Time Heist: A Reflection on Mortality

MADAME KARABRAXOS: You gave me this number. My name is Madame Karabraxos. I was once the wealthiest person in the Universe. I need your assistance.  I’m dying, with many, many regrets. But one, perhaps, you may be able to help me with.

When I first saw this episode, I was a bit confused by the ending. Why did Madam Karabraxos suddenly have a change of heart? People don’t just wake up one day and say, “oh well I was a horrible person, now I need to right all of my wrongs.” Something dramatic must have happened to change her. However, on second viewing, I realized something dramatic did happen to her: she finally became aware of her own mortality and she recognized how her cruelty has left her facing death alone. And as death inches closer, she becomes desperate for one more chance to go back in time and do one good thing-perhaps make her life mean something. Of course that one action does not negate all the wrongs she did, but it puts into stark relief the importance of ensuring that we make the most of the time we have, because unlike Madam Karabraxos, those of us in the real world, won’t have the opportunity to go back in time. We don’t get do overs.

On the surface, this episode seems to lack depth. The Doctor, Clara, and some one off characters need to find a way to rob an unbreakable bank. Pretty sure there have been quite a few books, TV shows, and movies with the premise of robbing an unbreakable bank. Yet sprinkled throughout the episode are hints of something a bit deeper: glimpses of loneliness and despair.

Saibra transforms into anything or anyone that she touches. Her ability to change is what enables the group to get inside the bank and avoid initial detection. In addition, because she has changed so often she finds it incredibly easy to read faces. As a result when the Doctor lies to the group and says he has no idea what the capsules in the second suitcases are, Saibra is able to quickly call him out on his lies. The Doctor claims that her ability to transform is a gift and she responds with disdain:

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As a child, I remember asking and being asked the question, “if you could have one superpower, what would it be?” Of course my answer changed every time I was asked, but being able to shape shift was an answer that I definitely used more than once. And why not? Being able to turn into another person or animal and maintain that form as long as I wanted? Who wouldn’t want to do that but Saibra quickly points out that her gift comes at a price: she can become other people, but she can never be known or touched by another person. Regardless of what we may say about our physical bodies not being important, for many of us they are a central component of our identity. Our body’s limits and strengths  define how we relate to the world and others in some way. As babies, we need to touch and be touched in order to thrive and even survive. Without constant touch and affection, we can develop serious developmental, emotional, and social issues even if all our other basic needs are met. Even as we age, touch and being able to relate to others on a physical and emotional level, is extremely important. Yet Saibra’s mutation essentially cuts her off from others. Other people distrust her. In addition, for some-especially those who hate themselves-she represents a sort of condemnation. When people see her-they see what they hate. They see themselves as they really are as well and the projections that they have of themselves-both positive and negative come to light. What others consider a gift or a superpower, isolates herself from others.

Another example of loneliness is found in the story of Psi. Psi-the augmented human-is essentially a walking computer. He can instantly download information. Instead of having to read and remember everything, his brain acts like a computer saving the information and processing it at the same time. He also has the ability to manually delete memories. Clara points out the advantage of such an ability, while Psi explicates that it comes at a price:

CLARA: You can delete your memories?
PSI: Yeah, it’s not as fun as it sounds.
CLARA: I’ve got a few I wish I could lose.
PSI: And I lost a few I wish I hadn’t. No, I was, I was interrogated in prison. And I guess I panicked. I didn’t want to be a risk to the people close to me, so
CLARA: You deleted your friends?
PSI: My friends, anyone who ever helped me, my family.
CLARA: Your family?
PSI: Of course my family.
CLARA: How could you do that?
PSI: Well, I don’t know. (sighs) I suppose I must have loved them.

Memory is a funny thing. Our memories are never an objective snapshot of reality but are filtered through our own particular lens. And memories often change-in subtle ways-we might remember something else, or other experiences we have had influence the meaning we assign to said memories. And of course, we forget a lot of things. I’m sure quite a few of us have memories we wish we could forget, yet memories are vital to who we are. They help us make sense of ourselves and the world around us. Memories tap into our deepest emotions-invoking feelings of happiness, sadness, anger, grief etc.

Those of us who have experienced trauma and abuse-deal with it in varying ways. Our bodies and brains are really good at trying to protect us. For some of us that means that our ability to remember becomes hindered. Going through life it feels as if we are living in a hazy fog. The events and memories that we hold dear, often seem to slip away without our trying. And that’s scary because we all know that all that will remain of us at one point is our memories. The people that we love will one day pass away and our memories of them and our interactions with them will be a source of pain, pride, anger, happiness etc. And one day we will die and be nothing more than memories Forgetting is terrifying. Psi-by erasing memories of his family and friends also erased an essential component of his identity for we are all shaped in part by the experiences we have shared with our loved ones. In addition, being forgotten is scary, because it expresses a finality. Being forgotten is almost the same as never having existed.

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Psi-when he thought he was dying, was confronted by the reality that he was alone. He had no memories of those he loved to comfort him-no assurances that he will be remembered-that his life mattered. He saw no one.

Madam Karabraxos, on the other hand, was haunted by her memories. And the Doctor-an old man himself, whose regrets and memories contribute to his intense self-loathing, warns her as much.

DOCTOR: Give me a call me some time
KARABRAXOS: You’ll be dead.
DOCTOR: Yeah, you’ll be old. We’ll get on famously. You’ll be old and full of regret for the things that you can’t change

The Doctor however, provides her with an opportunity to do one good thing before she dies. The Doctor can’t reverse every instance of death and destruction she caused, but can help her make things right for one species. Madam Karabraxos lived a life based on greed and exploitation. Money is all that mattered to her and life was of secondary importance. She created clones of herself, only to kill them when they disobeyed her or failed at something. She exploited the teller’s love for his partner in order to get him to kill people. Madam Karabraxos lived a life based on selfishness and hatred, and as a result she was going to die alone. The Doctor, however, provided her with one chance to do something right. It’s a shame she waited until the end to do something good.

How about us? How are we living our lives on a daily basis? How do we want to be remembered? When death comes knocking our door, we won’t be able to call the Doctor and plead for one more chance at making things right.

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