Parlare the Carny?

Kneel before Zod!Mikhail Bakhtin (1895-1975) was a Russian philosopher with a particular interest in language and its relation to the social world. Marginalised and even persecuted for much of his lifetime he has more recently been recognised as one of the leading cultural thinkers of the 20th Century. This essay is brief introduction to his ideas as presented in his dissertation Rabelais and His World (1965) and further developed in Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics (1984) and the four essays contained in The Dialogic Imagination (1981).

I explore these ideas by applying them to Doctor Who – mainly because I like Doctor Who! But also to show that complex linguistic processes play themselves out in popular TV shows as much as in ‘difficult’ work – I mean, it wouldn’t be much of a challenge to find Bakhtin’s ideas at work in the science fiction ‘campus’ novels of Samuel R Delany, would it?

I read Bakhtin’s ideas into Doctor Who, and illustrate Bakhtin’s ideas through examples drawn from the show: this essay is, in effect, an exercise in dialogue between Bakhtin and Doctor Who.

The essay is a greatly expanded version of an article which originally appeared in the Doctor Who fanzine Shockeye’s Kitchen # 9 in July 2001. It is also a work in progress so bear with me!

The Carnival Sense of the World

There have been a number of studies which have applied Bakhtin’s ideas to popular culture since they were translated into English including John Fiske’s Television Culture (1987) and John Tulloch’s Television Drama: Audience, Agency and Myth (1990) but these invariably abstract Bakhtin’s notion of the carlivalesque from the body of his work reducing it to dull antonymies to between official and carnival culture; they pay lip service to linguistic concepts such as polyphony and heteroglossia but present them as little more than the cacophony of different voices. The philosophical core of Bakhtin’s work, which is rooted in a theory of communication, is usually ignored. For this reason my essay deals rather briefly with the usual objects of applications of Bakhtin’s theories to popular culture – the ritual crowning and dethroning of public carnivals and grotesque realism – before moving swiftly on to that core and the concept of dialogism – which Michael Holquist, author of Dialogism: Bakhtin and His World (1990) and translator of The Dialogic Imagination, terms nothing less than an epistemology – a theory of knowledge. Fiske and Tulloch write from a broadly Marxist perspective which is monological; in order to explore Bakhtin’s work without doing violence to it I aim to do work in a way which is itself  dialogical. Dialogism is an extraordinarily productive concept and the discussion will range through theories of language, literary theory, the relationship between self and other, and the perception of time and space. Each aspect of dialogism will be illustrated by concrete examples drawn from the world of Doctor Who. I hope you enjoy reading it half as much as I have enjoyed writing it!

Mikhail Bakhtin identified the carnival as the social institution of popular pleasures, and grotesque realism its literary expression. During the classical medieval period the world of official medieval ideology and that of folk humour occupied two separate and opposing ideological spheres: the official ideology, dominated by the idea of an omnipotent God from whom all authority ultimately derives, and which was embodied in humourless sacred texts and gloomy religious rituals; and popular feasts and festivals, the carnivals and fayres, and the comic shows and bawdy language (billingsgate) of the marketplace, which together held up a distorting mirror to the official ideology. During carnival time the normal rules of decorum are suspended, hierarchies are overturned, the high brought low.

It could be said (with certain reservations, of course) that a person of the Middle Ages lived, as it were, two lives: one that was the official life, monolithically serious and gloomy, subjugated to a strict hierarchical order, full of terror, dogmatism, reverence and piety; the other was the life of the carnival square, free and unrestricted, full of ambivalent laughter, blasphemy, the profanation of everything sacred, full of debasing and obscenities, familiar contact with everyone and everything. Both these lives were legitimate, but separated by strict temporal boundaries.

– Mikhail Bakhtin, Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics

Although the medieval period was the heyday of the carnival it survives today, particularly in Catholic countries where the Church’s power still holds sway, and lived on in increasingly attenuated and institutionalised form in the commedia dell’arte of the 16th Century, the Harlequinades, the Punch and Judy show, the Mummers and Guiser’s plays (the ritual re-enactment of a death and resurrection in which the main protagonist is brought back to life by a character known as ‘the Doctor’), May Day festivals, town and village fairs, the music hall of the 19th and early 20th Centuries, the modern seaside resort and Christmas pantomimes. According to Bakhtin, the carnival spirit also finds literary expression in the the Menippean satire and in particular the novels of François Rabelais and Fyodor Dostoyevsky.

Bakhtin defines carnivalised fiction as

…those genres which have come under the influence – either directly or indirectly, through a series of intermediary links – of one or another variant of carnivalistic folk-lore (ancient or medieval)

– Mikhail Bakhtin, Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics

Let’s first note the obvious recurrence of canivalesque imagery in Doctor Who: the Doctor is a carnival figure, identified as such in stories like Terror of the AutonsCarnival of MonstersThe Talons of Weng-Chiang and The Greatest Show in the Galaxy. His enemies often display carnivalesque characteristics: the Master, for instance, is first introduced at a circus, his Tardis disguised as a horse-box, while the Autons wear grotesque carnival masks. In fact, most Doctor Who monsters have over-sized heads, suggesting a street carnival. The Daleks’ mode of movement is directly compared to fairground dodgems in The Daleks; in Rose the Autons use a giant Ferris wheel, the London Eye, as a radio transmitter. The Doctor is drawn directly into the May Day ritual of the Morris dance in The Dæmons, and The Awakening features Tegan dressed as the May Queen and an execution based on the Papa Stour Sword Dance (a specific variety of the Mummers’ play).

Ritual Crowning and Dethroning

Bakhtin identifies the mock crowning and subsequent dethroning of Carnival Kings and Queens as the primary carnivalisic act:

Under this ritual act of decrowning a king lies the very core of the carnival sense of the world – the pathos of shifts and changes, of death and renewal. Carnival is the festival of all-annihilating and all renewing time…

Crowning/decrowning is a dualistic ambivalent ritual, expressing the inevitability and at the same time the creative power of the shift-and-renewal, the joyful relativity of all structure and order, of all authority and all (hierarchical) position.

– Mikhail Bakhtin, Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics

Tegan is dressed as the May Queen (or Queen of the May) inThe Awakening. According to folklore the May Queen was traditionally sacrificed but accounts of this are unreliable: however, the idea was used in The Wicker Man.

Many Doctor Who stories feature a villain who is temporarily successful – ritually crowned – before their power is just as abruptly taken away from them. The Master, as Harold Saxon, is elected Prime Minister – replacing the dethroned Harriet Jones – before taking over the entire world in The Sound of Drums/Last of the Time Lords. The story concludes with the Doctor turning back the clock to before the Master conquered the Earth – a literal expression of ‘all-annihilating and all renewing time’.

In The End of Time he transformed the entire population of Earth into ‘the Master Race’.

The Daleks successfully conquered Earth in The Dalek Invasion of Earth and The Day of the Daleks.

During carnival the vestments and symbols of high office become ambivalent: they confer power upon those to whom they are presented but symbolically strip that power away as they are divested of them.

The Doctor himself becomes briefly all powerful at the end of The Armageddon Factor and crowns himself ‘the Time Lord Triumphant’ before fate dethrones him in The Waters of Mars.

Often the villain is portrayed as a fool, the object of ridicule:

Ritual laughter is always directed toward something higher: the sun, other gods, the highest earthly authority were put to shame and ridiculed to force them to renew themselves.

– Mikhail Bakhtin, Problems of Dostoesky’s Poetics

Clown imagery has been a recurrent motif in Doctor Who, e.g. The Celestial Toymaker, the Auguste clown at the fairground in Terror of the Autons, the Pierrot costume the Fourth Doctor tries out in Robot, the clown figure reflected in the mirror beneath the soil in The Deadly Assassin, the Fifth Doctor’s Harlequin costume in Black Orchid, the tribal clown in Kinda and the Ringmaster in The Greatest Show in the Galaxy). Clowns are obviously on the Sixth Doctor’s mind even before he dons his motley attire in The Twin Dilemma when he accuses Peri of being a Pierrot. Circus figures appear in Doctor Who spin offs like Torchwood (From Out of the Rain) and The Sarah Jane Adventures (The Day of the Clown). In The Three Doctors the First Doctor describes his next two incarnations as ‘a dandy and a clown’ – in fact, he’s always been a bit of both! I have more to say on the cultural significance of clowns in Doctor Who in Fight for Your Rites.

Another Carnival theme which appears many times in Doctor Who is that of the Ship of Fools, an allegorical retelling of the story of a ship full of fools drifting endlessly or aimlessly. There are echoes of the Ship of Fools in The Sensorites, The ArkThe Ambassadors of Death, Invasion of the Dinosaurs, The Ark in Space, Underworld (‘The Quest is the Quest!’), Mawdryn Undead, Gridlock and The Beast Below. The Face of Evil, Full Circle, State of Decay and The Doctor’s Daughter also feature civilisations decended from the survivors of a space crash who have long-since forgotten their mission.

Grotesque Realism

Unfinalizability and the spectacular treatment of the body brings us to grotesque realism. For Bakhtin, the grotesque body is a metaphor for the social body, or body politic, a symbol of renewal or transformation. The social antagonisms in the body politic are given expressive material form in the grotesque transformations of the human body. Grotesque bodies stand in stark contrast to the sanitised figures of classical art, which portray the human body in terms of form rather than function. Bodily functions such as feeding, aging, reproduction and death are central to the representation of the body in the carnivalesque and are highlighted through degradations of the body: think of the ravaged bodies of Davros, the Master (The Deadly AssassinThe Keeper of Traken, the decaying paramedic he inhabits in the TV Movie or the skeletal figure the Master transforms into in The End of Time), Magnus Greel (The Talons of Weng-Chiang) or Sharaz Jek (The Caves of Androzani). The Doctor himself is routinely degraded: he is subject to spectacular forms of injury (including death) and torture (Genesis of the DaleksDalek). We saw Jo Grant undergo accelerated aging in The Claws of Axos and Professor Kerenskey age to death in City of Death; the Doctor himself ages in The Leisure Hive and The Sound of Drums/The Last of the Time Lords.

Such degradations reduce everyone to the body principle – as do the fart-gags of The Curse of the Fatal Death (it’s canon!) and Aliens of London/World War III. Entire cities can be reduced to the body principle: the Doctor wades through London’s sewer system when England’s capitol was at the hight of it’s Imperial power in The Talons of Weng-Chiang; beneath those same streets when London was the hub of the pop-culture revolution in the Swinging Sixties during The Invasion; and again when it was the centre of Thatcherite counter-revolution in Attack of the Cybermen. The Master repeatedly drags himself through ‘500 miles of fear and feces’ in The Curse of the Fatal Death (I said it’s canon). The reason that The One With The Maggots is remembered  so well is the viewers’ physical response to maggots and their association with bodily decay.

Eating is excessive during carnival time – the communal activity of feasting. In Doctor Who meal times are excessive in that they are a bonding activity rather than just a means to satisfy hunger: the Doctor’s first, unwilling companions begin to soften towards the Doctor as they share a meal from the Tardis food machine in The Daleks. Sharing cocoa becomes an accidental proposal of marriage in The Aztecs. Meals are shared in The Green Death. We see feasts in The Time Warrior and Warriors’ Gate. The first thing the Fourth Doctor does on encountering a prospective friend is to offer them jelly babies. The Eleventh Doctor befriends young Amy over a bowl of fish custard (The Eleventh Hour). While the human race prepares its Christmas feast in The End of Time the Master is driven mad by his own insatiable cravings:

THE MASTER: Want cheese and chips, and meat and gravy, and cream and beer, and pork and beef and fat, and great big chunks of hot wet red… And that human Christmas out there! They eat so much! All that roasting roasting meat, cakes and red wine, hot, fat, blood, pots, plates, meat, flesh, grease, juice and baking burnt sticky hot skin hot it’s so hot!

Even the human body becomes subject to what Bakhtin calls the culinary treatment in The Two DoctorsParadise Towers and Ghostlight:

DOCTOR: The Cream of Scotland Yard!

Carnival and the carnivalesque share a common etymological root with carnivorous, carnage – and carnal. Anyone who thinks there’s no sex in Doctor Who could not be more wrong: practically every story features some bizarre form of reproduction: cloning (The Invisible EnemyThe Leisure HiveThe Sontaran Stratagem/The Poison SkyThe Doctor’s Daughter), manufacturing (The Power of the DaleksSpearhead from Space), assimilation (Tomb of the CybermenThe Age of Steel/Rise of the Cybermen), hybridisation (The Seeds of DoomRevelation of the DaleksTerror of the Vervoids) and contamination (InfernoThe Invisible EnemyThe Waters of Mars). Grotesque realism blurs the distinction between bodily functions: is Noah dying, being eaten, or giving birth to a new form of himself in The Ark in Space? Such ambiguous transformations and violations of bodily margins are a recurrent theme of Doctor Who: apparently human bodies erupt into monstrous forms in The Claws of AxosThe MutantsTerror of the Zygons and Aliens of London/World War III.


It would be easy to mistake carnivalism as presented so far with wanton licentiousness and thereby identify it with common misconceptions about anarchism – but this would be to grossly simplify both carnivalism and anarchism, which are related, but in more complex and subtle ways (I examine the relationship between Bakhtin and anarchism here). If the carnivalesque was no more than the temporary suspension or inversion of social order then Marxist literary critic Terry Eagleton might have a point in dismissing carnival as a ‘licensed enclave’ or ‘safety valve’ for popular discontent – but carnival is a site of genuine symbolic struggle through ‘dialogism’. This doesn’t mean carnivals are about people who talk a lot, it means carnivals are the site in which a pluralism of world views are represented simultaneously. These world views are embodied in different languages and dialects and it is in the carnival that these languages interact as equals in a state of polyphony.

‘Dialogism’ is central to the way Bakhtin understands language. Bakhtin’s theory of language is closely related to that of another member of the ‘Bakhtin circle’, Valentin Volosinov – in fact Michael Holquist argues that Vološinov’s Marxism and the Philosophy of Language was written by Bakhtin himself. Whereas Ferdinand de Saussure, the Structuralist founder of modern linguistics, saw language in terms of the mathematical relationship between sign to sign within a closed system, Vološinov (or Bakhtin) saw language in terms of the relationships between people. They opposed what they saw as Saussure’s ‘abstract objectivism’, the privileging of ‘la langue’ (the impersonal system of signs) over ‘la parole’ (actual speech acts, or instances of speech use):

In essence, meaning belongs to a word in it’s position between speakers; that is, meaning is realised only in the process of active, responsive understanding. Meaning does not reside in the word or in the soul or in the soul of the listener. Meaning is the effect of the interaction between speaker and listener produced via the material of a particular sound complex. Only the current of verbal intercourse endows a word with the light of meaning.

– Valentin Vološinov, Marxism and the Philosophy of Language

Every ‘utterance’ (or unit of speech) is conditioned by that which has already been said, and what has already been said is qualified by new utterances; these new utterances are also conditioned by the responses the speaker wishes to solicit. Think of the two-way process involved in a conversation: speakers don’t simply take turns saying things they intended to say beforehand unless they’re politicians; each person continually adapts to what has been said previously, clarifying or qualifying it, and adapting what they say next according to the response they are hoping for.  Moreover, words as used in dialogue possess not only a referential content – a literal meaning – but value judgements, or ‘evaluative accents’, to which Structuralists like Saussure are deaf. Every utterance is, in fact, an evaluative utterance – but the Structuralist separation of evaluation from meaning ‘inevitably deprives meaning of its place in the living social process’ as a result of which it is ‘ontologised and transformed into ideal Being divorced from the historical process of Becoming’: as the Doctor observes in The Time Monster:

DOCTOR: Being without Becoming… an ontological absurdity.

Structuralist and other systematized linguistic theories stress the centripetal forces which centralize and unify language but dialogism stresses the centrifugal forces which decentre and disunify it:

Every utterance participates in the ‘unitary language’ (in its centripetal forces and tendencies) and at the same time partakes of social and historical heteroglossia (the centrifugal, stratifying forces).

Such is the fleeting language of a day, of an epoch, a school and so forth. It is possible to give a concrete and detailed analysis of any utterance, once having exposed it as a tension-filled unity of two embattled tendancies in the life of language

– Mikhail Bakhtin, The Dialogic Imagination

All books, or films, or TV shows follow a similar process, drawing upon previous works, consciously or unconsciously, to create meaning while simultaneously casting the texts they draw upon in a new light and evaluating it: it is this process Julia Kristeva, influenced by the works of both Saussure and Bakhtin, calls intertextuality. In carnivalised fiction this process is hightened and deliberately drawn to the audience’s attention. We can see how Bakhtin’s philosophy of language plays out in a brief analysis of one of the series most linguistically playful and ‘carnivalised’ stories, Carnival of Monsters.


Carnivalised fiction is characterised by heteroglossia: clashes of language and viewpoint, or speech genres. To Bakhtin, different languages reflect different views of the world with their own meanings and values, and the carnival is the social context in which these different voices interact on an equal footing. Bakhtin argues that

…at any given moment of its historic existence, language is heteroglot from top to bottom: it represents the co-existance of socio-ideological contradictions between the present and the past, between differing epochs of the past, between different socio-ideological groups in the present, between tendences, schools, circles and so forth, all given bodily form. These ‘languages’ of heteroglossia intersectect other in a variety of ways, forming new socially typifying ‘languages”’

– Mikhail Bakhtin, The Dialogic Imagination

The Web Planet gives us glimpses of the Opteras’ alien perceptions through their language: ‘A silent wall. We must make mouths in it with our weapons, then it will speak more light.’ Logopolis introduces us to a race who speak, and perceive the world, in the language of mathematics. The translation convention (the ‘Time Lord gift’) means that major linguistic differences are often glossed over in Doctor Who but exceptions occur: the Doctor speaks Mandarin in The Mind of Evil and Tibetan in The Planet of the Spiders (though he has apparently forgotten this language in The Creature from the Pit!). Some aliens have languages just too alien for the Tardis translators, including the Foamasi (The Leisure Hive) and the Hath (The Doctor’s Daughter).

More subtly, languages are stratified internally, and formal or professional registers may coexist with colloquial language and slang within a single linguistic code: in Carnival of Monsters the colourful language of the show folk clashes with the drab, ironic tones of officialdom. We first encounter Kalik and Orum, members of the ruling caste, as they await the first visitors to their planet in many years. ‘They are tall, thin grey humanoids’ according to the script, ‘grey skinned, grey haired, dressed in grey’. Their speech is impersonal and lifeless, a formal register as ‘grey’ as their appearance, and their body posture is stiff.

KALIK: The cargo shuttle has arrived.
ORUM: One must prefer oneself to encounter the aliens.
KALIK: Reluctantly, one agrees.

The visitors are very different in appearance – ‘Vorg is a person of dramatic presence, with fierce eyebrows waxed to points like Kitchener’s moustache. His companion, Shirna, is a very pretty girloid under her multi-coloured make up. One glance tells us that they are members of Equity Galactic: a second glance that times are hard, Vorg’s golden boots are down at heal and Shirna’s fish nets have been cobbled so often the pattern is lost.’ (Note Robert Holmes’ playful use of language even in his stage directions: a TV insider in-joke in ‘Equity Galactic’, the neologism ‘girloid’, a literal use of the normally figurative expression ‘down at heal’).

Their language is informal, their tone and body language expressive:

SHIRNA: (ANGRILY) Top of the bill, he says! Received like a Princess, he says.
VORG: (PLACATINGLY) Now, Shirna…Don’t be so…Oh no- the Scope!

Shirna’s very first line – ‘Top of the bill, he says! Received like a Princess, he says’ – is dialogical: a re-utterance of an assurance Vorg has presumably given her before the start of the story, recontextualised through the ‘evaluative accent’ of sarcasm.

Later, Vorg, mistaking the Doctor for a fellow showman, addresses him in an extraordinary dialect:

VORG: Parlare the Carny? Varda the bonapalone? Niente dinari here, y’jils?’

Parlare (variously spelt Parlary, Palare, Palarie, Palari or more commonly Polari) was a form of slang used by various groups of outsiders including showmen, criminals, prostitutes and homosexuals: it was perhaps most widely known through the camp gay characters Julian and Sandy from the BBC radio show Round the Horne. (Vorg’s lines translate as ‘Do you speak Carny?’, ‘Have you seen the pretty ladies?’ and ‘There’s no money to be made here, you understand?’) The language borrows much from Romany and was particularly common among Punch and Judy artists. Interestingly, Leslie Dwyer, who plays Vorg in this story, is best known for his performance as a Punch and Judy artist in Hi-De-Hi. In Snakedance, the Doctor notes that Punch and Judy exist in many worlds and many cultures. Ace persistently refers to the 7th Doctor as the ‘Professor’ – the traditional name for Punch and Judy operators – appropriate enough for an incarnation often seen as a puppet master. Vorg mistakes the Doctor’s title for a show business affectation:

VORG: Doctor. Great title, you know. Doctors, Professors, always pulls them in.

There’s more parlare/polari in Trial of a Time Lord when Dibber describes the Doctor as ‘a dilly in a long coat’.

The Functionaries verbal language is incomprehensible to us but their gestures make their meaning unmistakable: the script refers to ‘a stream of incomprehensible but obviously revolutionary gobbledeygook’. The ‘reality’ of the SS Bernice is established intertextually: crates in the hold are addressed to Singapore and Jo presents the Doctor with a copy of The Illustrated London News from Saturday, April 3, 1926 as further evidence they are on Earth. Major Daly is reading a potboiler with which he is making little progress (‘Determined to finish this book before we reach Bombay’) while Claire and Lt Andrews are overheard discussing the theatrical musicals Lady Be Good (starring Fred Astaire) and Chu Chin Chow:

ANDREWS: Chu Chin Chow! I tell you, the whole thing’s absolute rubbish!
CLAIRE: Oh, it wasn’t. How can you say that?
ANDREWS: Well, I’ve sailed into Shanghai fifty times, my girl. I know what Johnny Chinaman’s like!

The crew and passengers of the Bernice have linguistic code appropriate to their cultural origin:

MAJOR DALY: Splendid dinner. Absolutely topping!

The Doctor is fluent in this code: ‘Topping day, what? Well, twenty-three skidoo, must get on, eh? Pip, pip!’ Twenty-three skidoo was added by Jon Pertwee himself; the phrase originates in the Flatiron Building on 23rd Street on the corner of Fifth Avenue and Broadway where men would gather to watch the wind blow up the skirts of passing women and they could get a glimpse of their ankles (such was the world before the internet!); police would move them on – or ask them to ‘skedaddle‘. It’s an uncannily appropriate phrase for a story dealing explicitly with the theme of voyeurism.

Bakhtin borrows the concept of speech genres from Vološinov. For Vološinov, all utterences are a site of struggle over meaning between competing social classes with their own particular speech genres. Bakhtin describes the clash of speech genres in which no voice is dominant as polyphony. Ruling classes always attempt to restrict the meanings of words and signs – to make them ‘uni-accentual’ – but polyphony continually subverts this process by making signs ‘multi-accentual’.

According to Vološinov:

…every living sign has two faces, like Janus. Any current curse word can become a word of praise , any current truth must inevitably sound to many people as the greatest lie. This inner dialectical quality of the sign comes out fully in the open only in times of social crises or revolutionary changes. In the ordinary conditions of life, the contradiction embedded in every ideological sign cannot fully emerge because…an established dominant ideology…always tries, as it were, to stabilise the dialectical flux.

– Valentin Vološinov, Marxism and the Philosophy of Language

Incidents and sentences are repeated again and again to indicate that time has folded back on itself, innocent phrases becoming increasingly loaded with uncanny affect on each utterance:

DALY: You say the cook’s a Madrasi, Andrews?
ANDREWS: I believe so, sir.
DALY: Hmm. I find the Madrasis a bit idle myself. Won’t have them on the plantation. Still, I must admit your fellow knows how to curry a chicken. Sundowner?
ANDREWS: Er, not for me, sir.
DALY: Claire?
CLAIRE: No, thank you, Daddy. John and I thought we’d take a turn around the deck.
ANDREWS: Would you care to join us, sir? It’s a glorious evening.
DALY: No, no, no, no, no. You two run along. I’m going to do a spot of reading. Determined to finish this book before we reach Bombay.
CLAIRE: Well, we’re due there tomorrow. How much have you got left?
DALY: Only another two chapters.
ANDREWS: Well, we’ll see you later then, sir.
DALY: Right.
ANDREWS: Twenty times round the deck is a mile, Claire. So, if we put our best feet forward!
JO: (WHISPERING) Doctor, they’re saying exactly the same things as before.

No utterance is ever truly repeatable for Bakhtin: nothing ‘recurs’, as on each utterance words accumulate, reinforce or even parody previous utterance.

Within one and the same utterance, a sentence may be repeated (a repetition, a self-quotation, or even accidentally), but each time this is a new part of the utterance, since its place and function in the utterance as a whole is changed.

– Mikhail Bakhtin, The Problem of the Text in Linguistics, Philology and other Humanities Studies

Repetition is not repetitiousness’: the ‘redundancy’ of repetition is essential for conveying meaning and affect beyond referential content:

How often we use words we do not need for their meaning, or repeat one and the same word or phrase, only to have a material carrier for some necessary intonation…

– Mikhail Bakhtin,Toward a Methodology for the Humanities

The uncanny – in German das unheimliche – is the familiar made strange, a state of anxiety caused by the cognitive dissonance resulting from holding two conflicting ideas at the same time (psychoanalytic definitions need not detain us here). The observer is simultaneously drawn to, and repelled, by the same thing: in this case drawn to the comfort of recognition. All utterances in fact draw upon the centripetal forces of recognition – of what has already been said – and the centrifugal forces of unique context.

Andrew’s derogatory reference to ‘Johnny Chinaman‘ embodies his class’s sense of cultural superiority to Britain’s Imperial subjects, as does Daly’s comments about the Madrassis. Daly’s ‘Sahib‘ (‘Oh, dash it all – the fellow is a Sahib, you know!’) – itself borrowed from Arabic – refers to a fellow Imperial ‘owner’ or ‘proprieter’. As with The Talons of Weng-Chiang (see below) these terms are granted an ironic ‘evaluative accent’ through the pastiche of generic form – though this will not prevent someone casting a determined deaf-ear to evaluative accent in order to find something to be offended by.

Speech genres embody social relationships. The military speech genre has its own code words (‘Grayhound to Trap One’) designed to exclude outsiders. It embodies social relationships in commands: ‘Chap with wings – five rounds rapid’ does not invite verbal response. Failure to recognise the unwritten rules of a speech genre leads to disaster: despite a flawless imitation of the Brigadier’s voice the Master makes a catastrophic error in The Time Monster:

SGT BENTON: The Brigadier is not in the habit of calling sergeants ‘My dear fellow’.
THE MASTER: Ah, the tribal taboos of army etiquette!

Other speech genres featured in Doctor Who include professional or scientific jargon – often derided as ‘technobabble’. Carnival of Monsters gives us examples of basic chemistry – on exiting the Tardis the Doctor refers to ‘gaseous sulphides in a fairly low concentration’ in the hold of the ship and later the Doctor identifies ‘marsh gas in the Drashig swamp (‘Mostly hydrogen – should be highly flamable’) as well as  fantasy science – the metal plate in the corridor ‘works by anti-magnetic cohesion’. Douglas Adams’ scripts rejoice in knowing scientific absurdity as much as his Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. In The Pirate Planet Romana refers to the Tardis’ synchronic feedback circuit and the multi-loop stabiliser. We also get a linear induction corridor – the Doctor’s line ‘I’ll never be cruel to an electron in a particle accelerator again’ seems to be a deliberate not to Arthur Dent’s ‘I’ll never be cruel to a gin and tonic again!’ – a macromac field integrator, an ambilicyclic photon bridge, a magnifactoid eccentricolometer, a counter-jamming frequency projector, a warp oscilliscope and the Polyphase Avatron.  The Five Doctors and The Lazarus Experiment both send up the Third Doctor’s supposed catch-phrase (actually used only once, in The Sea Devils) ‘reverse the polarity of the neutron flow’.

Religions also have their speech genres.

The Language of the Marketplace

A specific speech genre of the carnivalesque is billingsgate named after the rather colourful language of the Billingsgate market fishmongers. Billingsgate refers to exaggerated boasts and insults, for example this exchange between the Doctor and Sutekh in Pyramids of Mars:

DOCTOR: Serve you, Sutekh? Your name is abominated in every civilised world, whether that name be Set, Satan, Sodos
SUTEKH: Serve me, Doctor.
DOCTOR: Never! Argh!
SUTEKH: You pit your puny will against mine? Kneel!
SUTEKH: Kneel before the might of Sutekh! In my presence, you are an ant, a termite! Abase yourself, you grovelling insect!

And later:

DOCTOR: You use your powers for evil.
SUTEKH: Evil? Your evil is my good. I am Sutekh the Destroyer. Where I tread I leave nothing but dust and darkness. I find that good.
DOCTOR: Then I curse you, Sutekh, in the name of all nature. You are a twisted abhorrence. Argh!
SUTEKH: Any further insolence, Doctor, and I shall shred your nervous system into a million fibres. Is that understood?

Or this from The Caves of Androzani:

SHARAZ JEK:  Do you think bullets can stop me now? You stinking offal, Morgus, look at me!

Billingsgate runs counter to bourgeois norms of speech and decorum and is frequently misunderstood by the middle-classes: ‘You weak fool! You craven hearted spineless poltroon!’ from The Deadly Assassin is one of many pure examples of billingsgate misidentified as ‘Dialogue Disasters’ in The Discontinuity Guide.

The Doctor’s frequent, seemingly unprovoked rudeness to authority figures (e.g. The Mind of Evil) is another example of billingsgate.

Billingsgate is the language of the marketplace – a reminder of the link between popular pleasures and commerce. Fairs, for instance, are public gatherings for trade as well as amusement.  Whereas ‘high art’ stands aloof from commercial concerns the carnival makes no such pretence, as illustrated this Wildean exchange from Terror of the Autons:

ROSSINI: Come, come, Doctor – gentlemen don’t discuss money.
DOCTOR: Nonsense – gentlemen never talk about anything else!

In that story the Autons attempt to invade Earth using recognisable marketing techniques: plastic daffodils had been used in a successful marketing campaign for Persil. Their earlier attempt had used shop window mannequins and they repeated this tactic in Rose.

The language of commerce reappears throughout the show, as in this scene from The Talons of Weng-Chiang where Jago ponders marketing of his experiences:

JAGO: Think large, Henry Jago, think large. Shilling a head? I must be crazy. A guinea a head! Conducted tours round the lair of the phantom. I’ll lead them myself and modestly mention the part I played in the affair. The ladies will swoon in my arms. Oh, it’s a winner. It’s a beauty. I’ll go bail. I’ll clear out all this old junk, call in the electric lighting company

Sabalom Glitz quotes his prison psychiatrist’s diagnosis mockingly: Bakhtin refers to quotations of one speech genre within another, illustrating clashes of belief systems, as hybrid utterances. More than this, quotation adds evaluative accents to that which is being quoted:

In response to a rebel’s question ‘What have we got to lose?’ in The Sun Makers the Doctor parodies Marx: ‘Only your claims!’ For Bakhtin, all utterances cite previous speech and carry echoes of their previous users as well as our own expression. We continually assimilate, re-work and re-accentuate the words of others – yet every utterance is uniquebecause even if they use precisely the same words the context is always different.

To  adopt a speech genre is a performative act, to take on – even temporarily – a role or a mask.

The Brain of Morbius plays on the conventions of the various retellings of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and The Horror of Fang Rock pays homage to Wilfrid Gibson’s poem Flannan Isle. In Underworld and The Horns of Nimon the Doctor explicitly refers to the Greek myths of Theseus and the Minotaur and Jason and the Argonauts which inspired those stories. In The Androids of Tara he responds to a plan lifted from Anthony Hope’s The Prisoner of Zenda with the knowing comment ‘Well, it’s been done before…’. That story is rich in literary illusions: Count Grendel is named after one of the antagonists of the Alglo Saxon epic poem Beowulf, and Lamia after a similarly monstrous Greek mythological figure who also appears in a poem by John Keats.

More recently, The Unquiet DeadThe Shakespeare CodeThe Unicorn and the Wasp and Vincent and the Doctor have brought authors and artists themselves into the story.

A Pageant without Footlights

Dialogical or intertextual fiction undermines the notion of the omnipotent, monological author: it is up to the audience to create meaning for themselves. The speaker is not an isolated entity whose utterances can be understood independently of the listener: the listener must orient themselves to the speeker in order to create meaning. Carnival is ‘without floodlights’ – the distinction between performer and audience is blurred:

Of course these real people, the authors and listeners or readers, may be (and often are) located in differing time-spaces, sometimes separated from each other by centuries and by great spacial distances, but nevertheless they are located in a real, unitary and as yet incomplete historical world set off by a sharp and categorical boundary from the represented world in the text. Therefore we may call this world the world that creates the text, for all its aspects – the reality reflected in the text, the authors creating the text, the performers of the text (if they exist) and finally the listeners or readers who recreate and in doing so renew the text – participate equally in the creation of the represented world in the text. Out of the actual chronotopes of our world (which serve as the source of representation) emerge the reflected and created chronotopes of the world represented in the work (in the text).

– Mikhail Bakhtin, The Dialogic Imagination

The Chronotope

Chronotope‘ refers to the way that time and space are organised within a work of fiction – and outside it. If the name evokes the image of some kind of time machine then that’s not far off: chronotope means, literally ‘time-space’ (from the Greek ‘χρόνος’ for time, ‘τόπος’ for space). The chronotope is possibly Bakhtin’s most difficult concept, a ‘unit of analysis for studying language according to the ratio and characteristics of the temporal and spatial categories represented in that language’; for Bakhtin, different chronotopes constitute different genres. In the chronotope

…spatial and temporal indicators are fused into one carefully thought out, concrete whole. Time, as it were, thickens, takes on flesh, becomes artistically visible; likewise, space becomes charged and responsive to the movements of time, plot and history.

– Mikhail Bakhtin, The Dialogic Imagination

Different genres of fiction are defined by their chronotopes: the way space and time are organised thematically. In the Greek Romance, for instance chronotopes take the form of Adventure Time: the hero is never effected by the passage of time.

…in it there is a sharp hiatus between two moments of biographical time, a hiatus that leaves no trace in the life of the heroes or in their personalities…Moments of adventuristic time occur when…the normal…sequence of life’s events is interrupted. These points provide an opening for the intrusion of nonhuman forces

– Mikhail Bakhtin, The Dialogic Imagination

Moreover, the chronotope of the Greek Romance has its roots in cultures less socially stratified than our own:

Greek romance reveals its strong ties with a folklore that predates class distinctions, assimilating one of the essential elements in the folkloric concepts of a man, one that survives to the present in various aspects of folklore, especially in folktales

– Mikhail Bakhtin, The Dialogic Imagination

There’s certainly a great deal of Adventure Time in Doctor Who, particularly before the series was relaunched in 2005; however Adventure Time exists in dialogue with other chronotopes such as that represented by the Roman Novel. Apuleius‘s Metamorphoses introduces change to the life of the hero:

Metamorphosis serves as the basis for a method of portraying the whole of an individual’s life in its more important moments of crisis: for showing how an individual becomes other than what he was.

– Mikhail Bakhtin, The Dialogic Imagination

Friction is created between science fiction and historical drama in The AztecsThe Crusade and The Fires of Pompeii. Other genres the series has ‘dialogue’ with are the Western (The Gunfighters), horror (Pyramids of Mars, The Brain of Morbius), heritage drama (Black Orchid), biography (Marco Polo,Vincent and the Doctor) and mystery (Robots of Death, Terror of the Vervoids and The Unicorn and the Wasp). Official versions of ‘truth’, in the form of news coverage, is contested by direct experience in Ambassadors of DeathThe Deadly AssassinThe Armageddon Factor and Vengeance on Varos. Occasionally ontologically distinct worlds come into contact with each other: the parallel Earths of Inferno and The Age of Steel/Rise of the Cybermen, for instance, or the ‘real’ world of Gallifrey and the virtual reality of the Matrix in The Deadly Assassin and The Trial of a Time LordCarnival of Monsters and Nightmare of Eden feature microcosms of one world suspended within another.


Dialogism is opposed to monologism, the idea that definitions can be fixed or finalized, and this applies to the conceptions of identity as well as to language. Whereas the ‘realist’ novel, for instance, portrays identity as fixed, the carnivalesque portrays identity as unstable and unknowable. The Doctor is possibly the most ‘unfinalized’ character in popular fiction: we are already into his 11th incarnation, each of whom is a radical departure from his predecessor. The title of the show makes explicit that the Doctor remains ultimately unknowable – Doctor Who? We don’t even know his name. Just when we think we know who he is the show throws up new mysteries: according to Lady Peinforte in Silver Nemesis the Doctor is more than a Time Lord; in the TV Movie the Eighth Doctor claims his mother is human. The Doctor is a character who is forever unfolding, being added to – or subtracted from: ‘I am being diminished, whittled away piece by piece. A man is the sum of his memories you know, a Time Lord even more so.’ (The Five Doctors). The Doctor suppresses his memories in order to become human in Human Nature/Family of Blood (we discover the Master has done the same in Utopia). The Next Doctor is also built upon the relationship between memory and identity.

Dialogism is always relational, whether that relationship is between speech genres (heteroglossia), between signifier and signified, between text and context or between self and other. The very notion of consciousness or selfhood is predicated on the dialogical relationship between a centre and all that is not that centre: just as in Relativity the motion of bodies can only be determined relative to each other, so the centre of the self  (the-I-for-itself – the way I see me) can only be understood in its dialogical relationship with the not-centre (the-not-I-in-me – the way others see me). Each person is perceived through the lens of another, from the outside: their physical characteristics, their manner of speaking, and their relationship to specific social and historical categories.

In the ‘realist’ novel the fixed, finalized and monological self is identical with the-I-for-itself. The Doctor’s identity is very much not-centred: he is ex-centric – and this is perhaps why he requires another – a companion – to hold his identity together. The doppelgänger ‘decentres’ the subject still further by creating a ‘self’ which is exterior to the self; it opens the self up to dialogue. In Planet of the Spiders Ch-Je is literally an exteriorisation of K’anpo and in Logopolis the Watcher is an exteriorization of the Doctor. Dialogue with a double is an exteriorization of ‘inner speech’: in Trial of a Time Lord the Valeyard is  an aspect of the Doctor from between his Twelfth and final incarnations, and in Amy’s Choice the Dream Lord is an exteriorization of the Doctor’s own subconscious: in both cases the Doctor’s inner speech is quite literally exteriorized as his doubles publicly mock and question his values and give voice to his fears and doubts.

Writing for Two Doctors, interestingly, suits Matt Smith’s style of performance because he almost – even when he’s just one Doctor – he almost feels to be finishing his own sentences if you know what I mean. He’s always interrupting himself and contradicting himself in mid-flow and he’ll say ‘Do I mean that? Do I mean that?’ and he’s often having this internal dialogue with himself…In a way all you’re doing is taking that internal dialogue and making it external.

– Matthew Graham, Doctor Who Confidential: Take Two (S5:06)

Doppelgangers are a common theme of the carnival – and of Doctor Who – and serve to dramatise the dialogical relationship between self and other. For Bakhtin the double draws attention to the various alternative selves which are sacrificed for one’s public identity: ‘the possibilities of another man and another life are revealed’ through doubles:

The dialogical attitude of man to himself…contributes to the destruction of his integrity and finalizedness.

– Bakhtin, Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics

 The doppelgänger is just about the most common trope in Doctor Who. We meet doppelgängers of the First Doctor in The Chase and The Massacre of of St Bartholomew’s Eve and of the Second Doctor in Enemy of the World. Autons attempt to take over the Earth via duplicates in the Establishment in Spearhead from Space and the Third Doctor encounters doppelgängers of the Brigadier, Liz Shaw and Sargeant Benton in Inferno; he also briefly encounters his and Jo’s future selves in Day of the Daleks, and meets both his former selves in The Three Doctors. Sarah Jane has duplicates in Terror of the Zygons and The Android Invasion. Xoanon takes the Fourth Doctor’s face in The Face of Evil and the Doctor and Leela are cloned in The Invisible Enemy. Romana I has an android and a Taran duplicate in The Androids of Tara and Romana II takes on the image of Princess Astra from The Armageddon Factor. Count Scarlioni has duplicates scattered throughout history in City of Death (‘The centuries which divide me shall be undone!’). Meglos takes onthe Fourth Doctor’s spiky persona. The Master takes the form of a younger Tremas at the end of The Keeper of Traken. Nyssa has a duplicate in Black Orchid. Kameleon is the doppelgänger equivalent of a Swiss Army knife. The Sixth Doctor looks just like Commander Maxil from Arc of Infinity and Omega takes on the form of the Fourth Doctor in that same story. A deleted scene from Silver Nemesis shows Ace looking at a portrait of a woman who looks just like her. Mickey Smith has an Auton duplicate in Rose. Rose meets alternative versions of her parents in The Age of Steel/Rise of the Cybermen while Mickey meets his tougher, but gay, duplicate Ricky, and a still-living Gran. The Eleventh Hour features doppelgängers of sleeping coma patients and Rory is resurrected as an Auton replica in The Pandorica Opens.

According to Doctor Who: The Unfolding Text the doppelgänger is the ‘authorial signature’ of the Philip Hinchcliffe era of Doctor Who: I hope that the extensive, but by no means exhaustive, list of instances of doppelgängers above demonstrates that the theme recurs throughout the show’s entire history rather than being specific to one production team – if anything, the frequency of doppelgängers increases when Graham Williams took over.

Notions of identity are also thrown into question through the use of masks. Magnus Greel (The Talons of Weng-Chiang) and Sharaz Jek (The Caves of Androzani) wear masks to hide their disfigurements. In The Robots of Death Taren Capel paints his face into an approximation of the Robots’ face masks. In The Masque of Mandragora and The Leisure Hive the Doctor dons the mask of the villain in order to subvert their attempts at taking power. The word ‘mask’ comes from the Arabis word for jester or clown.

The Unique ‘Event’ of Being

This self is constituted through language:

Each and every word expresses the ‘one’ in relation to the ‘other’. I give myself verbal shape from another’s point of view, ultimately from the point of view of the community to which I belong. A word is a bridge thrown between myself and another. If one end of the bridge depends on me, then the other depends on my addressee. A word is a territory shared by both addresser and addressee, by the speaker and his interlocutor”

– Valentin Vološinov, Marxism and the Philosophy of Language

This ‘addressivity’ has ethical implications as only one person can ever occupy the same point in time and space making each person individually responsible for their actions; this contrasts sharply with anti-humanist conceptions of subject such as those Structural Marxists such as Louis Althusser who regarded the subject as constituted entirely in ideology through a process of interpolation – thereby effectively abolishing agency and responsibility altogether. (I’ll have more to say on Althusser in my essay on Mystifying Movies.)

Existence, then, like language, is a shared event, a ‘border incident’ (Holquist) joining and separating the unique, immediate reality of the world as it presents itself to me, with the reality of the system preceding me in existence. The pronoun ‘I’ marks the point of articulation between the pre-existing, repeatable and centripetal system of language and the unique, unrepeatable and centrifugal existence of myself as a particular person in a specific social and historical situation. The pronoun ‘I’ does not attach itself to a particular object in the sense of a noun because it it is semantically empty at the level of a linguistic system and gains content only within a particular utterance: its meaning depends entirely on who uses it and when.

Since the self is an unfolding  event constituted in language, and language is a dynamic, dialogical process rather than a static system of signs, it is not surprising that a carnivalesque series like Doctor Who should treat stasis and immortality – the ‘ontological absurdity’ of ‘Being without Becoming’ – with horror. Despite starring a character concerned with saving lives the programme displays a horror of extendeding life beyond its ‘natural’ span in The Abominable Snowman, The Brain of MorbiusThe Deadly AssassinUnderworldThe Pirate Planet, Mawdryn UndeadThe Five Doctors, The Two DoctorsThe End of the World and The Lazarus Experiment: those who seek immortality suffer greatly for it.

This explains the Doctor’s existential dread of Captain Jack in Utopia:

CAPTAIN JACK: In the end, I got the message. I’m the man who can never die, and all that time you knew.
DOCTOR: That’s why I left you behind. It’s not easy even just… just looking at you, Jack, cos you’re wrong.
DOCTOR: You are. I can’t help it. I’m a Time Lord. It’s instinct; it’s in my guts. You’re a fixed point in time and space; you’re a fact. That’s never meant to happen. Even the TARDIS reacted against you, tried to shake you off. Flew all the way to the end of the universe just to get rid of you.
CAPTAIN JACK: So what you’re saying is… you’re prejudiced?
DOCTOR: I never thought of it like that.
CAPTAIN JACK: Shame on you.

Torchwood often deals with the tragic consequences of artificially extended life (Out of TimeAdam) and immortality (They Keep Killing SuzieDead Man WalkingA Day in the Death) and throughout the ten-part Torchwood: Miricle Day.

Of course, the Doctor himself is practically ‘immortal’ in human terms – but he is never static, he is always in the process of Becoming.

Bakhtin was influenced by the Soviet psychologist Lev Vygotsky who had emphasised the social aspects of child development. Whereas Jean Piaget had stressed the biological aspects of child development Vygotsky had stressed the role of tutoring:

[T]he true direction of the development of thinking is not from the individual to the socialised, but from the social to the individual

– Lev Vygotsky, Thought and Language (p.20)

  1. acuginotti says:

    Don’t know much about Doctor Who, but enjoyed reading your article! Thanks!

  2. Terry Carter says:

    I couldn’t fail to disagree with your analysis less! Loved the piece. I was going to add that another way that Who is perennially carnival is in the way that the Dr. seldom sleeps. “Sleep is for the weary, rest for the dead”. “Sleep is for tortoises”. It’s like each of his incarnations is one long all-nighter at the street faire.

  3. Thanks. I still need to come up with a good conclusion though and I need to update it to include Matt Smith’s Doctor – especially since he did a Punch and Judy bit in the Christmas special!

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