Companion Tropes Extra 5
“You know, you could’ve told me all this the last time we met.”
“It was a busy day and I got beheaded.”
After he gets beheaded in A Good Man Goes to War, Dorium Maldovar becomes a disembodied head who dispenses knowledge. Remarkably, he’s not the only one of these in Doctor Who; the Face of Boe fits the trope quite well too. On the fringes of the trope are the heads used by the King Hydroflax cyborg in The Husbands of River Song.
There are two distinct subsections to the oracular head trope in literature, mythology, etc: mechanical and organic. The mechanical kind is often explained away in terms of magic, thus providing further evidence for my pet theory that sci-fi and fantasy are one in the same, with the only distinction being sci-fi technobabble.
For the earliest example of the non-organic oracular head, we have to look back to William of Malmesbury’s History of the English Kings (1125), in which he describes rumours of Pope Sylvester II (c.946-1003) using stolen secret knowledge to animate the head of a statue. In medieval writings there are several examples of mechanical or magical talking heads, often made of bronze, hence the generic description “brazen head”. This has carried through into modern literature, my favourite example being the bronze head Abner Brown consults in The Box of Delights (who likes to give out information in misleading riddles). Also just about fitting into this subset of brazen head oracles we have Handles in Doctor Who.
The organic variety of oracular head goes back much further in history, with the earliest example being the myth of Orpheus (mentioned as early as the 6th Century BC). He was also arguably one of the earliest examples of homophobia, because his head was detached from his body courtesy of the Ciconian women, who weren’t keen on the fact that he was only into boys. His head floated down the River Hebrus, singing songs (Don’t Lose Your Head by Queen perhaps? Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on my Head? Head Above Water? Can’t Get You Out of My Head? OK, I’ll stop now) and eventually his head was buried and a shrine was built, where a famous oracle was consulted.
There are no shortage of examples of the organic oracular head, in film and television in particular, possibly because it has always been one of the easiest special effects to achieve. A good example is Lorne’s head on a platter in Angel. Like Nardole (sort of), but unlike Dorium, his head ends up back where it belongs.
So the oracular head is playing off a very long tradition, but nowadays it is almost always played for laughs. Even when horror films try to play it straight, it’s hard to escape the humour of the situation, intended or otherwise. Virtually every example I have given so far is played for laughs, and you could add to the list other well-known comedy heads such as the Night Bus shrunken head in the film of The Prisoner of Azkaban and Kryton’s argumentative spare heads from Red Dwarf. And of course the first time we see Dorium’s disembodied head, he makes a joke of his situation:
“Give it to me straight, Doctor. How bad are my injuries?”
But an oracular head isn’t just funny. It’s a useful way of getting information across to the protagonist. By their very nature, disembodied heads have defied death and live beyond a normal human existence, and that means they gather knowledge. But the history of oracles is of course closely related to the history of predications, and that means vagueness. In his excellent book Quirkology, Richard Wiseman describes in great detail his experiments in the psychology of predications such as astrology which illustrate our tendency to be impressed by vague statements that apply to virtually everyone anyway (and particularly complimentary vagueness). Oracular heads love to be vague. Rather than giving out specific information, they often talk in riddles and hints. This happens with the Face of Boe (“you are not alone”), and of course Dorium gives us the ultimate example of a hazy bit of nonsense that doesn’t really come to much in the end:
The first question. The question that must never be answered, hidden in plain sight. The question you’ve been running from all your life. Doctor who? Doctor who? Doctor Who.
I suspect writers of Doctor Who will keep running from that question forever, and so they should. Some questions are best left unanswered, even by a head in a box. RP