Doctor Who and the Ontology of the Fictional Character

by E. John Winner

Philosophical background

This is not a text of philosophy, but it would be remiss not to note some of the philosophical background to the issues raised.  One of the problems with that background is that in the kind of discussion we’ll be having here, we will naturally be making claims regarding fictional characters, which some philosophers insist do not exist.

The approach to fictional entities that came to dominate the Analytic tradition was initiated by Frege, who decided that names for fictional entities were simply ’empty;’ they lack reference, or more precisely they refer to nothing. (1) This was later supplemented by Russell’s theories of denotation and description:  Names of fictional entities could refer to properties (and thus have meaning), but these properties amounted to nothing, since the entities didn’t exist.  (2)

I’ve never been happy with this approach because the implication of it is that discussion of fictional entities – and in literary criticism (which is my professional training), that’s what gets discussed – is somehow a waste of time.  Why discuss Hamlet’s motivations if, after all, Hamlet doesn’t exist?  I remember chancing on a minor British philosopher of the Positivist school (name fortunately forgotten), who explained that statements about fictional entities, lacking truth-values, were simply “nonsense.”  Loving literature as I do, this left a scar I carry to this day, and is one reason I always approach Analytic claims with apprehension.

I think the Frege-Russell approach ultimately untenable.  First, it tends to place all fictional entities into the same class; so the approach is taken equally to unicorns, the present King of France, and Sherlock Holmes.  But this seems mistaken, because these entities all arise in quite different contexts.  The unicorn developed through legends that acquired mythical status.  The present King of France is an ex hypothesis falsehood for analytic purposes.  Sherlock Holmes is a character in a series of stories that were never presented to the public as factual reportage and which the readers of those stories accept as fictional entertainments.  The implications of this approach also go well beyond the analysis of language.  I have already remarked one such implication, that literary criticism – indeed any discussion of literature – is on some level, spurious or at least suspect.  The further implication of this is that those engaging in literary discussions are somehow deluding themselves or are so ignorant that they can’t tell the difference between discussing serious topics (like science and philosophy) and fluff.  Beyond the evident snobbery in such an implication, none of this is true.  We don’t really know how Medievals understood their discussions concerning unicorns, but we have a very good ideas how people think of the literature they discuss, and none of these indicate delusion or ignorance.  And if I come across a philosopher who tells me that I may not be deluded or ignorant, but merely filling leisure hours discussing matters of little importance, since unrelated to existing objects that one can study scientifically, I should certainly close the book and not bother with it further.  One reason that literary theorists became so enamored of philosophers in the Phenomenological tradition (so-called “Continental Philosophers”) is because those philosophers treated literature as if it mattered, as if it could tell us something about ourselves and our place in the world.  (3)

Early Positivism left behind a lot of scars of this sort, but it must be admitted that there have been long and difficult efforts to redress these over the decades, beginning with at least Austin and the later Wittgenstein.  Concerning the present subject, we find in Kripke that we must at least admit that names of fictional characters must be allowed to refer to their existence as fictional characters, which opens the door to Kripke’s doctrine of the socially agreed pretense of their existence within the fiction. (4)

This allows us to note the fundamental problem with the early Positivist discourse on the names of fictional characters, especially characters of publicly recognized fictions like Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories.  Sherlock Homes is a social entity; the empirical presentation of him is in the many texts in which he has appeared.  In a non-trivial sense (going beyond Kripke), he is as real as any phenomenon of social interaction.

In crude material terms, there is no such thing as theater.  A building referred to as a ‘theater’ is indistinguishable from a building referred to as a ‘church’ or another referred to as ‘House of Congress’.  Further, what does it mean to hold up a handful of pages with dialogue printed on them and remark, “now this play is real theater”?  We can re-transcribe the sentence so that ‘theater’ is only to be understood as a trope, but after centuries of tradition in the dramatic arts, it is possible to think broadly of theater as embracing the building, the play, and the culture and custom of those people participating in dramatic performances.  And we would not be wrong or even inexact, because people participating in that culture would understand the differing uses of the term in the contexts in which it was uttered.   At which point does the logician step in to say, “no, you’ve got it all wrong”?  If the participants understand each other, what can the logician do but confuse the matter?

A character in a work of fiction exists, in that it has a reality.  This existence is clearly not the exact same as that of the theater (building) or theater (play) or theater (the culture surrounding the performance of the play), but it is in the same domain and must be, since the characters in the play are all themselves fictional.

This provides us some grounding with regard to the following claims concerning the reality of a given fictional character.

Doctor Who, Then and Now

My immediate concern here is to discuss the fictional character of an ongoing serial narrative, Doctor Who (more accurately, just the Doctor), who is about to receive a major revision by those responsible for producing the stories in which the character appears.  Since first appearing in November of 1963, this character has undergone several major revisions over a 54 year career, and many of these have been accounted for within the narrative by the fact that the Doctor is an alien, of a species capable of regenerating into not only different bodies but different personalities.  Nonetheless, the most recently announced revision – that the Doctor, for 54 years a male, would regenerate into a female – raises some important problems concerning the things that make the Doctor the Doctor, and not simply some other character given the same name (what Meinong referred to as “nuclear properties”). (5)

To introduce the Doctor, I will quote myself, from an article I wrote for the Doctor Who Ratings Guide, which will reveal what I believe to be an important nuclear property of the character.   Principally, as a response to a wide-spread nostalgia for the type of scientist-adventurer appearing in Victorian literature, as evidenced by a slew of films based on this literature that were popular in the 1950s:

When Sydney Newman put together a creative team to develop what would become Doctor Who, they couldn’t have avoided the influence of this cultural trend – because something had already been produced partly in response to it, which they couldn’t have ignored. Although the BBC Quatermass serials were set in the near future, the character of Bernard Quatermass is a clear throwback to the scientist heroes of H. G. Wells, perhaps with a touch of Conan Doyle’s Professor Challenger thrown in to give him an edge of toughness that Wells’ heroes often lacked. Author Nigel Kneale was certainly a modern sci-fi writer, but the Quatermass character is just as clearly engaged in Victorian era scientist-heroics. (To me, it is not at all surprising that the Quatermass serials would be brought to theaters by Hammer Films, whose stock in trade was nostalgia for Victorian gothic.)  My point is not that the character of the Doctor was mere regurgitation of Bernard Quatermass; that is clearly not the case. My point is that Quatermass and the Doctor share the same literary and dramatic genealogy and that at the core of both is a nostalgia for the Victorian scientist hero of early science fiction.  Anyone who can watch the William Hartnell Doctor and not see in his personality the irascibility of Verne’s Professor Lidenbrock, the curiosity of Professor Aronnax, the over-the-cliff risk-taking of Wells’ nameless Time Traveler, the bullheaded arrogance of Professor Challenger – well, clearly one would have to know nothing of either literature or film to miss this. I think most fans of the Doctor are aware of it; but they seem to treat the matter lightly, as a kind of amusing subtext. That assumption couldn’t be farther from the truth. I am trying to point out that this nostalgia is at the very core of the Doctor, this is his personality, this is what he is: a Victorian scientist who happens to come from another planet from the far-off future.” (6)

Since the BBC announced that the next regeneration of the Doctor would be portrayed by a female actor on July 16th of this year, there has been the expected rounds of self-congratulatory back-patting among media-visible Feminists, as well as the inevitable trolling of negative responses from male chauvinists.  All too predictable and largely missing the real difficulty with this redefinition of the character.  A fictional character not only exists within a work of art, but in the hands of a capable author or capable film makers is himself or herself a work of art.  As such, the character will have  – must have – certain continuing traits to remain recognizable as precisely this particular work of art, from appearance to appearance.  If the character’s narrative is a serialization, appearing in variant episodes over time – especially over years or even decades – revision of these identifying traits is inevitable and necessary to keep the narrative going.  When such revision is no longer possible, the character fades from public view and eventually disappears.  It’s not clear how this process occurs; yet it is clear that characters like Fantomas, the Shadow, and Boston Blackie have all disappeared into history, unable to adapt to more contemporary tastes and audience expectations.  But there is a point at which revision of identifying traits itself erases something essential to the character; something that made him or her this particular character, this self-same, recurrent work of art.  The American dime-novel hero, Nick Carter, was first imagined as a private detective in the New York of the 1890s.  As he was redeveloped for the pulp magazines of the 1920s, he accumulated new supporting characters, a new look, a new home, and got involved in cases readers of the time could recognize, such as dueling with organized crime.  Eventually in the later 1930’s Carter was revised to include participation in counter-espionage, and when America went to war, he did also.  But eventually, the pulp magazines he inhabited disappeared, and he did with them.

Then in the 1960’s, Street and Smiths. the owners of his copyrights, made a deal with paperback publisher Award Books (notorious for exploitation and soft-core porn) for the production of a series of Nick Carter novels, re-imagining him as a super-spy in the James Bond mold – only with more explicit sex passages.

The original Nick Carter was pure of heart – he didn’t drink, or smoke, or sleep around.  The new “Killmaster” Nick Carter (as he was referred to in paperback cover blurbs) did all these things.  The original Nick Carter exercised properly, watched his diet, and took his vitamins.  Killmaster Nick Carter did none of these things.  More importantly, the original Nick Carter was a master of detective skills, including deduction, gathering clues, interrogation, and following people. Killmaster Nick Carter demonstrated none of these skills, although he could commit cold-blooded murder and engage in ruthless torture, which the original Nick Carter would have found abhorrent.

My first encounter with Nick Carter was with the original, in an anthology of reprints from the 1890s’ dime novels.  So imagine my confusion when I picked up my first “Nick Carter: Killmaster” novel from the 1960s.  There just was no relationship between “Killmaster” and the Nick Carter I had come to admire, so there was no point in reading those novels.  The matter wasn’t important enough, socially or personally, to pursue it further.  The Killmaster fans could have their Nick Carter.  Mine belonged to a different historical moment, now buried in the past and only accessible in fits of nostalgia.  But that’s not necessarily a bad thing; nostalgia has its proper place in our memories: it is what gives them a warm and hazy glow, of which we are (often correctly) fond.

The trouble I have with the new Doctor is that this revision seems not just an effort to revise the Doctor’s personality traits for a younger audience, and yet, it also isn’t a clean break in continuity as that between the original Nick Carter and the later Killmaster.  Instead, it seems to derive from a conception of the Doctor as an institution rather than as a character.  As an institution, it could have a “glass ceiling” that could be overcome by a woman or women acquiring leadership status – but doesn’t this sound more than a little odd?

Another way to look at it:  Cannot a female character be generated in serial works of fiction as dynamic, charismatic, interesting and admirable as the Doctor and achieve similar success in popular entertainment without being the Doctor?  Or must women always wait for male models to be institutionalized in order to colonize them?  Obviously, this is not applicable to real institutions such as governments.  In America, we only get one President (and clearly, we got the wrong one this election), but that’s exactly the point:  The Doctor is not an institution but a fictional character in a serial fiction; a work of imagination.  At what point is such a character revised beyond recognition, effectively becoming a different character?

Imagine the following character:  Living in Bahrain, whenever a murder occurs within fifty miles, she lapses into a trance, during which her psychic powers allow her to communicate with the victim’s spirit who reveals the murderer, which our hero then communicates to the police.   For this they award her a special hijab (she’s Muslim) that allows her to telepathically alert the police when a murder occurs.  Her name is Sherlock Holmes.

Okay, fine; but is she the character that Conan Doyle imagined?  Obviously, Holmes has been revised and “updated” countless times since his first appearance in print.  But even the Moffett-Gatiss Sherlock evidences deductive (actually abductive) detective skills.  I think our Holmes from Bahrain is unrecognizable, lacking this. The only way we could justify our Bahrainian Holmes is by assuming that Holmes is an institution, not a character, and it was time for Muslim psychics to be given their time inhabiting its leadership.  Does this make any sense?

Questions like this were on my mind long before the Doctor’s newest incarnation was announced.  I stopped watching Doctor Who because Steven Moffett’s re-imagining the Doctor as an aging Harry Potter just got to be so tiresome.  Where had my Victorian scientist flown?

Some Feminists say we ought to have a female James Bond (another institution?); in fact the 1960’s saw the imagining of a female Bond-like character, Peter O’Donnell’s Modesty Blaise.  The reason she is not remembered now is because the film and television industries weren’t ready for her, turning her into a parody in her one film of that era.  And admittedly her author was a man; but if women want a James Bond “of their own,” I would suggest getting the rights to Blaise and redefining her in terms of the women of our day through female authorship and film production.  And then promote the franchise four-wall, as they say.

I have no problems with a Black James Bond – there are now Scots of African descent, as it wouldn’t change the essential qualities of the character.  But there already has been a Black James Bond – his name was John Shaft.  And again the real reason Shaft did not become the phenomenon that Bond was that at the time (the early 1970’s), the entertainment industry didn’t know how to promote him beyond the Blaxploitation ghetto, which always seemed absurd to me.  I was a white boy, and I wanted to be like John Shaft.  Hell, I wanted to be like him more than like James Bond, who was always so uptight about what champagne to drink.  (There were also writing and production difficulties plaguing Shaft’s films, especially during his brief career on television.)  But there’s never been any doubt in my mind that the character had as much potential as a cinematic hero as James Bond, had he been written, produced and promoted with the same determination (and financing) as the Bond films. The same is true of Modesty Blaise.

We need to find ways to broaden audience expectations, certainly; but we should also respect characters as characters, and not treat them as institutions.  And we should remember that the work of cultural change is not in colonizing existing forms, but inventing new ones and promoting them properly.  That’s apparently why the Wonder Woman film, whatever its faults, has achieved recognition as not only an important female cinematic hero, but also the hero of the first DC Universe film since Nolan’s Batman to receive both critical acclaim and box-office success.


My point is not that the Doctor of Doctor Who should not be a woman; the BBC owns the rights to the character and may do with it what they will.  Rather, my point is that it is misguided to conceive of a fictional character as an institution.  The fact that some characters survive serious revision, without losing their nuclear properties, does not suggest they are institutions, but to the contrary, that they are not.  Rather, they are personalities and as such can be adapted to differing times and contexts.  But as personalities, they do have properties without which they become unrecognizable, as actually happened when Nick Carter, “Master Detective,” became (or rather, failed to become) Nick Carter, “Killmaster.”  Fictional characters, not being institutions, are just as they are, with all their faults, and when these faults become too egregious, we stop paying attention to the character, and move on to other characters.  Institutionalization of a fictional character, rather than demonstrating an adaptation moving forward, is really a denial of the process of historic change.

The existence of a fictional character is malleable; but like any existent, it is not formless.  Abstract as idea, but concrete in description.  It is not even timeless; it can end, when those involved in sharing that existence simply lose interest in it.  Then it becomes mere memory; disappearing when forgotten.


  3. Although too difficult to get into here, I note another philosophical perspective in the background here – that of Mikhail Bakhtin, especially his insistence that a believable hero does not act as “mouthpiece” for the author, but once the personality has been crafted, it is this personality that is allowed to speak. See, eg,, esp. Chapter Two.
  4. Kripke is not entirely happy with this solution; it risks problems with counterfactuals. But at least we’ve made headway since Russell.  And, although Kripke makes a point of not lapsing into Meinongism, and explaining why, reading about Meinong suggests to me that perhaps there is more usefulness in Meinong’s ‘fictional objects’ and his recondite analysis of them than the Analytic tradition gives credit for.  But I say that, not yet studying Meinong, because his ideas remind me of similar notions in Peirce, although Peirce never brought these together in any systematic way.

77 thoughts on “Doctor Who and the Ontology of the Fictional Character

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  1. Hi EJ: I’m not arguing against you! What I want to know is your view on how literature can tell us about ourselves. The emphasis is on the “how”, not on “whether”. I find it an interesting question.

  2. alandtapper1950,
    Didn’t mean to sound contentious; was thinking about something I had read elsewhere.

    Our stories are the means by which we make sense of the world and of our existence. Intentional fictions are projections of this process into the world in a tentative but substantial manner. Drama occurs when we think we have a pretty good hold on things; but are disappointed that life doesn’t provide answers to our questions; comedy is when we realize we don’t have a good handle on things, but realize that worrying about that is just a little silly.

    The question ‘why are we here?’ is not one we can answer in the truest sense; but it’s the asking that is important. Fiction is one of the ways we ask that question.

    Despite the esoteric weight of my responses, this is hardly a theory or philosophy; this is just my sense of things.

  3. Hi EJ: Thanks. I’m not sure how well I follow what you are saying here. Harrison says that serious imaginative literature “investigates the language in which it is written”. I think you are saying something similar. I very much like this longish paragraph of his:

    “Jane Austen … in opening Pride and Prejudice with the words “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife”, is not making, except accidentally, a true sociological observation. She is not competing with sociologists or historians. She is merely setting words, with their ordinary meanings, together in a certain pattern. The meanings of the words call up, as they must, before the attentive reader’s mind the patterns of practice, marriage, ownership, the various modes of dependence of one sex upon another, which both give them meaning, and define a certain human world which ordinarily appears to those who inhabit it, “the” world, the paradigm of order and common-sense, its canons and customs dignified with cognitive evidence as well as with moral rectitude. What Jane Austen’s sentence does is to destabilize the latter conviction merely by setting language, as it were, against itself; by allowing the epistemic solemnity of “universally acknowledged” to collide at full tilt with the sly calculation implicit in “in need of a wife”. At this point we are beyond sociology, or history, or any kind of descriptive use of language. We are in the presence of a mind which, in its relationship to language, never remains merely on the surface of taken-for-granted meanings — which is all we ever use of it in indicative discourse – but lives below it, at the level of the practices and presumptions which constitute not only meaning, but human worlds. That first sentence is enough to make such a world, one in which marriage and money, love and prudence are both intimately linked and intimately at odds, surge into being before the reader’s eyes; but caught in so surging, as it were, unawares, in its dressing-room, half-undressed, at an unguarded moment, with all the embarrassing underpinnings of its public persona shamingly displayed. The ability to do such a thing by means of a sentence of twenty-three words: to have such an awareness of the interface between language, social practices and their presuppositions, and the reality of the human worlds they constitute, is what is meant by speaking of greatness in a writer. Pace all those who like to deny the objectivity of literary canons, Jane Austen had it; Georgette Heyer did not. There is, contrary to the beliefs of many of those in literary studies departments at the moment, a distinction to be drawn, after all, between great literature and popular fiction. The concern of the latter is to amuse. The concern of the former is with the architecture of human worlds.”

  4. “There is nothing outside the text.”

    Is it meaningful to ask whether something has intrinsic meaning, or only to ask why something has meaning to someone in particular? The concept of “franchise” is well accepted in entertainment, and reflects the psychological investment fans have in the progression of the series.

    Making sense of that fact seems to require recognition that there is a difference between objective and subjective experience. The former is based upon phenomena that we can present to others to experience; that latter that which we cannot. Does Frege recognize this distinction? I ask because most of our behavior is driven by subjective experience. Even when we pursue objective goals, it is generally with the hope of attaining a psychological state of satisfaction.

    Obviously the entertainment industry relies upon this fact.

    Subjectively, our experience of fictional characters may have greater nuance and depth than our experience of real people, because authors generally filter a character’s experience to isolate that which is essential to their motivation. In this manner, fictional characters may be both more understandable to us and more meaningful as examples.

    A more personal question: How would you react if the new Doctor Who was a male personality in a female body? That’s certainly the experience reported by many trans individuals.

  5. Brian Balke,
    You ask three question, and I will confine my response to these.

    1. “Is it meaningful to ask whether something has intrinsic meaning, or only to ask why something has meaning to someone in particular?” The first is a philosophic question; the second is a psychological question. My interest here is primarily philosophical.

    2. “Does Frege recognize this distinction?” No, because his primary concern was the clarification of language for scientific purposes.

    3. “How would you react if the new Doctor Who was a male personality in a female body?” A totally speculative issue because I won’t be watching Doctor Who hereafter. However, I am sure they will work that issue into their plotting going forward.

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