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.

Conclusion

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.

Notes

  1. http://www.ub.edu/grc_logos/files/1263459298-Sense&Reference.pdf
  2. http://bactra.org/Russell/denoting/
  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, https://monoskop.org/images/1/1d/Bakhtin_Mikhail_Problems_of_Dostoevskys_Poetics_1984.pdf, 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.  https://www.phil.pku.edu.cn/documents/20120822193331_Vacuous_Names_and_Fictional_Entities.pdf
  5. https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/nonexistent-objects/
  6. http://pagefillers.com/dwrg/articles6.htm#6

77 comments

  1. EJ: Magnificent piece, really. I especially love all of the references you bring to bear, from Shaft to Modesty Blaise to Nick Carter. Just wonderful stuff.

    I’m much harder on the new Doctor Who than you are, though. It’s an absolute travesty, and so blatantly, transparently, crudely political that it spoils the whole thing, before you even watch a single episode.

    I agree, however, that this predates this current transformation. With the exception of Eccleston, this entire reboot has been a travesty, and yes, I know I will be saying something very unpopular when I include David Tenant’s run in that description. The constant, in your face bisexuality and homosexuality involved with the Jack Harkness character really put me off, and is the reason why I found Torchwood — which could have been a great show — insufferable. And I am a person who is highly sympathetic to gay interests, whether its anti-discrimination laws, marriage, etc., I am for it all. What I am not for is using sexuality as some sort of cultural cudgel in forms of popular entertainment where it does *not* belong.

    Doctor Who is a science fiction program for children that is predicated — as you indicated — on the scientist-hero of Verne and Wells. This is what the character and show have always been, for decades. The show rarely touched on political issues — in that sense it was nothing like Star Trek — and certainly not sexual politics, though some of the Doctor’s female companions were certainly picked for their looks (in order to appease adult men who might be forced to watch the show, with their children).

    The best Doctors — Troughton, Pertwee, and Baker — all played this role perfectly, albeit in very different ways. They were *never* love interests to their companions but rather fatherly or uncle-like figures. To violate this core dimension of the character and the show with the introduction of sexuality and sexual politics is to violate the show itself, and it is the main reason that I almost entirely dislike the reboot, with the exception of Eccleston, who played the character with a seriousness and gravitas that made him seem much older and who lasted just one season. This latest twist, to make the Doctor a woman, because … Feminism!, is just more of the same, and will make the series even less interesting to me than it already was.

    This sort of thing is literally destroying Marvel comics, which have been steadily, and thoroughly ruining their most beloved, decades upon decades old characters, by shoving them through the Social Justice and Identity Politics shredder. Captain Marvel is a woman. Captain America is black. Iron Man is a black woman (and a teenager). Thor is a woman. And if that wasn’t bad enough, you get utterly cringey shit like this:

    https://cdn.vox-cdn.com/uploads/chorus_asset/file/3437920/thor3.0.png

    What’s amazing is that this stuff is incredibly unpopular with Marvel’s audience. As mentioned, Marvel’s sales have been in the toilet since this stuff started. But the Social Justice/Identity Politics obsession is so strong with the company that they are apparently willing to undermine their own commercial interest — a company deliberately losing money — in order to promote a particular political vision through fucking superhero comics. Not only does it diminish the comics — not to mention lose money — it also diminishes the political vision, by making it ridiculous.

    I wonder when this miserable nightmare is going to stop. Perhaps whole industries will have to go out of business, before they come to their senses. But one wonders whether even that will be enough to stop this madness.

  2. Great piece.

    “I was a white boy, and I wanted to be like John Shaft.”

    I was a white boy too – I still am, actually – and I wanted to be Isaac Hayes …

  3. Hi EJ, oh boy… while still suffering through an illness, I was hoping to write an essay this weekend on this very topic. Not Dr Who, in fact I would only mention him (now her) to the side, but ontology of fictional characters. And Dan’s comment is perfect because it was Marvel that I was primarily going to focus on. Actually, the whole idea of the essay was spurred by Dan’s earlier essays on the ontological status of social entities and then my having watched a recent Marvel flick, which made me reflect on the status of fictional characters (which are social entities).

    Anyway, this was a really good essay, going well beyond what I could deliver regarding the contribution of philosophical theory/movements. So that was great. I also agree with several of your assessments, and the idea such changes mean one is treating an entity as an *institution* rather than a *character* is useful.

    I was not fully certain of my position, but after reading your piece I think I’m close to where you are, though perhaps not as critical. I’m definitely not as critical as Dan… though I am sympathetic on some level and not going to say you or he are wrong for being down on the whole hard reboot phenomena.

    Basically, I agree that it would seem more interesting (and laudable?)… it would make more sense… for people who want a character like X but with different aspects Y&Z to just invent new characters, rather than “colonizing” old ones (nice term). However, I am starting to see/accept that people do this. And I have to ask, aren’t arguments that people should not make radical changes along these lines, somewhat similar to the “cultural appropriation” arguments? I raise this objection half in part to myself.

    One thing that threw me, given the rest of the attention to detail in the essay, was your butchering the name of one of *my* favorite characters. It is *Quatermass* not Quartermass. For some reason you kept switching between the two names… you revisionist!

    1. How is it like cultural appropriation arguments to make the case that Iron Man should not be turned into a black, teenage girl? Or that Thor shouldn’t be punching people for feminism?

      As for butchering, typos do happen.

  4. Hi Dan, I’m no longer keeping up with the comics biz, but I had seen some videos a while back on the “diversity problem” which challenge your claim (and admittedly one exec at Marvel’s). I found one of them, as well as another which argues along the same lines with some pretty convincing arguments. The first one is by a comic book shop owner and uses actual sales figures, and the other is a comic reader/vlogger who takes a different tack but has similar complaints and is one of the people who has stopped buying Marvel.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xxW8AVLUCSo

    OK, so I definitely do *not* agree with the seemingly “pro-diversification” position the guy in the video above makes. There are problems with it that I would want to discuss in my own essay. That said, I think he makes a great case the Marvel’s sales problems are not about that.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9CnTDE2zZU0

    She’s a bit more on my wavelength, especially when she explains the importance of longterm continuity in attracting sales. I was one of those people who followed the whole phoenix saga she describes (and its end which still effects me when I think about it).

    So it seems like there may be more things going on. More relevant factors.

    Of course the panel you gave from that Thor comic made me cringe. Then again, it wouldn’t have helped if it was a male Thor.

    1. Of course they are saying that. They hardly are going to admit that Marvel is destroying its own commercial interests for politics to which they are partial.

      The fan base has spoken pretty overwhelmingly against this. And in the recent “milkshake” controversy, Marvel executives have actually told their own fans to fuck off and not read their comics.

      It’s a disaster. And a bloody shame.

  5. Hi Dan, I just saw your earlier reply to me.

    On the Quatermass typo, I was totally joking. I thought that was obvious, but apologies to EJ if it came off as serious.

    On the cultural appropriation thing, remember I said similar, not exact. But the reasoning is like this: The general complaint in cultural appropriation is that someone from outside their culture is using a cultural item that traditionally belongs to them (their group) and within a certain cultural/historical context.

    To say well artists in this era are doing something wrong in altering the sex, race, age of whoever because in my day and age that character was XYZ, seems sort of like that earlier argument. No real harm is being done, it is simply being used in a new way (a new context) by another group as they see fit.

    Again, I am raising the question, including to myself. So don’t take it as a concrete criticism I am throwing at anyone. I’m interested in seeing in that way it is errant.

    1. It seems nothing like it to me, whatsoever. Iron Man is Tony Stark, a scientist and industrialist, not a teenage, black girl. And Thor is a God of Asgard, not a feminist social justice warrior.

  6. Hi Dan, while not a fan of the changes, I think they gave an arguably credible explanation of how the changes occurred to the characters you mentioned. It is not that Iron Man or Thor were *never* the first guys, it is just that others are taking on the role.

    And I think you should give the videos a watch. The numbers in the first video are not partial to politics, and they don’t seem to match the anti-diversity angle better than the offered explanations. As I said I don’t agree with that first guy’s position at all, so it’s not like I was hoping he would make sense. The practical explanation based on $ did.

    I had no knowledge about the milkshake controversy and from a brief google I still don’t quite get it.

    Anyway, I will write the essay rather than potentially derailing/detracting from EJ’s Dr Who centered essay, with this Marvel stuff.

    1. I did give the videos a watch. I would not have answered you without doing so, given that you went to the trouble to link them. I just don’t find the argument persuasive. As for the first part, these aren’t “roles” but characters, and I have zero interest in fraudulent, teen girl Iron Man.

  7. Dan.
    Thanks for the kind comments.

    The classic Doctor Who actually did portray politics and even had political views to suggest – but if it comes across as ‘apolitical,’ it’s because the writers and producers all shared the classical liberal preference for political dialogue – so even the worst ‘baddie’ was allowed to argue the long term benefits of his or her behavior. This is the kind of writing that challenges thoughtful consideration of issues, rather than closing it down. The overtly ‘political’ flavor of the reboot, on the other hand, comes from it’s being entirely one sided in presentation. Baddies are bad no matter what they say; ‘good guys’ are good no matter what they do. And ultimately, no one has to suffer the consequences of their behavior.

    I don’t follow comics; but what’s going on in the Marvel universe certainly seems nightmarish. The most disturbing thing about the phenomenon is its thoughtlessness; I mean the writers and editors are supposedly professionals, but are effectively writing fan-fic like amateurs.

    Economics plays a part in all this, perhaps decisively. The popularity of Doctor Who, which soared in the run-up to the 50th anniversary (this despite that the season that year saw some of Steven Moffat’s worst writing), has been declining steadily ever since. I imagine the regeneration will attract viewers for a time, just interested in the novelty and controversy; we’ll have to see whether that viewership can be sustained.

    Both the BBC and Marvel might get away with these substantive changes – again, we’ll see. However we then return to the discussion about Nick Carter. Carter-Killmaster developed a regular readership, appearing in novels well into the ’70s. But that success doesn’t make him the Nick Carter of the dime novels and pulps. That character is gone as can be. So a new audience may get their Iron Woman, and even sustain her existence; but that won’t make her Iron Man.

    dbhomes,
    Thanks. However:
    “aren’t arguments that people should not make radical changes along these lines, somewhat similar to the “cultural appropriation” arguments?” No; this discussion goes to the ontology of a character, what is needed for the character to be himself or herself. There may be political implications, but the core issue is not about politics. (Politics doesn’t figure anywhere in the consideration of Nick Carter.)

    1. EJ: I own and have watched multiple times, the entire Doctor Who, from Hartwell through McCoy. Where was the politics? I didn’t say it was entirely absent — “Inferno” (Pertwee) certainly had a bit — as did Invasion (Troughton), but it really wasn’t in any way the heart of the show the way that it was to such an extent in the original Star Trek.

  8. Dan,
    I think one issue here is knowledge of the kinds of political arguments taking shape in Britain in the ’60s and ’70s – and the shapes they took could be quite different than discussions occurring in the US.

    But the writers and producers of classic Who tended to share three major discernible political concerns that recurred: 1. Worry over the possible rise of fascism (besides Inferno, there were the Dalek stories, a ongoing reflection on Nazism – this according to Terry Nation; and other stories concerning the rise to power of ethnophobes interested in dumbing down their dominated populace, eg., Mask of Mandragora). 2. Articulation of difficult issues involving problems endemic to capitalist development of political economy, such as the balancing act between personal self-interest and the social good: Consider The Green Death; this story actually involves two political discussions on the problems of capitalism. The story opens with an overt debate between mine workers and environmentalists, over whether the jobs provided by the mines outweighed concern over the risks of mining to the environment. Then we later find that the company behind the mining has a larger agenda – a take over (by its BOSS computer) of the world’s computers to organize human behavior more efficiently. And, finally: 3.As the Green Death makes clear, a nascent but committed environmentalism. (There were other issues that weaved in and out of the program; by the McCoy era, as instance, the problems of having a permanent youth culture; or the disastrous legacy of the ‘counsel tenancy’ housing projects of the ’60 which by the ’80s everyone regretted. And many of these responses worked on the growing awareness that the British Empire was shrinking and in decline – as found in many other British arts of the time, from Monty Python to the Sex Pistols.)

    The Green Death story also provides a perfect example of the kind of dialogue approach to politics I remarked, rather than one-side hammering over the viewer’s head. Both the environmentalists and the miners are allowed to make their cases, there is no judgment implied directly (the story as a whole indicates greater sympathy with the environmentalists, without disregarding or disrespecting the concerns of the miners – this is their livelihood, after all). And even when the authoritarian BOSS finally appears, it is allowed to make the case for efficiency and freedom from the errors of human decision making. Given such dialogue, it’s easy to think, not, ‘oh, here’s another political argument,’ but rather, in the context, ‘yes, this is how people talk about shared interests from differing points of view.’ That is, one hears the characters as people, rather than as mouthpieces for any political ideology.

    That certainly doesn’t seem to be the case for Marvel’s current Mademoiselle Thor.

  9. You didn’t mention that the Beeb had started suggesting that a woman could play the role back in 1980 when Tom Baker left. I remember being disappointed that they didn’t follow through. I didn’t see any of the subsequent episodes until much later.

    I saw the first episode when it first aired and religiously watched each episode since. We all rolled our eyes at the ‘regeneration’ plot device to explain the new actor but we would have loathed a Hartnell lookalike and Troughton was just so damned good that he pulled it off.

    It was a pity that this change is being seen as a sop to political correctness. I first saw the Doctor when he was an old man and he has obviously changed a good deal in the meantime. I see the new Doctor as being in keeping with the character as it has developed.

  10. I am interested, if the Beeb had chosen a woman actor in 1980, when they said they were talking to some women for the role, would those here have considered it a sop to political correctness then?

    1. Personally, I don’t think a female Doctor ever would have made sense, given the evolution of the character through the series’ golden age of the sixties and seventies. But in today’s political climate, it is such a transparent, hamfisted, crudely obvious sop to PC that it is doubly irritating for it.

  11. Hi ej

    Baddies are bad no matter what they say; ‘good guys’ are good no matter what they do.

    I don’t know about that. There is the ambiguity of “I am not a good Dalek. You are a good Dalek”.

  12. Robin Herbert
    didn’t mention it because it isn’t relevant to my discussion.

  13. A good read. Whenever one has a fictional character who is the creation of multiple writers (artists, actors etc), then there must be some kind of tension, either constructive or destructive. Was Helen Mirren’s Prospero better or worse than John Gielgud’s, or Walter Pidgeon’s in Forbidden Planet? Personally, I haven’t liked much of Dr Who since Baker, but was pleasingly surprised by Peter Castaldi in a recent rather retro episode (Empress of Mars with its shout-outs to Peladon). For me the problems of the modern series are in the plotting. I don’t think the difference between Peter Castaldi and Jodie Whittaker would be greater than that from Troughton to Baker (even though both are at the more clownish end). I like the latter, nevertheless one’s favourite seems to be a function of the Golden Age of SF.

    There obviously were many people (yes, not a large proportion of the population!) who believed Sherlock Holmes was a real person – easily as many as who believe that of Xenu.

  14. I don’t watch Doctor Who, so there’s that caveat up front. I’ll use X-Men in my examples instead, because I’m more familiar.

    I’m disappointed to not see any real discussion of the fictional character’s surroundings – the fictional world that supports the character and in some cases brings it into being. The example of a female, Muslim, and presumably Middle-Eastern Sherlock Holmes doesn’t really do the trick; to parallel what Doctor Who is doing, you’d have to have (presumably) a white, British woman who exists in the same milieu as the “original” fictional character, which is quasi-nostalgic, quasi-Victorian England. This example is too straw-man-ey for me. Not to mention, there are two different arguments here: the first is the “reality” of a fictional character, and the second is authorial intent. They are not parallel.

    Imagine an elderly, wheelchair-bound mutant whose life’s work is caring for other, younger mutants, and who is imbued with psychic powers that are sometimes difficult to control. This elderly mutant exists in a world that resembles present-day America, and is constantly in some sort of conflict with the government as they repeatedly attempt to censure mutants and/or use them for deadly and secret scientific study. If you grew up on X-Men comics like I did, this character is clearly recognizable as Professor X, and to make the case that Professor X cannot be played by a woman is to make the case that all the detail above is somehow less important than Professor X’s gender.

    There are cases where gender matters, in relation to gender itself. I think James Bond is a prime example. He’s a sleazy (and yet somehow classy) character whose primary function is to shoot people and whose secondary function is to sleep with women. Who he is as a character has a lot to do with how masculinity worked when he morphed from Nick Carter in the 1960s. I might go so far as to suggest that his gender matters because it functions in contrast to the femininity of the women he sleeps with. Now, again, I don’t know Doctor Who that well, but unless “his” gender holds up somehow, I just can’t wrap my head around why it matters if “his” gender changes.

    All of the upset that I’ve recently rolled my eyes about regarding Doctor Who reminds me of similar upset in the musicological world when it became clear that at least one lovely piece attributed to Felix Mendelssohn was actually the work of his long-neglected sister, Fanny. What I’m saying here is that gender swaps happen in real life too. Let’s not be so obtuse as to believe that gender is all that makes art.

    1. Obtuse. Hmm, I didn’t think I was that. I have watched the show since the 1970s and explained my reasons for disliking the change, none of what this addresses. It also fails to address EJs very well made point that characters are not institutions. Professor X is a character not an institution, and the character is male not female. It also fails to address the rather pathetic sort of diversity this results in. Want great female characters? Create some. Want compelling handicapped, Chican@, trans characters? Create them. But to just take existing characters who have deep, rich backstories and decades of development and say, “Never mind all that! So and so is a black, teenage girl now!” Is just pitiful. Look at that panel from the Thor comic I linked to. I can’t imagine a lamer effort at promoting feminism, not to mention replacing what used to be the God of Thunder’s almost classical speech with idiot teen-speak.

      Regardless, while you are rolling your eyes, Marvel fans are not buying the comics. Hopefully, the joy of being righteous in this sophomoric way will be sustaining when the comics no longer exist. Because that’s the direction in which this is headed.

  15. Hi EJ,

    “There may be political implications, but the core issue is not about politics. (Politics doesn’t figure anywhere in the consideration of Nick Carter.)”

    Yes, let me make this clear. I understand your essay was dealing with the existence of a character, and how changing aspects of characters make them different characters. I agree with you position on that, and it was one of the things I was intending on arguing in my own piece. Your example of Nick Carter (who I’d never heard of before) was clear.

    In addition, your treatment of what it takes to be interested in/be able to make such large changes was also interesting, and an insight which I did not have. My only disagreement with that is that I think there are more possibilities than treating a character as an institution (which is what I had planned on discussing). My position would not negate yours, but extend/amplify it.

    My raising an analogy to cultural appropriation arguments is *only* when one begins to move from the descriptive account you gave to judging whether such things are good/bad. For example was it bad for people to *use* Nick Carter when they were in fact creating a new one? Same for Dr Who, etc. Or perhaps in a more limited sense, is it *wrong* to do such things for political reasons (presumably Dr Who), rather than say pure artistic/economic moves (Nick Carter)?

    I brought it up more in light of Dan’s response than your essay, but you did seem to have some negative feelings, for example the following line:

    “We need to find ways to broaden audience expectations, certainly; but we should also respect characters as characters, and not treat them as institutions.”

    Why *should* we do/not do either of those things? That it might be interesting, useful, and accurate to understand that the above is what is going on, is different than going one step further to paint it as something detrimental, something to be avoided.

    1. Dwayne: In my case, the “should/shouldn’t” applies for a number of reasons: (1) There is an integrity to an artistic creation that I think is violated with “reboots” (incidentally, to show that this isn’t only political for me, I hated the JJ Abrams Star Trek reboot for much the same reason); (2) In some cases, like the recent developments at Marvel, there is an injection of a kind of politics into something in which it does not belong and is artistically distracting; (3) There is a forced, bludgeon-like quality to the way in which identity politics in particular are being shoved into popular entertainments that is deeply off-putting and alienating.

  16. @Dan, I neglected to heartily agree with the point that we need to create great, new characters. I wish I could adequately express how tired I am of remakes- I understand that a lot of people like them for nostalgia’s sake, but among the plethora of movies recently released that are all old stories from the 1960s-80s, I wish we could just come up with something original. I’d even take quasi-original, given the caveat that there’s nothing new under the sun. I’ve read plenty of books with great lead characters that would make great movies, so I’m hard-pressed to understand why we need to re-make a movie for the third time.

    I read your last paragraph as referential to the Thor comics, which is hopefully correct. I did not think my own comment was “sophomoric.”

    I’m wary of arguments that institutions shifting to privilege women in some way are being “politically correct” ipso facto. Women are more than half the population, and have always been underserved in the Marvel universe. This will be a hard ship to turn around, of course, because girls are not accustomed to buying comic books (generalization), which I’d argue is at least in part because they are not represented (generalization). I got into comic books because I was friends with boys, but I only read X-Men because there were characters with whom I could identify. All that being said, it may not be a dumb move for Marvel to try to tap into such a potentially large market.

    Per your Thor example, I was originally unclear whether you were taking to task the speech patterns or the content of the speech- thanks for clarifying. I have noticed that a number of comics that I kept up with over a period of years updated the speech patterns of the characters in ways that were sometimes uncomfortable, like when the Southern and timeless Rogue in X-Men started using the most recent slang. If it is the pattern of speech that is causing discomfort, I sympathize.

    As far as character vs. institution, I suppose what I’m asking is “what is the defining characteristic that makes them different?” I’m not clear. I understand that E.J. is arguing that Doctor Who is a character while the President is an institution, but both have worlds (fictional and non-fictional) which grant context without which those characters/institutions would be unrecognizable. If the U.S. President lives in Bahrain and is a Muslim woman, does not speak English, does not hold the power of the executive branch of government, cannot veto, and does not have any legal or leadership background, are they still recognizable as the President of the United States? I would argue that it would be a very difficult sell. Institution or no, context is irreplaceable with the recognition of a revolving character. That’s why I suggested that the Sherlock Holmes example is a straw-man argument, because it’s not the character alone who has changed, but the entire context. By contrast, I suppose I’m asking a question, the answer to which I know you’ve been clear about above, but to which I think I have a different response: If you carefully maintain the context, can a fictional character also be an institution under the right circumstances? It certainly seems like if any character was set up to be that way, it’s Doctor Who.

    As an aside, it was fascinating to me to note that musicologists were SO sure that the Mendelssohn work in question was Felix’s and not Fanny’s because of all of the “masculine” elements in the music. There is a revolving door of arguments in the musicologies about what music men and women “can” and “can’t” write because of the ever-shifting paradigms of what it means to be masculine or feminine at different times in history. Musicologists pointed to these “masculine” elements as proof that Felix, and not his sister, had signed the manuscript “F. Mendelssohn.”

    A compelling argument that “diversity” isn’t killing comic books: http://www.cbr.com/no-diversity-didnt-kill-marvels-comic-sales/ Print media in general is not having a heyday. The Boston Globe, I recently learned, will now be printed in New York since all major Boston printing presses are shuttering. Marvel was broke in the mid-90s, but they are actually doing pretty well at the box office right now. If the Marvel Universe survives, it will be on the screen and not on the page.

    1. Yes, ‘sophomoric’ was in reference to the comic. I do not think you are sophomoric, just as I hope you do not think I am ‘obtuse’.

      I’ve read that link. Given that Marvel’s own execs have admitted that this diversity-shove *has* significantly damaged their sales (see the link I put in my response to Dwayne), I am inclined to think that they have, beyond all the pushback I’m seeing from fans, which is obviously anecdotal. (The “nothing to see here!” defense by SJW’s is so obviously desperate that it’s hard to take seriously, despite the flurry of statistics and analyses they are trying to peddle.)

      I see no reason why boys and girls shouldn’t like different things or anything pernicious about the fact that they do. It would be very odd if they did not, given the radical differences in male and female biology, and there is plenty of well-researched science explaining how those differences lead to differences like, for example, interest in people vs. interest in things.

      In short, there is nothing wrong with the fact that superhero comics have primarily geeky male fans. And there is nothing wrong with serving the tastes of that fan base. What there is something wrong with, in my view, is trying to force a kind of parity that is neither ethically required nor likely to succeed, by doing irreparable damage to beloved, timeworn superhero franchises.

      This “women are half the population” argument is spectacularly irrelevant in contexts like these, as it assumes (fallaciously) that men and women are interested in the same things to the same degree. Men are “half the population” too and yet there are all sorts of places in which they are wildly underrepresented with comparison to women. Yet, no one is suggesting radically altering those institutions/venues/forms of life/entertainments, etc., to assure male gender parity. I wonder why that is?

  17. Hi Dan,

    “Part of the reason I have zero faith in the explanation you are suggesting is that Marvel Execs themselves have admitted that the diversity push has hurt their sales.”

    To be fair, they are explanations (multiple factors here), I did not make them, and said up front (as did the people in the videos) that Marvel execs (though I believe that should be singular) were saying diversity was hurting sales.

    By the end of the article you linked to, the author (who does have a dog in this fight) ended up agreeing that the stats did not totally support the Marvel exec’s position… from the article:

    “The best you could possibly say is a number of factors contributed to the drop. But the statistics from the “diversity” field reflect what Gabriel was hearing from retailers. Sure, certain books with the diversity characters have done well. But overall they have performed at a lower level, and at the expense of altering some long-established titles.

    Even if the statistical argument can be made that the identity politics titles did not entirely bring down sales, we should consider the overriding attitude from the comics giant. Force-feeding a social agenda has not broadened Marvel’s fan base. The three-year experiment has instead brought a sharp loss in circulation.”

    So stats suggest a more complicated picture than the simple narratives found in anecdotes of some retailers and the attitude of a few execs. OK. I know where I would put my money.

    If your point was simply that changing existing characters did not *broaden* the base, did not *increase* sales, that it was a failed experiment, I would totally agree. The numbers surely support that conclusion, barring limited titles. But that is not the same thing as showing that such things have themselves been the major cause of problems for Marvel.

    Regardless of whether I like the changes, and that is where we would find a lot of agreement, I have to agree with an argument that runs through evidence on such an empirical question of what is hurting sales. And I think the Comic Girl’s discussion (as one of those people who no longer buy Marvel, *despite* their increased diversity) supports perspectives of those that used stats.

    And here is his end line, to try to deflect stats of one industry with stats in another:

    “One last statistical detail helps reinforce this idea. During this drop in book sales, cinematic showings of the classic versions of the characters have been delivering consistent box office success.”

    Uh-huh. The question of not changing characters is different than having a PC agenda to make changes. For example, they changed Iron Fist in a total anti-PC way, and that show did not do as well as their other Defender shows. On the flipside, making Nick Fury black (obvious PC move) went pretty well at the box office. So perhaps “changing characters” is the risk factor, which had better be made well.

    The Comic Girl discussed the intrinsic problem (for Marvel) of changing characters, regardless of motive, and doubly so if the changes in comics were mismatched to those on screen. This is something not addressed by the author, but seems extremely important.

    About the new Iron Man… look I don’t like that change much either. But the issue of if Iron Man is Tony Stark rather than whoever wears an Iron Man style suit (there are many) is an open question that has been rattling around forever. I liked the conclusion made in the movies (it is Stark) but that is not absolute, and it certainly isn’t conclusive over time. Is a superhero the person in the costume or the persona identified by the costume and anyone worthy of wearing it? Clearly this has been going on long before the PC age, especially in heroes like Batman and Robin (and I would say Iron Man too). I mean the whole point of Batman is that it is an icon and not the man. Eventually, if one accepts the passage of time, there can be protege relationships, where one is granted the mantle. This is supposed to be what has happened in Iron Man. My main problem is that Tony Stark would hand that off to a teenager? Maybe he’s changed in the years since I read IM and Avengers, but that did not seem like the Stark I was familiar with. If they have him take it back, out of pure vanity, that would be funny and an interesting plot line.

  18. Hi Dan,

    “There is an integrity to an artistic creation that I think is violated with “reboots” (incidentally, to show that this isn’t only political for me, I hated the JJ Abrams Star Trek reboot for much the same reason)”

    As I said I sympathize with your complaints. I had four examples I wanted to use in my own essay. Marvel was one. ST was another. Oh do I understand what you are feeling! But then I tried to grapple with the source of my feelings on this, and find out if there was something interesting to say about it… and the question of ontological status of these entities.

    So we’ll see if I can generate something interesting on that.

    I question whether there are solid PC motives in many changes under way (again the Comic Girl got at other reasons) but I agree they are often handled inartistically and ham-handedly. And even if it didn’t feel that way to me, I would never criticize you for feeling that way about the changes. It is fair game to say I don’t like this piece of art, for whatever reason.

  19. Hi mlrowley, I loved the X-men series, one of the reasons being that it was a diverse group from early on. But that made your use of it somewhat interesting as an example.

    While I disagree whether Iron Man is a single person or not, for reasons I describe in a comment to Dan, Xavier *is* a single person. Is being a man central to that character? I guess it depends, but it certainly is what the original character was. How would that not be changing the character in a fundamental way?

    And then, given the pro-diversity message of X-men, why would it be felt necessary to change Xavier, rather than add a new X-man, maybe even a top professor?

  20. ej

    didn’t mention it because it isn’t relevant to my discussion

    Seems important context to me that the idea of a female Doctor was raised by the BBC 37 years ago and that it is not just a recent thought bubble.

    According to Colin Baker it has long been a common topic of discussion among fans and something he is often asked about at conventions.

    The Doctor is an alien being whose body undergoes radical transformations from time to time. Who is to say that it is central to the character that these transformations always have to be to a man? Who owns a fictional character?

    1. Who’s to say? That cuts both ways. I don’t see why your take on it is any more valid than mine. You think it makes perfect sense. I don’t. We will see how the fans react and how it does.

  21. I absolutely don’t think you are obtuse.

    I am interested in responses from any corner for my question about context in the formation of institutions and characters, or an explanation of how we can effectively ignore it.

    Boys and girls should of course be allowed to like different things, and should also be allowed to like the same things. The former hedges close to “separate but equal.”

    Men are of course half the population. Here, I’ll speak about what I know. In music education, there has been a decade-long effort to allow girls to play percussion and boys to play flute, as there was previously a great deal of peer pressure from other students and from teachers to stick to a “correctly gendered” instrument. It’s so nice to talk to young men in college who are grateful that their teachers encouraged them to play their dream instrument, a high woodwind. I’m also a YA-registered yoga teacher- yoga is a weird example because its origins were all-male, but its current incarnation in the US is mostly white, upper-class, and female. There has been a long and concerted effort to bring men into yoga (“broga” and all-men classes, to name a few). I’m curious- what are the fields to which men so badly want entry where they are repeatedly denied?

  22. I haven’t been following these particular autophagic events which seem to me to be like so many others that generalisation may not be misplaced. The failure of the creative imagination which moulds into a narrative unity the objects thrown up by fantasy causes the artist to attempt to use ready to hand material. This may not always be a bad thing if the original archetype is powerful. There are great sagas and cycles and stories within stories. A central feature is the respect shown to the important features of the original framework. To fundamentally alter the pattern of relationships in a saga intrudes on the established cosmos of the reader and they will reject it. No matter how many Homers there were Penelope does not ‘move on’ nor does Odysseus negotiate. A hero without a fatal weakness is not acceptable. Satan will not get help with his demons. Must the Great White Shark live to promote ocean conservancy?

  23. davidlduffy,
    Great females actors have occasionally played Hamlet over the past century – actually over many years more than that, if I remember. However, they’ve never played him as a her, ‘the Princess of Denmark.’ That would so radically alter the dynamics of the relationships in the play, that, to be fair to its historical setting, the action would only get off the ground if this pricess could seduce some courtier into aiding her – and obviously that’s an entirely different play.

    When the nuclear properties of a character are changed in any severe way, this changes the fundamental dynamics of the narrative. What follows may be an interesting story, but it will not be the same story.

    The question of whether some people believed a flesh and blood detective Sherlock Holmes really lived at 221B Baker Street, is amusing, but such a problem was what part of the philosophic discussion on reference to non-existent objects was meant to address.

    mlrowley,
    I think Dan gave a good response. However the key element in my remarks on the Bahrainian Sherlock Holmes is actually that she’s a psychic – lose Holmes’ rational detective work and you’ve the character completely. I pushed the other buttons (Bahrain, Muslim, female) simply in order to press the limits of what changes we’re willing to accept for a fictional character; but it is actually the Bahrain Holmes’ psych abilities that decisively shut down the character as anything like that of Sherlock Holmes.

    As to the question of institutionalization – well let’s consider a fictional who comes very close to that. As I non-theist, I could discuss various divinity-avatars appearing in religious texts (a key figure Kripke works over is Moses who enjoys a double identity as a possible fictional character and as a possible historical figure), but I don’t want to wade into a argument with believers here, because the issue isn’t really about what characters we choose to believe in or accept as fictional, but what our reasons for doing so are. So consider instead Santa Claus. Santa is much closer to being an institution than Doctor Who. At a certain time of year in America, he is virtually omnipresent. He is symbolic, not only of the season, but of ‘the spirit’ of the season, that is, what we expect from ourselves and others during that season – generosity, good will, gift-giving, and a heightened awareness of our children and their wishes.

    But he also has a well-known identifying personality: he is jolly, he laughs out loud a lot (and in a good way, he never laughs derisively), he listens attentively to children and is concerned with their desires and needs. Finally, he comes with accessories: the cut of his clothing has changed subtly over the years, but his taste in fashion always remains the same. He has a sleigh with eight or nine reindeer (depending on the story told) capable of flight, which he needs because he lives at the North Pole. Somehow he is able to visit hundreds of millions of homes in a mere 8 hour night.

    Here’s your problem, I think: As a fictional character approaches institutionalization, the closer to it, the more rigid the identifying traits become. There have been many attempts to subvert Santa Claus over the years, in fiction and film, but we hardly remember these – the Santa that we all share *must* have the identifying traits I have listed to be commonly acceptable in our culture. He can’t fly a jet, he must have the sleigh. He can’t be moody, he must always be jolly. He can’t steal or even borrow, he must always give. The only variable in his character is the uncertainty of his response to children who have been “naughty, not nice,” but even here we know it most likely that he will forgive them – there’s never a lump of coal in the stocking.

    *That’s* your institutionalized character if there ever was one. (And I would argue that Santa is more of a character in an ongoing narrative the culture tells about itself; but this goes father afield than I care to here.) Always exactly the same, doing exactly the same thing at the same time of year. No individual narrative – short story or song or film – can really alter this – as noted, the only addition to his accessories was the introduction of Rudolf the Red-Nose Reindeer, from the Gene Autrey song – but this is recognized as an add on, and not essential.

    A fictional character in a work of art is, and ought to be, open to revision, if the art itself is added to over time, and the character progresses through those additions. So Doyle has Holmes’ change subtly over the years – there’s a point at which he no longer uses cocaine; he learns something in his travels after the Reichenbach Falls, he ages, he even learns to drive an automobile. And of course he’s been revised many times in pastiche films and books. But there is something about him that must remain the same for him to be recognizable as Sherlock Holmes.

    Could Holmes move to Bahrain? He would certainly have to start out from London, but otherwise I don’t see why not. Could he convert to Islam? That’s harder to swallow, given his evident agnosticism, but possibly. Could he have a sex-change operation to explain his becoming a woman? That would likely result in nothing more than parody, intended or not, but one can imagine it. Can he solve his criminal investigations by way of psychic powers? Nope, that’s it – that would not be Sherlock Holmes.

    Most fictional characters can be allowed to grow – in our better works of dramatic fiction, in fact, we call this ‘character development,’ and expect it. But if there are no such limitations to what we can expect to find in a fictional character in a serial narrative, as I’ve discussed, then there is no such fictional character, there’s a mere puppet with a name attached to it.

    dbholmes (any relation to Sherlock?),
    Why *should* we do/not do either of those things?” Cultural criticism always has a normative aspect; part of its function is to raise questions concerning problems engendered by mistakes in judgment. Of course the audience of the cultural event and those producing the event will decide whether they are willing to live with the consequences of their judgments – which is why most people make their choices despite criticism. However, some of the problems a critic notes will come back to haunt those who produce cultural objects. In the context of the article, the remark clearly has to do with whether a fictional character is even sustainable as a viable literary/dramatic invention if changes go too far and the audience gets lost.

    Finally, since fictional characters are a social phenomenon, it follows that respect for the character is also at base (narrowly) a respect for its existing audience and (broadly) respect for the society as a community as a whole. That issue is more complex, however, and would require a different essay to discuss, since it is fraught with potential risks concerning social change across time.

  24. Robin Herbert,
    Whether the issue of Doctor’s Who’s regeneration into a woman had been raised 37 years ago or 37 minutes ago, the issues I discuss in my article would remain the same.

  25. “But now that you’re invoking “separate but equal” in characterizing my arguments and views — which, incidentally, are well supported in personality science and biology– and thus hinting at racism, I am going to bow out.”

    I’m sorry it has to end this way for you. It doesn’t happen often that I encounter on the web a genuine new insight (well, new for me …) but this was one of those occasions. I’ve never asked myself before if a fictional personality was an institution or a character, and what the consequences are.

    EJ, why don’t you publish this somewhere? I mean, like on paper, printed etc. I know Electric Agora is the top of the pyramid, intellectually speaking etc., but why don’t you descend a few steps and make this available for the masses in some journal?

  26. “Somehow he is able to visit hundreds of millions of homes in a mere 8 hour night.”

    Let’s at least get the facts right. Given that the earth is not flat, he has 24 hours. (Makes all the difference.)

    🙂

  27. It’s slightly more complicated than I thought!

    “On Christmas Eve, Santa Claus has 36 hours to deliver his gifts. He starts as the sun goes down on the 24th just west of the International date line and he heads west, going with the night. Twenty-four hours later, the sun is just going down on the 24th east of the date line. But there is another 12 hours before the night is over here, making 36 hours.”

    Regret coming in at all on this. But I suppose it raises tangential issues about the extent to which our fictions relate to the real world, logical consistency and so on.

  28. Mark,
    Well, I was speaking specifically about America, but the point is well taken. And your input is always welcome, even when we disagree.

  29. http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-40899902

    Now, the Berlin city authorities plan to address the issue of gender equality in public toilets, as they seek to redevelop the city’s conveniences.
    All locations that currently have a male-only “pissoir” (public urinal facility) should only exist in combination with unisex toilets, a 99-page city strategy paper called “the toilet concept” concludes.
    “In the future urinals which can be used by all genders should be offered,” the paper says.
    The provision of urinals for women “could be a subject for the continuation of the [toilet] concept and an opportunity for Berlin to show that it is innovative,” it adds.

    I suspect Marvel might also have initiated this brave new venture.

    1. It’s called “fiddling while Rome burns.” But don’t worry. There won’t be any Europe too long from now. They don’t have a sufficient number of children to remain countries, over the long term, let alone solvent ones.

  30. Ej

    Whether the issue of Doctor’s Who’s regeneration into a woman had been raised 37 years ago or 37 minutes ago, the issues I discuss in my article would remain the same.

    You talk of nuclear properties of the character. The rule that all regenerations must be to a male body has not been a nuclear property of the Doctor’s character for most of the time the character has existed.

    Again, who owns a character? Who gets to decide? I am one of the original fans of Doctor Who and I don’t think this alters the nuclear properties of the character. I was hoping for a female Doctor 37 years ago. Instead we got Tristan Farnon.

    I was never happy with that casting, but then I don’t own the character either.

    1. This talk about “ownership” is pretty stupid. EJ, I, and others are explaining why we think this is a bad choice. You have your own reasons for thinking it’s a good one. Ultimately, it will be decided by fans and whether or not they purchase the product. In the case of Marvel, it pretty clearly is cutting in the direction of EJ and me. We will just have to see what happens with Doctor Who. But I don’t see any relevance to your “ownership” points or your “who gets to decide?” questions. What decides is whether the property is commercially viable, which depends upon whether or not people buy the product.

  31. It seems to me that Sherlock Holmes is very robust, and can do a lot of work – The 3% Solution, The Final Solution, The Name of the Rose, The Martian Crown Jewels, not to mention Solar Pons, at least one Dr Who episode etc [in passing, I remember the shock of seeing Tom Baker in Pasolini’s Canterbury Tales]. In the (Canadian) Murdoch Mysteries set in the 1890s, not only Conan Doyle appears, but a psychiatric patient who believes he is SH and goes around solving crimes.

    Mirren plays Prospera – I have not seen that movie, but reviews seem to agree she is the best thing. Greenaway’s movie version is pretty astonishing but seems to offend some viewers – plays can be institutions too. There is a 30 minute documentary explaining all the allusions in one 30 second sequence – shades of Joyce putting in chapter headings.

  32. Hi Labnut and Dan… what’s wrong with creating unisex pissoirs? Right now women are forced to find out of the way places, and usually have to pay, while men get to pee in many different places for free. The irony of course is that men still piss in the open with pissoirs right nearby. All this is doing is giving some equal access/comfort to women.

    Wow, really PC agenda stuff there.

    I would note that other places in the EU already have unisex toilets, or make sure there are women’s facilities next to men’s (equally pay or free).

    And on sufficient children, that depends on the country. There are some reproducing just fine.

    Not sure how any of this ended up in a thread on ontology of fictional characters.

    1. Dwayne wrote:

      And on sufficient children, that depends on the country. There are some reproducing just fine.

      ===

      Afraid not.

      http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/11414064/How-Europe-is-slowly-dying-despite-an-increasing-world-population.html

      https://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/aug/23/baby-crisis-europe-brink-depopulation-disaster

      https://www.irishtimes.com/news/science/why-is-europe-losing-the-will-to-breed-1.2644169

      Europe is the definition of a decadent, dancing-in-the-ruins civilization. An adult playground until it’s all gone.

  33. Hi EJ, that was an excellent response, and gets to some issues that I am particularly concerned with. It can be left for later.

    But now I want to get to what Robin has been discussing, which seems directly related to your topic. I am not a Dr Who fan, and have little knowledge of the franchise. While I agree with the position you have taken on ontology of characters in the essay, as an admitted outsider I am not seeing the problem with a female Dr Who, as compared to other examples given (your Nick Carter, Dan’s Thor) where I clearly understand something integral has been changed.

    One thing I got from the few episodes I watched here and there (mostly Baker), and friends that discussed it, is that Dr Who is a long-lived alien that can regenerate. And during regeneration has had dramatic changes in form and personality.

    Other than the alien’s form being outwardly male *up until now*, is there anything else within the canon of the series to suggest it is a male? That is that it always has been, and is set so it always would be?

    What Robin said, makes it sound like there was never that sort of claim, and in fact it has been open for a long time that gender changes can happen. If so, then I don’t understand the concern, other than Dan’s not being happy it is happening now for overt political reasons.

    Beyond Dr Who always being a white swan up until now, is there a larger narrative-based reason to believe Dr Who could not be a black swan tomorrow?

    1. Well, if Doctor Who was designed as a grandfatherly/fatherly figure in the mold of the Victorian Scientist-Hero, then he isn’t going to be an attractive, young woman, full of sex appeal.

      I find it bizarre that this even has to be explained.

  34. DB,
    what’s wrong with creating unisex pissoirs?

    You should ask the people concerned. My straw poll suggests the majority of women are mortified. Do you think we should respect their sensibilities?

    Right now women are forced to find out of the way places

    Then we should build more facilities for women. I think it is scandalous how we have under provided for women. Perhaps that is because most architects are men?

    I would note that other places in the EU already have unisex toilets,

    Once again, why do they have to be unisex? Should we not respect the sensibilities of the people concerned? Has anyone tried to discover their sensibilities?

    And on sufficient children, that depends on the country.

    Declining birth rate is a widespread and well documented problem that will have large consequences.

    Not sure how any of this ended up in a thread on ontology of fictional characters.

    A dear friend was fond of remarking it is obvious the obvious is not so obvious.

  35. Europe is the definition of a decadent, dancing-in-the-ruins civilization. An adult playground until it’s all gone.

    Oh my gosh, you have really outdone yourself with a pithy, punchy one liner that says it all.

  36. Robin Herbert,
    The point of ownership was remarked towards the end of the article. It’s not the question being raised by the article. Rather, it’s a question of judgment, as Dan pointed out. Fictional characters are social entities, and as such their continued existence depends on social judgments of the audience as much as the inventors or owners. That was the point of the Nick Carter discussion. Street and Smith’s own the rights to license the character and his name. But the 1960s reboot only revealed that the original dime/pulp novel character had ceased to exist except in surviving copies of the dime novels and pulp magazines, of interest only to nostalgia cultists and academic historians. (I should note that he did make one last public appearance in a 1970 television film. The failure of this film to attract a wide audience or any real discussion only revealed that he was no longer a viable fictional character.)

    A central implication of my article, which I thought obvious and made clear in the final paragraph, is that there simply does come a time to say good bye to a fictional character, to recognize that he or she can no longer sustain the social interest that granted him or her existence in the first place. The Nick Carter I admired was dead by 1960, and audiences afterward generally agreed to that. The Doctor I admired, the Victorian scientist adventurer at heart, is now also a thing of the past, and actually this happened when Steven Moffat chose not to use the regeneration into Capaldi as a moment to rethink the character and salvage what was left of that original characterization. (Capaldi just proved a middle-aged Matt Smith.) The other Nick Carter (Killmaster) found his audience for a time; I was not in that audience, and now there is no audience for him, he too has faded into the past. The new Doctor may find her audience; I will not be in that audience, for the character, male or female, has now little to do with the originating invention, except a Tardis. And is that enough? If the Bahrainian psychic Sherlock smokes a pipe, is this enough to identify her as still somehow a permutation of Sherlock Holmes? I would argue not. And if she were successfully sold to an audience in a series of fictions, that would not change anything. It would just mean that Doyle’s Sherlock had himself faded into history.

    This leads to an interesting notice going back to the philosophic consideration of how we refer to fictional entities by way of a shared pretense of their existence within a fiction, thus granting them a social existence as fictional characters. Given that characters undergo revision; given that the same name can be attached to different characters at different points in history; it seems wise always to specify which of the characters we wish to refer to in discussion, their origin, their history, and the nuclear properties we recognize as identifying them. Perhaps the real problem with the reference of names of fictional characters is that they do not simply refer to the singular entity, but to the whole gestalt that grants the entity a social existence.

  37. Dwayne,
    I hope some of my recent response to Robin will help clarify my views.

    The nuclear property of the Doctor, that has been undercut and now lost in the new series, is his literary genealogy as inheritor of the characteristics of a scientist adventure as appeared in Victorian fiction, and resurrected in successful films based on that literature that appeared in the 1950s.

    When Russell T. Davies (who had been involved with the Virgin New Adventures which first began to deconstruct this character) rebooted the series, he well understood this aspect of the character. However he made it quite clear that he did not like the Victorian era, one bit, and so worked against it, culminating in the unsettling Tooth and Claw story – a decent story utterly ruined when the Doctor and Rose, for no apparent reason whatsoever, mock Queen Victoria to her face.

    Moffat (whose background was situation comedies) had some sense of this aspect of the character (and actually brought a decent story out of it, the Christmas Carol story with the shark), but he knew he was writing in the era of Harry Potter, and pushed the character so far into Potter territory, that it was no longer very interesting that the Doctor had been a kind of Victorian scientist, because he was no longer a scientist at all, just a kind of super magician with a sonic/magic wand.

    So now the Doctor is to be a woman. Could one conceive of a female Victorian scientist adventurer? It would be interesting to try *; but new show-runner Chris Chibnall (previously a director of dark mysteries) has a problem – the character he’s inherited is not a Victorian scientist but a powerful magician. Thus the appearance of a female Doctor really reveals that there is nothing left of the original Doctor, but that Tardis. And no amount of regeneration is going to explain that or justify it.

    We now have two Doctors; the one envisioned by Sydney Newman is now historical artifact, kept alive, just barely, by fans of the original show with access to recordings of it, and in some audio dramas produced by Big Finish. This new Doctor, of the reboot, has developed away from science fiction and into the realm of magic and fantasy, and is simply no longer recognizable as the same character that Newman envisioned. I no longer have interest in it. But I do think it is enough of a social phenomenon to raise the more general, difficult question concerning what we mean when we talk about our fictional characters. And that was all my essay was really intended to do.

    * (But why not write such a character only with a different name and background? Why the insistence that an existent character be put to use in such fashion? That question has not been properly answered by its advocates.)

    1. The answer to your last question lies in the Marvel situation. You see, the SJW’s know very well that their own ideas are shit and have little market appeal. So, they want to piggyback on successful ideas that have huge market appeal and then twist them. It’s folly of course, as the backlash shows. But I think it’s almost involuntary; that they themselves know, somewhere deep down, that the classic stuff is far better than the new crap being churned out. So they try to cling to it; to pull some of that credibility and prestige onto themselves.

      It’s sad stuff. If one really was confident in the strength and marketability of one’s vision, one would boldly step out and create new franchises. If people really thought it was important to have statistical representation of every racial, ethnic, gender, sex group under the sun, then there would be a flood of successful, brand-new one-legged, black, trans, feminist superheroes burning up the charts. But there aren’t . And when they try to reboot the old classics in this framework, it fails. As I said before, at the end of the day, the market will decide. Anyone want to bet me on how that will go?

  38. Business is, for the most part, risk averse. And so, it sees the rejuvenation of a successful, but dated series, as a better proposition than betting the farm on innovative, but untested new ideas. This is the path to slow decline and mediocrity. The alternative can be catastrophic failure, or perhaps, just perhaps, a new Harry Potter. Most business choose to struggle against slow decline rather than risk catastrophic failure. Brilliant innovation starts from nothing because there is nothing to lose. The slow death of yesterday’s success is a good thing because it creates space for new creation.

    1. I would have agreed with you up until now. But Marvel has explicitly told its fans to fuck off and not buy Marvel comics, if they are not hip with the new material. Google just invited upon itself the mother of all backlashes by firing one of it employees for circulating an internal memo, in which he expressed perfectly reasonable views about sex and gender and work interests. I wrote earlier about Hilton’s reserving all of its best parking spaces for drivers of hybrids, which resulted in my elderly parents having to walk halfway across the parking lot to get to the front door. We are now getting to the point where companies are so political, they actually will deliberately lose money or do things that will cause them to lose money just so as to sustain their virtue-cred with the like-minded.

  39. …just so as to sustain their virtue-cred with the like-minded.

    I agree with all you say. But..

    I was chatting to a new young staff member about his problems getting a bank loan. I commiserated, saying the bank was wrong.To illustrate my point I asked, who is more important to the bank, you or I? You, obviously he replied, since you earn so much more than I do. Yes, I said, but in reality you are(or should be) far more important to the bank than I am. How can that be, he asked.

    I explained to him the concept of future revenue stream. He would earn money for the next forty to fifty years while I would earn only for the next five to fifteen years. Therefore the bank’s future revenue earnings from him would be far greater than the future revenue earnings from myself Therefore this young staff member was more important to the bank than I was(even if the bank did not see this simple fact). He rather liked that thought.

    And so every company must attend to its future revenue stream, marketing itself to these young and upcoming people. But this requires a judgement call. Who are they? What do they want? What do they value? How much dare I risk my present revenue stream to secure my future revenue stream?

    I suspect these considerations underlie the judgement calls of companies like Marvel. Are they making the right judgement call? Probably not, because companies erect walls around themselves that tend to make them impervious to the needs and values of their customers. The voices that do penetrate these corporate walls are the loud and insistent, but these are generally not representative.

  40. Hi Labnut and Dan,

    1) Pissoirs/toilets: I am personally uncomfortable with unisex toilets. However the people living in the places that already have them, guess what, don’t care. But this is all besides the point.

    An article about Berlin trying to increase access for women at pissoirs was portrayed as something similar to Marvel advancing some diversity agenda. It’s clearly not, and was laughable. More laughable it is now spun as not caring about women? The pissoirs would be for women that would be interested in using pissoirs, not those that wouldn’t. It is not some insult or affront to women to offer added opportunity. Hell, there are guys who would not use pissoirs, and guess what? They are free not to use them. It was not an insult to men to build them. Though I suppose it is somewhat embarassing to have to piss in front of a whole crowd, which is how they are constructed for men. As for why there are not more facilities for women all over the place, it is unlikely to do with architects, but rather money. It is cheaper (and takes up less room) to install a standing urinal to piss in. So you can service more guys than women for the same space and cost. It really takes a lot to turn this into a pro-PC, anti-woman conspiracy theory.

    2) Declining birth rates across EU: I stand corrected. I had some bad info. I mean they do vary, but I didn’t realize that they were almost entirely below replacement level. I agree that trying to fix this largely through immigration is problematic.

    That said, I have no idea what is meant by “decadent” and “adult playground”. If the idea is Europe is falling due to some debauched hedonism, that is simply not the case and ignores political trends. Even the articles present more substantive explanations, though I’d say they also fall short and misdirect to some degree.

    Or let me put it another way… I hope you can prove me wrong on this too. Please let me know where all this debauched hedonism is going on, so I can start packing my bags to go there. It sure ain’t Amsterdam.

    You know who else died out due to lack of replacement birth rates? The Shakers. You can be stiff, frugal, prudes and still not have babies.

    1. I didn’t say “debauched hedonism.” I said ‘decadence’. They are not the same. And the Shakers, a tiny, wildly radical, wacko sect of Christianity, are an irrelevant red-herring.

      To have to beg human beings to have children — as Denmark and Japan and other countries are finding themselves having to do — is pathetic and indicative of a deep rot in civilization, not to mention a deep confusion about human life, at the individual level. That you don’t see this is lamentable, but there isn’t much I can do about it. Extinction of the culture will be the inevitable result.

      Sometimes people simply have such incommensurable base values that it really isn’t possible to explain oneself across the divide. In my value system, the having of children is a fundamental element of a normal human life arc. In yours it clearly is not. Beyond the civilizational point that I have already made, I don’t see what else I could say to persuade you.

    2. ‘Decadence’ Merriam Webster:

      “decadence presupposes a reaching and passing the peak of development and implies a turn downward with a consequent loss in vitality or energy.”

      Europe to a “T”.

  41. Hi EJ, that was a great explanation. Though it seems to raise a question if people who have followed it from early on, like Robin, see the continuity despite all the changes, doesn’t it mean it could still be the same character (under perhaps a different set of core attributes)? How do you explain those that can see the continuity, even if they agree changes have been made?

    ……………………………..

    Hi Dan,

    “Well, if Doctor Who was designed as a grandfatherly/fatherly figure in the mold of the Victorian Scientist-Hero, then he isn’t going to be an attractive, young woman, full of sex appeal. I find it bizarre that this even has to be explained.”

    I find it bizarre to have to explain that a person who is not a fan of the show, and only understands Dr Who as I described, would not require further explanation on how Dr Who was intentionally designed.

    I mean that was the point of my question. While I got EJ saying how the original character was modelled, I did not understand how explicit and solid this form was supposed to be. From an outsider’s perspective it is an alien that changes form and personality. Grandfatherly Victorian scientist-hero is mostly a form and personality. EJ explaining how important the switch to magician was, made some sense to me. SF and fantasy are two different genres. Ok, so it was already sufficiently over at that point… for him.

    But then again, you and he seem to be arguing over whether that is enough.

    And then Robin (while mentioning others from the show on his side) dismisses concerns that gender is too much of a change.

    It may seem way more obvious to any of you guys, than it does to someone on the outside. So I was asking what was the intention of its creator, and canon developed thus far in the series. I think that is a very obvious and reasonable question given the fight going on.

    Changing genres makes sense to me, along the lines of EJ’s thesis. But I will be interested in Robin’s response. As well as any you might make to EJ.

  42. Dwayne,
    ” How do you explain those that can see the continuity, even if they agree changes have been made?”
    An interesting question, but perhaps too far into the domain of social psychology to address completely here. But we can say that it is understandable that when we grow attached to a fictional character, we will naturally be looking for continuities with any re-appearance of the character, either in new episodes of a serial narrative, or in performances of the text in different media. This would certainly help to re-adjust audience expectations to revisions, such as the the recent re-invention of Shakespearean plays in costuming and settings in the 19th and 20th centuries. As long as enough of the nuclear properties of the characters remain, we are willing to forgive a great deal of transgression, in order to participate in the characters’ existence. However, just as naturally, we can expect different people to have different thresholds as to what transgressions they’re willing to accept. I have a friend who won’t tolerate the ‘modern setting’ Shakespearean performances, although I think some of them quite good, as long as the words and the characters’ personalities are respected.

    However, my essay really does concern the ontological question, not of how much we’re willing to accept, but how much is reasonable to expect in separate encounters with the same characters. Ultimately I think these two questions do converge, in the passing of fictional characters into history (who are no longer what is expected, to the point of being no longer acceptable); but the question of acceptance is not itself ontological, and the question of what is reasonable to expect is not itself a social-psychological question.

  43. ” how much is reasonable to expect in separate encounters with the same characters.” I think some would argue this is really an epistemological question rather than ontological, and that’s a reasonable position to take. However, ultimately how we know fictional characters is much the same as how we know any social phenomenon, so I consider this a question of what there is about the phenomenon that makes it recognizable as itself.

  44. Hi EJ, another excellent reply, but I think it becomes muddied (in finding a solution) at the personal psycho- vs social level, which is what I wanted to get at in my piece (which challenged my view vis a vis popular acceptance of changes).

    I intend to write something on this within the coming week.

  45. Hi ejwinner:

    Thanks for sparking this discussion. I have a question.

    In the first part of your essay you raised the problem of literature and ontology. This led into the issue of the malleability of classical fictional characters. But do you think you have answered the original problem? The problem, as I would put it, is: how can literature be valuable (as we agree it is) if, because it is fiction, it lacks truth-value? What sort of value does it have?

    The topic is the subject of Bernard Harrison’s excellent book, “What is Fiction For?” Part of a review is here:

    https://muse.jhu.edu/article/641791/pdf

    The book’s contents page is here: https://muse.jhu.edu/book/38198

    Alan

  46. alandtapper1950.,
    – so, as a second response: literature has value to us, and any philosophy denying this is fundamentally impoverished, We don;t simply want to know ‘the world,’ or ‘the universe,’ or ‘how things work’ or the mechanisms that bring us into being. We want to know about our selves. Science can’t give us this – only we, through our arts, our philosophies, even our religions, can speak to this. Thar is a hard thing for some rationalists and scientists to admit; but not only is it true, it is obviously true, it is inescapable.

    It doesn’t matter whether we are, in some obscure metaphysical sense, ‘meat puppets’ – we are the meat puppets who sing, who love, who wonder why we’re here. No other animal does this; and denying the importance of this denies our peculiarity as the animal that does this – as much as to deny that wolves howl or that birds chirp. We are the animal that wonders why we’re here. There is nothing to be ashamed about that, and no reduction will wipe it away.

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