Is Doctor Who a Jew?

Doctor Who, at 50 the longest-running science fiction television show in the world, has some distinctly Jewish traits.

Nathan Abrams
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Nathan Abrams

Half a century ago this week, the BBC broadcast the first installment of its epic, cliff-hanging science fiction television series Doctor Who. Hundreds of millions of fans across six continents sat down on Saturday to simultaneously watch the jubilee episode, "The Day of the Doctor," starring the enigmatic Time Lord's 12th incarnation.

But did you know he can be considered Jewish? Probably not. That’s because Jews have long been considered to be out of place in outer space.

The idea of the adventurous Jewish space cowboy traversing the heavens either simply didn’t enter anyone’s minds or was felt to be such an odd fit that it could only be laughed at. This is strange, given the stereotype of the wandering Jew − for where better to wander than to what Buzz Lightyear in Toy Story called "Infinity and beyond"?

Yet Jews in outer space were right in front of our noses on television, but we didn’t notice them. Most attention has been focused on the original Star Trek series which began in 1966, and shows that was rife with submerged Jewishness.

But maybe Doctor Who, which preceded Star Trek by three years, provided the template. Doctor Who was the brainchild of Sydney Newman, who was born in Toronto to Russian Jewish immigrants. (Incidentally, he also created The Avengers in 1961.) Likewise, the series’ first producer, Verity Lambert, was Jewish. Carol Ann Ford who played Susan Foreman, the companion of the first Doctor (William Hartnell), was also Jewish.

The roots of these key creative personnel surely influenced the conception of The Doctor. As an anonymous time-travelling planet hopper he fits the stereotype of the eternal wandering Jew, doomed never to return to his homeland, from which he has been exiled.

For 50 years he has been known simply as “The Doctor.” This is not his real name, which we have so far not learned, echoing those Jewish immigrants who changed their names in order to blend in better to their adopted homes. He’s also a doctor no less and “Who” does rhyme with “Jew.”

The Doctor’s spaceship, the TARDIS (standing for Time And Relative Dimension In Space) resembles Noah’s Ark as well as the Ark of the Covenant. It enables the Doctor to travel but it also has special powers such as its “chameleon circuit.” This, theoretically, enables it to shift shape, allowing it to blend into any background. It adopted its iconic blue police box exterior because these were commonplace in 1960s Britain. However, this mechanism has long been broken, meaning the TARDIS has stayed the same ever since. Nonetheless, the very idea of shape-shifting is an erstwhile anti-Semitic canard that has attached it itself to Jews. Likewise, the notion that the Jew seeks to pass in any environment by mimicking its surroundings is that which Woody Allen caricatured in his Zelig (1983).

As a Time Lord, the Doctor engages in the traditional Jewish concept of “tikkun olam” − fixing or healing the world. He helps civilizations to survive, fights off their enemies, guards against evil and protects ordinary individuals.

The Doctor’s sworn enemies are the Daleks: a race of genetically engineered super-beings in metallic shells, whose goal is to “exterminate” humanity. Conceived by Terry Nation, the Daleks were deliberately intended to be a loosely-veiled analogy of the Nazis, allowing the British to relive the glory days of World War II every time the Doctor defeated them.

Like a time-travelling rabbi or wise man, the Doctor is a living Talmud, a storehouse of the universe’s wisdom, accrued over millennia.

The cult science fiction show, Doctor Who.

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