Symbolism in Human Nature

balloonYesterday 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

Read next in the Junkyard… Blink

About Roger Pocock

Co-writer on Author of Editor of
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5 Responses to Symbolism in Human Nature

  1. DrAcrossthePond says:

    The great thing about symbolism is that you can find meaning anywhere. It’s what the Eighth Doctor loves about us. But equally you could argue that there are but so many possible combinations of things one can use for TV and the symbolism is entirely in the viewers mind alone. Either way, great points and certainly something to think about.

    As for mirrors representing something dangerous, I was just reminded of the best use of it having seen Ready Player One. There’s an entire section dedicated to one of my favorite horror movies. 1980 changed the way we look at mirror writing forever. So I marked my journal for your entry with one word only.



    Liked by 1 person

  2. Mike Basil says:

    I thought the 8th Doctor’s quote about loving humans for how we always see patterns in things that aren’t there was among Dr. Who’s most pivotal symbols. Because as opposed to not seeing things that are there, reflecting on how human nature in the Whoniverse in this regard has led to tragically inevitable outcomes, such as the value of non-human life in the Silurians and Sea Devils, it was all the more symbolic to set the TV Movie at the turn of the Millennium despite even the evils done by the Master.

    Because Dr. Who understands historical symbolism when it adds a clever SF twist to a real event, like the Terileptil demise in the Great Fire of London, the intro of the Brigadier’s grandfather in the WW1 Christmas truce or Vincent Van Gogh’s personal turmoils being aggravated by an unearthly entity. The first I noticed was how the Loch Ness Monster was revealed to ET in origin. As a kid, the excitement of that was symbolic in the sense that can be realistic explanations for things that would otherwise seem too disturbingly ambiguous. So when Dr. Who symbolism reaches kids in the audience on such a plausible level, the symbolism is that there’s always more than we know, whether it’s ET life, the multiverse or especially more to your own identity which Princess Astra’s revelation in The Armageddon Factor most profoundly symbolized.

    Thank you for this synchronously symbolic review for one of Dr. Who’s most integral components that should prove even more pivotal with the obvious road it’s going down now.

    Happy Easter, Whovians.

    Liked by 1 person

    • A lot of symbolism relies on representing things that are connected with our past, or innate, so to a certain extent authorial intent is unimportant when recognising symbolic links. That’s the problem with the idea of seeing patterns that aren’t there, because sometimes they are there, but are entirely unintentional.

      Liked by 1 person

      • scifimike70 says:

        The patterns may be unintentional to begin with. But if it doesn’t deprive us of our own abilities to give them meaning, then the patterns we seeing in other things can be more realistically the patterns we see in ourselves. That’s what H. M. Tomlinson would say. I generally find comfort in the realism that the meaning of life is the meaning WE give life because, after all, we ARE life.

        Liked by 1 person

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