Guest Post: The Literary Alchemy of Doctor Who

Carol Eshleman is an avid Potter scholar and Doctor Who enthusiast. She has spoken at conferences at UNC, the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, and at Potter conferences in Orlando. She teaches Law Studies, Speech, and is the theatre director at Archbishop Rummel High School in Metairie, Louisiana. She spoke at Leaky Con this summer in Orlando on alchemy and Dr Who. Enjoy!

The Doctor and the Rose: Doctor Who and Alchemy in the Russell T. Davies Era

Doctor Who fans are familiar with the concept of time travel.  We often see how actions from the past influence and color the future.  Images from the past reappear in new but clearly recognizable ways.  Let me share with you my observations of alchemical imagery that is present throughout the Russell T. Davies era of the Doctor’s journey.

Many of us are familiar with alchemy as the pseudo-science that gave rise to modern chemistry, and it is true that there were medieval alchemists who were literally trying to turn base metals into gold.  Eventually, alchemy evolved to carry more philosophical and spiritual meaning, and the physical process gave way to an allegorical pilgrimage of the soul towards eternal life.  This allegory made its way into medieval literature and continues to be used by diligent authors to enhance their narratives with spiritual depth.  Potter scholar John Granger has done tremendous work in uncovering alchemical imagery in J. K. Rowling’s series.  Allow me now to take a similar path along the time stream of our favorite Gallifreyan.

That the Doctor should be a figure associated with a body of imagery concerned with resurrection and eternal life is no revelation.  The Doctor’s ability to regenerate and begin again with a new face and personality makes any section of his personal narrative open to this sort of interpretation.  However, the Doctor as we see him at the beginning of the 2005 reboot is more than ever in need of a transformation.  Reeling after his actions in the Time War, he is now the last of the Time Lords and is struggling to find direction and meaning.  Who does he encounter first but a girl named Rose, and this is very significant (so significant that Russell Davies titles the first episode of the reboot “Rose,” a character that the audience has never encountered instead of something about the character that the audience has waited nearly a decade to see).  The rose is a symbol of the completed alchemical work, the Philosopher’s Stone, which has the power to transform base metals into gold and create the elixir of eternal life, but let’s not jump too far ahead just yet.  There are several stages that the material must go through before it is fully transformed.  As we study the alchemical journey that the Doctor takes through the Davies era, we’ll see that the Time Lord’s narrative aligns with the events and stages of the alchemical work to eventually coalesce into a portrait of resurrection and redemption.

The alchemical work can be broken up into three main stages: the nigredo, the albedo, and the rubedo or black, white, and red respectively.  These stages represent the processes of dissolution, cleansing, and combustion.  First, the material must be stripped of its original characteristics.  Next, it is cleansed, and finally, it enters the final fire and emerges as gold.  When applied to the Doctor’s narrative, we can see that each of his companions throughout the Davies era signifies one of these stages.

The nigredo is characterized by the color black, and when we first encounter the ninth Doctor, he’s characterized by his black coat and his enigmatic and aloof demeanor.  He lives under the cloud of the Time War as the sole survivor.  He is alchemical lead, and he needs a direction and purpose to continue existing.  He finds this direction in Rose, who symbolizes the Philosopher’s Stone, the transformative element.  At the end of series one, Rose looks into the TARDIS and glowing with gold light, she brings life to Captain Jack Harkness.  When the ninth Doctor takes in the energy from her, he regenerates into the tenth Doctor who comprises the remainder of the Davies era.  In the black stage, the lead is dissolved into the prima materia, from which the rest of the work takes place.  Ninth’s lead, through Rose, dissolves into Ten, who becomes the prima materia for the Doctor’s transformation.

Rose has a dual purpose; she is both the Philosopher’s Stone and the companion signifying the black stage of the alchemical work.  How does Rose symbolize blackness?  The answer is through her pseudonym as the Bad Wolf.  This is a dark image associated with destruction and loss.  These are also traits of the nigredo, and we see that Rose’s episodes are particularly colored by these elements.   Rose has very little direction when we see her in “Rose.”  She’s mechanically going through her day very aimlessly.  Rose doesn’t run away with the Doctor with the thought of, “Oh but I can come back and catch up whenever.”  It’s a very obvious break.  Her first adventure into the future is “the End of the World” (both the title and the occasion), and her first adventure into the past involves resurrected corpses.  Much of Rose’s overarching narrative involves her dealing with the loss of her father, which comprises adventures with the Doctor through his ninth and tenth regenerations.  Rose and the Doctor encounter a werewolf and a queen known for wearing black in mourning for her husband in “Tooth and Claw.”  Series two comprises losses of nearly everyone Rose has been close to, and it seems that Rose cannot gain one person without losing another.  In the alternate dimension, she finds her alternate Dad, but loses alternate Mom in that episode, and then loses alternate Dad and Mickey when they don’t return to our dimension.  When Mickey and her alternate Dad are regained, she is trapped in their dimension and loses the Doctor.  Rose’s black eyeliner runs down her face as her and the Doctor mourn each other against the white wall that parts their dimensions, signaling that the white phase is about to begin.  The final image of series two is Donna as the bride in the white dress.

Series three comprises the white stage, the albedo, of the Doctor’s journey.  The white stage is noted by water imagery, cleansing, and a degree of revelation.  The Doctor is reeling from the loss of Rose.  He was literally made a new man by her, and now she is cut off from him.  Donna stands in temporarily as the white stage signifier by appearing as the bride in the Christmas special between series two and three.  In that adventure, the Doctor drowns the Atraxi spawn that live in the center of the Earth.  The wedding as the central event of this episode is a highly alchemical image.  The resolution of contraries, the marriage of opposites, is a step that must occur several times within the work for the process to be completed.  Because this marriage is a sham, we know that at this point, Donna will not be the companion that assists in the Doctor’s healing, but she serves as a purveyor to move the Doctor towards his true healer.

Martha is the companion that exemplifies the white stage of the Doctor’s journey.  She is a doctor and thus, is easily associated with the concept of healing.  When the Doctor meets her, he is a patient in her hospital, and (to add in the water imagery) their adventure begins when they are transported by rain to the Moon.  Martha doesn’t decide to run away blindly with the Doctor.  She has to be assured that she’ll be able to return to finish medical school and pick up where she left off before she agrees to go.  The Doctor as well is not committed to Martha as a companion at first.  He wants it to be one trip and back.  The Doctor begins his journey with Martha lost and heartbroken, but over time, he recognizes and appreciates Martha’s abilities, coming to rely on her immensely.  Martha guards the Doctor’s true identity when he can’t even remember himself in “Family of Blood.”  It’s Martha, traveling the world spreading the word “Doctor” over the Earth, who heals the Doctor when the Master has aged him beyond recognition.  To note the water imagery throughout series three, we can recall the man in “the Shakespeare Code” drowning in the middle of the street, the crabs terrifying the motorists of New Earth, the rain that marks the time for Billy Shipman in “Blink,” and the “ship” Valiant in the series finale.  Series three is marked by two intense overarching plot revelations: one, that Captain Jack Harkness is the Face of Boe, and two, that another Time Lord, the Master, is alive.  By the end of series three, the Doctor is functioning again and has learned that he can move onwards from the loss of the Rose.  When Martha walks away from life in the TARDIS, she provides the Doctor her phone as an anchor, a way to be reachable, and that is what Martha ultimately brings to the Doctor in series three, a way to reach out again.

The Master’s funeral pyre blazes the path to the red stage, the rubedo, of the Doctor’s journey.  The red stage of the journey is noted by fire.  This is the final trial that the material must go through to reach ultimate transformation.  Donna, the red-haired, fiery companion, arrives back on the scene right on cue, and there’s a whole lot of red and fire that comes along with her.  “The Fires of Pompeii” is an obvious one.  The Ood are having red-eye issues in “Planet of the Ood.”  “The Poison Sky” is cured by fire burning up the poison in the atmosphere.  The sky turns red when Donna is caught in the mainframe of the Library, and the creation of 10.2 occurs when the TARDIS is bobbing in a vat of fire, which is so alchemical an image that it practically screams: “ALCHEMY!!”

When objects are put in fire, we see how the fire clings to object that’s being burned.  It engulfs it, and latches on.  Donna is the companion that actually seeks out the Doctor to travel with him.  She has her suitcases packed and pushes herself upon the Doctor even though he is skeptical since things had become awkward with Martha.  She certainly doesn’t choose to leave the Doctor in the end.  The erasure of her memories is very much like a fire being extinguished, but more on that later.

There are many subtler images at work in series four as well.  In the Christmas special that begins series four, the Doctor befriends a girl named Astrid.  The root of Astrid is the Latin “astrum,” which means star.  The star is an alchemical symbol that the work is near completion.  In alchemical illustrations, the wedded couple is often pictured with a star over their heads.  If there’s any doubt that Astrid refers to star, we need only recall Astrid’s fate by the end of the episode: traveling stardust.

Another image that appears to announce the near completion of the work is the “cervus fugitivus” or “fleeing deer.”  The goal is in sight, appearing in bursts, but always not quite reachable.  In many cases, it can also be read as the “servus fugitivus”: “fleeing servant.”  Throughout series four, we see glimpses of Rose, always brief and always just out of the Doctor’s sight.  In the episode “Turn Left,” we find out that Rose is working for the U.N.I.T. of the alternate universe.  She has become a servant for the Doctor’s cause, protecting Earth.

It is no accident that Davies titled the finale of series four “Journey’s End.”  This is where the Doctor’s alchemical journey is completed.  In alchemy, the wedding of oppositions, the resolution of contraries, results in the philosophical orphan, the byproduct of the completed work.  In series four, as the Doctor’s hand and Donna bob in a well of fire, a new Doctor is created, part Time Lord, part human: the Doctor-Donna.  This Doctor is the true resolution of the alchemical journey because he is finally the perfect complement for Rose.  He will grow old with her. He won’t change into someone else.  He’ll always be the Doctor that she created.

Part of being the Philosophical Orphan means that the parents must die, which secures the fate of the Doctor and of Donna.  Donna as a human cannot handle the mind of a Time Lord.  She is forced to forget everything she knows about her time with the Doctor.  Although it is not a literal death, it is the demise of everything that she gained by being the Doctor’s companion, and should she ever actually remember, literal death will occur.  The Doctor once again, is cut off from Rose’s universe, and we know that after a mere couple of specials, he regenerates into the eleventh Doctor, but in many ways his life is over after “Journey’s End.”  There’s no point in trying to reach Rose’s universe again.  She has what she’s always wanted, and 10.2 is better suited for her than a true Time Lord could ever be.

The specials that occur between series four and five are meant to serve more as a bridge between David Tennant and Matt Smith than as part of the overarching journey that Russell Davies was working to create, and for this reason, I’m not going to analyze them in light of the overall alchemical journey.  However, the fact that it’s death (black eyes of the Cyber King, planet of the Dead), water (white stage), and a giant red fireball (Gallifrey as the red stage) that finish off the series shows that Russell Davies still had alchemy in mind.  Also, the fact that Rose is the last person the Doctor visits briefly before his fiery, gold regeneration is right along alchemical lines.

The Russell T. Davies era of Doctor Who was more than whimsical adventure through space and time.  It was a deeply symbolic pilgrimage of the soul played out through the journey of our beloved Doctor. The Doctor’s spiritual ascension shows all of us that if we are open to transformation through the love of our own companions and friends, the whole universe becomes a beautiful and wonderful place.


  1. Yay! Go, Carol! This makes me want to write a paper.

  2. I love this post. I’m a huge fan of David Tennant’s era of Dr. Who but could never put my finger on why his character arc moved me so strongly. This makes so much sense. Not to mention when the 10th doctor is dying in preparation to become the 11th doctor he does explode into golden light. That’s pretty obviously alchemical, I would say. Thanks for a great post!

  3. Carol Eshleman says

    Thanks!! I’m glad y’all enjoyed it! The more I thought about it, the more it all just started jumping out.

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