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If asked to name one myth of our time that embodies the spirit of ritual as it is manifested in our culture, I would choose Doctor Who.

I think of the liminal space of the Tardis, a separate liminal zone in which time and space lose their ordinary meaning, and travelers lucky to go along for a ride are shown remarkable symbols of meaning, liberated from the ordinary rules that constrict them back home, while learning, usually in a frightening way, that every world has its taboos. I think of the iconic door of the great blue box, presenting a threshold into adventure.

I think of the way that The Doctor changes identity, physically, as a way of representing what we all go through when we endure major passages in our lives. This connection was made explicit in the most recent episode of Doctor Who, the last appearance of Matt Smith as The Doctor. 

In the closing minutes of that show, The Doctor explains, as he begins to regenerate, “It’s started. I can’t stop it now. This is just the reset, a whole new regeneration cycle… It all just disappears, doesn’t it, everything you are, gone in a moment like breath on a mirror… Times change, and so must I. We all change, when you think about it. We’re all different people all throughout our lives, and that’s okay. That’s good. You’ve got to keep moving, so long as you remember all the people that you used to be.”

This is the lesson of ritual: It is an entrance into a strange land where we engage in commerce with other versions of ourselves.

The ongoing popularity of Doctor Who has a great deal to do with the imagination of its creators, but it is also due to a corresponding passion in our commercial-industrial culture for developing multiple identities, all housed under one official name. As Matt Smith’s Doctor suggests, the Time Lord merely goes on a more flamboyant version of a journey that we all take.

Tardis in time vortex