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Geek Culture in Therapy: Doctor Who

By Josué Cardona

Note: This article was originally posted on the Comicspedia blog on 10/15/13 as part of a multi-entry series covering each class of Geek Culture in Therapy, a course at The Chicago School of Professional Psychology, which aims to help therapists embrace the healing qualities of geek culture.

I was invited to guest lecture on this week’s Geek Culture in Therapy class so I’ll give you an overview of how it went. This week’s class started off with the first student presentation of the semester. This one was on X-Files and we got to see a short scene of Mulder and Scully interacting. I miss that show. After a short break it was my turn to talk about Doctor Who.

I started by clarifying to the students that I am not an expert on Doctor Who – especially before the 8th Doctor – but I am a fan. With that in mind I invited them to observe my expressions carefully throughout the lecture because we would be revisiting them later on.

Why are we talking about Doctor Who?

My first task was to set the stage for why we were discussing Doctor Who at all. Doctor Who is a very popular show right now, especially due to the upcoming 50th anniversary, so I shared some facts about the show that showed exactly how popular it is. For example, did you know that the Guinness Book of World Records named Doctor Who the most successful science fiction franchise of all time? I had planned on doing Doctor Who trivia but for the sake of time I shared numbers and figures about the show that perhaps justify the Guinness record. Among the students the show was not well known but everyone seemed to have heard of it.

Doctor Who Fact Sheet

The next part of the class consisted of what I refer to as a “Fact Sheet” on Doctor Who. It included the most important details about the Doctor and the show such as his name, the TARDIS, companions, space/time travel, and his most notorious enemies. The reasoning behind a fact sheet is that if function as a quick reference for anyone that needs to get acquainted with a character or needs a refresher. So if you had a client who is a Doctor Who fan, you could review your fact sheet before a session and be able to follow along and make connections when meeting the client.

I then went over the details of the fact sheet, this time going into more depth about possible themes represented by different aspects of the TV show. We discussed how the Doctor is a chosen name, one tries to live up to, a “promise.” We discussed two hearts as resilience, the unused potential of the chameleon circuit, the Cybermen hive mind, Daleks as a metaphor for isolation/protection, the importance of sharing experiences with a companion, and regeneration as a metaphor for change. As we discussed these ideas I also suggested some specific activities such as asking a client “Where/when would you go if you had a TARDIS?” but I mostly focused on how to connect themes from the show with themes a client might be facing.

Mental Health in Doctor Who

I brought three examples of mental health representations from the show for students to consider. The first was the 11th Doctor, Series 5 episode titled “Vincent and the Doctor” in which the Doctor and his companion Amy pay a visit to Vincent van Gogh. The episode was nominated for Mind Media Award in 2010 for its representation of mental illness on TV and it shows Vincent possibly dealing with depression (explicitly stated), bipolar disorder (suggested by symptoms), and hallucinations (shown in a sci-fi way). It’s one of my favorite episodes and it can serve as a way to discuss mental illness.

I have always considered the Doctor to be an excellent representation of ADHD so I discussed the diagnosis criteria I see in the Doctor. Criteria includes his being impulsive, easily distracted, and his executive functions failing consistently. I think people who deal with ADHD might see themselves in the Doctor. The character also shows that meeting criteria for a disorder, in this case ADHD, does not mean you can’t save the world on a regular basis. Many attempt to highlight the positive applications of ADHD “symptoms” and Doctor Who does it better than anyone.

My final example was that of the Valeyard, a character that is the “dark side” of the Doctor, from the future. It could represent Jung’s shadow self or just the “bad” things about ourselves we struggle with. Interestingly, while we often discuss things from our past coming back to haunt us, in Doctor Who the Valeyard is the Doctor’s future coming to haunt him. I find it a great representation of anxieties we often have about things that have not happened yet.

Case Study

I wanted to finish the class with a case study so I came up with the idea of what I believe was the first-ever in-vivo Geek Therapy case study. I wanted to have a real-life example of a self-identified Geek and fan who could relate to a character and a show, and allow students to interact with this person. So I decided to be that person.

I went through a list of reasons why I not only like Doctor Who but why it matters to me. I gave examples of how it helped create friendships, how seeing myself in the character of the Doctor was comforting and empowering, and how even the 11th Doctor’s theme song (“I am the Doctor” by Murray Gold) is a battle cry and power-up for me when I need a boost or I’m approaching a deadline. I finished with a recent example of how I used the concept of regeneration as a metaphor for change in my own life and how it worked.

Next Time on…

Due to some technical difficulties and a late start we had to skim over a lot and students did not get the opportunity to interact during the case study portion like I had planned. So when doing this again I hope to allow for more student interaction. Since most students were not very familiar with the show I hope they came out of class seeing the potential uses for Doctor Who in therapy and most importantly what it might mean to their clients. I asked them to remember my expressions throughout the lecture and think about being aware of what their clients are passionate about. Sometimes they come right out and tell us but often they unconsciously show us by raising their voice, sitting up straighter, more movement, bigger eyes, etc. Those are opportunities to learn more about what our clients care about and why.

If you are not familiar with Doctor Who, I suggest you check out the episode Blink and if you still aren’t sold, perhaps check out some of my other favorites: Vincent and the Doctor, The Girl Who Waited, The Lodger, and Closing Time.

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