An Awfully Big Adventure – the influence of Peter Pan on the Doctor and Rose

Inspired by a viewing of “Neverland” – which offers an extremely sanitised and revised reading of JM Barrie’s relationship with the Llewellyn-Davies family, who inspired “Peter Pan”, I’ve been digging around in Barrie’s life and works.

It makes for creepy reading. According to a recent account by the writer Piers Dudgeon (“Captivated”), Barrie was impotent and deeply scarred by his mother’s slide into depression and rejection of him after the death of Barrie’s older brother at the age of 13. There is even a suggestion that Barrie might have been unwittingly responsible for the accident that killed his brother; whether or not this is correct, Barrie was clearly an emotionally maimed individual who was never able to form non-exploitative and healthy relationships. His effect on the Llewellyn-Davies family was largely tragic; of the five boys he unofficially adopted, no less than three eventually committed suicide.

That aside, for it’s a huge and fascinating subject in its own right, I found myself reflecting on the continuing myth of Peter Pan, the boy who is incapable of growing up, his strange relationship with the blonde and nurturing Wendy and the very English note of melancholy that surrounds their story. The novelisation, and to some extent sequel, of Peter Pan, “Peter and Wendy” is available on Wiki as an opensource document. I’ll confine myself to a few observations on its final chapter, “When Wendy Grew Up” and the links this has with “Doctor Who.”

Let me say at the outset that I’m not suggesting that Russell T Davies took “Peter and Wendy” as a source text; it’s more subtle than that. There’s a rich stream of fantasy tradition, running all the way from Lewis Carroll through to “His Dark Materials” and beyond that uses the metaphor of escape to other worlds to shed a light on the human condition, particularly the Romantic understanding of childhood as a time of innocence and the inevitable sense of loss that accompanies growing up. Fantasy figures tend to be outside the adult world of commitment and responsibility, by their very definition – and although this light-hearted reading of the Doctor has been put under considerable pressure in “New Who”, it remains encoded in the show’s DNA and, arguably, the English collective consciousness. It’s behind the argument voiced several times by RTD after his tragic finales that, ultimately, change is the only constant in the Doctor’s life. It’s the fear of making him ordinary and dull, so deeply ingrained that ultimately RTD had to square the circle, somewhat clumsily, by creating a duplicate Doctor and hiding him away in another universe, so we didn’t have to watch him doing precisely that.

So, here goes. Due to length (I do quote fairly fully from the original text) I’ll have to divide this critique into more than one part.

The Doctor is firmly rooted in the Edwardian tradition of a thoroughly decent, yet subversive, travelling gentleman explorer with a private income. A boyish streak and a certain emotional immaturity characterises this product of the British Empire, probably reinforced by public school education, remoteness in intimate relationships dating from childhood, the ability to use charm and social confidence to control other people and the innate superiority which naturally accompanies a colonial attitude to other races. All this has been observed in the Doctor’s characterisation and I don’t intend to go into it in great depth here.

There is a deep, and frequently sentimental, poignancy attached to much of the children’s literature of the culturally influential Edwardian period. In retrospect, the First World War bathes it in a golden glow of nostalgia, but in fact the sentimental cult of eternal youth and romantic innocence of childhood was prevalent long before, and in “Peter Pan” it reaches, perhaps, its fullest and creepiest expression. The play, debuting in 1904, was as huge a hit in its day as New Who has proved to be a century later.

Rose, despite her youth, is presented as a Wendy to the Doctor’s Pan figure. She recognises his need for emotional security and longs to nurture him, and he is torn between his desire to stay with her and his compulsion to continue with his travelling life. By the end of “Peter and Wendy”, Mrs Darling is hovering anxiously on the sidelines of Wendy’s fantasy life, recognising her attraction to Peter as the dangerous thing it undoubtedly is.

It’s difficult for anyone who has watched “Doomsday” not to feel a stirring of familiarity when they read Peter and Wendy’s parting lines:

As for Peter, he saw Wendy once again before he flew away. He did not exactly come to the window, but he brushed against it in passing so that she could open it if she liked and call to him. That is what she did.

“Hullo, Wendy, good-bye,” he said.

“Oh dear, are you going away?”

“Yes.”

“You don’t feel, Peter,” she said falteringly, “that you would like to say anything to my parents about a very sweet subject?”

“No.”

“About me, Peter?”

“No.”

Mrs Darling, who has already adopted the six Lost Boys, intervenes at this point and offers to adopt Peter, too:

“Would you send me to school?” he inquired craftily.

“Yes.”

“And then to an office?”

“I suppose so.”

“Soon I would be a man?”

“Very soon.”

“I don’t want to go to school and learn solemn things,” he told her passionately. “I don’t want to be a man. O Wendy’s mother, if I was to wake up and feel there was a beard!”

“Peter,” said Wendy the comforter, “I should love you in a beard”; and Mrs. Darling stretched out her arms to him, but he repulsed her.

“Keep back, lady, no one is going to catch me and make me a man.”

Wendy is still torn, and she worries that Peter will be lonely without her and the Lost Boys.

“I shall have such fun,” said Peter, with an eye on Wendy.

“It will be rather lonely in the evening,” she said, “sitting by the fire.”

“I shall have Tink.”

“Tink can’t go a twentieth part of the way round,” she reminded him a little tartly.

“Sneaky tell-tale!” Tink called out from somewhere round the corner.

“It doesn’t matter,” Peter said.

“O Peter, you know it matters.”

“Well, then, come with me to the little house.”

“May I, mummy?”

“Certainly not. I have got you home again, and I mean to keep you.”

“But he does so need a mother.”

“So do you, my love.”

Mrs Darling has the objectivity to see that Peter will always be tempted to have his cake and eat it, and that this spells doom for Wendy’s long-term happiness. She will never be able to resist the desire to put his own needs before her own, thus reinforcing his refusal to take responsibility for himself. Eventually, we all have to grow up to become emotionally healthy people. We can’t keep running off to a fantasy world; it’s the ordinary life, day after day for us. Isn’t this exactly what Jackie tries to tell Rose in “Army of Ghosts”?

JACKIE
What happens when I’m gone?

ROSE
(shocked)
Don’t talk like that!

JACKIE
(seriously)
No, but really. When I’m dead and buried, you won’t have any reason to come back home. What happens then?

ROSE
(quietly)
I don’t know.

JACKIE
Do you think you’ll ever settle down?

ROSE
The Doctor never will, so I can’t. I’ll just keep on travelling.

JACKIE
And you’ll keep on changing. And in forty years time, fifty, there’ll be this woman – this strange woman… walking through the marketplace on some planet a billion miles from Earth. She’s not Rose Tyler. Not anymore. She’s not even human…

The entire tone of the Doomsday beach scene references the Peter and Wendy myth, among others, right down to similarities of dialogue. When the Doctor mentions “the one adventure I can never have”, it’s quite possible that ringing in RTD’s subconscious is Peter’s creepy remark, “To die would be an awfully big adventure” – its fantasy credentials reinforced by the fact that Dumbledore says something very similar to Harry in “The Philosopher’s Stone”.

The Doctor will always have the TARDIS, a relationship that even Rose can’t completely comprehend. It’s far from being a straightforward relationship, but the TARDIS, like Tinkerbell, is familiar and unthreatening to the Doctor, whereas his love for Rose is very much an unknown quantity.

Eventually an uneasy compromise is reached, one which would bring out the Freudian in many a reader – Mrs Darling will let Wendy return to Neverland once a year, for a week, to do Peter’s spring-cleaning (Arguably, that’s precisely what we’ve recently seen Rose do in Stolen Earth and Journey’s End!) Wendy is resigned to the arrangement, rather than content, already suspecting that Peter will forget her:

Wendy would have preferred a more permanent arrangement; and it seemed to her that spring would be long in coming; but this promise sent Peter away quite gay again. He had no sense of time, and was so full of adventures that all I have told you about him is only a halfpenny-worth of them. I suppose it was because Wendy knew this that her last words to him were these rather plaintive ones:

“You won’t forget me, Peter, will you, before spring cleaning time comes?”

Of course Peter promised; and then he flew away. He took Mrs. Darling’s kiss with him. The kiss that had been for no one else, Peter took quite easily. Funny. But she seemed satisfied.

There’s a hint here that Peter has the ability to infiltrate the Darling household and destabilise the intimate relationships of the people he experiments with loving, but can’t ultimately commit to. It’s clear that this precisely, though probably unconsciously, parallels Barrie’s own tortuous relationships with the Llewelly-Davies family. It also reminds me of the first moments of Army of Ghosts, where Jackie welcomes the Doctor as a “Lovely Big Boy” and, in fact, kisses him rather than Rose.

The conclusion is predictably sad: Wendy remains devoted to the memory of Peter and lives for their next meeting. She is careful to wear the clothes she wore when she fist visited Neverland – her uniform of a dress made out of leaves. And Barrie goes into rather prurient detail about the struggle she has to squeeze her developing figure into it! In Series Four, Rose, too, adopts a costume that fixes her temporally at the moment when the Doctor last saw her. He’s probably far too preoccupied to notice.

Wendy finds that Peter has detatched himself emotionally from the experience of their relationship. He barely remembers things that were life-changing for her:

She flew away with Peter in the frock she had woven from leaves and berries in the Neverland, and her one fear was that he might notice how short it had become; but he never noticed, he had so much to say about himself.

She had looked forward to thrilling talks with him about old times, but new adventures had crowded the old ones from his mind.

“Who is Captain Hook?” he asked with interest when she spoke of the arch enemy.

“Don’t you remember,” she asked, amazed, “how you killed him and saved all our lives?”

“I forget them after I kill them,” he replied carelessly.

When she expressed a doubtful hope that Tinker Bell would be glad to see her he said, “Who is Tinker Bell?”

“O Peter,” she said, shocked; but even when she explained he could not remember.

“There are such a lot of them,” he said. “I expect she is no more.”

This is, admittedly, more callous than the Doctor’s memories of his many travelling companions, but there is a parallel there; the Doctor doesn’t have a normal concept of time, or meaningful relationships and in a sense, he has to forget the people he’s killed, because to remember would destroy him. It’s the only way to maintain the upbeat, babbling image of eternal youth.

In the concluding part of my essay, I’ll be arguing that RTD’s conception of the character of the Doctor attempts to replace this fantasy figure with a more mature and emotionally rounded one, but that in doing so he is continually thwarted by the section of his audience who remain invested in the conception of the Doctor as Peter Pan. I’ll be considering how far RTD has succeeded in reconciling these two opposing forces, especially with reference to the conclusion of the relationship between The Doctor and Rose as depicted in “Journey’s End.”

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16 thoughts on “An Awfully Big Adventure – the influence of Peter Pan on the Doctor and Rose

  1. Oh yes, and if you think that is strange just take a look at “The Little White Bird” – where the adult narrator talks graphically about bed-sharing with an eight-year-old boy. Interesting, isn’t it, that there’s this disturbing undercurrent of child abuse in both the Barrie/L-D relationship and the Dodgeson/Liddell one. Both were men who were emotionally, maybe also physically, unable to father children, and became over-identified with other people’s. And other writers in the canon of English fantasy had remote and unfulfilling family lives, too – Tolkein, for instance.
    A less obvious parallel is Joyce Anstruther, aka Jan Struther, the creator of the iconic “Mrs Miniver” who arguably did more for the US/UK alliance in WW2 than Pearl Harbor. In fact, JA was very unhappily married and involved with a Viennese refugee (called Adolf!) throughout the 1940s, she escaped to the USA to be with him and her portrait of Mrs Miniver’s domestic bliss was an idealised, completely untrue, picture of her own marriage as she’d have liked it to be.
    Perhaps you need the emotional repression of the English character to write idealised, sentimentalised versions of domestic relationships?

  2. This has me in tears, it really does. And not just because so much of it makes so much sense.
    Eventually an uneasy compromise is reached, one which would bring out the Freudian in many a reader – Mrs Darling will let Wendy return to Neverland once a year, for a week, to do Peter’s spring-cleaning (Arguably, that’s precisely what we’ve recently seen Rose do in Stolen Earth and Journey’s End!)
    The parallel my mind thought up for that one, rather than the Rose thing (although that, too, is accurate enough) was Persephone spending half the year with her mother and then the other half in the Underworld.

  3. You might be disturbed to find out what it’s really like. For the background to Barrie’s malign emotional effect on both the Du Maurier and the Llwellyn-Davies families, who were related by marriage, I recommend “Captivated” by Piers Dudgeon; he places Barrie in a literary context stretching all the way from “Trilby” in the late 19C to “Rebecca” at the end of the 1930s. Barrie comes out of it as that nastiest of characters, a sexual cripple who resorts to emotional rape instead. Sad reading.

  4. Definitely. Myths recur in many different variations and I know a number of people have done meta on the beach scene as an Odysseus/Penelope narrative. A fascinating resource for this kind of thing is “The Hero’s Journey” by Joseph Campbell (search Wiki under “Monomyth” and don’t miss the section on Hollywood!
    I think the real tragedy, so far as DW goes, is that RTD tried very hard to break the influence of the PP archetype, but Journey’s End suggests that he was only able to let go of his job as showrunner by capitulating to Stephen Moffatt, who seems likely to reinstate it.

  5. Wow, Ruth. This gives me a lot to think about. “Peter Pan” has been a favorite of mine since I was about 13, and while I’d thought before about the Doctor’s Peter Pan qualities I’d never delved so far into it.

  6. Sad indeed… I prefer to think of him as the sweet guy from Finding Neverland. 😦
    But I must ask: how is he connected to Trilby?? That’s one of the strangest books ever, and I had no idea there was a connection.

  7. Through Sylvia L-D. Sylvia’s father was George du Maurier, who wrote “Trilby” of course, and was fascinated by hypnotism. PD’s argument was that Sylvia, one of George’s five children, inherited the hypnotic ability, which was coveted and practised by Barrie. Barrie adored George DM’s earlier novel, “Peter Ibbotson”, which had a similar theme. By the time “Trilby” came out he was a fanboy to the extent of stalking the entire family. At the time, the patriachal George was the unchallenged leader of the clan, but when he died in the mid-1890s the wealthy and influential Barrie rapidly infiltrated the family circle.
    In the movie, Sylvia is widowed when Barrie first meets her, but in reality he was coming between her and her husband for years before Arthur died. PD claims that Barrie insinuated his way into her family circle and practised his hypnotic abilities on the boys, harming them for life. He appears to have been sexually attracted to first George, then Michael. After Sylvia’s death, which Barrie allegedly hastened by depriving her of appropriate medical care, he falsified Sylvia’s will and became the unofficial guardian of all the L-D brothers.
    A further twist is that Daphne Du Maurier was Sylvia’s neice. DDM’s father, Gerald, was dependant on Barrie’s influence to further his acting and theatrical career. As the LD boys matured, Barrie allegedly turned his attention to Gerald’s three daughters, particularly Daphne. Themes of demonic and mesmeric possession crop up in several of her later novels, dating roughly from her meeting with Peter L-D in the late 1940s. The two of them spent many hours discussing their childhood memories of Barrie, and this culminated in Daphne having a series of breakdowns and Peter throwing himself beneath a train; his brother Jack also killed himself,and Michael drowned himself as a young man in 1920 after trying fruitlessly to break JMB’s emotional hold over him. George was killed in the First World War. The youngest boy, Nico, was relatively unscathed by the Barrie influence, and he doesn’t appear in the movie.
    It’s all a bit different from Finding Neverland. I’d love to see that movie with David Tennant in the title role.

  8. I love the pumpkin Dalek!
    I think the real tragedy, so far as DW goes, is that RTD tried very hard to break the influence of the PP archetype, but Journey’s End suggests that he was only able to let go of his job as showrunner by capitulating to Stephen Moffatt, who seems likely to reinstate it
    And yet a character that never ‘grows’, that never learns from anything he experiences, soon becomes a somewhat hollow character (Eliot’s The Hollow Men comes immediately to mind; I’d already connected that with the Doctor but is something else again.
    This is the way the world endsNot with a bang but a whimper
    *sighs* Are they trying to get the show cancelled again?

  9. I’m glad to see this written about! I’ve thought about that connection myself. I’m looking forward to reading the other parts.
    It’s probably a good thing I’ve never re-read Peter Pan in adulthood. I think it would ruin it for me. When I read the Wonderland books to my son, I struck by how truly bizarre (a bit disturbing) they are. It is interesting how much strangeness in story-telling we are able to accept as children.

  10. Interesting, isn’t it, that there’s this disturbing undercurrent of child abuse in both the Barrie/L-D relationship and the Dodgeson/Liddell one.
    What’s especially ironic about the Dodgeson/Liddell connection is how Mrs Liddell was so careful to keep the elder girls away from Dodgeson when they reached a certain age, but thought nothing of letting the littles play with him!

  11. Fantastic analysis. I always loved the otherworldliness of PP, and it remains one of my favourite books ever. Pirates, adventure, self-indulgence– all delicious things, of course, but even more than them, I adore Mrs Darling at the end, in the scene you’ve referenced. I love how she surrenders without a murmur what everyone most coveted from about the first page onward (the kiss) and fights instead to keep what matters most to her— as long as she keeps her daughter, she doesn’t mind about the kiss. She always seemed to me a very special sort of person.

  12. I love this essay. The thought of comparing the two relationships never even occurred to me, but after reading this it seems obvious. I think that, according to what you said in the final paragraph, RTD tried with the Ninth Doctor to ground the Doctor (make it so that he has no Neverland, so to speak, to return to). But with the regeneration into the Tenth Doctor, who in my opinion is much more like all the other Doctors, RTD committed himself to portraying the Doctor as a more whimsical character like Peter is. Especially in the way Ten treats Rose: he cares for her, but sometimes he forgets little things, like when he lets it slip that he used to be a father in “Fear Her.” He doesn’t think how that would affect her. Or Ten’s attitude to his adventures: “Time to move on,” he says in Girl in the Fireplace. And you were right about the companions bit: the Doctor never really mentions his companions, except for Sarah Jane (but that’s only when she actually showed up). He’ll mention that he’s had previous companions, but he never says “This one time Romana and I…” or “Peri used to wear that dress.” He simply moves on (the only time he mentions companions is when talking to Five, but that’s a different story).
    Wow, I wrote my own mini-essay. I just loved your analysis. =]

  13. Sadly, yes…this is, as I said, exactly what I reject in the text of Doctor Who as it references Peter Pan. I have felt the reference there, bubbling below the surface, and, well, I hold that the one adventure you can never have is the exact adventure you SHOULD have. I thought it quite interesting to hear RTD talking about the Doctor on Mayo and mentioning his lust and his passion and his joy in life, because none of that can truly be reconciled to the end of Journey’s End. If he was a true hero, brave and strong and bold…then a life with Rose, short and sweet and ephemeral as the flower she’s named for…would be something to savor and treasure in his long memory.
    But instead, he’s simply running away from responsiblity and death…very like Peter. And what irks me is the echoing need in the text to then have him return and carry off one of Rose’s daughters to an adventure of her own. This view of the Doctor isn’t one that I can tolerate anymore. When I thought of him as a rebel with a cause…or a roaming gnome…or a meddlesome clown…I was happy enough. When he was avuncular and charming and alien, I was satisfied to dream of a Doctor with a deeper river of emotion within him. But now that I’ve sampled the deeper river…I find I can no longer be satisfied with returning to the shallow life that the Doctor lived in the past. Yes, I’m sure Tinkerbell TARDIS loves him. But it’s just a ship. I know the cyclic pattern of this journey and there’s nothing there to interest me. To me knowing that the Doctor simply lives adventure to adventure is a sad denial of the richness of life, rather than an affirmation. We all know people like this, they go from relationship to relationship, job to job…they backpack across Europe when they are 45. They have kids who take care of them and they spend their days wasted on something. They are so busy being free they don’t notice how pathetic they are or how sorry we all feel for them.
    I’m just saying it’s an adolescent fantasy. And maybe that’s what Doctor Who is supposed to be. Maybe if RTD has a message for all of us who are still fans after 28 years…it is GROW UP!
    My only problem with that is that he made the show what it is…he opened up those questions in the Doctor and so…in the audience. I would have been perfectly content with the happy, wandering clown of Tom Baker. But now that we have a lonely, emo man who can’t have a family or home, because…well…he refuses to grow up…I have lost a bit of patience with the show.
    Rae
    Rae

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