Yesterday we looked at the Doctor Who episodes Human Nature and The Family of Blood and I promised to spinoff a discussion of the symbolism in the two episodes into a separate blog post. It might not seem like the obvious Doctor Who story for that kind of examination, and that’s because it isn’t, but the image of the scary little girl holding a red balloon is a striking visual motif that serves as a useful springboard for discussion. We’ll come back to that, but first let’s have a go at looking at how symbolism works within Doctor Who as a whole.
As with any body of work that is the result of many different writers, it is difficult to identify any coherent themes in the imagery used, so for the classic run symbolic themes tend to be fleeting, such as the use of crystals in Season 20 stories. The closest Doctor Who gets to recurring symbolism in the classic series is in its use of mirrors to represent magic, danger and the trapped soul, in stories such as The Evil of the Daleks, Warriors’ Gate and Kinda, and as anathema to evil in The Mind Robber and Timelash. The new series picks up on various mirror themes in The Girl in the Fireplace, Blink, Turn Left, and The Vampires of Venice. Mirrors can show another aspect of the person looking into it, such as Troughton seeing Hartnell in The Power of the Daleks, and Bill seeing herself as a Cyberman in The Doctor Falls. Getting back to our story of choice, The Family of Blood returns to our recurring symbolism of the mirror as a source of danger, with a trapped soul lurking within. I will have a detailed article on mirrors in Doctor Who next month (26th May – put it in your diaries – use mirror writing).
Since 2005 the stability of authorship has allowed a stronger use of symbolism to emerge, with just two showrunners over the course of 12 years. So we have seen some strong recurring images such as the human eye. Like the mirror, the eye represents danger and the window to the true soul, so we have the Atraxi as an eyeball monster in The Eleventh Hour, and the invasion of the eye in The Time of Angels, along with many other lesser examples such as the eyepatch lady, the eyes of the dead clones in The Rebel Flesh, the camera eye in The Girl in the Fireplace, the glass eye in Night Terrors, and so on.
Most compellingly, we have the circle within the square, representing the unity of opposites, and possibly the union of male and female, which could be interpreted as referencing the Doctor and his companion, a necessary combination to resolve almost every Doctor Who adventure. This image pops up time and time again: the Pandorica, the truth or consequences boxes in The Zygon Inversion, the Protest, Forget and Abdicate buttons in The Beast Below, the Time Lord message cubes in The Doctor’s Wife, the box containing the Moment in The Day of the Doctor.
So to return to Human Nature, what imagery do we have? Most obviously (apart from the balloon) we have scarecrows, which are often used for horror and as a symbol of Halloween, as they play on our fears of the uncanny valley, that which appears human but wrong. We have the chameleon arch, mounted on the Doctor’s head like a crown of thorns, separating his soul from his body (see The Movie for an even more overt example of this). Then there is the colour green, in the Family’s true form, their spaceship and their telepathy. Most Doctor Who episodes have a defined colour palette they work within, and glowing green is representative of illness and poison. Like the scarecrows, it plays on an innate fear, with probable origins in the green tinge of corpses.
The Doctor’s soul is contained within a fob watch, symbolising the wisdom of an old soul, but also something that has to be held to be used, as the Doctor and John Smith both fight to retain their identities. And also needing to be held onto, is a balloon…
Terry Pratchett once said this:
There are times in life when people must know when not to let go. Balloons are designed to teach small children this.
In one respect, the balloon held by Daughter of Mine is a relic of the novel version of Human Nature, in which it was a dangerous creature disguised as a balloon. The colour red represents danger, but in the television version it is the danger of the creepy little girl. Her balloon is a metaphor not just for the danger she poses, but a danger that has to be held onto. Just like John Smith’s fob watch. A red balloon: fun and fear. And that’s exactly what the Doctor stands for, in Human Nature. RP