Once there was a planet much like any other. And unimportant. This planet sent the universe a message. A bell, tolling among the stars, ringing out to all the dark corners of creation. And everybody came to see. Although no one understood the message, everyone who heard it found themselves afraid. Except one man. The man who stayed for Christmas. (Doctor Who Christmas Special 2013, The Time of the Doctor)
So, this is the story of a man who got stuck somewhere. ‘Everyone gets stuck somewhere eventually, Clara. Everything ends.’ He could have left, but no one else could have protected that small town as he did, from the forces that were besieging it, and from the war that could have burned it and all around it.
A town called Christmas, blanketed in snow. A town where truth prevails, and people greet each other warmly, and take care of each other, but constantly under threat, with enemies ready to take advantage of any weakness, and the citizens are all potential collateral damage.
If Stephen Moffat wasn’t consciously evoking Bedford Falls in those snowy scenes, I’ll eat my fez. Bedford Falls – the town where another good man got stuck, protecting his family and his community. Where he grew older, his own life on hold whilst he saved other people. Where he kept his promises, and watched his chances slipping away. The enemy from whom he protected people was rampant capitalistic greed, rather than alien races bent on world domination, of course, but it nearly drove him to his death, nonetheless.
George Bailey was a man who dreamed of lassoing the moon, of travelling the world, and who ended up stuck in a small town. The Doctor of course had done more than dream. He had travelled the universe, and time itself, but to quote a contributor to the Doctor Who Forum, Matt Smith’s valedictory episode saw him ‘trying to do something small … spend the remainder of his life protecting the people of one town.’
With every victory, the town celebrated. In time, the Doctor seemed to forget he lived any other life. And the people of the town came to love the man who stayed for Christmas.
But the man who stayed did not do so without argument, without at least an internal struggle. We see George Bailey’s anger and frustration at so many moments in the narrative, even as he does what he knows is right, he rages against what it’s costing him. The Doctor too has that fight between the promise he must keep and the life he wants to live.
Clara: What about your life? Just for once, after all of this time, have you not earned the right to think about that? Sorry. Wrong thing to say. We shouldn’t be having an argument.
The Doctor: Clara, I’ve been having that argument for the last three hundred years. All by myself.
Clara: But you didn’t have your TARDIS.
The Doctor: Ah, yes, well that made it easier to stay. True.
The absence of the Tardis may have made it easier, but we can be pretty sure that he would have found a way to leave, if he’d made the decision to do so. I was reminded here not only of IAWL, but of Albert Camus’ doctor, Rieux, in plague-ridden Oran (referencing Nazi-occupied Paris), knowing he must stay even when he is offered a chance to leave, because he has to save lives:
“I have no idea what’s awaiting me, or what will happen when this all ends. For the moment I know this: there are sick people and they need curing.” (The Plague)
Or as the Doctor said, ‘Every life I save is a victory. Every single one’.
Doctor Who is not ‘a kid’s show’ in any sense that reduces its value, its quality or its depth. But it is a fantasy, and one that is aimed at family audiences, in this case, gathered around a Christmas tree, replete with turkey and pud, and possibly still wearing, slightly askew, their paper hats. So we don’t expect the kind of ending that Camus was prepared to give us. We know that the Doctor will not be destroyed. The end that he speaks of is the end of THIS Doctor, not of THE Doctor – though he may not know this as he says it.
Emma: What’s wrong?
Clara: I just saw something I wish I hadn’t.
Emma: What did you see?
Clara: That everything ends.
Emma: No, not everything. Not love. Not always. (from ‘Hide’)
We’ve often been invited to contemplate what the world would be like without the Doctor. But that’s too terrible to do more than glance at and then look away. A world without the sound of the Tardis bringing hope, without the Doctor to bring protection and healing? No thanks. None of us would sleep at night if that was what we were confronted with, on a Saturday afternoon, let alone on Christmas Day.
But we are increasingly, in the more recent series of Dr Who, asked to deal with some much more grown-up themes. Maybe this reflects the changing audience. When Who launched, it was clearly aimed at children, and adults watched with their offspring, to remind them afterwards that it was only a story (only a story? As if there could be anything more important than stories) and that they could sleep safe in their beds. As those children grew up they stayed with the Doctor, and watched with their own children. Some of those parents too, I suspect, stayed with it long after their children needed them there for reassurance, and so we now have several generations for whom it is precious and important.
Someone said to me the other day, who hadn’t seen Who since they were a kid (we reminisced about the terrifying Autons and the Cybermen and the Yeti…) that whilst they could remember being scared, they couldn’t imagine being moved to tears by it. And yet these days more often than not, I am moved to tears. This is not just because my tear ducts are on a hair-trigger now – it’s because in Who since the reboot we’ve faced grief and loss, loneliness, ageing, choices made and chances missed, the possibility and threat of change. The recurring theme of memory has a poignancy now that it would not have had years ago, now that there’s so much more to remember, and the fear that those memories will start to be engulfed in fog. It gets harder to ‘remember all the people that you used to be’, whether you’re a Time Lord or not. The young me would not have been as devastated by ‘The Girl Who Waited’ as the middle-aged me was, nor as haunted by the question ‘Are you my mummy?’. And the young me would not have felt George Bailey’s despair, or the Doctor’s, as keenly. If you’re old enough to have lost people, to have had to make hard choices, to have got some of them wrong, and to have missed chances that will not come round again – then you can feel for George Bailey, and you can feel for the Doctor too.
Who and IAWL also share a humanistic perspective. IAWL of course starts with prayers, ‘ringing out to all the dark corners of creation’, and an angel. George prays too, though he’s not a praying man, and Clarence (AS2) is the answer. But all that Clarence does is to give George a glimpse of how, and how much, he matters. The miracle is wrought by human action, by people moved to generosity to help the man who’s been so generous to them. Remember ‘The Wedding of River Song’?
The sky is full of a million million voices saying, “Yes, of course we’ll help.” You’ve touched so many lives, saved so many people, did you think when your time came you’d really have to do more than just ask? You’ve decided that the universe is better off without you. But the universe doesn’t agree.
It’s people, for good and bad, who make Bedford Falls, or Pottersville. In Who too, whilst our hero is more than human he is no superhero, nor yet a god. His judgement is often flawed, his personality too. He’s prone to grumpiness, to vanity, to arrogance. He does the right thing but often is prompted or inspired by his own guardian angel, the companion/associate who shows him a truth he’s not able to see, or who intervenes for him when he cannot or will not plead for himself.
As Liam Whitton recently wrote in Humanist Life:
It’s one of the most humanist television shows of all time. In fact, at practically every turn up to now it has presented the philosophy of its title character, the Doctor, as an emphatically humanist one. If there’s one thing the Doctor values, it’s human life, and if there’s one thing he consistently stands in awe of, it’s human potential. He abhors superstition; he scorns pointless prejudices; he believes fervently in reason; he is sympathetic to the beliefs of others, but will not kowtow to them when a fundamental liberty is under threat.
Steven Spielberg once said that ‘ It’s a Wonderful Life shows that every human being on this Earth matters – and that’s a very powerful message.” It’s also a message reiterated over and over again by Who. Capra offers us hope based in human nature. ‘Goodness, simplicity, dis-interestedness: these in his hands become fighting qualities’ (Graham Greene, reviewing Mr Deeds Goes to Town, The Spectator, August 28 1936).
If you believe that humanity is all there is, that makes it so much more vital that we care for each other, because we’re all we’ve got, and these years we have on the planet is all we’ve got. I believe in Doctor Who. I believe in George Bailey. Call me idealistic, naive, if you like, but bear in mind that my academic research interests find me often mired in the history of the most appalling acts that humanity is capable of. So I do know that we don’t all live in a town called Christmas, or Bedford Falls, and that very often no one comes to save and to heal. But that humanistic vision is vitally important to me. Joss Whedon said it well, as he so often does, in Angel:
If there’s no great glorious end to all this, if … nothing we do matters … then all that matters is what we do. ‘Cause that’s all there is. What we do. Now. Today. … All I want to do is help. I want to help because I don’t think people should suffer as they do, because if there’s no bigger meaning, then the smallest act of kindness is the greatest thing in the world.
But it’s only right and proper that I leave the last words to the Doctor:
Letting it get to you. You know what that’s called? Being alive. Best thing there is. (The Doctor’s Wife)