Curation in Progress: This is a collection of extensions and developments of these earlier ideas, born from conversations in the comments of the original posts. I think there’s some valuable stuff here.
The Robot of Theseus
This is a collection of responses to pushback on my claims in The Book of Ruth about where in the conscious experience “personhood” resides, expanding on those examples in the essay and laying out my claims more deliberately:
Humanity doesn’t generally have a clear picture of what personhood actually is, generally buying into a blur of memory, biology, and metaphysiology that ends up looking quite a lot like The Soul, whether or not they actually believe in it. And I don’t think I’m holding it against the episode that it doesn’t question this, but I do think the issues raised here damage the story being told across the series. If all the Timeless Child stuff happened on the other side of a total mindwipe, why does it really matter? If the Doctor was born to another species on another planet in another universe, but all the experiences that actually shaped the person she is now all happened on Gallifrey and since, who really cares? And while criticism of The Timeless Children doesn’t tend to come from the philosophical angle, you can see the ideas bleed through. Every time somebody compares the reveal to a wiki entry, I think it’s rooted in this feeling that it doesn’t actually impact the person of the Doctor as we know them. It’s certainly one of the big reasons it didn’t click with me, hence writing the post.
The question to me isn’t so much “why are they treating RuthDoc like she’s the Doctor when she can’t be?” because it’s obvious to most the audience that she is the Doctor the moment the episode tells us. She dresses a hell of a lot like the Doctor, after all. The question that hits me is “why tell this story at all if everything it involves is separated by a mindwipe that takes the Doc back to factory settings before the beginning of their first life?”
Bear with me on this example, but consider Freaky Friday. I’ve got no actual evidence for this, but I’m certainly under the impression that most of us think that the “personhood” in that body-swap scenario to be the memories that have been moved from one body to the other, rather than the body itself. I think we have a shared understanding that the “you” that exists — that thing that looks a little bit like The Soul — is the realm of the mind more than the body. From this, then, a total and complete mindwipe back to infancy, as we assume the Timeless Child was subject to before becoming the Doctor (or, at least, this iteration of the Doctor) is the equivalent of your memories and personality being deleting during the Freaky Friday procedure, leaving a blank slate of a person — a body without the Soul.
This exact debate was at the centre of the WandaVision finale this week (spoilers, obviously), in which two different versions of Vision talk about whether they’re the same person or not: White Vision, who has the body of the original, but with a wiped personality and memory, replaced with a programming to make him a weapon of a secret state agency, and Sitcom Vision, who was created from scratch to resemble the original, but who doesn’t remember any existence before the show began, despite the retaining the personality and aesthetic identity of the Vision who existed before. It’s a pretty eerie parallel to the issues thrown up by Ruth-Doc, actually interrogated (beyond, I think, you would expect from something like the MCU) as a textual issue, rather than taken as read (or left ambiguous, depending on your interpretation) as in S12.
The two Visions debate what this all means about both of their personhoods: Sitcom Vision tells the fable of the Ship of Theseus (aka Trigger’s Broom aka the Sugababes Problem) where all the parts of a thing are replaced, one by one, over years and years, until nothing of the original remains but the idea. Then those original pieces are reassembled into a new ship/broom/early 2000s pop group to the exact specifications of the original, leaving you with one thing materially dissociated from the original, but retaining the symbolic connection, and one brand new thing, materially identical but divorced of the symbolism of namehood and identity.
It’s also a question that smothers the 12th Doctor’s era, first raised in Deep Breath, confronted again in Twice Upon a Time, and interrogated at length throughout series 9’s exploration of immortality and identity in its presence.
There’s no simple, single word answer ever provided as to what exactly it means to be the Ship of Theseus, to live out that experience, (either in Who or Wandavision) and how could there be? But I think there’s something valuable in the Doctor’s joke answer to the question of whether or not, after all the parts of a thing are replaced, it is really still the same broom:
No, of course it isn’t. But you can still sweep the floor.
Which is I think as close to a satisfying answer as we’re likely to get. No, Ruth!Doctor isn’t the same person as Our Doctor, as to me seems self evident, but if she can sweep the cosmic floor, fighting the good fight, beating up rhinos, then she is certainly The Doctor.
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