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Greek Myth in the 'Whoniverse'

Updated Wednesday 20th November 2013

In her tribute to the fiftieth anniversary of Doctor Who, Amanda examines how the TV programme has flirted with Greek mythology.

Theseus slays the Minotaur Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Konstantin Semenov | Theseus slays the Minotaur Throughout its fifty year history Doctor Who has flirted with Greek mythology in different ways in different eras. The first Doctor Who episode featuring Greek myth was The Myth Makers from 1965 starring William Hartnell as the Doctor, based on the story of the Trojan War. This is treated as a historical episode, with the Doctor and his companions visiting the bronze age city of Troy. They bring an end to the conflict when the Doctor suggests a wooden horse should be built. In Time Monster (1972) Jon Pertwee as the Doctor follows the Master to ancient Atlantis where the Doctor destroys the Minotaur in a maze before Kronos, a creature from outside time, is released, and destroys the city. Like the Myth Makers, which suggests that the Doctor causes the fall of Troy, Time Monster suggests that the intervention of Master and the Doctor causes the destruction of Atlantis.

In Tom Baker episodes Underworld (1978) and The Horns of Nimon (1979-80) stories from Greek mythology are transposed to create episodes set in space with thinly veiled clues pointing to the origin stories. Underworld is a version of Jason and the Argonauts, featuring the characters Jackson and Herrick (Jason and Heracles), and The Horns of Nimon retells the story of Theseus and the Minotaur with Seth (Theseus) facing the Nimon (Minotaur).

In the Russell T. Davies era no episodes of Doctor Who featured plots or characters from Greek mythology, but during this period myth did feature in spin off series The Sarah Jane Adventures and Torchwood. In The Eye of the Gorgon (The Sarah Jane Adventures 2007) an alien Gorgon with the power to turn people to stone is discovered disguised as a nun, and in Greeks Bearing Gifts (Torchwood 2006) an alien likens herself to the marooned Philoctetes in order to gain the trust of Toshiko.

The Eye of the Gorgon suggests that the mythological Gorgons were in fact aliens, and encourages young viewers that knowledge gained from books can have practical uses, as Maria uses what she has learned from Sarah Jane’s book on Greek mythology about Perseus and Medusa to destroy the Gorgon. Greeks Bearing Gifts has a more tentative relationship with the myth, as although the alien ‘Mary’ likens herself to Philoctetes, she turns out to be a murderess rather than an innocent victim like Philoctetes.

When Steven Moffat took over from Davies as showrunner two episodes in sixth season of Doctor Who with Matt Smith as the Doctor featured classical monsters, The God Complex (2011) featuring a Minotaur and The Curse of the Black Spot (2011) featuring a Siren. Both of these episodes featured classical monsters divorced from their classical setting.

In The God Complex an alien Minotaur is imprisoned in a maze-like hotel to feed on people who have a strong faith, and in The Curse of the Black Spot a holographic medical programme takes the injured onto her spaceship in order to save them. Both the Minotaur and the Siren are sympathetically portrayed, but many viewers who took part in my online fan research into these episodes ultimately felt that more could be made of these classical monsters. These episodes, like the earlier episodes of Doctor Who featuring stories or characters from Greek myth, were not particular fan favourites.

Some fans of Doctor Who are also fans of Greek mythology, and have written Doctor Who fan fiction incorporating classical monsters such as the Sirens before The Curse of the Black Spot was broadcast. Fan writers are keen to display their knowledge of classical myth, and even in relationship-centred stories they bring in detail from classical texts, such as Odysseus’ use of wax to stop his sailors’ ears to prevent them from hearing the song of the Sirens.

In many cases the stories written by fans are engaging with the myth on a deeper level than episodes like The Curse of the Black Spot, where the Siren becomes merely the monster of the week. As Doctor Who reaches its fiftieth anniversary we can potentially look forward to new uses of Greek mythology in the 'Whoniverse' that are more popular with fans, meanwhile while Doctor Who has been off air, BBC1 has been broadcasting Atlantis on Saturday nights, a series based on Greek mythology aimed at the Doctor Who audience . 

CORRECTION: When originally published, the accompanying image was incorrectly labelled as 'Hercules and Minotaur'. This was because of a mislabelling of the image by the company which supplied the photo, but muddling up Hercules and Theseus is like confusing Captain Jack and Rose Tyler; we should have spotted it. Apologies for the error


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