Death and Doctor Who

Check out the first piece in this short series here

Death is the ultimate ending. Even for those who believe in an afterlife, they still acknowledge that death marks an ending; an ending to a life lived and loved on earth.  Death snatches away and abruptly terminates any future hopes and dreams and often leaves those of us left behind confused and reeling. The bewilderment is especially pronounced for deaths that seem to come suddenly or unexpectedly, or when we had thought our loved ones had cheated death, only to find we were sadly mistaken. Death of a loved one, a friend or even an acquaintance forces us to stop running, to take stalk of our lives, and to grapple with our own mortality. Many of us like to avoid the subject all together-shove death to the back of our minds as we continue on with our daily lives.

Some of us turn to religious beliefs or to imaginary worlds in order to try to avoid thinking and grappling with the ultimate ending. But many religions force us to confront our ideas, preconceived notions, and fear of death and reality has a way of intruding into our fantasy world. Of course we could simply ignore the parts of religion which deal with the reality of death and simply argue, “well, death does not matter. There is an afterlife.” And if we use books, movies, and television as a form of escapism we could be scrupulous and picky in what we chose to “consume.” How about we simply watch horror movies in which death is in many ways parodied, or let’s watch the latest episode of Jersey Shore or read whatever one dollar paperback novel we can get our hands on. Not that there is anything inherently wrong with the horror genre, or reality tv, or cheap paperback books with very little plot. Mindless escapism can be good and provide us from a much needed respite from our frantic and stressful lives.  However, the very best books, shows, movies, and religious beliefs force us-at least occasionally to stop running and confront death. Instead of offering pat answers or mind numbing entertainment, we are provided with a safe space to contemplate and reflect on our loses, and to struggle even if only for an hour or so with our mortality.

Doctor Who is a fun show. There are ridiculous looking aliens, attractive lead characters,  and plot twists that are often mind-bending and unexpected. Through the Doctor and his companions we are often treated to various fun adventures, where we can escape from the problems of our lives for just a little bit. While there are occasions where we see massive amounts of people die, the effect is often mitigated by the lack of blood and by the lack of relationship we have with the characters who die and the often ridiculous way they die. We know that there is no chance that us or our loved ones will be killed by beings with a whisk and plunger for hands. However, the show isn’t always just a fun romp throughout space.  Occasionally “this week’s alien invasion” format takes a backseat to other overarching themes. For a being who has lived for over 900 years and traveled with numerous companions, death and loss will inevitably be part of his story arc.  There are times when the death of a beloved character-even if we knew the character for simply one story, hits a nerve. Those stories tend to have characters that seem “real” and sympathetic in some ways. We could imagine liking said character if we were to meet them in real life-even if they were an alien species.

In The Girl In The Fireplace (2:4) we meet Jeanne- Antoinette Poisson, Madame de Pompadour or Reinette, multi-talented, intelligent, and extremely beautiful. We see the Doctor’s relationship with her progress at a lightening pace, as he steps in and out of her life at various points, from her childhood to her eventual death. Reinette seems to understand the Doctor-when he looks inside of her head, she is able to glimpse into his and she notices and feels his loneliness. The lonely god. While time flies by for the Doctor, it drags on (or rather moves at a normal pace) for Reinette. Minutes in the spaceship equals years for her. It is worth noting briefly-that in contrast to Amy Pond’s waiting-Reinette’s life doesn’t completely stop. She continues moving on through the ranks of the kingdom, she continues living. She doesn’t let the Doctor and his coming in and out of her life completely consume her. In  the book Back to the Vortexreviewer  Craig Hinton notes that: “…the plot is nothing more than window dressing; the clockwork robots, the wonderful horse, the beautiful set pieces…they’re just there to highlight the Doctor falling in love. And why not with Madame de Pompadour? The woman was a genius-the uncrowned queen of France, but responsible for so very much more. If ever there was a human female equal to the Doctor, she is it.” (206) Madame de Pompadour was special, and we see that as we notice the Doctor’s reaction towards her. And it is hard, at least in my case, not to also fall a little bit for her.

She is intelligent and articulate. Her scene with Rose was beautiful and she articulates what many companions feel towards the Doctor (and what many fans do as well, if only the Doctor was real and we could travel with him…many of us would give up our lives and gladly confront death).

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And yet she dies. We don’t see her death-and we don’t need too. The ending might have been cheapened had we seen her physically die. The point was the Doctor arrived too late. He had promised he would be back for her and he would show her the stars, but he does not get the chance too, he doesn’t even get the chance to say goodbye. He is gutted when he reads her letter. She believes all things are possible for the Doctor, but not even he can stop death.

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How many of us don’t get the chance to say goodbye when death suddenly snatches someone we knew? How many of us tell ourselves, “oh I will contact this person tomorrow” or “I will see her next week.” How many of us have decided to look up a dear friend on facebook or call a family member, only to be told that our overtures were too late? And it hurts. While goodbyes can be painful,  being denied the opportunity is worse, especially when were just a little late. If only we had called or reached out a month, a week, or a day before.

Reinette’s, a one off character- death is sad because we were able to see how happy she made the Doctor and how excited he was to travel with her-even just for one trip. And we see the crushing disappointment and sadness when the Doctor realizes he arrived too late and what felt like seconds for him-translated as years for her.

We, as an audience, feel the deaths of central characters even more deeply than we do one-off characters-even though in the case of Doctor Who-we may have known for months that the actors playing our favorite characters were leaving and that death is always an option. The Pond’s exit at the end of the Angels Take Manhattan was heart-retching (well at least for those who enjoyed their characters) and even more so watching Matt Smith’s portrayal of the Doctor. The Doctor desperately pleads for Amy to go back into the TARDIS, and when she refuses instead choosing to join Rory, we see the pain as her name materializes with Rory’s on the tombstone. “I will never be able to see you again” the Doctor pleads with Amy. Even as a time traveler there are things he can’t do, (apparently in this case, because their timelines had crossed too often, meeting them again even elsewhere would cause destruction to NYC).

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How much more poignant are his words, when we think about the ones we have lost.  Even for those who believe in an afterlife, the pain of death isn’t mitigated too much-the grief, depression, and anger are still felt. We realize that, at least for the time being, we will not see our loved ones. Even if there is an afterlife, we like to imagine that time passes by more quickly where are loved ones our so that when we arrive to join them-it will be like minutes passing by. For those of us left behind, the years drag on. And for those of us who do not believe in an afterlife? The pain is just as intense. We cry and lament that we will never see them again.

In the case of River Song, the Doctor is able to talk with her and go on adventures with her  because of their differing time lines, although we viewers saw her die when we first met in her Silence of The Library/Forest of the Dead.

RIVER: Funny thing is, this means you’ve always known how I was going to die. All the time we’ve been together, you knew I was coming here. The last time I saw you, the real you, the future you, I mean, you turned up on my doorstep, with a new haircut and a suit. You took me to Darillium to see the Singing Towers. What a night that was. The Towers sang, and you cried…You wouldn’t tell me why, but I suppose you knew it was time. My time. Time to come to the library. You even gave me your screwdriver. That should have been a clue.

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In The Name Of The Doctor River explains to Clara:

 RIVER: I died saving him. In return, he saved me to a database in the biggest library in the universe. Left me like a book on a shelf.

Death means saying goodbye-whether we want too or not. But death catches up with all of us eventually.

In my next post, (and the final post for the time being on the subject of goodbyes and death) I will delve into crafting a “theology of goodbye.” What can we learn (regardless of our religious beliefs or lack thereof) from the tv show, Doctor Who about how we should react to death? What can we learn from the Biblical text? (Even for those of us who identify as agnostic or atheist) and how do they compare?

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