring through discussion”.
Alderman also praises Tom Baker, who played the fourth Doctor from 1974 to 1981, whose father was Jewish and who is considered by many to have been the most influential performer in the role, because “his era encompassed so many different genres and styles of writing; it was a real time of exploration”.
Incidentally, Baker also figures in one of the several still-unresolved mysteries of the series – what is the Doctor’s real name?
A scene in an episode of The Key To Time series has a former school friend referring to him as Theta Sigma, which Baker’s character neither confirms nor denies. Indications of Jewish traits in the Doctor’s character stemming from creator Newman are now being widely circulated, helped by the involvement of the likes of actress Carole Ann Ford, who played the first Doctor’s grand-daughter, and one of the current writers, Neil Gaiman, both of whom are Jewish.
According to the New York-based magazine Tablet, which published an article called Doctor Who? Doctor Jew, “the iconic sci-fi hero is the greatest Jewish character in the history of television”. The argument goes like this – the Doctor is (a) very intelligent and seeks knowledge wherever he can find it; (b) constantly helping those in need, and (c) committed to tikkun olam – repairing the world – while surrounded by a host of warlike races.
Oh, and he is constantly wandering.
To this mix, add the Doctor’s best-known enemies, the Daleks. According to the Tablet article’s writer, Liel Leibovitz, their creator, Terry Nation, was deeply affected by seeing 1930s Germany hailing a ‘murderous maniac’ as its saviour, who was out to kill everyone regarded as inferior. Nation’s response was to introduce to Doctor Who the “unhearing, unthinking, blanked-out face of authority that will kill you because it wants to destroy you”.
The Daleks’ chilling catch-word was ‘Exterminate!’ Now where have we heard that before?
• The 50th anniversary Doctor Who special, The Day Of The Doctor, is on BBC One on Saturday at 7.50pm