The language of Doctor Who, Part 1
If you could touch the alien sand and hear the cry of strange birds and watch them wheel in another sky, would that satisfy you?
With this tantalizing question, William Hartnell opened the doors of the Tardis to reveal to its new and rather sceptical crew their first destination in an adventure which has, with a few changes of personnel, lasted for fifty years. Most viewers in 1963 had waited a week from the end of the first episode, An Unearthly Child, to see where exactly in time and space the futuristic and dimensionally transcendent ship disguised as a London police box had taken schoolteachers Ian and Barbara, their mysterious pupil Susan, and her even more mysterious grandfather.
That first ‘other’ sky turned out to be disappointingly terrestrial, if thrillingly prehistoric. Throughout the series, from the Third Doctor’s (fatal, as it turned out when he actually got there) obsession with the ‘famous blue planet’ Metebelis III to Rose’s awed description of Woman Wept in the Ninth Doctor’s era, many of the renegade Time Lord’s most exciting adventures remain those only hinted at in passages like these, and which time—and budgetary constraints—have prevented us from sharing.
For me and many others, as children growing up in an era before DVDs, when repeats were rare and videos expensive, even the televised adventures of earlier Doctors were necessarily experienced through language alone, in the novelizations published by Target books in 1970s and 80s. These hugely successful books, though unpretentious (and notoriously repetitive) in style, proved to be something of a literary gateway drug for a whole generation of fans, leading us to some of the slightly more challenging works (H. G. Wells, Frankenstein, the Sherlock Holmes stories) from which the Doctor Who production team had lovingly borrowed some of their most memorable ideas.
They introduced us, too, to a whole new vocabulary almost as capacious as the Doctor’s jelly baby laden pockets. The first word I ever looked up in a dictionary was serendipity, and I still remember the excitement of finding out that this lovely word for a happy accident had not, after all, been made up by the writers of The Green Death (also known as ‘the one with the giant maggots’) as a linguistic McGuffin. Other words were simply picked up and repurposed by the scriptwriters, and Doctor Who fans experience a special thrill of (reptilian) recognition whenever they see the adjectives Silurian or draconian used IRL.
We get that word from you, you know
This relationship between the Doctor and the dictionary isn’t entirely one-sided. Even for non-fans, it’s hard to think of another television series (except perhaps for its space opera American counterpart Star Trek) that has shaped the British collective imagination to the same extent, and this unprecedented level of cultural impact is reflected in the contributions it has made to the English language. While four words from Doctor Who have their own entry or sense in the Oxford English Dictionary—Tardis, Dalek, Cyberman, and the first sci-fi use of The Matrix to mean cyberspace—it’s also hard, if you’ve ever seen more than a few episodes of Doctor Who to hear the words exterminate or regeneration without them conjuring up images of ranting pepper-pot aliens or the glowing, blurring features of any of the eleven actors who have played the Doctor in the past fifty years.
‘Tardis’, in particular, has come to mean much more to us than just an impossible machine in a children’s television programme. This invented acronym (standing for Time And Relative Dimension—or Dimensions, depending on whose word you take to be law in the Doctor Who universe—In Space) has four separate senses all to itself in the OED. In British English, it is not only the default shorthand for a time machine, but also for anything that seems to be ‘bigger on the inside’ (itself an impossible concept which seems almost to have originated in Doctor Who) than it appears from the outside. The outline of the Doctor’s craft is so fixed in our heads that any Portaloo or telephone kiosk can be referred to as a Tardis, and those aging blue boxes, wherever they survive, are Tardises first and police public call boxes second to many who pass them.
From now on: everything in English
When it comes to language, the Tardis itself pursues a more interventionist policy than most dictionaries, providing a translation service for the Doctor and his companions wherever they go in the Universe (a service which, happily, also extends to us as viewers). This ‘gift of the Time Lord’ and his Tardis (a precursor to both Douglas Adams’ Babelfish and Google Translate) is so efficient and discreet that even the Doctor’s companions don’t, on the whole, notice that their language areas are being manipulated so that they hear and read even the most recondite of off-world tongues (with some notable and surprising exceptions) as the Queen’s English. Occasionally they do notice—Sarah Jane Smith and Donna Noble were merely confused (‘Are you having me on, are we in Epcot?’), while Rose Tyler was indignant: ‘Your machine gets inside my head. It gets inside and it changes my mind, and you didn’t even ask?’ For the most part, though, they (and we) don’t mind if the Doctor and his machine are getting inside our heads. He is, after all, the good guy, riding into town whenever he’s needed; a freedom fighter without a gun.
The greatest weapons in the world
While the Doctor may never carry lasers or phasers, language is one weapon he’s always ready to use against his enemies, identifying would-be oppressors and invaders through their use of weasel words, and exposing their sinister intentions through close argument and powerful rhetoric—‘Emotions! Love! Pride! Hate! Fear! Have you no emotions, sir?’ Robots and computers are stopped dead in their tracks with complex linguistic paradoxes, and in one particularly memorable scene, the Seventh Doctor sends a lone Dalek into a logical, literal, and ultimately fatal spin, by explaining, calmly, quietly, and with brutal precision, why its continued existence is futile.
The Doctor has even been known to use language against his friends, when necessary, ending the prime-ministerial career of Harriet Jones, MP for Flydale North (but, like the Daleks and everyone else, you probably know who she is) with six words—just six words—‘Don’t you think she looks tired?’. The judicious use of a single word has, in the Whoniverse, been known to alter reality in less subtle ways. In 2007’s The Shakespeare Code, the Doctor averts cosmic disaster by supplying the eponymous playwright with his most important line ever (‘Expelliarmus!’ ‘Good old J.K.!’), in a battle to save the earth from the magical science of the evil Carrionites.
Oh dear. I’m sorry, I may have to stop there . . . this old body of mine is wearing a bit thin . . . stop, you’re making me giddy . . . no! . . . while there’s life there’s . . . it’s the end, but . . . Adric? carrot juice! timing malfunction! I’ve got to . . . physician, heal thyself . . . absolutely fantastic! but . . . I don’t want to go!
Read Part 2 of this series.