Every other Tuesday in Storied, K. B. Hoyle explores the ways our cultural narratives act on us individually and in society as a whole.
The BBC’s Doctor Who is a strange fandom to be a part of. We call ourselves “Whovians” and geek out over strange things like sonic screwdrivers, weeping angels, and daleks. Low budget, anything-goes, often cheesy, and self-indulgent, Doctor Who is a bizarre mishmash of science fiction, time travel, fantasy, adventure saga, and more. In short, it is a show that shouldn’t work—and yet it does, time and again. First airing in 1963, it is one of the longest running television shows in the history of the medium, crossing generations of shifting cultural norms and even reviving, successfully, from a sixteen-year break in programming. I’ve long been fascinated by the Doctor Who fandom—both as an observer and as a member. And as a member of the fandom, I see the spiritual undertones of the show that propel it beyond its campy veneer even as I wonder at its appeal. There is something transcendent about the bones of the story, about the very premise of Doctor Who, that continues to draw people back to it year after year.
The success of Doctor Who hinges on several things, and I think it would be wrong (as it usually is, in such cases) to reduce that success to just one factor. Much has been made over the years about the Doctor being a sort of Christ-figure and savior of the world. There is no doubt that Doctor Who is, as C. S. Lewis might call it, a “dying god myth.” For any unfamiliar with the story, the Doctor is an alien from a race with regenerative powers—meaning, he can’t die, but only be reborn. But the Doctor is also a sort of protector of the earth. He’s taken it upon himself to specially protect humanity from the many dark (usually alien) forces seeking to destroy us. So not only is the Doctor wholly good, but the Doctor’s purpose leads inevitably to his (or, now, her) death and resurrection multiple times throughout the course of the show’s run—hence why fans refer to various Doctors by their numbers: the Eighth Doctor, the Eleventh Doctor, and so on.No one who journeys through a magic portal or gateway or liminal space in such a story believes the world or worlds on the other side will be smaller.
The importance of the “dying god” Doctor—who also is a savior who protects the earth from evil—cannot be overlooked when analyzing the appeal of the show, but I think there is more in the story that accounts for its wide success. I re-read C. S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia this summer, and when I came to The Last Battle and reached “Farewell to Shadowlands”—where all the Narnians have passed through the stable into the New Narnia—I noted how Lucy Pevensie looks around the garden in New Narnia and remarks that it’s “bigger on the inside.” It struck me that there was a connection between Lewis’s stories and Doctor Who, and in that connection resides another reason for the appeal of Doctor Who, and all such stories that utilize a portal to transport their characters, and thus the audience, to bigger and better worlds.
Liminal, or Gateway, Fantasy is a subgenre of speculative fiction where humans (usually) are invited through a magic portal of some sort into another world. In some such stories, the portal acts as a liminal space—itself a miniature realm of suspended reality—but the real adventure is entered into upon stepping out into the world or worlds beyond, whatever they may be. The most true liminal space in all of Lewis’s work is probably the Wood Between the Worlds from The Magician’s Nephew, where Lewis takes it upon himself to define the phenomenon for his young readers through the voice of the character Digory:
“I don’t believe this wood is a world at all. I think it’s just a sort of in-between place,” said Digory…. A place that isn’t in any of the worlds, but once you’ve found that place you can get into them all.… Nothing goes on in the in-between places.… I think we can get out of this place into Jolly Well Anywhere!”
The most thrilling thing about Liminal Fantasy is the promise of endless possibilities. In the Wood Between the Worlds, for example, there are countless pools to jump into, each leading to a new world. No one who journeys through a magic portal or gateway or liminal space in such a story believes the world or worlds on the other side will be smaller.
In Narnia, there are many such portals, as in each book the journey to Narnia begins differently, but in Doctor Who, there is just one: the TARDIS. The TARDIS is the iconic blue police call box that the Doctor journeys around in, and its name is actually an acronym standing for: Time and Relative Dimension in Space. Most notable about the TARDIS, however, is that the first thing any human companion of the Doctor says upon entering it is some version of, “It’s bigger on the inside.” The TARDIS may be a small, early twentieth century British police call box on the outside, but inside it is a spaceship time machine containing multiple rooms. And a journey in the TARDIS bears the Doctor and his (or her) companions anywhere in space or time they desire to go. Every invitation into the TARDIS is, therefore, an invitation by an immortal being into worlds of infinite possibilities—not unlike the Wood Between the Worlds. It’s not just that the TARDIS itself is “bigger on the inside, ”it’s that where the TARDIS leads is always bigger than where the companions began their journey. The TARDIS acts as a liminal space—an expansion into literal space and time that transforms the human companions from those who once could only see “through a glass darkly” into those who see the real and full richness of the universe and are forever changed by it.
Although none of the Pevensie children speak the words “it’s bigger on the inside” during their first stumbling journey to Narnia, when they push their way through the wardrobe in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe expecting to find the back and instead finding fir trees and snow and a world beyond their imagination, they too find a “bigger on the inside” world within a small wooden box—just like the TARDIS. They, too, are invited by a divine being through a portal that only opens at his bidding. No one ever gets through a portal to Narnia on their own volition—it is always by the will and bidding of Aslan, but from the very first, every journey to Narnia is one that is inward and upward.
The Wood Between the Worlds, the stable in The Last Battle, the wardrobe, the TARDIS—all act as liminal portals to places in which ordinary people are invited “further up and further in,” and all are filled with divine purpose. Stories that give us liminal spaces through which we pass into something bigger strike at a fundamental spiritual longing for the “more real” and the bigger world that waits for us. Liminal spaces are intended to be portals, however. In none of these stories do the journeyers simply dwell in the in-between. To pass through—to go “further up and further in,” to be transported to other places and times—is crucial to how these stories resonate with our longings for eternity. When we see characters who become stuck in liminal spaces in stories, we long for them to break free.
That is the purpose of a story like the ’90s movie The Truman Show, which presents a man (Jim Carrey) caught in a world that is not real. As such, the film acts as a sort of reverse echo of a Liminal Fantasy as it sits on Truman’s utter captivity to a world of artificiality. The audience never gets to see Truman’s exploits in the bigger world, only his efforts and longing to get there. Instead of being bigger on the inside, Truman’s world is smaller on the inside—a pale echo of reality. In the film, Truman was taken as a baby from reality into a sort of anti-reality to be the star of a reality show. But he always senses that his world is too small, and this is what drives him to find the exit to break free to a bigger, more real world. Truman feels the inadequacy of the smallness of his reality, as well as the frustration and soul-crushing knowledge that he is stuck. In some ways, he’s existing inside a liminal space—a space between. He cannot be free until he acknowledges he is stuck, but the story also shows that he—that no person who truly longs to be free—can be satisfied with only a pale echo, stuck in the in-between.
Liminal spaces are meant to transport. In The Magician’s Nephew, Digory and Polly nearly fall asleep in the Wood Between the Worlds, forgetting each other and their world. But that would have been the end of the story. The TARDIS has plenty of rooms and entertainments, but the Doctor doesn’t want someone to live with him in it, he wants a companion for his adventures through it. The call in The Last Battle is to go “further up and further in!” Only then will it be revealed that everything gets bigger. In Liminal Fantasy, portals to adventure become also portals to ongoing and deep explorations of truth. If our storytellers can imagine infinite worlds of possibilities and populate them with dying and resurrecting gods, how much more must it be true that the genesis of those longings—as all stories come from longings—comes from a place of truth outside ourselves? That is why a wardrobe, and a stable, and a TARDIS become vehicles for stories that will always endlessly fascinate. Perhaps the long-reaching appeal of Doctor Who resides not only on the nature of the “dying god” Doctor, but on the nature of the TARDIS through which he invites ordinary people, like you and me, into infinite worlds that beckon us to that ongoing and deep exploration of truth.