Fight for your Rites

Again, very much a work in progress based on an article which first appeared in Shockeye’s Kitchen # 12.

This article is an attempt to apply concepts derived from anthropology to the analysis of Doctor Who and its fandom, drawing in particular on the  symbolic anthropology of Victor Turner. Turner is the author of Schism and Continuity in an African Society: A Study of the Ndembu Village Life (1957) and The Drums of Affliction: A study of Religious Processes among the Ndembu (1968) and his work has been described variously as ‘situational analysis’,  ‘symbolic action theory’, ‘the semantics of symbolism’, ‘comparative symbology’, ‘anti-structural social anthropology’  and the even catchier ‘processual symbolic analysis’: I’m sticking with ‘symbolic anthropology’ throughout this essay.

Ritual in Doctor Who

For a series centered on a  scientist-hero there are a surprising number of religious rituals presented in Doctor Who. In The Aztecs, Barbara is drawn into the sacrificial rites of 16th Century Mesoamericans. Lost races worship their technological ancestors in Colony in Space and Death to the Daleks. The Master conducts ‘Satanic’ ceremonies in the crypt beneath a Christian Church in The Dæmons. We meet the High Priest of Kronos in The Time Monster. Ancient Egyptian Gods are invoked in Pyramids of MarsThe Brain of Morbius features the sacred rites of the Sisterhood of Karn. In The Masque of Mandragora the Doctor encounters Cult of  Demnos,. The Doctor own image is worshipped in The Face of Evil. The nomadic community of New Earth come together to sing hymns in Gridlock.

Buddhism is a particular influence on the programme: in The Abominable Snowmen the Doctor journeys to a Buddhist monastery in Tibet to return a Holy Ghanta (or bell); the monastery is presided over by the Abbot Padmasambhava, perhaps the very same Guru who took Vajrayana Buddhism to Tibet over a thousand years earlier. In Planet of the Spiders we meet the Doctor’s guru, K’anpo Rinpoche (Guru Rinpoche is another name for Padmasambhava); he had previously been referred to in The Time Monster when the Doctor tells Jo a story about a Hermit who lived on a mountainside on Gallifrey – a story actually drawn from a tale of the Buddha in the Mumonkan (or ‘Gateless Gate’), a collection of Zen kōans – and is referred to again in State of Decay. Kinda features characters and themes drawn from Buddhist mythology:  Mara (Sanskrit for ‘death-bringing’ or ‘destroying’, a demonic personification of Temptation), Dukkha (‘Duḥkha’, meaning pain, or more literally ‘uneasy’), Panna (‘Prajñā‘, ‘wisdom’), Karuna (‘Karuṇā’, compassion), Anicca (impermanence), Anatta (‘Anataman’, or ‘egolessness’) and Jhana (‘Dhyāna, meditation): ‘Deva Loka‘ is Sanskrit for ‘Celestial Region’, the dwelling place of the Devas, or Buddhist deities.

Social Drama

Now, you might think applying concepts derived from the study of the Ndembu tribe of what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo to the study of a TV show and its fans is pushing it a bit but this is not without precident: Turner’s work has been used in the study of Jazz (‘The ritual of jazz performance’ by FA Salomone), Carribean music (T’he performance of politics: Caribbean music and the anthropology of Victor Turner’ by Frank E Manning), Welsh community life (‘Welsh communitas as ideological practice’ by Carol Trosset) and TV shows in Africa (‘Return of the ikoi-koi: Manifestations of liminality on Nigerian television’ by Andrew and Harriet Lyons); I first encountered Turner’s ideas in Peter McLaren‘s excellent ethnographic study of a class at a Canadian Catholic school, Schooling as Ritual Performance: Towards a Political  Economy of Educational Symbols and Gestures.

Turner introduced the concept of ‘social drama’ to describe ritual performances, whether of ‘life-crisis rituals‘ (birth, puberty, death) or ‘rituals of afliction‘ (healing rites, exorcisms). Social dramas are ‘processual‘, following four distinct phases: they begin with the rupture of regular, norm-governed social relationships between persons or groups – a disturbance in the status quo – which escalate to a crisis point unless resolved quickly. Measures are taken by the leading members of the social group (priests, shamen) to address this rupture, and ultimately new social relationships emerge and a new social equilibrium is established or else the irreparable breach is recognised by the social group. That’s also a pretty good description of a story: the transition of one state of affairs to another via a period of struggle and uncertainty. It parallels Vladimir Propp’s studies of folklore and Joseph Cambell’s analysis of myths. Most forms of dramatic entertainment embodies these patterns of ritual, suggesting that TV and film have taken on ritual’s role of the symbolic resolution of conflict in modern, industrial society.

Liminality and Communitas

Rituals mark the transition from one ‘structured’ state to another. A typical Doctor Whostory will feature a community threatened by some evil influence which is ultimately defeated by the Doctor and friends before a new equilibrium is established. Between these structured states exists a state ofliminality.

Turner borrows the term ‘liminality’ from Arnold van Gennep, author of The Rites of Passage. The term ‘rites of passage’ has entered the common parlance and is generally associated with the individual’s transition from adolescence to adulthood, but for van Gennep the term also covered periods of societal conflict and social change.

Van Gennep identified three stages to the rite of passage: the pre-liminal, the liminal and the post-liminal. The pre-liminal and post-liminal phases are periods of relative stability, but the liminal phase is one of transition – the ‘threshold’ between the structured worlds of past and future, where those undergoing transition are ‘betwixt and between’, neither what they were nor what they will become, and where their social status is suspended. The liminal state is one characterised by humility and seclusion, equality and a state of unstructured community Turner callscommunitas’: total freedom from conformity and fixed social roles. It is a world of possibility and freedom with considerable appeal for audiences subjected to fixed social positions in their everyday lives.

The attributes of liminality or of liminal personae (‘threshold people’) are necessarily ambiguous, since this condition and those persons elude or slip through the network of classifications that normally locate states and positions in cultural space. Liminal entities are neither here nor there; they are betwixt and between the positions assigned and arrayed by law, custom, convention, and ceremonial. As such; their ambiguous and indeterminate attributes are expressed by a rich variety of symbols in the many societies that ritualize social and cultural transitions. Thus liminality is frequently likened to death, to being in the womb, to invisibility, to darkness, to bisexuality, to the wilderness, and to eclipse of the sun or moon.

– Victor Turner, The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure.

Social relationships are stripped of their complexity and become flexible during the liminal phase. Identities are in flux. The characters of Doctor Who take delight in role play. The Doctor and his companions often adopt the identities of those they are mistaken for, e.g The RomansThe Myth Makers. Gender roles are also destabilised: the Doctor drags up in The Highlanders and The Green Death while Vicky passes herself off as a boy in The Crusade. The Doctor impersonates the villains in The Enemy of the World and The Masque of Mandragora

The Master too delights in transformation and deception, posing as a vicar in The Daemons, a scientist in The Time Monster, a diplomat in The Frontier in Space and a politician who rises to Prime Minister in The Sound of Drums/The Last of the Time Lords.

Some characters wear masks: Hieronymous in The Masque of Mandragora, Magnus Greel in The Talons of Weng-Chiang, Sharaz Jek in The Caves of Androzani. Omega is nothing but a costume in The Three Doctors: a mask and robes held together by sheer force of will.

Liminal beings include hybrids (The Seeds of Doom) and cyborgs: the Daleks are liminal in that they stand on the threshold of organic life and machine as does their creator, Davros.  The Cybermen are doubly liminal in that they are mechanised zombies, existing on the threshold of life and death. Werewolves (The Greatest Show in the Galaxy and Tooth and Claw) are liminal in that they exist as both human and animal. Shapeshifters such as the Rutans (Horror of Fang Rock) are also liminal. Vampires (State of DecayThe Curse of FenricVampires of Venice) are liminal. If the Eighth Doctor is to be believed he is liminal in that he is half human

Marcus Scarman (Pyramids of Mars) is an animated corpse, as are Captain Jack Harkness, Owen Harper and Suzie Costello. Rory Williams rose from the dead, as an Auton replica in The Pandorica Opens and as a human again in The Big Bang. The Doctor himself has come back from the dead on several occasions. The Master from The Deadly Assassin and The Keeper of Traken is suspended between life and death and he inhabits an animated corpse in the TV Movie. The Valeyard (Trial of a Time Lord) is a liminal aspect of the Doctor from between his Twelfth and final regenerations.

The Doctor is liminal in many respects: he may look human but he is alien. Ian and Barbara suspect there is something Unearthly about his granddaughter and we soon learn the Doctor and Susan are exiles:

DOCTOR: We are not of this race. We are not of this Earth. We are wanderers in the fourth dimensions of space and time, cut off from our own planet and our own people by aeons and universes that are far beyond the reach of your most advanced sciences.

The Doctor, in all his incarnations, is equally at home with kings and outcasts. In The War Games we learn another aspect of the Doctor’s liminality: he is a criminal, existing outside his own society’s legal margins. Recaptured, he is then cast out again to become a stranger in a strange land for much of the early Third Doctor era. It is in Spearhead from Space that we learn his human looking frame embodies an alien metabolism and two hearts. The Fourth Doctor rejects the temporary alliance he has made with UNIT and becomes even more of a wanderer than before. The TV Movie raises the intriguing possibility that the Doctor is half human – again a liminal state of being. The Doctor’s liminality increases with the 2005 series: the Time Lords have been destroyed in the Time War and he is now the Last of the Time Lords. In The Doctor’s Daughter he actively resists reincorporation into society by refusing to acknowledge his status as a father; his daughter, the product of asexual cloning technology, rises from the dead, and exiles herself: she is liminal three times over.

The Doctor’s companions enter a liminal state when they journey with him, leaving behind, for the most part, their social ties (family, friends, work). Ian and Barbara and most of the other companions are ultimately reintegrated into society but there are exceptions such as Romana who is as liminal as the Doctor himself.

Liminal Time, Liminal Space

Certain calender periods are liminal: Demnos, worshipped in The Masque of Mandragora, is the Roman god of moonlight and the liminal period of solsticeThe Dæmons is set against a background of the festival of Beltane, the midpoint between the spring equinox and the summer solstice and the ‘greatest occult festival of the year, bar Halloween’. Revolutions are extreme periods of liminality.

Places can be liminal too: limbos such as that inhabited by The Celestial Toymaker, the Master of the Land of Fiction (The Mind Robber) and Omega (The Three Doctors) which can be shaped by sheer force of will.

The Vortex through which the Tardis flies is a liminal space where time and space overlap; it is also inhabited (The Time Monster). The collapsing world which stands between our world and E-Space in Warriors’ Gate is a liminal place, where time and space fold back on themselves. The Void from which the Cult of Skaro escape before they, and the Cybermen, are sucked back in (Army of Ghosts/Doomsday) and which ultimately separates the Doctor and Rose is a liminal place. In The End of Time the Time Lords escape another limbo where they have been trapped since the Time War. The alternate realities of Amy’s Choice are liminal times and spaces.

More than anything else, the Tardis is a liminal space, a threshold between all of time and all space, which exists within a State of temporal Grace.

There are also liminal states of consciousness: dreams and hallucinations or drugged states.

Clowns, Jesters and Tricksters


Liminal figures include clowns, jesters and tricksters. Humour often plays a role in ritual; for instance the Sacred Clowns of the Pueblo Indians or the Lakotan Heyókȟa. Heyókȟa are satirists who flaunt taboos in order to draw attention to social convention define the boundaries of acceptable behaviour.

In the English Royal Court jesters were licensed to mock courtiers:

The court jester operates as a privileged arbiter of morals, given license to gibe at kings and courtiers, or lord of the manor… In a system where it was difficult for others to rebuke the head of a political unit, we might have here an institutionalized joker, operating at the highest point of the unit…a joker able to express feelings of outraged morality.

– Max Gluckman, Politics, Law and Ritual in Tribal Society

In The Lodger the Doctor is cast in the figure of the fool, drawing attention to the conventions of everyday life through comical misunderstandings of social etiquette. In City of Death he shows his detachment from conventional social relationships:  ‘You’re a very beautiful woman. Probably’

But the clowns, jesters and tricksters are liminal figures who provoke fear and awe as well as amusement. The Koshare (or Koyaala or Hano clown) of the Hopi people openly censures people for their transgressions, while the Heyókȟa create fear and chaos during times of stability and complacency. Heyókȟa have terrifying visions of the Thunderbird:

When a vision comes from the thunder beings of the West, it comes with terror like a thunder storm; but when the storm of vision has passed, the world is greener and happier; for wherever the truth of vision comes upon the world, it is like a rain. The world, you see, is happier after the terror of the storm… you have noticed that truth comes into this world with two faces. One is sad with suffering, and the other laughs; but it is the same face, laughing or weeping… as lightning illuminates the dark, for it is the power of lightning that heyokas have

– Heȟáka Sápa (‘Black Elk’)

The clown brings truth to the world as he sees both its faces, the laughter and the weeping, the light and the dark. In Doctor Who the Doctor and his enemies perform the dual function of clowns, to cast an amused or foolish eye on convention, or to be a disruptive figure.

One might well ask why it is that liminal situations and roles are almost everywhere attributed with magico-religious properties, or why these should so often be regarded as dangerous, inauspicious, or polluting to persons, objects, events, and relationships that have not been ritually incorporated into the ritual context. My belief is briefly that from the perspectival viewpoint of those concerned with the maintenance of ‘structure,’ all sustained manifestations of communitas must appear as dangerous and anarchical, and have to be hedged around with prescriptions. prohibitions, and conditions.

– Victor Turner, The Ritual ProcessStructure and Anti-Structure.

Even in our own society the clown can become a symbol of fear: coulrophobia (the fear of clowns) is a common phobia. Ace is a coulrophobe according to The Greatest Show in the Galaxy but she is hardly alone: the 2006 Bestival had to withdraw a request for guests to attend in clown attire when many coulrophobic festival-goers cancelled their tickets (though The Scissor Sisters – see The Sound of Drums – defied the ban). Evil Clowns are a staple of popular culture, e.g. Batman’s arch nemesis, the Joker, and the Joker’s sometimes girlfriend, Harley Quinn; the Comedian in Alan Moore’s Watchmen; Pennywise in Stephen King’s It; or the real life serial killer John Wayne Gacy. As Lon Chaney, Sr once said, ‘There is nothing funny about a clown in the moonlight.’

For Turner, all rituals have some vestigial religious component:

There is, indeed, a hypertrophy, an exaggeration, of jural and ritual processes; it is not simply a recreation of the ‘natural’ total processual pattern of the social drama. There is, therefore, in theatre, something of the investigative, judgemental, and even punitive character of law-inaction, something of the sacred, mythic, numinous, even ‘supernatural’ character of religious action.

– Victor Turner

There is a strong moral imperative ultimately legitimated by appeal to some trancendant power. In cop shows that trancendant power s ‘the Law’; in Doctor Who it is an appeal to a universal code of morality in which evil must be fought – a case most eloquently argued in The War Games.

Many characters – including the Doctor – are nameless, emphasising their symbolic status. Until Morbius all Time Lords had titles, rather than names, or obviously symbolic names like Omega (the End). The Meddling Monk, the Master, the War Chief were neutered in Virgin’s New and Missing Adventures by being named but in the TV series they were ‘undercoded’ to illustrate their allagorical or metaphorical purpose. They are not ‘fully rounded’ in thje sense of the ‘bourgious realist novel’: we do not know what these characters are really like since their identities are largely assumed. Characters perform roles much as the actors who play them – something hightened by the fact that different actors may play them without altering their essential nature.

But while characters are symbolic they are also ‘polysemic‘ – they have multiple meanings which the audience can interpret in a multitude of ways: they are ‘under-determined’. The audience performs meaning when given enough material to work with.

We don’t know where the First Doctor gets his clothing but we first encounter him in a scrapyard suggesting that it may be essembled from scraps and found items – a process known as ‘bricolage’. The Second Doctor is a parody of the First while the Third literally steels his identity from a surgeon. The Fourth, Fifth, Sixth an Seventh construct their identity from random elements of the Tardis wardrobe. The Eighth Doctor wears a fancy dress costume – again stolen from a hospital – and borrowed shoes. The Tenth Doctor dips again into the Tardis wardrobe an the Eleventh is back to steeling from hospitals.  Ambiguous and uncertain identities promote equality, leading to communitas.

Doctor Who uses generic conventions imported from other texts: time travel, space flight, aliens, robots, mad scientists; it even created its own iconic props (Daleks, Cyberme, the Tardis, the sonic screwdriver, K9)) which are instantly recognisable even outside fandom, gaining depth of meaning through repitition. Moral and ideological conflictis acted out symbolically in Doctor Who, dramatised through action and embodied in gesture. The Doctors adopt their own easily identifiable postures: holding their lapels as if about to deliver a stern lecture or posing dramatically with hands on hips. These are melodramatic gestures: they employ theatrical techniques dating back to a time when only legitimate theatre was licensed to use dialogue and illegitimate theatre was restricted to the language of the body – or music. Melodrama means ‘drama set to music’. Doctor Who always uses music to dramatic – and sometimes disturbing effect, the most controversial possibly being Malcolm Clarke’s remarkable score to The Sea Devils.

It may be argued that by celebrating community values ritual serves a conservative function but that is to suppose ‘community values’ necessarily reflect those of the ruling class and to underestimate the defamiliarising role of liminality. Familiar symbols are deconstructed through exaggeration (Planet of Giants gives us new perspectives on everyday objects by distorting size while The Sun Makers exaggerates bureacracy through satire) or distortion (Terror of the Autons defamiliarises common household items through grotwesque transformation – as well as literally defacing the police. This leads to a questioning of the world of surfaces and appearences.

The Liminoid World

While liminality characterises the highly unstable worlds of Doctor Who the world in which the viewers live is far more structured. Nevertheless, ritual and performance play an important role in the way fans act. Turner uses the term ‘liminoid’ to describe the quasi-liminal character of cultural performances in complex, industrial societies. The liminoid world exists on the margins of the quotidian world, providing a challenge to that world’s values. Fan culture is liminoid and originates as a form of ‘communitas’.

Henry Jenkins discusses fan culture in Textual Poachers. Fan activities can include acting out scenes in the playground, building models, playing related card games or video games, the construction of extended diegeses (speculation and elaboration of the continuities and discontinuities of the programme’s diegesis, producing chronologies and such. According to Jenkins, fan fiction empowers fans at a time when the great myths of the present have become the property of copyright-holding corporations.

Fandom eventually becomes organised and comminitas becomes ‘normative’. Fan clubs are established, conventions are organised, canons form and hierarchies are established. Ultimately fandom becomes subject to the commercial forces it formed to escape, forces which prioritise the more commercially exploitable forms of fandom over the more luminal one. Authorised spin-offs put fan fiction back into the hands of  the corporations. As Michael Foucault reminds us, the Panoptican is a prison designed to discipline and punish, and fandom has been willing to police itself on commerce’s behalf.

Cultural Studies has tended to make a fetish out of organised fandom because it is highly visible and shares much of its discursive practices. In Common Culture, Paul Willis explored the concept of ‘symbolic creativity’. Picking up on the work of Raymond Williams, Willis reminds us that ‘culture is ordinary’. Our performances come as naturally as talking. 14 million people watched City of Death: its not necessary for them to spend all day dressed as Tom Baker, to memorise the co-ordinates of every planet featured in Doctor Who, or to be able to quote the entire back catalogue of New Adventures to prove they are actve participants in the construction of meaning. Everyone performs symbolic work, every day. An aesthetic effect, grounded in out everyday experiences, and based upon our own ‘sensuous/emotive/cognitive’ resources is enabled by programmes like Doctor Who, nor created by it, so long as those resources are not too narrow, or over-coded.

And I haven’t got an ending to this article yet.


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