Why we love Doctor Who… according to a psychologist

Paddy O’Donnell, Professor of Psychology at the University of Glasgow, explains what it is that makes us love the famous character and show so much

How and why do we get so attached to a show, a character and a world that isn’t real?


“The reason science fiction in general works is it explores psychological and societal themes, but in a fantasy world where you can explore them in ways that’s more difficult in real life. So you explore gender identities, ideas of aging, ideas of death, all in ways that allow a different angle by not being tied by realism,” Paddy O’Donnell, Professor of Psychology at the University of Glasgow, explains.

For children, they’re struggling for independence from the parent and to explore, but as O’Donnell explains, “they’re worried about safety. So what they need is a safe place in which they can explore those issues.

“Doctor Who starts with a police box, which isn’t really a police box. It’s coloured blue, which is the colour of calm and motherhood. So it’s a kind of mother. It is the mother ship. It protects while allowing exploration all of these dangerous universes. The Tardis itself is a safe base in which to explore the world,” O’Donnell adds.

On the Doctor himself, O’Donnell notes the importance of his asexual characteristics.

“The Doctor is interesting because he manages to combine excitement with security. The first thing about the Doctor is that he’s not going to sexually attack you. One of the reasons he’s not going to exploit you is because he’s not even really human – he’s a Time Lord and we don’t know if Time Lords even have sex at all. That device is actually quite important as it takes him out of the sexual competition game.

“The Doctor combines both masculinity and warmth – they’re attractive but not in an aggressive masculine way. It used to be more of a father figure, but more recently they’ve gone for a younger but slightly vulnerable male. He doesn’t dress in a very sexy way. It’s not kind of medallion and a hairy chest and all of that kind of stuff. He doesn’t leer at you. His body language is non-sexual. All of them adopt certain mannerisms that make him appear a trifle weird, just a little bit robotic or other-worldly,” O’Donnell adds.

Both adults and children seek an attachment object, which the Doctor himself offers.

“The Doctor meets your basic needs. You project yourself into this world and he meets your basic needs. Those basic needs are to provide excitement while protecting you. The attachment object is the Doctor.

“The easiest way to activate an attachment need is to put someone under threat. New horror movies frighten you but provide no attachment, or they frighten you and give you an attachment object that you move towards which then destroys you. Doctor Who stops at that point. It always reassures that the attachment object is there. The attachment objects aren’t just there to reassure you, but to allow you to continue to explore,” O’Donnell explains.

Once you’ve set up this environment in which fear can be explored, you need to introduce fear, which traditionally has been the Cybermen and the Daleks. Doctor Who explores fears that are to do with children’s own deep psychological needs.

“The childish fear is that you’re suddenly being brought up by aliens. There is an emotional base in that for children, an angry adult is a terrifying object – they become a monster. Being suddenly confronted with something that was human and suddenly seems alien and abhorrent is actually a very childish fear and the Daleks and Cybermen are a representation of this fear. They get put in their place because you can escape this fear.

“I suppose the need is to be reassured that the world is human, that bad things in the end don’t happen. Of course one of the features of the Time Lord is that he never dies, he might go away but he always comes back. The attachment bond is never fractured,” says O’Donnell.

One of the advantages of attracting a range of viewers is that Doctor Who can offer different things to different viewers.

Adults can identify with the Doctor as somebody who is a super-human child protector. “All parents think they have superhuman powers to protect their children. In the fantasy we all believe that – our children will suffer no serious fate because we can stop the world getting to them. It’s a delusion that I think every mother and father has.”

For children, O’Donnell draws comparisons with Harry Potter.

“Children are obsessed by facts and by cataloguing. The more facts the better. They love acquiring new facts. One of the attractions of Harry Potter is they have to learn the rules of this new world. Because that’s what children have to do in late childhood. They have to find out how the world works. So they kind of absorb all of this stuff.


“I think you get bored with learning new worlds as you grow up. I think you get fed up with it. I think it’s a less of a deal. The next Superman movie, they’ve changed the rules – does kryptonite make him weaker or stronger? – you can’t be bothered eventually, but children love that stuff,” O’Donnell jokes.