Anyone who’s followed the CREWS blog will know that we’re fond of a bit of sci-fi and fantasy. We’ve talked about the writing systems of Star Wars, Game of Thrones and Indiana Jones. But ever since I was a kid, my absolute favourite piece of science fiction has been Doctor Who. Since it’s finally back this weekend, what better time to look at how it handles writing?
In contrast to the carefully constructed languages, scripts and world-building of a lot of sci-fi, Doctor Who has always had a bit of a homespun, ad-hoc quality to it. Unsurprisingly for a series made up of 55 years’ worth of stories set across countless planets and billions of years, it’s never been overly concerned with consistency or coherency. As for scientific accuracy, let’s just say that several earlier stories are somewhat unclear on the difference between a solar system, a galaxy and a universe; that the Daleks once made a time machine that ran on mirrors and static electricity; and that the Doctor has encountered a malevolent species who kidnapped holidaymakers because they had all lost their identities in a cosmic explosion. I hate to break it to anyone who didn’t know this, but you don’t watch Doctor Who for it to make sense. You watch it because it’s imaginative, weird, joyful and has consistently starred some of Britain’s most charismatic actors.
I can’t think of a single invented writing system in Doctor Who that makes a lick of sense. The one that comes closest is the circular script invented for the Doctor’s homeworld, Gallifrey, when the series was revived in 2005, and which has remained more or less ubiquitous ever since. This feels like it ought to have an underlying logic – the numerals definitely do (or did for the first few months anyway) and there are several websites promising to transliterate into the writing system – but it doesn’t really seem to. The websites are fan-made and seem to be a typical Doctor Who fan attempt to impose a kind of retroactive order on something the BBC were making up as they went along.
And while we’re on the subject of Gallifreyan writing, we can’t overlook the fact that there have been at least three other scripts created for the Doctor’s people over the course of the series. The first popped up in a making-of book in the early 70s and combined Greek letters with mathematical notation, giving the Doctor’s name as ∂³∑x². This made it on-screen in a 20th anniversary adventure in 1983 and is occasionally referred to as ‘Old High Gallifreyan’, a riff on Old High German. While we’re on the subject of Gallifreyans and Greek letters, we can note that the ability to time travel was first developed by a chap named ‘Omega’. Some spin-off material has also suggested Gallifrey once had female seers known as Pythias (something which has also been nodded towards more recently on-screen). What all this means, I have no idea, but the part of my brain that used to write fanfic wants to chase it like a kitten with a piece of wool.
Another Gallifreyan script was shown when the series first took the Doctor home in 1976. It’s very different to either of the others we’ve discussed so far and looks a little like Egyptian hieratic, perhaps. Incidentally, this story – which glories in the wonderfully tautologous and Doctor Who-ish name ‘The Deadly Assassin’ – is great fun and presents a vision of Gallifrey which wraps together Oxbridge colleges, the Houses of Parliament and the Vatican in a wonderful satire of the universe’s ultimate stuffy gentleman’s club.
Yet another Gallifreyan script appeared a few years later in a partially-filmed but never broadcast adventure. Despite being unfinished, this is notable mainly for being written by Douglas Adams and being an unabashed love letter to Cambridge. And for the villain’s dress sense. I have nothing insightful to say about the writing system, but the completed footage of Tom Baker punting or cycling through the city is an absolute joy.
You know what’s even less consistent than Doctor Who’s portrayal of Gallifrey? The Daleks. We might not associate them with the scribal arts, but a surprising amount of Dalek writing has appeared in the series. In their very first appearance they seem to have a pen and paper readily to hand (to plunger?) when they want to force the Doctor’s granddaughter to write a letter for them. When they next appeared, they left their post-apocalyptic city to invade the Earth, which they ruled from somewhere near Luton (where the Earth’s crust is thinnest) while they drilled out the planet’s core so they could fly it round like a giant spaceship. No, you can’t ask why. Anyway, while doing all this they found some time to graffiti several London landmarks in a script that looks suspiciously like the London Olympics logo. No, you can’t ask why.
More Dalek scripts appeared in the 80s and in the revived series, and if they make any sense I don’t know what it is. By now you’ll be getting loud and clear that writing systems were made up as and when, without much consideration of what went before or how they might work.
But amid all this inconsistency, there has been one notable constant in Dalek writing. Almost since their first appearance in the early 60s, they have been associated with a particular typeface. It’s never made it on-screen, so far as I know, but for over 50 years merchandise and spin-off material has maintained a remarkable consensus that Dalek speech is to be rendered using this distinctive spiky font.
It’s a nice example of particular writing style becoming a marker of identity. Curiously the Doctor’s other most famous foes, the Cybermen, despite being much more human than the Daleks, have shown no such affinity for writing.
Outside these more well-known and recurring elements of the series’ mythology, there have of course been countless one-off scripts invented for particular adventures to lend texture to alien civilisations. Sometimes these are entirely new, others they’ve drawn heavily on real writing systems of our present or past. One of my favourites is the pseudo-cuneiform of the recent episode ‘Mummy on the Orient Express’, which I discussed in a Twitter thread a little while ago.
With the series returning, it’s very likely we’ll continue to see invented writing in Doctor Who, and I’d be very surprised if it didn’t continue the pattern that’s held for more than fifty years of focusing on visual interest rather than creating the kinds of fully worked-out systems we’ve seen in the likes of Star Wars. I suppose this should probably make it less interesting to those of us who study writing systems, but I find it very hard to hold it against Doctor Who. Sometimes it’s all right to just dabble with things in a quick and playful way. Not everything has to make sense.
If you’ve enjoyed this, I’ve written a couple of other things about Doctor Who and the ancient world.
Also, not directly writing-related, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention it: there’s a Doctor Who audio story about a linguistics conference being menaced by a sentient word. It’s called ‘…Ish’, if that appeals!
~ Philip Boyes (Research Associate on the CREWS project)