Your Guide to the Literary References of Doctor Who

doctor_who_logoI’m a pretty big (although admittedly fairly recent) Doctor Who fan. My TARDIS “Bigger on the Inside” poster has pride of place by my desk at work and my Christmas tree will boast a Dalek and a sonic screwdriver. But some of the dialogue flies past me on the first viewing of each episode (perhaps the phrase “first viewing” gives a fuller sense of my devotion to the show).

I love that the writing is so fast and furious that I have to work to keep up, and I love being able to uncover new jokes and references when I watch again. And one of my very favorite things is when the Doctor makes a literary joke (or, better still, has an entire episode crafted around a literary reference). I mean, come on, how disappointing would it be to have a Timelord with all of time and space at his disposal who wasn’t really, really well read?!

So: what to read to get the Doctor’s best literary jokes so far? Here’s a list to start with:

 A_Christmas_CarolA Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens – Doctor Who is a British icon and so is Dickens. Doctor Who Christmas specials have become a bit of a recent holiday tradition (at least in my house), and Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is arguably the best-known British holiday story ever; Dickens and the Doctor are a great match, and the show has done both a straight-up Whovian adaptation (titled, helpfully, “A Christmas Carol”), and an episode featuring Charles Dickens, “The Unquiet Dead.” Of the two, I prefer the latter, because the writing is rife with moments where we get to witness the Doctor and Rose influencing future classic literature while also imagining what Dickens might have been like in person. Plus, I like the 9th Doctor a lot.

Shakespeare (all of it) –  The episode written to make lit geeks giggle, “The Shakespeare Code” is so chock-full of great quips and allusions to the Bard’s work I’m still finding new jokes a few years later. Start with the sonnets, then work through the comedies (but make sure to hit Hamlet as well). Extra fun = watching the Doctor coin some of Shakespeare’s most famous lines.  and_then_there_were_none

Anything by Agatha Christie – The Tenth Doctor (ahem. my personal favorite Doctor) and Donna spend an entire episode in a house party whodunit that unfolds as a glorious tribute to Christie’s bestselling mysteries (the bestselling novelist of all time, the Doctor informs us in a later episode. We’ll have to take his word for it!), while also starring Agatha as a guest at the weekend retreat. The episode is built around the real-life, 10-day disappearance of Christie, which makes for many layers of mystery (but fret not; Whovian hijinks like enormous alien insects are also still present. In case you were worried).

 Sherlock Holmes – Matt Smith put in an awesome appearance as the world’s most famous detective in the 2012 Christmas special, and his Doctor-as-Holmes was all the more hilarious with a solid foundation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous character’s many quirks and idiosyncrasies, which have been interpreted by many fine actors, but which originated on the page. This episode added an additional layer of in-the-know jokes because Stephen Moffat, Doctor Who‘s then (and current) showrunner, also runs the BBC’s latest Holmes adaptation, Sherlock.

Are you sensing a theme here? Bestselling British lit is what you should probably be reading to get all the layers of Doctor Who dialogue.

Bonus reading:

The-Hitchhikers-Guide-to-the-Galaxy A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams – Did you know that Douglas Adams wrote and edited for Doctor Who back in the 70’s? He was actually working for the show while he wrote A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy; superfans looking for other works with a similar tone would do well to try this beloved modern classic.

 Anything by Neil Gaiman – Did you further know that the magical Neil Gaiman wrote “The Doctor’s Wife”, from season six? Gaiman is also a longtime fan of the show, and just yesterday made a very pointed comment via tumblr about Who‘s complete lack of female writers (none since 2008, which is, come on Moffat, extremely ridiculous).

Harry Potter (I’m not specifying a title because I think we can all agree it’s best to revisit all seven books with some frequency to help keep Nargles at bay)  – Let’s not forget “Good old J.K.” as the Doctor fondly refers to Rowling; given his Timelord credentials, the Doctor got to preview the end of the series way before anyone else on Earth, and a well-timed “Expelliarmus” spell has been known to save the Doctor’s day.

Bonus book-themed viewing: “Silence in the Library” and “Forest of the Dead,” season five – Two of my favorite Doctor Who episodes ever, and they take place in a fantastical (and frankly terrifying) library. Not to be watched alone, or if getting locked in a library is on your upcoming agenda.

This is really just a start to some literary giants who have received the Doctor Who treatment. Are you a Doctor Who fan? Do you have a favorite literary allusion from the show? Reading suggestions for fellow Whovians? Let me know in the comments!

-Carly Pansulla, currently reading Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

3 thoughts on “Your Guide to the Literary References of Doctor Who”

  1. You forgot to mention one of my absolute favorite Doctor Who quotes:

    ” You want weapons? We’re in a library. Books are the best weapon in the world. This room’s the greatest arsenal we could have. Arm yourself!” -Tooth and Claw, Season 2, Episode 2

    1. Ohmygosh, thank you for including that!!! I’m going to have to get that up at my desk, I’d forgotten all about that scene!

  2. One of the things I’ve loved about Doctor Who is how it makes it cool to be smart. Love all the book and literature references! This was a great post–thanks!!

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