In the most recent installment of Doctor Who we were introduced to “the gangers,” a group of synthetically created human bodies, which are exact, duplicates of “real” human bodies. The gangers were initially intended to be controlled remotely from their human hosts, but now, due to an accident, they’ve come alive! And while obvious comparisons can be made to the Cylons, or Frankenstein’s Monster, the notion of doppelgängers, or humananoids that look exactly like other humans, is a popular and recurring theme throughout genre literature, television and film.
What is it about facing off against our doubles that drives us crazy? Why do we need doppelgängers in so much of our fiction?
In the Nabokov novel Despair, the protagonist Hermann believes he has found his double, a poor man named Felix who lives in Prague. Hermann proceeds to hatch a scheme that involves faking the death of Felix in order for them both to cash in on this look-alike coincidence. Later, however, Hermann murders Felix, after which it is revealed that the two men look nothing like one another to anyone else, and we are left trying to understand the dubious motivations of Hermann, an unreliable narrator par excellance. And while Nabokov didn’t give us a true doppelgängers, he does address an interesting theme: often times characters are either forced to fight doppelgängers, or possess an inherent desire to destroy them.
While probably not inspired by Nabokov, the Jet Li/James Wong film The One, gives us Gabriel YuLaw, a homicidal man traveling to every single parallel dimension and destroying alternate versions of himself in order to be the only “one” in existence. While some kind of superpower-related reward is hinted at, this obsession strikes a casual viewer as extreme narcissism. Why is Gabriel YuLaw so threatened by these alternate universes? He seems to feel slighted by the existence of these alternate selves and, as such, feels less unique.
The need to destroy doppelgängers seems linked to our jealousy of them. In the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “Second Chances,” a duplicate of William T. Riker is discovered...one who never decided to give up his romantic pursuit of Deanna Troi. This Riker actually come across a little sexier and more macho then “our” Riker, so naturally Riker Uno and Riker Dos eventually duke it out. What’s interesting here is the subtext (also present in many other doppelgänger stories) that one of them is the “real” one and one of them is the “fake” one, or the “bad” one.
Many times you’ll have a doppelgänger declaring that they are indeed the “real” version of a character, and usually they really believe it. The audience rarely does, however; just like the characters, we often decide that there Can Be Only One. The recent Doctor Who episode “The Rebel Flesh” is already exploring this phenomenon in interesting ways when the question of family visitation rights occurs. Who gets to see the family, the original humans or the gangers? Just like the duplicate Riker tried to move in on his old girlfriend, the audience eventually wants original Riker to win out. Poor Riker Dos even loses his first name, further robbing him of his identity; eventually, Thomas Riker truly becomes “the bad one” when he returns on Deep Space Nine and rips off the Defiant.
Speaking of Deep Space Nine, the mirror universe version of Kira doesn’t seem remotely threatened by the existence of her duplicate from “our” universe. In fact, just the opposite: this Kira is not only moderately titillated by the existence of her doppelgänger, but it also seems to potentially sooth her loneliness. After all, who knows you better than you?
One doppelgänger who takes on numerous physical and thematic roles occurs in the case of Stefan Urquelle, Steve Urkel’s “smoother” alter ego on the sitcom Family Matters. Stefan is unique in the world of doppelgängers insofar as he was originally a submerged personality of Steve, but later took on a separate physical manifestation. The situation is unusual because Urkel’s jealously for Urquelle only goes to a point. Sure, Urquelle is demonized to a certain degree, but Urkel does eventually come to tolerate his existence in the physical world. Imagine evil Kirk from “The Enemy Within” walking around as a member of the Enterprise crew. This is basically what happened with Urkel and Urquelle occupying the same dimension.
In nearly every single Stefan Urquelle episode, the audience is encouraged to root for Steve Urkel. And yet, it still feels like the mere persistence of the Urquelle character indicates there was something integral about him that helps us better understand Steve.
Urquelle does complicate things for Urkel and the other characters, however, in keeping with the traditional doppelgänger plot. Having a doppelgänger around usually causes some significant problems (not that you’d know it from Captain Jack Harkness’s positive reaction when confronted by multiple Doctors in the Doctor Who episode “Journey’s End”). Sometimes this comes from a “this town’s not big enough for the both of us” mentality, but other times because the doppelgänger is not a “perfect” duplicate. In the case of the Meta-Crisis 10th Doctor, for example, he was partly human because of the exchange with Donna. This caused his personality to be slightly different than “our” Doctor.
Moon explores the premise that copies of copies will eventually degrade and cease to be the original person in basic fundamental ways. When Sam Bell realizes that he is one of many clones of himself, both versions of Sam naturally resent it. But that resentment becomes problematized by the fact that their very nature as clones means they are ultimately disposable. Talk about not feeling unique!
Farscape followed this theme to a more disturbing conclusion: during the third season of the show, there were suddenly two John Crichton’s—the result of a process called “doubling.” To the crew’s dismay, there were virtually no differences between the Johns. Here, the idea of cloning and alternate versions of a person was turned on its head. None of the versions of John could be labeled the “real” John. Deciding which one of them had the rights to John Crichton’s life was a mess, more so because they were both in love with Aeryn Sun—who gets the right to a relationship when you’re both the same man? How can you be jealous of you?
Ultimately, the exploration of doppelgängers in science fiction gives rise to a basic “nature versus nurture” debate. Are we ourselves because of how we’ve been defined by our surroundings and experiences, or is there something innate within an entity that makes us what we are? According to Merriam Wesbter, a doppelgänger is “a ghostly counterpart of a living person.” Other definitions include “double” or “alter ego.” All of this seems to point to the fact that inherent in the concept of the doppelgänger is the notion or implication that they are evil. But can doppelgängers redeem themselves? The gangers on in “The Rebel Flesh” certainly show signs of being capable of redemption, but will they eventually degenerate into being evil twins?
Fiction seems to demand a persistence of doppelgängers while at the same time warning us against trusting them too much. At times doppelgängers seem to reveal too much about our real natures, while at other times we seem to want to court these demons for more extended periods. We love doppelgängers because of the exciting notions they stir up, and yet there is something inherently frightening and sinister embedded in our perception of them. Perhaps it deals with a very basic question many of us ask ourselves: if I met myself, would I even like me?
Enjoy this SNL video which also may or may not be inspired by Nabokov:
Ryan Britt is a staff writer for Tor.com. He wishes he had an evil twin.