Wizard, Time Lord – Same Difference?

I saw this image on Facebook, and it reminded me of a point I have made several times before. Some people are adamant about the difference between science fiction and fantasy. But the truth is that the dividing line is at best blurry, and perhaps non-existent.

If Doctor Who featured a wizard with a magical box and wand, rather than an alien with a TARDIS and sonic screwdriver, would the stories have to change much? If the Daleks were conjured by an evil warlock named Davros rather than being genetically engineered?

The science in science fiction does not need to be plausible. And so very often, the stories which are told are the same ones told in the genre of fantasy – and in earlier times in mythology – with merely the merest superficial nod to science as allegedly providing an explanation.

And so the popularity of science fiction, far from indicating that we have left behind notions of magic, indicates that we human beings still long for elements of traditional imaginative storytelling, even if we also feel the need to frame the stories in somewhat different ways.

Only a few centuries ago, there was no real distinction made between the things we would call science and the things we would classify as magic. Science fiction actually expresses the same hope that drove alchemists and others like them, namely that a greater knowledge of how the world works will unlock its secrets and enable us to harness great power and use it to our advantage.

And science sometimes fulfills such expectations, while others it does not. And, with respect to some questions, the answers lie somewhere in the future, if they exist at all.

"I wouldn't mind if there was a contact fourm on your site for a proper ..."

Star Trek Discovery: Choose Your Pain
"I think your first point is either spot on or seriously troubling, depending on your ..."

#CFP Diversity in the Religion Classroom
"For what it is worth, I have always held a most deep philosophic and logical ..."

#CFP Diversity in the Religion Classroom
"The best clue, they were written in Greek. Not implying that there wasn’t a thread ..."

New Age Translation of the Lord’s ..."

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Keith Reich


    I couldn’t agree more. There are those who would like to draw a hard line of distinction between the two genres, turning up their noses at Fantasy, while praising the scientific nature of science fiction. I feel like many involved in the AAR section feel that way, that somehow science fiction is inherently superior to fantasy. I can understand that outlook from the point of view that doesn’t want to admit that there are events for which there is no scientific explanation. What I find puzzling is exactly what you have pointed out: that in actual practice, sci fi differs little from fantasy. Some of the most acclaimed science fiction (Battlestar Galactica, Dr. Who, The Avengers) readily incorporates fantastical elements with no scientific explanation, as if the classification of the show in the genre of science fiction is explanation enough.

    I, like you, love that both genres provide the means of incorporating fantastical elements into a story, elements that are part of the western worlds best storytelling tradition, but that have long been relegated to genres such as mythology. This type of storytelling allows one to ask the ultimate questions in life, philosophy, and religion, which don’t always lend themselves to other genres, or at least not in the same way. I find no other genres that are able to deal with these ultimate issues with as much force and relevance as science fiction and fantasy.

  • go_4_tli

    I disagree, but only a bit. I enjoy hard sci-fi quite a lot *because it is hard sci-fi*. It’s gratifying to me to see that the storytellers are trying to pay attention to reality and its constraints. When I’m in the mood for hard sci-fi, softer sci-fi simply will not do. It’s hard to find the equivalent itch (or the equivalent scratcher) in fantasy.
    That said, I also like less plausible sci-fi when I’m not actively itching. And fantasy. So take all that with a planet-sized grain of salt.

    • plutosdad

      I think the “hard sf” is really only found in books, and a few and far between movies. Another word that has been bandied about is “speculative fiction”, especially regarding Neal Stephenson, who is SF, but sometimes it is light on the science, but never really devolves into fantasy.

      Most movies and TV series (and plenty of books especially space opera), though, really are just fantasy set in the future. That would be the “soft sf” that you mention. But there is a definite difference. And I agree not all SF can be categorized the way James is here. Unfortunately most SF can be categorized as fantasy.

      That doesn’t mean there is something bad about fantasy, but I see fantasy – whether in the future or in an alternate magic universe – more as an escape from reality for entertainment, while I see science fiction as speculation to make me think. Fantasy *could* be edifying, but I think science fiction is much more so.

      Here is Scalzi’s definition, which is more aligned with James’s: http://blogs.amctv.com/movie-blog/2011/02/science-fiction-3.php

      • go_4_tli

        I know hard SF is almost exclusively literary, and that’s frustrating. The few examples I know of in movies and television I treasure, and I’m always looking out for more. (For TV, I’ve generally had to look overseas.) While I like to see people conquering difficulties in plot outright with whatever magical McGuffin they have (be it a wand or a tricorder), there’s also something profoundly human about seeing someone struggle *through* something — like how to understand the universe so as to cope with it more effectively. It’s also nice to appreciate the extra effort the storyteller had to put in to make it work within the physical framework we know and understand. (That’s even nice to see when our understanding has *changed*. I can see certain things that Wells wrote about that were consistent with the scientific understanding of his time but not with ours, and still appreciate that he made the effort. Maybe this is because I like to study scientific history as well — to see how we came to know what we know.)

  • go_4_tli

    It also occurs to me that the *stories* might not have to change much, but the character of the Doctor might have to change quite a bit. He has a zest for science (or, at least, the *feel* of science) and its rigor that would have to be changed into a zest for the connectedness of all life or whatever it is that makes magic work. And that might mean different passions and drives and so forth. Just a thought.

  • Gary

    First thought, Newton. Differential and integral calculus, just created as a tool for his laws of motion. But into alchemy, and, who knows what he really believed in regarding God. I would believe all the experts today would think Newton was a wackco. But none of them could be smart enough to create an entire field of mathematics to prove his motion theories.

  • Pseudonym

    Of course, Joseph Campbell would point out that the “wizard” archetype is in many stories, and isn’t even necessarily a literal wizard. The wizard is the person who aids the protagonist in the journey across the threshold from the world of their previous experience into the unknown.

    So getting some obvious examples out of the way: Obi Wan Kenobi is the wizard in A New Hope, Morpheus is the wizard in The Matrix, Q is the wizard in Skyfall (and every other Bond film except the previous two), Grace is the wizard in Avatar, Odo is the wizard in Ghost, Giles is the wizard in Buffy, Ramírez is the wizard in Highlander, Rufus is the wizard in the Bill and Ted films, the dead father is the wizard in Six Feet Under. I could go on.

    However, the wizard may take other forms in non-action, non-sci fi, non-fantasy. Many romantic comedies have them; think of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl (such as SanDeE* in L.A. Story) as a blatant example.

    By the way, John the Baptist is the wizard to hero-Jesus in the synoptic gospels.

    • arcseconds

      who is the wizard in Doctor Who?

      • Donalbain

        Rose Tyler.

      • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/religionprof/ James F. McGrath

        Originally at least, it was the Doctor: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/religionprof/2011/10/doctor-who-the-firemaker.html

        The Doctor has become the main character, but originally he was more the one who was responsible for getting the human heroes into exciting adventures.

      • Pseudonym

        In the Russell T. Davies era, the companion (occasionally the guest, such as Sally Sparrow in Blink) was the protagonist and the Doctor was the wizard.

    • arcseconds

      I don’t really think it’s useful to try to shoehorn all narratives into Campbell’s categories. I agree that Kenobi, Morpheus and Grace are all similar sorts of characters in broadly similar kinds of narratives, where an initially naive hero rises to mastery in the world they find themselves in, so the wizard archetype is completely relevant there. Giles does do exactly that too, but he also provides continual expert support in the way the others do not (Morpheus is surpassed by Neo and becomes a trusted lieutenant instead, and the other two die).

      The Bond films, on the other hand, have a character who’s already entirely masterful in the world he finds himself in, and generally Q does nothing to usher him across any threshold: he’s just a source of gadgets, and occasionally provides some commentary. I think the important thing to say about Q is that rather than being in some ways Bond’s superior, he’s really Bond’s equal in a different area, which allows him freedom to talk to Bond in a way that others cannot. In Skyfall his role is a little different: he now offers ongoing support in the magical world of computers. I suppose if we stare hard at it for a while, we could say that he assist Bond in coming to the realisation that there’s now an important area of espionage that he’s not competent in, but we don’t see Bond becoming a hacker in this film. But we need a magnifying glass to find that – and we could also say that that movie’s Bond girl helps Bond to realise something about trust, does that make her a wizard?

      I appreciate you pointing out that romantic comedies have characters that fulfil a similar role, that is indeed an interesting thought. In this case, though, does SanDeE* really help Harris on a journey into the unknown? I don’t think we’re supposed to believe that Harris has never been involved with a woman before. It’s quite plausible that he’s never really been in love before, but he’s already kind of fallen for the English woman and doesn’t seem to really be in love with SanDeE*; SanDeE* is largely just a distraction / rebound girl for him, I think. Often Manic Pixie Dream Girls help an uptight protagonist to relax and find their inner child or something, but Harris is, if anything, already far too in touch with his inner child. We’ve already seen him rollerskate through an art gallery.

      (As an aside, thinking about it, I’d say that it’s more helpful to see Harris’s interactions with his best friend, SanDeE*, and the English woman as showing us three different kinds of relationships our white middle-class mature heterosexual male protagonist can have with women who aren’t his mother)

      If I was to pick out a figure in L.A. Story that’s most like Giles, it would be the highway sign.

  • http://politicaljesus.com/ itsRodT

    James, enjoyed the post. I think a possible question asked in the spirit of this post, is the new/old Doctor Who and the stories that are told function in the same manner that the fairytales of Merlin the Wizard for people?

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/religionprof/ James F. McGrath

      I think that looking at an episode like “Battlefield,” in which the Doctor turns out to have been Merlin for some familiar characters in a parallel universe, provides something of an answer. :-)

  • Jubal DiGriz

    First time reader, I just had to click on the headline.

    Fictionally everything you said is true. When all is said and done the big difference between Gandalf and the Doctor is Gandalf hangs out with more people when adventuring.

    But thematically there is a polar difference between Doctor Who and Tolkien in particular, and sci-fi and fantasy generally. In fantasy there is almost some element of fate and/or fatalism, and of people manipulating powers outside their understanding. Science fiction is invariably people struggling with problems of their own creation, no outcome is fixed (even with time travel!), and knowledge is the solution to problems.

    Essentially fantasy is based on spirituality, and science fiction is based on materialism.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/religionprof/ James F. McGrath

      I think the line is blurrier than that. There is a significant amount of spirituality in science fiction, and often the view that one can use magic to manipulate matter and entities can be essentially materialistic.

      • Jubal DiGriz

        That’s why I said “essentially”. There’s a million and one exceptions of course, but generally the plot of fantasy stories are driven by “powers beyond the ken of man” and destiny, while science fiction is driven by self-determination (solutions only happen when someone makes it happen) and using extant knowledge.

        Gandalf and the Doctor and typical of this. Gandalf is a literal servant of the divine plan, and while he possibly understands the source of his magic he never explains it to anyone. The Doctor has no authority except his own moral code, and is constantly explaining what he is doing to those around him… often they end up learning from him how to solve the problem themselves.

        I’m harping on the point because I think part of the value science fiction and fantasy is they have different assumptions on human experience… equivocating those assumptions takes away something from the mediums.

    • Pseudonym

      Just curious: Which category would you identify for the typical superhero story?

      Superman has a sense of fate that Spider-Man doesn’t. And now that I think of it, if this was the definition, Golden Age Wonder Woman would be closer to sci-fi and Silver Age would be closer to fantasy!

      While we’re at it, how about Who Framed Roger Rabbit?

      I don’t think it’s always obvious whether you’re watching science fiction or fantasy. I have some sympathy for Isaac Asimov’s definition (science fiction is that which could conceivably happen), however that would put most of the Phillip K. Dick canon in the “fantasy” category. I’m not sure that makes sense.

      I feel like such a nerd right now.

      • arcseconds

        Why would they have to be categorized in either category?

        • Pseudonym

          They wouldn’t, necessarily. I’m just curious why the distinction is drawn along thematic lines specifically.

  • arcseconds

    It’s largely a framing device. That doesn’t mean it’s unimportant, though: a show about a wizard with a wand and a magic box would still be quite different from Doctor Who. We could expect more sword fights and more dragons, for example, and less spaceships. The tropes that go with the framing are different, and you’ll have a different show as a result.

    Of course, it’s possible to write in a mixed genre, but these have never proven as successful, which just goes to show how powerful these framing devices are. Comic books are a bit of an exception here, but they get away with it because although officially Doctor Strange lives just down the highway from Reed Richards, most of the time they appear to be living in separate universes, so the genres are still largely distinct.

    It’s worth noting that science fiction usually makes considerable use of current technology to depict future technology, even when the science is implausible. And even when the future technology looking like current technology is implausible! A modern motherboard looks nothing like the computing devices of 65 years ago, yet in classic Who the TARDIS is often depicted as having circuit-boards. This kind of thing allows us to immediately recognise the Doctor as working on his time machine as doing something that’s at least somewhat familiar to us.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/religionprof/ James F. McGrath

      True, but I wonder whether, if it were a wizard who pulled out the time turner and waved a wand over it, rather than a circuit board and sonic screwdriver, it would be a fundamental change or more of a symbolic one. I think there is definitely a difference that is being asserted between the two genres, I’m just questioning whether there is much depth or substance to it in soft sci-fi, as it is sometimes called.

      • arcseconds

        Well, in that scenario, the following would have been established (or would have to be established):
        *) magical items have components
        *) they can be disassembled and reassembled
        *) a component can be modified or repaired independently from the rest of the item.

        So you’d still be importing a trope from modern technology, as traditionally magical items aren’t generally depicted like this. The only example I can think of off hand is Harry Potter, where the wands have components, and I’m inclined to say that that is indeed importing a notion from modern technology. Also, you’ll have to work a bit harder to establish the scenario. Pulling a circuit board out of a spaceship and fiddling with it is clearly either fixing it or modifying it, but with a bit of a magic item, is that what’s going on, or is that how you steer it or power it, or charge the wand, or what?

        Softness in sci-fi is a spectrum. Doctor Who is about as soft as it gets: pretty much anything is possible, including excursions into outright fantasy, and to the point that it’s not really stable as a genre. It can range from classic horror to kids’ fairy tale to something out of hitch-hikers guide to the galaxy in the space of a few episodes. This is something that was less the case in the original series and I find a bit frustrating about the new series. If you want to examine the differences between soft science fiction and fantasy, Doctor Who is probably not the best example of sci-fi to take.

        • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/religionprof/ James F. McGrath

          Yes, the mixture of genres is actually one of the things I love about the show. In particular, I don’t think that anyone can “get” Doctor Who if they fail to detect that comedy is one of its genres.

      • arcseconds

        I’m not sure what you mean by depth or substance?

        Also, i’m not sure what your technology-replacement technique actually shows, but I don’t think that it automatically shows that the difference is superficial.

        A rich enough ontology allows any possible story to be translated into its terms. You can translate all of Doctor Who into fantasy terms, sure, but you could do the same for Star Trek or even CSI. CSI would work pretty well in the Harry Pottter universe, I feel. But I doubt many would think this shows that the differences between crime shows and fantasy are superficial.

        One difference Star Trek being translated into the Adventures of Sinbad might show us that one thing science fiction does is imaginatively investigates where our technology is taking us. Trek shows us a society where no-one wants, in part brought about through advanced technology. It’s much easier to see that as a possibility for us than an isomorphic society where magic is used to eliminate want.

        • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/religionprof/ James F. McGrath

          By depth or substance, I guess I meant something along these lines. Hindu mysticism does not become scientific just because a popular speaker peppers the word “quantum” into the mix. Some science fiction has technobabble inserted in a similar fashion, giving a veneer of science that vanishes if one scratches beneath the surface.

          But I agree that, simply by positing that these are advanced future technologies, sci-fi naturally addresses present concerns and trajectories in a way that fantasy does not to the same extent.

          • arcseconds

            OK, so soft sci-fi and fantasy share the property of not being consistent with contemporary science, or any plausible extension thereof.

            But it seems odd to assert that just because they share this one property the differences between them are trivial. Normally we don’t take metaphysical consistency to be the only important distinction to be made between literary genres.

            Does this mean there’s no meaningful difference between A Nightmare on Elm Street and The Muppet Show ?

          • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/religionprof/ James F. McGrath

            It is so tempting to try to do a comparison between Freddy Kruger and Miss Piggy just for fun…

            But my point was that there is more similarity than just a lack of scientific plausibility. Doctor Who has regularly explicitly featured not just monsters, but ones with mythological features in mythological settings, from the Daemon at Devil’s End to the minotaur/Nimon in the labyrinthinte hotel in “The God Complex” and of course the episodes “The Myth Makers” and “Underworld.” I do not by any means want to suggest that there are no distinctions. My point is that Doctor Who is telling the same kinds of stories a lot of the time, with only the framing having shifted.

  • DrDebG

    The late, great (absolutely charming) Jack Williamson argued that it was *all* fantasy. From a man called the “Dean of Science Fiction,” that’s pretty telling, I think.

  • umbrarchist

    There are too many works labeled science fiction without any more details explained. Dr. Who is the unscientific end a sci-fi, even less technical than Star Trek.

    Compare Arthur C. Clarke’s Sands of Mars to Childhood’s End. That is significant variation from the same author. But movies and television are worse than the better book though there is no limit to how unscientific SF books can get.

  • Linda Bishop

    I used to write these stories about a wizard who traveled through space and time in different dimensions, etc. Now just recently I’ve been introduced to Dr. Who for the first time and am watching the episodes and freaking out cause they are so amazingly similar to the stoires I’ve written over the past 20 years. In the stories I wrote there was a girl named Rosie who traveled with him – how weird is that? So…this leads me to wonder. Is the Wizard real ? Is Dr. Who real? Are they one in the same and did he someone telepathically or whatever give me the ideas for the stories???