CLARA: It’s beautiful. Why did you send me away?
DOCTOR: Because if I hadn’t, I’d have buried you a long time ago.
CLARA: No, you wouldn’t. I would never have let you get stuck here.
DOCTOR: Ha! Everyone gets stuck somewhere eventually, Clara. Everything ends.
The sun rises over the bell tower, Clara takes a moment to admire the sunrise and then immediately begins to question the Doctor why he left her. (Though who could blame her). He explains that if he hadn’t he would have had to bury her-another death that he would have to have witnessed in his thousand + years.. Clara, brushes aside his response. Of course he wouldn’t have. He never would have gotten stuck here, they would have had the TARDIS and they would have been able to get away from Trenzalore. The Doctor reminds her that we all gets stuck, and we all die.
No, not you she points out. You just return with a whole new face. Not this time, the Doctor insists. Even he has a time limit. Clara tells him to change the future, when he responds that he cannot, she then reminds him that he has his TARDIS back, he does not have to die here. When the Doctor recoils at abandoning the town, she points out that perhaps it’s someone else’s turn to protect the town. He has earned the right to think about himself-to value his life, to cherish his life. He doesn’t have to stay. Yet he does. For some viewers this seems like a cop out-how can he just give up on life? How can he just nonchalantly accept death. That’s not the Doctor we know. The Doctor we know continues fighting, he’s faced death before and he’s outwitted it many times, the Doctor we know also dosen’t stay put. His restless spirit, his penchant for going on random adventures is what makes him an interesting and fascinating character.
In addition, humans in general have a penchant to react a bit like Clara to death. At first we tend to exercise a bit of denial-of course I/my loved ones aren’t going to die…at least not yet. We have years and years ahead of us. Death can’t happen to us-especially if we are young. When we finally get the notion that death will eventually come for us-we can turn our focus in ward-“we are all going to die anyway, why not just try to squeeze our as much pleasure as we can?” Often that attitude, comes across as running away from death-we are frantically trying to outsmart and outpace death before our time finally comes to an end. In our society, death is something to be avoided at all costs. Those with the money, spend thousands of dollars to erase the effects of aging, as if that will enable them to have more time on earth. We spend time ignoring death until it smacks us right in the face and even then we want to continue running. What can we do to change the future? What could we have done to avoid this fate? While particular instances of death might be available, death itself will come to all of us. How do we come to terms with that? How will we act if find ourselves fully aware that our time on earth is coming to a close?
The Doctor, was of course forced to stay on Trenzalore, at least for 300 years since the TARDIS’ journey back to him was slowed down by Clara’’s clinging to the outside of it. Yet during those 300 years the Doctor was forced to confront his own mortality. And how does he spend his time? He protects the villages, but not as some distant super hero. He grows to love them, and he allows himself to be loved in turn.
While he might long for his past lives and his younger days-he becomes content with his life-which frantically was not exactly a snooze feast. He spent centuries fighting in a war yet he still found the time to love and be loved. And while he sent Clara back because he didn’t want to lose her, he stayed in a town where he saw generation upon generations of children grow up, get married, possibly have kids, and die. And there was no place for him to run to once a child he grew to love died. He couldn’t hop onto his TARDIS and go on a different adventure, perhaps not forgetting those who died, but being able to push it to the back of his mind and run away from his grief. While he stayed in a town called Christmas he couldn’t run away from his grief. We often associate courage and bravery with action and adventure, but sometimes bravery means staying still in one place and coming to terms to with our losses and pain.
Now of course, the Doctor does regenerate. Clara manages to convince the time lords to give him a new regeneration cycle at the last minute. He gets the opportunity to continue traveling and seeing the universe, and maybe finding a way back to Galifrey. But in a tv show that’s to be expected. We all knew from the beginning of the episode that even though Matt Smith’s era on the show was ending, a new one was going to begin. That hope of a new beginning can mitigate any sadness we feel. But in the real world, sometimes that hope can be a detriment.
As a theology student the topic of the afterlife comes up. What happens when we die? Are we reincarnated? Do we go to heaven, hell? Or are we just dead? On the one hand the belief in an afterlife or the belief we get another shot at life can be comforting, especially for those having to come to terms with a death that happened unexpectedly. How do we make sense of a death of a small child? How do we make sense of a caring person being murdered, or some fluke accident taking the life of a healthy, promising person? How can we comprehend the vast injustices in this world that results in the death of innocent people? The idea of an afterlife can provide comfort and hope for peace and for justice to be served. But in the same way, that hope can prevent us from truly living. For some people the sole purpose of Christianity is to act as fire insurance. We become a Christian in order to go to heaven and avoid burning in hell. Heaven becomes some sort of last minute regeneration prize. If we die, it does not matter too much because if we accepted Christ as our savior (and accept a bunch of doctrinal beliefs, this part often goes unsaid, but leave a fundamentalist Christian church and see what the reaction is. Often your very soul is perceived to be in danger). The Doctor “earned” his new regeneration cycle because of his heroic actions, we “earn” (though it’s not often described in those terms and the notion of earning salvation is rejected) our salvation by believing certain theological “truths” and by being correct.
The Doctor was able to confront his mortality without running because he believed he had no choice-he didn’t know he would get a regeneration cycle. Many people are so convinced that heaven or hell are what awaits them that the only thing that matters is getting into one and avoiding the other. Life is nothing more than a dress rehearsal for the main event. Who cares about fighting injustice? Nothing will truly be solved until the afterlife anyway, what matters is getting into heaven and making sure as many people as possible get there as well. All these other issues-poverty, war, racism, are secondary concerns. The hope of an afterlife becomes another form of running away.
In the tv show, of course, we only saw the end of an era. We saw the end of a version of the Doctor, but not the end of the Doctor. We felt sad while fully understanding that a new Doctor would be on his way. In the real world, we don’t have such a guarantee. We may hope for another chance, but the reality is we don’t know what happens when we die. We might simply cease to exist. Because we don’t know, maybe we should take a lesson from the Doctor in this episode, and stop running away from our mortality.