Who is the Other?

By Christopher Ketcham

What makes a Time Lord tick? It’s the early nineteen sixties. World War II, Lend Lease, and The Bretton Woods Accords had sapped Britain’s treasury to the point where she could no longer afford her colonial territories. In the late nineteen forties Gandhi took India to democracy, and Britain ended its Palestine mandate. By nineteen sixty three the world of Britain had shrunk and there was significant question about her future. Dwindling time and shrinking space intertwined: enter the last Time Lord. And it’s important that he’s the last because if as Emmanuel Levinas (1906—1995) suggested that time is created by being with the other and others, the recent memory of the Holocaust and millions of war dead had shrunk time to where only one Time Lord could be a possibility. And this Time Lord is the embodiment of the Levinasian other, infinitely alterior or different. One never knows which Doctor Who one will be with in the next moment for he regenerates quite often. And even when one is with Doctor Who for a period of time there is no knowing the ‘totality’ of Doctor Who for he always retains a bit of mystery: he never lets on fully what he knows or who he is. But the good Doctor is pure responsibility, responsibility for the other, even responsible for the other’s responsibility whether human or alien. As such he risks his own existence to repair rents in the universe that jeopardize the security and well-being of all. He’s the ultimate Levinasian ethical agent. Coincident with Doctor Who’s arrival in nineteen sixty three is the British invasion of the Beatles, Dave Clark Five and others.

In the episode, The Three Doctors (aired December 1972—20 January 20, 1973) Jo Grant (played by Katy Manning) sings a line from the Beatles song I Am The Walrus, from a 1967 single and their Magical Mystery Tour album. Nah, Doctor Who couldn’t have done that, that’s not his style. But what is his style?

A Bit of Doctor Whoness

It depends. Do you prefer bowties, outrageously long scarves, a preppy or a black leather jacket look? Oh, not his fashion, but who is Doctor Who? Is Doctor Who a Brit? He must be with the accent, the TARDIS, and all, but what if that is simply one of his talents, to fit in to the environment?

The third Doctor (Jon Pertwee) pointed out, “Obviously the Time Lords have programmed the TARDIS always to return to Earth. It seems that I am some kind of a galactic yo-yo! (The Claws of Axos, aired March 13—April 3, 1971)” You see, he’s the last servant of the universe—he serves time and unlike us he has all the time that remains.

As the second Doctor (Patrick Troughton) said, “The Time Lords are an immensely civilized race. We can control our own environment—we can live forever, barring accidents and we have the secret of space/time travel. (War Games, aired April 19—June 21, 1969)” So he’s learned, or it appears that he is, and it also appears that he must fit-in to societies as he travels in time and space. Yet, he’s beyond being. But how could that be if he is as Martin Heidegger (1889—1976) said about us that we are the beings for whom being is an issue (Heidegger, 1962, pp. 32, H 12). Is Doctor Who not also a being for whom being is also an issue…all of being, the being of the universe? Of course. So what is at issue is not the ontological being of Doctor Who, which is settled—he is a being—but the otherwise than being of Doctor Who.

Phenomenally Speaking

We cannot get towards otherwise than being without first going back to phenomenology. Edmund Husserl (1859—1938) started the phenomenology movement. First, we exist and go about our business in what Husserl called ‘the natural attitude.’

The ninth Doctor (Christopher Eccleston) explained, “Ricky (played by Jahvel Hall), let me tell you something about the human race. You put a mysterious blue box slap-bang in the middle of town, what do they do? Walk past it. Now stop your nagging. Let’s go and explore. (Boom Town, aired, June 4, 2005)” So in our natural attitude we just go about our business in the world. Not very observant now are we. If we had just opened the TARDIS door we would have seen that it’s bigger on the inside. Enter Doctor Who, the phenomenologist:

Ian (played by William Russell): Doctor, why do you always show the greatest interest in the least important things?

The Doctor: The least important things, sometimes, my dear boy, lead to the greatest discoveries. (The first Doctor, played by William Hartnell, The Space Museum, Aired April 24—May 15, 1965

Said the philosopher, Simon Critchley (1960—), “A phenomenologist seeks to pick out and analyse the common, shared features that underlie our everyday experience, to make explicit what is implicit in our ordinary social know-how. (Critchley & Bernasconi, 2002, pp. 7, Introduction)” Doctor Who has had to become adept at analyzing the shared features of different species and how they relate to other species in order to navigate the intricacies of the paradox called universe. His tool? Language:

The Doctor: Any being that can exist, let alone thrive, inside a nuclear pile is hardly likely to be deterred by a few primitive missiles.

Professor Watson (played by Glyn Houston): But they’re the most powerful missiles we have!

The Doctor: On your standards, perhaps. I think we should try much older weapons.

Sarah (Played by Elisabeth Sladen): Like?

The Doctor: Speech? Diplomacy? (The fourth Doctor, played by Tom Baker, The Hand of Fear, October 2—October 23, 1976)

Even when faced with imminent destruction as in the endless parade of Daleks bent on exterminating the good Doctor and just about everyone else, Doctor Who tries to talk them out of their obsession even if such talk is ultimately futile:

The Doctor: Failed? No, not really. You see, I know that although the Daleks will create havoc and destruction for millions of years, I know also that out of their evil must come something good. (The fourth Doctor, played by Tom Baker, Genesis of the Daleks, aired, March 8—April 12, 1975)

Is that it—‘talk’—is that all it takes to become a Levinasian ethicist and is this otherwise than being? No, phenomenology is only the beginning. Because, you see, the other is not a phenomenon, the other who is before me—and any other is an enigma…

The Psychism

The Time Lord and his earthly companions come across all manners of exotic others, from devilish androids to serpentine monsters and all the other nasties and joyous beings in between. And at seven hundred years old (give or take a century or two) Doctor Who has become quite familiar with the different beings that ply their brand of sociability throughout the universe. But how does Doctor Who do this if he’s constantly regenerating? He must have a common thread, something that remains even after the body changes. Every new Doctor has a different personality from the one before which means something else must be at work here. There is; it’s the mysterious psychism. No, don’t burrow through your episode list to find the word—it isn’t listed in The Whodunit. The word psychism has an exotic history. It has been explained by some as something like the Star War’s ‘force’ and by theosophists (God and world from mystical insight) as psychic activity (Wedgwood, 1914). Levinas, a practicing Jew and a Talmudic scholar in his own right, also read the Kabbalah (Jewish Mysticism). But he borrowed the term ‘psychism’ for his own purposes.

The body has a ‘causa sui’ (cause of itself) necessarily from God. However to God’s “great glory” according to Levinas is that God enabled the human being capable of a-theism or of creating the will without prior cause, meaning without God’s help (Emmanuel  Levinas, 1961, p. 58). Levinas called this construct of the will the psychism. But as with everything else Levinas, it isn’t that simple. The psychism is our subjective experience, “…our responsivity to the other” which  Simon Critchley said, “This deep structure, what Levinas calls the ‘psychism’ and what other traditions might call the ‘soul’, is the other within the same [me], in spite of me, calling me to respond. (Critchley & Bernasconi, 2002, pp. 21, Introduction)” It isn’t all about me, it’s about the other that I see before me that suddenly and abruptly tears me from my enjoyment of dwelling in myself and shows me that the other is different from me. And it’s this difference that shocks me into seeing that I am me and separate from this other whose face is before me. And it’s because there are others that my own self is created. Without others there wouldn’t be a me…And at the same time Levinas asked us to think hard about this other. First, how do we know this other? We don’t. Even when we see the other before us there’s infinitely more to the other than we could ever know. Just looking at a Dalek would you know that there’s a living squiddy thing inside its salt-shaker shell?

Second, ethics begins with understanding that the other is a neighbor and how should we treat neighbors? Levinas is fond of quoting Dostoyevsky on this, “Every one of us is guilty before all, for everyone and everything, and I more than the others. (Emmanuel  Levinas, 1996, pp. 102, Truth of Disclosure and Truth of Testimony)” Sounds like ‘I am my brother’s keeper’, but there is more to it than that because I am infinitely responsible to and for the other and even for the other’s responsibility. And I’m even more responsible than any other, if we can read that into Dostoyevsky. So, maybe Rene Descartes was right: the mind and body are separate, at least for Doctor Who, and with each regeneration his psychism goes along for the ride. But is this the otherwise than being we want to learn more about? Not exactly.

Beyond Being—The Otherwise Than Being

The Doctor is an enigma, the embodiment of Levinas’ infinite other who regenerates into different bodies and rides the times of the universe like a surfer who rides the different tides:

Martha (played by Freema Agyeman): He said, “last of your kind”. What does that mean?

The Doctor: It really doesn’t matter.

Martha: You don’t talk. You never say! Why not? (The tenth Doctor, played by David Tennant, Gridlock, aired, April 14, 2007)

In some respects the Doctor is a trace, an anomaly of time itself, or as Levinas said, “A mark traced on sand is not part of a path, but the very emptiness of a passage. And what has withdrawn is not evoked, does not return to presence, not even to an indicated presence. (Emmanuel  Levinas, 1996, pp. 70, Enigma and Phenomenon)” The good Doctor is this absence of a presence, an otherwise than being. Let me explain.

Levinas wanted us to get beyond being, the body, and the ontology of being and into the metaphysical realm beyond…beyond being. But our language makes this difficult, and he’s up against the formidable presence of Heidegger who wanted us to understand what philosophy seems to have forgotten that we are beings who are thrown into the world. Enough of that, said Levinas, and he agreed that while it is true that we are thrown into this world we need to move beyond the ontological being to the otherwise than being in order to begin to understand the first philosophy: ethics.

So the first thing Levinas did is work the language a bit. To do so, Levinas separated the saying from the said. The said is the concrete, the totality of writing, of what has been spoken. See, there it is: said in black and white. The saying, however fleeting as it is in its temporal aspect, Levinas said that, “Saying is not a game…it is the proximity of one to the other, the commitment of an approach, the one for the other…(Emmanuel  Levinas, 1974, pp. 5, The Said and the Saying)” And the saying unsaids the said. Whoa…

Let’s unpack this. The saying is a response to the proximity of the other in the form of language. As long as we are talking to each other we are in the realm of otherwise than being, elsewise we would be stuck, stuck in time. The good Doctor uses time to unsay the said, to move amongst the beings of the universe to maintain order, to continue the saying which primordially is time itself. As Doctor Who said:

The Doctor: I’m not running away. But this is one corner of one country on one continent on one planet that’s a corner of a galaxy that’s a corner of a universe that is forever growing and shrinking and creating and destroying and never remaining the same for a single millisecond, and there is so much, so much, to see, Amy (played by Karen Gillan). Because it goes so fast. I’m not running away from things, I am running to them. Before they flare and fade forever. And it’s alright. Our lives won’t run the same. They can’t. One day, soon, maybe, you’ll stop. I’ve known for a while. (The eleventh Doctor, played by Matt Smith, The Power of Three, aired September 22, 2012)

So it’s Doctor Who’s constant unsaying of the said: the hegemony, the confronting of evils that have taken control over this or that parsec of the universe, that brings him to a state of otherwise than being. It is the Time Lord’s job to unsay the ontological said…but at the same time, violence is not his primary weapon. His weapon is the saying:

Taron (Played by Bernard Horsfall): Doctor, we’d never have succeeded without all your help. I wish there was some way of thanking you.

The Doctor: As a matter of fact, there is.

Rebec (played by Jane How): Yes, Doctor?

The Doctor: Throughout history, you Thals have always been known as one of the most peace-loving races in the galaxy.

Taron: I hope we always will be.

The Doctor: Yes, that’s what I mean. When you get back to Skaro, you’ll all be national heroes. Everybody’ll want to hear about your adventures.

Taron: Of course.

The Doctor: So be careful how you tell that story, will you? Don’t glamourize it. Don’t make war sound like an exciting and thrilling game.

Taron: I understand.

The Doctor: Tell them about the members of your mission that will not be returning. Like Maro, Vaber and Marat. Tell them about the fear. Otherwise your people might relish the idea of war. We don’t want that. (The third Doctor, played by Jon Pertwee, Planet of the Daleks, aired, April 7—May 12, 1973)

Doctor Who becomes the embodiment of the theme that Levinas developed throughout his body of work: beyond being. “To exist has a meaning in another dimension than that of the perduration [permanence] of the totality; it can go beyond being. (Emmanuel  Levinas, 1961, p. 301)” Existence is impermanent yet infinite…it is beyond being. Where does ethics come in to all of this, you ask?

Beyond Ethics

Ethics is responsibility for and to the other—infinite responsibility even if it means…

After the death of Katarina (played by Adrienne Hill), the Doctor said: She didn’t understand. She couldn’t understand. She wanted to save our lives. And perhaps the lives of all the other beings of the Solar System. I hope she’s found her perfection. Oh, how I shall always remember her as one of the daughters of the gods. Yes, as one of the daughters of the gods. (The first Doctor, played by William Hartnell, The Daleks’ Master Plan, November 13, 1965—January 29, 1966)

It’s not always self-sacrifice like Katarina, but it’s knowing that this responsibility has no limit and as Doctor Who knows, and not just because he’s the last of his kind, that his responsibility cannot be tasked to another. It’s my responsibility and mine alone. Doctor Who explained:

The Doctor: “My dear Jo, the TARDIS was working then because it was being operated under remote control by the High Council of the Time Lords.

Jo (played by Katy Manning): Well, if it worked for them…

The Doctor: I don’t want it to work for them: I want it to work for me. No one’s going to turn me into an interplanetary puppet. (The Third Doctor, played by Jon Pertwee, Day of the Daleks, aired January 1—January 22, 1972)

Levinas asked, “Is not sociality something more than the source of our representation of time; is it not time itself? (Emmanuel  Levinas, 1978, p. 93)” He answered this question by suggesting that our very existence in the world towards others and their infinite difference is in relative time, not absolute time (Emmanuel Levinas, 1987, pp. 6, introduction)…Which sounds like something the Doctor would say, doesn’t it?

Finally, Levinas asserted that morality comes from being responsible for the other but the will is always on the verge of being courageous or cowardly. He said, “In affirming that the human will is not heroic we have not declared for cowardice, but have indicated the precarity [existence without predicate] of courage, always on the verge of its own failure…But in this very failing we have caught sight of the marvel of time…(Emmanuel  Levinas, 1961, pp. 236-237)” Our ordeal is the matter of our living, of life, not death. And is this not the Doctor, long enduring, different from before when he regenerates, but ever patient? The Doctor is sometimes courageous, and sometimes cowardly (or so it seems), but he’s always for the other in the end.

Quoting the Dalek Emperor (played by Nicholas Briggs): “Then prove yourself, Doctor! What are you? Coward or killer? (The ninth Doctor, Christopher Eccleston, The Parting of the Ways, aired June 18, 2005)”

Yet Doctor Who is aware that there are some saids that cannot be unsaid:

The Doctor: My dear Steven (Steven Taylor played by Peter Purves), history sometimes gives us a terrible shock, and that is because we don’t quite fully understand… I dare not change the course of history. (The first Doctor, played by William Hartnell, The Massacre of St Bartholomew’s Eve, aired February 5—February 26, 1966)

Doctor Who must work within the system called time and this requires a delicate balance of action and inaction. This is his ultimate responsibility, his responsibility to all the others, the universe of others. And he’s responsible for their responsibilities even if they refuse to be responsible. You see, he knows that it’s the other’s business whether to reciprocate responsibility back to the Doctor or even to other species or alien races, or even the universe itself. If the Doctor would require reciprocity, when it’s not forthcoming, he could avenge this breach. And it’s this very thing, this one-sided nature of responsibility that is the centerpiece to Levinas’ ethics. It requires my responsibility to the other regardless of the other’s attitude or response to my approach. It’s how ethics which is first responsibility becomes the first philosophy because there is nothing that stands before responsibility. It’s primordial to our existence. It’s Doctor Who and his responsibility for and to time which he engages all manner of good and bad to preserve:

The Doctor: The very powerful and the very stupid have one thing in common. They don’t alter their views to fit the facts. They alter the facts to fit their views. Which can be uncomfortable if you happen to be one of the facts that needs altering. (The fourth Doctor, played by Tom Baker, The Face of Evil, aired January 1—January 22, 1977)

The Doctor works within what time has wrought. The other is before him and rather than remake it in his image he uses the saying: questioning, conversation, dialog, and discourse to help him understand his responsibility to others and help others understand their responsibility to time and the community of others that are the universe and its otherwise than being. And his companions have come to see this and understand this ethics of responsibility:

Martha (played by Freema Agyeman): I travelled across the world. From the ruins of New York, to the fusion mills of China, right across the radiation pits of Europe. And everywhere I went I saw people just like you, living as slaves! But if Martha Jones became a legend then that’s wrong, because my name isn’t important. There’s someone else. The man who sent me out there, the man who told me to walk the Earth. And his name is the Doctor. He has saved your lives so many times and you never even knew he was there. He never stops. He never stays. He never asks to be thanked. But I’ve seen him, I know him… I love him… And I know what he can do. (The tenth Doctor was played by David Tennant, The Last of the Time Lords, aired June 30, 2007)

Towards an Imperfect Discourse

Doctor Who can be a curmudgeon and is quite often sarcastic, acerbic, and even downright mean to his companions and others…and he doesn’t much like the Daleks and certain others of his nemeses. He’s an imperfect humanoid. Levinas never left us with a how-to manual and certainly the Time Lords didn’t leave the Doctor with one either. Levinas said, “My task does not consist in constructing ethics; I only try to find its meaning. (E. Levinas & Nemo, 1985, pp. 90, The Face)” So we are left to roam the universe with Doctor Who trying to figure out this thing, this responsibility for the others which is the essence of our existence. Certainly many of Doctor Who’s companions began to grasp this mission, this need to be for and be before and with others. Without others we would not be and to be otherwise than being is to be in the midst of others whether our own species or others:

Speaking to Ace (played by Sophie Aldred), The Doctor: Your species has the most amazing capacity for self-deception, matched only by its ingenuity when trying to destroy itself. (The seventh Doctor, played by Sylvester McCoy, Remembrance of the Daleks, aired, October 5—October 26, 1988)

So we are imperfect species and with the imperfect Doctor ride the tides of time in an imperfect universe. Yet, we all are subject to the same conditions of ethics as responsibility to the other as our first philosophy. Should we begin to get that right, shouldn’t everything else follow? Maybe, maybe not…

The Doctor: I walked away from the Last Great Time War. I marked the passing of the Time Lords. I saw the birth of the universe, and I watched as time ran out, moment by moment, until nothing remained. No time, no space – just me. I’ve walked in universes where the laws of physics were devised by the mind of a madman. I’ve watched universes freeze and creations burn. I have seen things you wouldn’t believe. I have lost things you will never understand. And I know things. Secrets that must never be told, knowledge that must never be spoken, knowledge that will make parasite gods blaze! So, come on, then! Take it! Take it all, baby! Have it! You have it all! (The eleventh Doctor, played by Matt Smith, The Rings of Akhaten, aired April 6, 2013)


Quotations from the Doctor Who series come from http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Doctor_Who and the individuals who play the various characters were cross referenced against the IMDb list of cast and crew from http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0436992/ and http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0056751/?ref_=ttfc_fc_tt.

Critchley, S., & Bernasconi, R. (2002). The Cambridge Companion to Levinas: Cambridge Univ Pr.

Heidegger, M. (1962). Being and Time (J. MacQuarrie, & Edward Robinson, Trans.). New York: HarperCollins Publishers.

Levinas, E. (1961). Totality and Infinity: an Essay on Exteriority Pittsburg, Pa: Duquesne University Press.

Levinas, E. (1974). Otherwise Than Being (A. Lingis, Trans.). Pittsburg, Pa.: Duquesne University Press.

Levinas, E. (1978). Existence and Existents (A. Lingis, Trans.). London, Boston: Kluwer Academic Publishers.

Levinas, E. (1987). Time and the Other (R. A. Cohen, Trans.). Pittsburg, Pa: Duquesne University Press.

Levinas, E. (1996). Emmanuel Levinas Basic Philosophical Writings. Bloomington, In: Indiana University Press

Levinas, E., & Nemo, P. (1985). Ethics and infinity: Duquesne University Press Pittsburgh, PA.

Wedgwood, J. I. (1914). Varieties of Psychism. Wheaton, Ill.: Theosophical Publishing House.