It is said that change is the one constant in Doctor Who. Change is built into the show’s DNA. In every episode there are new dangers to confront, every few years new companions become enthralled with the mad man and his blue box and run away with him. And of course, the Doctor himself undergoes a complete physical change, and while the Doctor is always the “same man,” each new incarnation has his own personality quirks, likes and dislikes, and weaknesses. The core characteristics of the Doctor stay the same, but when a new actor takes the helm the audience is given an opportunity to fall in love with the Doctor all over again.
Change brings with it the opportunity for brand new adventures: new worlds to visit, new monsters to confront, the return of old enemies who continue to surprise the Doctor and us. New Companions bring out a different side of the Doctor. Just like we are influenced and impacted by those we surround ourselves with; we get to see how the companions change as a result of their time with the Doctor and how the Doctor evolves. But what many of us don’t like to talk about is the fact that change is rooted in loss. In order for a new book to begin, we need to finish and put the old one down, in order for a new adventure to start, the previous one needs to end. And with loss, one needs to mourn, and who has lost more than the Doctor?
In this episode, the Doctor is mourning the loss of Amy and Rory, and as a result he has chosen to isolate himself and live up in a box in the clouds, ever watchful, but refusing to interfere. It seems as if he is taking the title, “the lonely god” bestowed on him during his tenth incarnation seriously. Here is someone who has saved worlds, who despite his mistakes and failures is often able to save thousands if not more, and defeat evil. While he rejects the notion that he is a deity figure, he is often viewed as such by those he saves (the family in The Fires of Pompeii, refer to him and Donna as their household gods, and Amy’s admiration for the Doctor is nothing short of hero worship).
Yet the Doctor, in this episode, has forgotten about all his successes. He is grieving the loss of Amy and Rory and possibly reflecting on all the many faces he has lost or failed to save. He has decided that he has enough. He will no longer take on a new companion.
He will no save the world.
The Doctor is angry, sulking, and hurting. He has saved the universe time and time again and what has he received in return? Nothing but the loss of companions and would be-companions. In an effort to protect himself (and perhaps by extension others), he has decided to retreat into his box in the clouds. Yet interestingly enough, he could have chosen anywhere in time and space to hide yet he chose to remain on earth. If he did not want to waste his time saving earth (and let’s face it, out of all the planets in the galaxy, earth has demanded most of his time and attention) why not go somewhere else?
Whether the Doctor wants to admit it or not, trying to help others and having compassion towards those who are suffering is an embedded part of who he is. He does not always live up to his ideals and he can be ruthless, but no matter how hard he tries, he cannot help but get involved. Clara, after only interacting with him briefly, already knows that.
When meeting with Madam Vastra, Clara is told to only answer using one word because: “Truth is singular. Lies are words, words, words.” They then proceed to have a lopsided conversation about the Doctor:
VASTRA: What do you want from him?
VASTRA: Why would he help you?
VASTRA: The Doctor is not kind.
VASTRA: No. The Doctor doesn’t help people. Not anyone, not ever. He stands above this world and doesn’t interfere in the affairs of its inhabitants. He is not your salvation, nor your protector. Do you understand what I am saying to you?
Clara, going back to Madam, Vastra’s original comments, asserts Vastra description of the Doctor is based on lies. She sees through the Doctor’s hardened facade, even though the Doctor insists on lying to himself.
The Doctor tries to insulate himself from everyone, but Clara, stubbornly refuses to give up. She reaches him in a way that Jenny, Madam Vastra, and Strax are unable too.
Why do I like this episode? I like this episode because, even though I will never be a universe saving, time traveling hero, I can relate to the Doctor’s feelings of loss and sense of hopelessness. I find myself agreeing with him wholeheartedly when he tells Strax that the universe does not care. Why continue fighting evil when it will simply show up in a different form? Why continue trying to make the world a better place in the face of loss, when things might not actually change?
I see that sense of hopelessness in others around me as well, especially as one ages. Bitterness and cynicism begin to take root, and life begins to be defined not by all that one has, but by all that one has lost. It’s one thing to be a realist: chances are we aren’t going to save the universe multiple times, we aren’t going to be able to rewrite a significant part of history in order to save billions of lives. We, as individuals aren’t going to end all wars or end world poverty. But what do we do? Should we just refuse to engage, isolate ourselves and allow our loneliness to be our defining characteristic? What happens when we turn away from others?
The Doctor, Clara, and the Paternoster Gang, aren’t the only characters in the story. We have also have Simeon, a ruthless pawn of the Great Intelligence. But it is important to remember that he once was a child. A child whose vulnerability and refusal to engage with others ultimately results in him leading a life filled with hatred and destruction. Now obviously, I’m not suggesting that if we hide away from others that we are opening the doors to possession by the Great Intelligence and that we will then attempt to take over the world with evil snowmen. But what I am saying is that Simeon’s stubborn refusal to turn to others and to live in relationship with others, led to his destruction.
Simeon’s loneliness and the path that his life took, stands in stark contrast to the Doctor, who although he tries to push people away, always seems to attract people who refuse to give up on him. The Doctor is a great heroic figure, but by himself, as “the lonely god,” he isn’t nearly as effective. His companions give him hope and the Doctor allows himself, time after time, to embrace hope.
CLARA: I don’t know why I’m crying.
DOCTOR: I do. Remember this. This right now, remember all of it. Because this is the day. This is the day. This is the day everything begins.
But even when hope is dangled before his eyes then taken away, (Clara, is killed, right after he invites her to travel with him), he still manages to reject despair. Even while she is dying in front of him and before he realizes that this Clara, the governess/barmaid, is Oswin from the asylum of the daleks, he promises her that his days of living on a cloud are over.
STRAX: I’m sorry. There was nothing to be done. She has moments only.
DOCTOR: We saved the world, Clara, you and me. We really, really did.
CLARA: Are you going back to your cloud?
DOCTOR: No more cloud. Not now.
CLARA: Why not?
DOCTOR: It rained.
It rained. Although the Doctor eventually is forced out of his self-imposed loneliness and he once again becomes involved in helping others, it was the tears shed by a family mourning their beloved governess that destroyed the snowmen and defeated the Great intelligence for the time being. It was their tears and love for Clara that saves the world, but the thing is, when you love someone, you have to face losing them. The family recognized that and the Doctor was reminded of that.