Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Identity

At the time of this writing, it is Sunday evening. I am still excited over the announcement of Peter Capaldi being cast as the twelfth actor to play the lead role in Doctor Who. The night air is flush with possibility.

Peter Capaldi on Doctor Who Live. Copyright © 2013 by BBC.

As I think back about Doctor Who, I start to wonder (as I’m wont to do when I have too much free time) about the whole genre of Science Fiction and Fantasy. It’s easy to get caught up in the common sights of lasers and starships, or enchanted swords and dragons. And as many stories have proven, that’s what bad SF&F can be: a recyclable plot to showcase special effects.

But the best stuff isn’t about how its concept of time travel is different from all the rest, or how their vampires and elves are a deconstruction of previous models. The best that SF&F has to offer is this:

A new idea about the human race and the world we presently live in.

When H.G. Wells wrote about a machine that could travel through time, he put his socialism front and center with a future Earth inhabited by child-like elites and savage workers. When J.R.R. Tolkien wrote about hobbits going on a grand adventure with wizards and Dark Lords, he was still reeling from two World Wars and the new face of British society. And when the showrunners for Star Trek and Doctor Who set forth their new stories, they were less concerned with traveling through space-time and more focused on telling stories about oppression, racism, and the Cold War. In each case, we can see that the best SF&F material isn’t about the details on future technology or the nuances of a fictional race.

It’s always been about us. About the creators and their audience.

I suppose the reason I’m thinking about this has something to do with today’s news about Peter Capaldi. I hope he’ll do well in the part and wish him the best, but the attention that my fellow fans and I are putting on him says something about the Doctor. He’s just alien enough to seem bizarre, but there is something fundamentally human about him that demands respect and friendship, both in the show and in the real world.

French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan once proposed that every human being undergoes a “mirror stage” in childhood–the point at which we first see a reflection of ourselves and begin to think of ourselves as an object. From here, we enter the world of the Symbolic and the Other, where we perceive and judge things in relation to our Self. I bring this up because the Doctor–like so many other fictional heroes–is a mirror for the human race. Like Luke Skywalker or Harry Potter, the Doctor and his Companions are the sort of people we want to be and occasionally are. We use these characters and their constructed worlds not only to entertain ourselves, but as a lens for looking at our own world in our own time.

I can speak to this from personal experience. When I started my teen years, I had a turn toward the philosophical. I used the mysticism of the Jedi Knights from Star Wars as a foundation for my studies of real-world philosophies: Taoism, Buddhism, Judaism, and my native Catholicism. If I didn’t have concepts like the Force and the Jedi Code as a mirror, I would never have learned the right questions to ask about faith and human nature. And I would never have taken the path to being a more critical thinker as I am today.

Life imitates art, and vice versa.

So I say “Congratulations” to Peter Capaldi. It’s an honor and a privilege to be chosen to play the Doctor, but he’s going to have to be more than a beloved TV character. He’ll have to shoulder the equally hard task of being our mirror for life in the 2010s and beyond…

…And even though it’s years away, I’m still hoping for Emma Thompson as the first female Doctor, because that’s a type of Mirror we need to see more.


3 thoughts on “Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Identity

  1. Thanks for an excellent article. I found your comment about using Jedi Knight mysticism as a foundation for the study of world religions fascinating.

    I’m currently undertaking my first marathon in which I watch every episode broadcast, in chronological order, and then blog about it – 50 Years in 50 Weeks. You can check out my blog at


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