Posts Tagged Doctor Who

Death and the Doctor

Previously published on the Doctor Who Forum – contains spoilers for Series 8

 

Sometimes everything you read or watch seems to have a connection, a theme that’s so clear it feels as though it cannot be mere coincidence, even though it is impossible for it to be otherwise. It’s been that way lately with death. Obviously once one heads into middle age and beyond, intimations of mortality come thick and fast. But it really isn’t just that.

The theme that has been so inescapable over recent weeks is not just mortality in general. It’s the blurring of the boundaries between death and life, about attempts to make the barrier between the two permeable. I’ve just finished reading Stephen King’s Revival, about which I can say little without risking spoilers, but which, suffice it to say, explores this theme in compelling and haunting fashion. And then there was Lynn Shepherd’s latest literary thriller, The Pierced Heart, after previous works drawing on, variously, Austen, Dickens and the Shelleys, this time turning to Stoker and the Dracula mythos, subverting the genre tropes without losing the chills. So when I picked up Peter Carey’s Bliss, and read the first sentence: ‘Harry Joy was to die three times, but it was his first death which was to have the greatest effect on him’, I was tempted to say, enough already with the whole thing.

Especially as this season of Doctor Who has had such a preoccupation with death. Death and regeneration/rebirth, death and afterlife. These themes have percolated through the episodes, with varying degrees of intensity, culminating in the series finale, whose first part saw the highly disturbing notion that the dead maintain consciousness, aware of what is happening to their mortal remains, and that the message they want to convey to us, the living, is ‘Don’t cremate me!’.   Of course, this was a con, but it was unsettling, to say the least, and the thought, once planted, may prove difficult to uproot. Part two showed us mortuaries and graveyards giving up their dead, now encased in cyberman armour and awaiting orders to destroy and/or assimilate the living.

Not only this, but the finale presented us with the deaths of Danny, Osgood and Kate, to name only those who have had the chance to embed themselves in the consciousness and affections of regular watchers of the show. (The body count in previous episodes has been high too, whether significantly higher than in previous series I will leave to other Whovians to assess.)

However for some, death proved to be less than permanent. Danny Pink reappeared as a semi-cyberman, retaining enough of his humanity to resist the orders of Missy and lead his cyber army to suicide rather than to victory. Is he now gone, for good?   Kate fell to earth but her dead father saved her. Osgood appears, as far as we know now, to be simply dead.

Sci fi and fantasy take liberties with the boundaries between life and death, on a regular basis. In The Walking Dead all who die, unless despatched in a particular way, will reawaken as zombies (walkers). The living are engaged in a constant battle against the dead.   French series The Returned gives us more mysterious revenants, seemingly unchanged from their living selves, and seemingly not out to harm the living (though we will see, in series 2, whether that is really the case).

In the context of Who, however, I’d suggest it’s more relevant to look at the way in which the Buffyverse handles death. Doctor Who Forum contributor JimTheFish has already noted the nods to Buffy the Vampire Slayer in the finale: ‘And again with the Buffy maybe? Plucky lone girl surrounded by gravestones as creatures rise from the grave. Not to mention tear-jerking goodbyes with her now-undead boyfriend.’

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Clara rages about Danny’s death, that it should have been significant and instead it was mundane, ‘boring’:

It was ordinary. People just kept walking with their iPods and their shopping bags. He was alive, then he was dead and it was nothing. Like stepping off a bus’

This had echoes too, of the death of Buffy’s mother – a prosaic tragedy without supernatural cause and, particularly, of Anya’s speech about it:

I don’t understand how this all happens. How we go through this. I mean, I knew her, and then she’s – There’s just a body, and I don’t understand why she just can’t get back in it and not be dead anymore. It’s stupid. It’s mortal and stupid. And – and Xander’s crying and not talking, and – and I was having fruit punch, and I thought, well, Joyce will never have any more fruit punch ever, and she’ll never have eggs, or yawn or brush her hair, not ever, and no one will explain to me why. (‘The Body’, season 5)

Osgood’s death, and Kate’s, whilst not mundane in terms of cause, are almost casual in presentation. No time for heroics, or farewell speeches. Joss Whedon killed Anya almost casually – she dies fighting the uber vampires, but blink and you’ll miss it, it’s not highlighted or dramatised. Death’s like that. Arbitrary, stupid, pointless.

Except that there’s another strand, of death as chosen, heroic, self-sacrificial. In Death in Heaven, Danny gets a crack at a less boring exit. He’s given the chance to choose death second time around (and to make a speech about it).

Attention! This is not a good day. This is Earth’s darkest hour. And look at you miserable lot. We are the fallen. But today, we shall rise. The army of the dead will save the land of the living. This is not the order of a general. Nor the whim of a lunatic…. This is a promise. The promise of a soldier. You will sleep safe tonight.

The speech may appear to be aimed at his cyber-comrades but clearly its real audience is Missy, the Doctor and above all Clara. It’s – perhaps deliberately – classic eve of battle rhetoric – think Idris Elba cancelling the apocalypse in Pacific Rim, or Leonidas sending his Spartans into battle.

We await the Christmas special to find out Danny will have a third go at some sort of life. I kind of hope not. Not that I begrudge Clara a chance to make a better job of loving him than she did first time around, or Danny himself a chance to redeem his past through living rather than dying. But where death is chosen, self-sacrificial, does its reversal squander the emotional weight of the sacrifice? Not necessarily – Buffy’s return in Season 6 was shown as something itself painful and traumatic, rather than just the cancellation of the pain and trauma of her death in the finale of Season 5. It can work, but Buffy, after all, whilst mortal, is kind of a super-hero, and they play by different rules. Danny, as far as we know, is just a bloke.

Kate’s rescue seems to me to make Osgood’s less likely. Along with so many viewers, I really wanted Osgood not to die, and there was much shouting at the screen when we realised what was afoot. But I’m not sure that I want another death to be overturned,

There are a number of issues here. The first is common to all long-running TV dramas – how to keep real suspense and tension when the audience knows that certain characters cannot be killed off.   When the Enterprise crew beams down onto a hostile planet, we know full well that it is the red shirts that will be zapped or otherwise despatched into oblivion, not the captain or any of his core crew. Occasionally that confidence is misplaced.   But mostly, if one of the core characters appears to be dead, we are pretty sure that some plot device is in motion to bring them back (see Spock, Tasha Yar, Buffy, Loki, the Master/Missy…). And of course the sci-fi/fantasy context means that a way can always be found, retro-engineered if need be into the cosmology of the show, to get around the problem of losing a character that is felt to be essential to its long-term success.

Not that the absence of timey-wimey or supernatural mechanisms prevents soap operas from playing fast and loose with death. News just in – Madge and Harold Bishop are back! Both of them have been previously killed off, but the writers are undeterred, it’s Neighbours 30th anniversary, and it wouldn’t be the same without them. And unless one has personally checked the corpse for vital signs and got a DNA match it would be unwise to believe in the demise of anyone on Hollyoaks.   It might seem odd to claim a greater degree of realism for a programme whose protagonist is a two-hearted time travelling alien than for the soaps. But far happier to suspend my disbelief with regard to Who, Buffy and other dramas which play havoc with the laws of physics but at their best offer us emotional truths.

Doctor Who has the particular challenge of its status as a family/children’s programme. It’s never been just a kids’ show and certainly with each regeneration it has retained the children who first watched it into their adulthood and parenthood whilst gathering in their children, and so on. It is still a show that the generations watch together, but the adults are there not just to comfort and reassure their frightened offspring but to enjoy it for themselves. But the presence of the children is a constraint which Buffy did not have to work within. That’s why the deaths, when they occur, are off-screen, or else clean – people are vapourised rather than eviscerated. We rightly shield younger viewers from the kind of gore that The Walking Dead so delights in. We can’t and shouldn’t however skate around the issue of death.

Of course children’s stories have always brought us face to face with death. My own and earlier generations wept for Bambi’s mother, as my children’s generation did for Simba’s father. In fact, the child heroes of many of the classics had misplaced one or both parents, even if the manner of their loss was not dwelt upon. The generations contemporary with Louisa May Alcott, Frances Hodgson Burnett, Lucy M Montgomery and their ilk were familiar with death, after all, with child mortality and perinatal maternal mortality at levels unimaginable to us today, at least here in the First World. Stories give us ways of understanding, of dealing with, the stuff that happens to us, and the best ones don’t just sugar the pill, cosying everything up, with rainbow bridges and happy ever afters, but acknowledge mortality in all its cruelty, that it takes whoever it wishes, pets, parents, friends.

I have no problem therefore with death – real, permanent, boring, pointless death – being part of the drama of Who, nor yet with the freedom that sci-fi/fantasy allows to take some of the sting of death away. But for the reversals to have any dramatic or emotional weight, we need there to be the possibility that this time it’s for keeps, that the danger is real, that we may lose someone we care for and that others we care for may be plunged into terrible grief.

We will not know until the Christmas special – if then – whether Danny Pink will return. We’ve been given the nod that things can’t be left as they were at the end of Death in Heaven. Quite right – that was bleak. Too bleak for the kids, too bleak for me. But I hope that there will be a different way of making things better, so that we can leave the Doctor and Clara in a more hopeful place, without simply erasing the loss and hurt that they’ve been through.

After all, what have we learned this series? OK, that there’s no such thing as an arboreal coincidence, which may or may not ever be a particularly handy bit of info. More importantly, we’ve learned that ‘stories can make us fly’. And we’ve learned about our ordinary human superpowers, not just the power to forget, but the most important one, fear. And all of the things that we fear come back to this – our own extinction, or the extinction of the people we love.

Fear is a superpower. Fear can make you faster and cleverer and stronger. … if you’re very wise and very strong fear doesn’t have to make you cruel or cowardly. Fear can make you kind. It doesn’t matter if there’s nothing under the bed or in the dark so long as you know it’s okay to be afraid of it. So listen. If you listen to anything else, listen to this. You’re always gonna be afraid even if you learn to hide it. Fear is like a companion, a constant companion, always there. But that’s okay because fear can bring us together. Fear can bring you home. I’m gonna leave you something just so you’ll always remember. Fear makes companions of us all.

 

 

 

Peter Carey – Bliss (Faber & Faber, 1981)

Stephen King – Revival (Hodder & Stoughton, 2014)

Lynn Shepherd – The Pierced Heart (NY: Delacorte Press, 2014)

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Letting it get to you: Doctor Who and George Bailey

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.

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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)

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Why Who?

In future my blogging energies will be shared between this site and Doctor Her, a new blog about all things Doctor Who, from a feminist perspective.   Given my previous post in defence of fantasy, this might not be too much of a surprise.  But I’m very well aware that to declare one’s love for Doctor Who, or Buffy, is to be dismissed with a contemptuous curl of the lip by some.  Their loss, clearly.   I have strong views about what’s worth reading, watching or listening to, increasingly so as I grow older and realise that I really may not have time to read/watch/listen to all the great stuff that’s out there, so I really don’t want to waste time on the merely OK, let alone the poor.  But my criteria don’t include genre categories – I may have a preference in televisual terms for fantasy rather than costume drama but I’ll only watch something if it’s written intelligently, if it has some emotional truth and weight to it, whatever category it’s in.  And that, most decidedly, includes Doctor Who.

We go back a long way, the Doctor and me.   Back to the mid-sixties, when he was a cosmic recorder-playing hobo.  I followed him as he regenerated, and whilst I did love some Doctors more than others, I never gave up on him altogether.  The BBC pretty much did though, and I wasn’t expecting the reboot at all, let alone expecting it to be – the odd clunky episode notwithstanding – a return to the quality of the very best era (Four, need you ask?).

As a kid, of course, I hid behind the sofa (metaphorically, I don’t recall literally doing so) and the limited budgets (the quarry which doubled for every alien planet ever visited, the visible zips on the monster costumes) didn’t make it less scary.  But it was always about more than scaring the kids, it was about ideas.  The first series had an overt educational mission, both historical and scientific, which has become less evident over the years.  But what has been constant is the real heart of speculative fiction, exploring what it is, what it could be to be human.

The reboot of Who, for me, has succeeded marvellously in that arena.  It’s explored love, loyalty, loss and longing.  It’s made me laugh, and its made me cry.  A lot.   It’s made me think, it’s prompted vigorous debates, on and off line, wild divergences of opinion amongst fans.  And I’m really excited about a forum where I can share and explore these things in the context of what it is, what it could be, to be a woman.

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