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Box of Jhana

By David Carroll, Kyla Ward and Kate Orman

First Appeared in Burnt Toast#3, 1990

with thanks to Larissa Hunter, Peter Griffiths, Fiona Simms and Matthew Milner.

Fiction, and indeed art, in its most basic form has two objectives, to be entertaining and to be meaningful. These criteria can both be interpreted in many different ways, leading to the multitude of forms in which we express ourselves. The importance of each of these objectives also varies widely, depending on the structure or the author of the piece. Symbolism is simply one of many (and possibly the subtlest) ways in which 'meaningfulness' can manifest itself. Like good mathematical notation a literary symbol can summarise a great deal of connotation in a simple frame-work, and if used properly it can enhance a story without drawing overt attention to itself.

Doctor Who, with its many producers, writers and script-editors, has redefined its use of symbolism constantly over the years. The normal 'brief' for a DW writer seems to be to entertain, to provide a story that can be followed by anyone and submerge as much symbolism as desired under the story-line. Thus we have stories ranging from the relative simplicities of The Visitation to the deeply ingrained Buddhist imagery of Kinda.

And so in this column we're taking a look at symbolism within Doctor Who over the years, from the over-all 'mythology' of the television program to individual stories, and even lines. It's a big job, and we've undoubtedly made many omissions, so write in if anything's too blaringly missing, or indeed wrong.

Symbolism within Doctor Who
a Pot-pourri


perhaps the most important, and certainly most-used, piece of symbolism through-out the show's history, this involves two states, structurally similar, but ideological opposed, and with no middle ground in between. This motif comes up again and again, a short list goes something like: Good/Evil (both by implication, or more explicitly as in White/Black Guardian), N-Space/E-Space Matter/Anti-matter (Planet of Evil) Man/Beastman (Inferno, Planet of Evil, Greatest Show) Aggression/Pacivity (The Daleks, The Dominators, Survival) Intellectualism/Simplicity (The Daleks, The Savages, Gallifreyan Society, Kinda, The Mysterious Planet) Beauty/Ugliness (The Daleks, Galaxy Four, Ambassadors of Death, The Claws of Axos) And of course: Doctor/Abbot of Amboise, Doctor/Salamander, Doctor/Meddling Monk, Doctor/Master, Doctor/Gallifreyan society, Doctor/Valeyard and Doctor/Fenric. Note that this simply isn't a listing of doubles in the show, the Doctor coupled with either the Dalek's or Kraal's android or the Rani, or the two Nyssa's in Black Orchid, have more relation to plot development then any symbolism. The most interesting of these is perhaps the Doctor/Master relationship because of its variability. The Fifth Dr/Master was obviously Good/Evil whilst Seventh Dr/Master is closer to Sanity/Insanity. As for the pre-Keeper of Traken Master, there seems to exist a far more complex relationship which goes beyond the scope of this discussion [1].

The Crystal

symbolises desired power. One has only to look at a well-used device of sci-fi, for example in Star Trek IV, where the ships power series comes from a crystal and a dangerous quest must be undertaken to find a replacement. The power can be more esoteric, as in Enlightenment where Turlough is offered the glowing crystal in exchange for the Doctor's life. The blue crystals of Metebelis III are also a dangerous stimulator of mental powers; through them the Great One seeks to dominate the universe. And in The Time Monster, the Master seeks to use the Crystal of Kronos, in which the monster is imprisoned, to control its power. The crystal also required a quest, through the maze of the minotaur. In these last cases, the power embodied in the glowing crystal is delusive. Mere possession of it does not bring the wisdom and ability to use the power, but destruction. For Turlough, 'the enlightenment lay, not in the crystal, but in the choice.'

Morality Plays

A more 'entire' form of symbolism, this sort of structure gives related meanings to each part of the whole, relating them to a moral stance. Shows like The Daleks and Claws of Axos are examples of this, but the best case within Doctor Who has to be The Two Doctors. Here Androgum's are representative of ourselves whereas the humans are representative of the animals we kill to eat. This theme carries right through the story, including characters representing the amoral animal researcher, military interest in animal research and of course Oscar, who kills simply to admire his beloved moths (and gets pinned himself as just dessert) [2].

The Web

'There he sits, like a spider at the centre of a great, metal web' said the Doctor in The Sunmakers, a story notable for its 'science-fiction' look. This indicates that webs have another meaning then 'here is a Gothic mansion', though in State of Decay and Warrior's Gate it is used as one of the standard gothic props. But even there, what does it signify? Recall the scene in the Lugosi Dracula where the Count glides up a web filled stairway. When Harker tries to follow he is entangled by them. Webs are also a warning, the premonition of a trap closing round. As the Doctor parts the web of Warriors Gate, he moves deeper into danger, the danger being entrapment rather then death. Web imagery also occurs in Castrovalva, where the web is the imploding city, with Adric imprisoned at its heart.

The Question Mark

One of the most obvious symbols of the show, the ? has been a trade-mark of the John Nathan-Turner reign. After letting the audience get use to it as the Doctor's emblem it has recently become more noticeable thanks to the seventh Doctor's coat and umbrella, not to mention the card from Remembrance of the Daleks. At its most simple the symbol simply summarises the mysterious nature of our hero and its greater prominence parallels the Doctor's recent enigmatic nature. However the use of the ? is more wide-spread then is perhaps first apparent, for example the Doctor's mourning cloak in Revelation contains question marks worked into the detail and, far more interesting, Omega's costume from Ark of Infinity has a pair of stylized question marks in the same position as the Doctor's. It is this, along with the fact that the question mark appears on the Doctor's card that suggests it is more then a piece of English notation but also a character or symbol of Gallifreyan origin, perhaps a mark of rank or family from the Dark Times.

And since we have been talking above about Gallifreyan characters and (above) mathematical notation, it's interesting to note the similarities between the two. Two names transfer directly, Theta Sigma and Omega(Theta Sigma and (lowercase) Omega) [3] and the writing on the Doctor's card and the Old High Gallifreyan in The Five Doctors both contain Greek and mathematical symbols.

[Addendum from BT 4: it is strongly suggested in the Remembrance of the Daleks novelisation that the question mark is actually the seal of the Prydonian chapter on Gallifrey. And talking of strong suggestions, go out and read this book, it is the best piece of printed Doctor Who ever.]

The Skull

In its simplest form, the skull is the symbol for danger. The iconography of poison bottles and pirate flags. When a skull appears, it is a warning of primal danger, of destruction of the self, basic and personal. The image of the Fendahl was an indestructible skull that sucked 'the soul, the life-force, whatever you want to call it', it was death which fed on life. Pithier incidents of the skull as symbol occur in Timeflight, where Nyssa, the only one whose mind was resisting the Master's illusion of Heathrow Airport, caught a terrifying glimpse of rotting bodies and grinning skulls that was reality; and also in The Masque of Mandragora where Hieronymous gives the hypnotised Sarah a poisoned pin, the head of which was shaped as a skull, with which to strike the Doctor down. Also note the skull motif in the décor of Terminus.


The Nazi's are favourite villains in any series, and have been used often in DW, from the pseudo-Nazi's of Genesis of the Daleks to the actual thing, in Remembrance and Silver Nemesis. The two Dalek stories here are no co-incidence, one of the standard traits of the Dalek race is racial intolerance (again another issue being brought out strongly these days). The swastika, actually a good luck charm used by Hitler for his own purposes, is well-known for representing hatred and intolerance, so it is interesting that Ace herself wears one (on her right sleeve by the lower of the two patches), along with her Russian Star.

Planet of the Spiders

may, at first glance, seem to have something to do with spiders. It doesn't. The spiders aren't spiders at all. They're symbols: a science fiction monster in place of a demon, but a demon nonetheless.

Cho-Je, the Tantrist monk who runs the Somerset lamasery that is the setting for the story, tells Mike Yates that meditation can be used to summon evil forces. Which is precisely what Lupton (initially conceived as the Master) and his gang do. They are motivated by greed or anger or ambition. Meditation doesn't bring them peace, but their own vices crystalised into a physical form.

And when the Doctor's old friend K'Anpo speaks of the Time Lord's greed, he says, "Not all spiders sit on the back". Demons aren't really creatures unto themselves, but represent our vices. And the spiders represent the greed and ambition of Lupton and co. Interestingly, the largest spider of all -- The Great One -- is reserved for another failing entirely: the Doctor's fear. He must return the blue crystal to her despite his fear. Her destruction stands for his overcoming of that fear.


"The sixth child of the sixth generation of the sixth dynasty of Atrios. Born to be the sixth and final segment to the Key to Time" -- and so said Princess Astra, and she was right, too. However it's a bit of an unfortunate image, as its the only time a hint of Satanism has been given to a sympathetic character during the series.

The Gate

Is of course Warriors Gate. Placed at the junction of universes -- 'according to co-ordinates we're at no where and no time'. Heavily guarded, the greatest obstacle to crossing through is fear of the unknown. The answers to the dilemma can be reached by entering, but to do so requires trust in oneself and in the quest you are engaged in. An instants pure belief. It is often the Doctor's role to take this step, and by doing so redeem the society he is dealing with. He does it most blatantly in Warrior's, but also in Pyramids of Mars, and Planet of Evil. The destruction of the gate in Timelash was a most atypical act -- a most atypical use of the symbol for Doctor Who, and one which resulted in a not quite satisfying narrative. The gateway is fear of answers, crossing it an affirmation!

The symbol

Gallifrey Symbol

is of modern-day Gallifreyan, present on the formal regalia of the Time Lords. Whilst it is perhaps essentially meaningless as a design, it does incorporate the circle, a symbol for infinity, whereas the centre pattern suggests either an hour-glass, representing time, or the infinity sign on its side. Funnily enough it is also the symbol of the Vogans from Revenge of the Cybermen.

The Chalice

The chalice is always offered, always brimming. The chalice is temptation, the presentation of your dark desires. In the movie Excalibur, in Percival's quest for the Holy Grail he reaches the cavern of Morgan le Fey -- 'Drink, warrior. You must have travelled far, and through great hardship. Drink, and forget.' This is the classic example, 'There are many pleasures in this life, many cups from which to drink.' With these connotations it is hardly surprising that it appears seldom in Doctor Who. In Vengeance on Varos, the Doctor see a hallucination of Peri offering him such a cup whilst in the death zone.

And a more subtle (well, sort of) use: In Time and the Rani the wondrous alloy the Rani creates to explode strange matter, Loyhargil, is simply an anagram of Holy Grail.

It is no coincidence that poison is also associated with the chalice, for succumbing means destruction. The Doctor never succumbs, none the less he becomes less cautious at times, dissuaded from his quest, as in The Brain of Moribus. 'Drink, Doctor?', says Dr Solon.

The Tarot

card in Greatest Show in the Galaxy, the hanged man, foretold one of the Doctor's more bizarre acts in the Dark Circus. In the actual pack however, the card is a non-violent one representing the 'letting go' or acceptance of fate. Similarly the card in Image of the Fendahl, Death, foretold the nature of the Doctor's adversary, but the card is more synonymous with change or metamorphosis. Perhaps it was actually foretelling Ghost Light.

The Smilie

A rather strange symbol, it originally meant 'Have a nice day', or the equivalent. These days it has connotations with drugs, but is also being used in many other ways, usually in a fairly 'twisted' fashion, for example in The Howling the smilie was used to indicate the presence of Eddie, the worst of the werewolves. In Doctor Who a variation of the smilie is used by the Happiness Patrol to mark favourable citizens while Ace herself wears a Watchman symbol, from Alan Moore's mature-age comic -- a smilie slashed with blood.

Plant Life

Plants are always the symbolisation of life, but it can be two types of life. The first is the symbol of the seed or flower, the promise of new life. In the novel The Never-Ending Story, Bastian turns a grain of sand, all that remained of the realm of Fantastica, into a seed, from which grew the Forest of Light. In Revelation of the Daleks the Doctor presents the people of Necros with the flower that will save the galaxy from famine -- a little grandiose, but this is frequently the Doctor's final act in the narrative, to point towards the future. In Delta and the Bannerman, not a plant but a child is used for this symbolisation.

The second is the symbol of the vine. This is life where is should not be, strange, alien and unnatural life. The vine becomes the tentacle. Monstrous vegetable/animal hybrids appear throughout Science Fiction, perhaps most famously in Day of the Triffids. And of course, in Terror of the Vervoids and Seeds of Doom. These are plants that trangress the boundaries of extreme, of normality, of the natural order which in Doctor Who is equated with the just and the good. The most symbolic use of the vine occurs in Planet of Evil (and similarly in Keys of Marinus, The Chase and several others), where the entire jungle manifests a weird and threatening presence. The basic fear of order being over-turned and this life destroyed. Devoured.

Burnt Toast

a symbol for chaos and social disorder. This isn't particularly obvious in the quote given in last issue's editorial, but the same phrase is used later on in Ghost Light to more obvious effect. In the conventional English tradition of a dignified breakfast, and the American motif of a neat table with the wife dutifully pouring tea/coffee for her husband, burnt toast is an unwelcome reminder of things that disrupt our cozy view of the world, things that are never quite under our control.


[1] See The Great Game, by Jan Vincent-Rudzki in DWM#150 for a very interesting, though controversial, look at this point.

[2] For more on this see (or rather, hear) The Question Mark, Issue 5.

[3] Not to mention delta cubed Sigma x squared and Root x squared minus pi, respectively the Doctor and the Prosecutor, from a document appearing in the original edition of The Making of Doctor Who.


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