When Arthur Dent met the Doctor

Chris Chibnall claims that the title of this week’s episode (42) is a playful homage to Douglas Adams, who once wrote a story about a ship plunging into the sun (with Marvin aboard) rather than having any connection to a popular Fox show whose title can be obtained by reversing the digits (as in “I’m the Doctor, and this is the longest just-under-three-quarters-of-an-hour of my life”). I suppose tribute has already been paid to that show in the form of Real Time. Anyway, Chibnall’s claim reminds of one of the questions I never got round to answering: “Is the Doctor personally aquainted with Arthur Dent?”

The question arises from the Doctor’s comment in The Christmas Invasion that Arthur Dent was “a nice man”. Could the Doctor inhabit the same “fictional frame” (from Andrew Harrison’s notion that fiction, however fantastic, will only break a defined set of real world “rules”) as that of The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy or does Douglas Adams lie outside the frame as it were, of Doctor Who, so that he is known to the characters of that world too as an author.

Any fictional “reality” cannot include itself without alienating the audience (thus the cast of Eastenders do not many everyday things just as the viewers do, but they do not watch Eastenders). So (although it came close in The Wire) in the fiction of Doctor Who there is not the programme Doctor Who as there is in reality. And so, by extension, the cast and crew and programme makers are excluded too. As Douglas Adams was a scriptwriter on Doctor Who that should include him, so if in the Doctor Who fiction Arthur Dent exists but his creater does not, then he surely exist in and inhabit that “reality”.

For a series of such scope and longevity, however, things are not quite this clear cut. For example, the Doctor has read J.K.Rowling, author of Harry Potter. She exists, in reality, of course, and the Harry Potter books have been filmed with the role of Barty Crouch played by… David Tennant. So the rule is not without exceptions. And the Doctor does have a particular fondness for Earth (in fact mostly British) culture of the 20th Century. He’s familiar with Eastenders, the Beatles, the Lion King, Jane Fonda, Duck Soup, Dylan Thomas and Back to the Future amongst others (although he does not read comic strips). So if Douglas Adams exists within the Doctor Who fiction, he’s likely to have read him. And there’s evidence for this in Ghostlight in which he asked “Who was it said earthmen never invite their ancestors to dinner?”. The answer is, of course, Douglas Adams, in The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Thus making Arthur Dent fictional.

On the other hand, there is evidence of overlap between the fictions of Who and H2G2 besides the Dent reference. In Destiny of the Daleks the Doctor is seen reading “Origins of the Universe” (which doesn’t exist in reality) by Oolon Caluphid (a fictional character shared with Hitch Hiker’s). And there are overlaps with other fictions, too: the British Rocket Group of Quatermass also feature in The Christmas Invasion.

But there are potential problems with such overlaps. In reality the Oolon Caluphid reference was inserted into the Who serial by Adams when he was a script editor. He later worked the plots of his Doctor Who serials City of Death and Shada into his non-Who novel Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency. This gave rise to contradictions. Now Reg Chronotis was not a timelord, and the universe was saved by Dirk Gently rather than the Doctor. So here the fictions cannot coexist.

With Hitch Hiker’s this particular issue does not arise because even though Adams used a Doctor Who script as the basis for Life, the Universe and Everything it had never actually made it into production. And even though the Earth was destroyed by the Vogons in H2G2 whereas it wasn’t in Who, it was later restored by the dolphins (so that’s alright) and anyway it’s in an unstable plural Z sector. Besides which there are myriad differences between Earth in reality and Who (we don’t have a King, a £5 coin, Harriet Jones was never prime minister, we were not invaded by Cybermen even once or giant arachnid aliens etc.) which seem far more problematic than any discrepancies with the Hitch Hiker’s universe.

So on balance, and until further evidence presents, we should conclude from the fact that the Doctor knows Arthur Dent wears pyjamas that he did actually meet him, and since the meeting is not mentioned in either The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy nor The Restaurant at the End of the Universe it must have been shortly after his arrival on prehistoric Earth. It must be said, though, that it was a little ungallant of the Doctor not to rescue him.

About Simon Wood

E-learning officer, lapsed mathematician, Doctor Who fan and garden railway builder. See simonwood.info for more...

19 thoughts on “When Arthur Dent met the Doctor

  1. In _Remembrance of the Daleks_, there is a brief moment where a TV presenter says something about the upcoming Dr Who episode.

    I’ll dig out the DVD and find the exact words… but it was an amusing moment for the obsessive spotter of such details.

  2. In _Remembrance of the Daleks_, there is a brief moment where a TV presenter says something about the upcoming Dr Who episode.

    I’ll dig out the DVD and find the exact words… but it was an amusing moment for the obsessive spotter of such details.

  3. Quoting from memory, so it might not be perfect:

    “This is BBC Television. The time is a quarter past five, and Saturday viewing continues with an adventure in the new science fiction series, Doc…”

    It’s leading up to the second episode cliffhanger when Ace goes for a walk to the school.

  4. Quoting from memory, so it might not be perfect:

    “This is BBC Television. The time is a quarter past five, and Saturday viewing continues with an adventure in the new science fiction series, Doc…”

    It’s leading up to the second episode cliffhanger when Ace goes for a walk to the school.

  5. I had an idea that there was also something like this in The Idiot’s Lantern but that was set at the time of the coronation so that seems unlikely.

    Rememberance was, IIRC, deliberately set at in the year of the first episode of Doctor Who (1963 – so perhaps it was the 25th anniversary?) and there was additionally a reference to the Totters Lane junkyard in which Ian and Barbara first saw the TARDIS, after following Susan Foreman back there.

  6. I had an idea that there was also something like this in The Idiot’s Lantern but that was set at the time of the coronation so that seems unlikely.

    Rememberance was, IIRC, deliberately set at in the year of the first episode of Doctor Who (1963 – so perhaps it was the 25th anniversary?) and there was additionally a reference to the Totters Lane junkyard in which Ian and Barbara first saw the TARDIS, after following Susan Foreman back there.

  7. Remembrance was a serious piece of retcon for the Doctor.

    You’re right, there was more than just a Totter’s Lane mention, IM Foreman’s was part of the action, as was (IIRC) Cole Hill School. Certainly, Ace at one point picks up in the science lab the same book that Susan Foreman is reading at the beginning of Unearthly Child.

    The whole premise of the episode is that the Doctor returns to Earth in 1963 very shorty after his and Susan’s departure with Ian and Barbara to finish what he started: disposition of the Hand of Omega. Somehow the Daleks and Davros are chasing the Doctor even before he ever met them, A serious reconstruction of the Doctor’s history.

    The episode did kick off the 25th Anniversary season.

  8. Remembrance was a serious piece of retcon for the Doctor.

    You’re right, there was more than just a Totter’s Lane mention, IM Foreman’s was part of the action, as was (IIRC) Cole Hill School. Certainly, Ace at one point picks up in the science lab the same book that Susan Foreman is reading at the beginning of Unearthly Child.

    The whole premise of the episode is that the Doctor returns to Earth in 1963 very shorty after his and Susan’s departure with Ian and Barbara to finish what he started: disposition of the Hand of Omega. Somehow the Daleks and Davros are chasing the Doctor even before he ever met them, A serious reconstruction of the Doctor’s history.

    The episode did kick off the 25th Anniversary season.

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