Heaven Sent

“Heaven Sent” has a complicated story line involving grief, truth, persistence, and patience. The Doctor is still reeling over the death of Clara and he struggles with his own fears about death and the passage of time. While most articles written about this episode have justifiably and understandably focused on the Doctor’s grief or the Doctor’s fear of death, those ideas will be secondary to the themes  of telling the truth, especially in regards to what we tell ourselves and the importance of persistence and patience in the midst of difficult or even soul crushing times.

The Doctor is not only mourning the loss of a close friend, but he is also being forced to confront his own fears and lies that he has tried to keep hidden from other people-even from himself. He gives off the impression of being reckless and dangerous, and as part of a species that can regenerate, his recklessness is a bit understandable. Sometimes, if you think you are invincible, you begin to act like you are. But perhaps his recklessness also harbors a darker fear: that of dying, because Time Lords can still die.

DOCTOR: Well, that was another close one. Or it will have been, once I’ve been and gone and got myself out of it. So, how am I going to do that? Come on, teacher, ask me questions!
BLACKBOARD: Tell no lies.
DOCTOR [tower]: I’m actually scared of dying.pizap.com14584271255671

Not only did his hijinks  provide a way for him to distance himself from the thought of his own death, but Clara’s death, once again reminded him about the fragility of the people with whom he chooses to spend time with and this fragility reminds him of how alone he is. He is no longer the last Time Lord, but he is estranged from his people (for very good reason, we find out).

The organizers of this place created a giant trap to try and force the Doctor to reveal his darkest truths. But in order for the Doctor to figure out that this was the plan of whomever sent him here, he needs to be willing to confront some lies and truths that he has been hiding from himself. Sometimes the lies and truths we battle with aren’t ones that need to be told to others, but ones that we need to confront within ourselves.

I spent spring break in Cuba on a trip organized by two professors at the seminary I attend and while we did go see some touristy spots (remember, while it is difficult for US citizens to visit the island as tourists, other countries do not bar their citizens from doing so) the heart of the trip consisted of talking with various leaders of Historic churches (ie Mainline churches) and their struggles in Cuba. While the leaders talked frankly about the problems and weakness of their government which has caused pain and suffering to the inhabitants of Cuba, they were also frank about how the US embargo wreaked havoc on Cubans. This bought up two uncomfortable truths 1) that the Cuban government, the “evil communist party” was no better or worse, than the corrupt American government that proclaims freedom and liberty while systematically eroding both for its citizens. It is also a government that aligns itself with countries whose human rights records are much worse than Cuba’s (Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the Batista military dictatorship that was in power before the Cuban revolution etc). Don’t get me wrong, Cuba has had and continues to have human rights issues  but the point is, so does the United States and so do many of our allies.  2) That American foreign policies, which are justified on the basis of a respect for human life and dignity, in fact often disregard human life and cause civilians’ untold suffering.

Now I had an inkling of the first truth before I went on the trip to Cuba by virtue of preliminary research and the second truth is pretty evident for anyone with a thinking brain. Yet no matter how orientated towards social justice a person may be, it is still easy to get wrapped up in American propaganda and political excuses demonizing other countries while deflecting the hard questions that we as a nation need to think about. It is also easy to forget about the impact that our foreign policy can have on oppressing others, even “nonmilitary” options such as embargos and blockades cause a great amount of suffering.

Various Cuban leaders talked about the devastating poverty in Cuba and the government’s inability to help all citizens because the blockade and the fall of the Soviet Union has hamstrung Cuba. Not many countries are willing able to trade with Cuba because they want to avoid the wrath of the United States.  There was mention about the “special period” which occurred in the 90s and bought widespread economic devastation on the populace. People were struggling to get food on the table, sometimes had to skip meals. While some members on the trip pointed out that other Latin American countries “had it worse” (an irony considering that these were spoken by Americans- not exactly the most oppressed group of people), the Cuban people experienced a lot of pain.  While it is important to acknowledge the role that the Cuban government played in the suffering of the Cuban people, the reality is American policy had a major role in the starvation and poverty suffered by the average Cuban. (Remember neo liberal capitalism is no more a guarantee of justice, wealth, and democracy than Communism.)

Even those of us who are critical of American government policy, don’t always get to hear first hand about the impact that our government has on the lives of the marginalized.

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When the Doctor finally begins to understand what is required of him to defeat this trap, he rebels. Why does he always have to “win?” why does he always have to do the “right thing.” Why not just give up and do the easy thing?

For those of us interested in social justice, this can be a tempting line of thought. At least I know it is for me. In fact, I can’t tell you how many people have told me that I needed to learn to compromise some of my most cherished principels. “Compromising is a part of being an adult,” I am told. And in many cases, compromises need to be made. But what principels am I holding onto that others say I should compromise on? American foreign policy and the slaughter of thousands of innocent people. I am supposed to support politicians who are ok with slaughtering others because another politician is “worse.” We live in a society where people make compromises all the time. Many times such compromises are needed in order to get things done and live in harmony, other times, people compromise because it is easier to do so. It is less painful. More people will like you if you learn to censor yourself and not point out how we all contribute to the exploitation and suffering of others.

In Cuba I met with church leaders that knew they needed to compromise on certain issues in order to bring about change, but they were also insistent on maintaining their core values even in the face of poverty and government harassment. Many continued to embrace their Christian identity even during periods when it would be easier to just down play it. Many refused to bow down to the false choice of Communism  and Christianity. It would have been so much easier for them to give up on either aspect of their identity. They could abandon Christianity or they could give up on trying to work with the government to help the poor. But they refused to do either. And as they look towards the normalization of relationships with the US, many church leaders state that regardless of what the two countries decide to do they will continue to uphold the principles of Christianity and their political belief in caring for all.

What many people, including Christians, seem to forget is that Jesus was a radical. Yes there were times Jesus changes his mind, but he also stuck to his principles. He believed that the political and religious systems of his time were corrupt and that he needed to speak out against it. Yes he was killed, but he also inspired countless others to fight for justice. Those who claim to be Christian and compromise, often ended up re-creating systems of death, destruction, and exploitation. The very systems Jesus wanted to abolish.

But standing on one’s principles is painful. We might expose ourselves to government harassment, we might lose friends and family members, we might despair.  In fact those who know me, know that suicide has often been something I grapple with. It would be so easy to just give up-on myself, on life, on humanity, on anything changing.

DOCTOR: But I can remember, Clara, You don’t understand, I can remember it all. Every time. And you’ll still be gone. Whatever I do, you still won’t be there..)
CLARA Doctor, you are not the only person who ever lost someone. It’s the story of everybody. Get over it. Beat it. Break free.  
CLARA: Doctor, it’s time. Get up, off your arse, and win!

Clara appears to the Doctor and tells him he has had more than enough time to mourn. He is in pain, she gets it, but he is not the only one to suffer loss. He can’t use her death as an excuse to give up. For many of us, such a message might not come through a vision or dream of a loved one, but this message will come to us. For me, it came during my trip in Cuba. I am not the only one advocating for justice in a society where change seems difficult and hopeless. I am not the only person who feels as if I am crying out and no one is listening to me. I am not the only one frustrated by a society where people, in a need to feel better about themselves and to sleep better at night, encourage others to compromise their most sacred values and then berates those who refuse to do so. In Cuba I saw that there were others going through much tougher circumstances who continued to advocate for the kingdom of God. And they sure had even more reasons than I do, to give up.  But they didn’t.

DOCTOR [room 12]: Every hundred years, a little bird comes and sharpens its beak on the diamond mountain.
(Faster still.)
DOCTOR [tower]: Nearly a billion years. 
DOCTOR [room 12]: Argh! And when the entire mountain is chiselled away, the first second of eternity will have passed!
(Faster still.)
DOCTOR [tower]: Well over a billion years.
DOCTOR [room 12]: Argh! You must think that’s a hell of a long time, 
(More and more.)
DOCTOR [tower]: Two billion years. 
DOCTOR [room 12]: Personally, I think that’s a hell of a 
(Again.)
DOCTOR: Aaargh! Personally, I think that’s a hell of a bird.

In “Heaven Sent” the Doctor spends billions of years punching away at the wall made of azbantium, which he describes as being four hundred times harder than diamond. So he has to go through a grueling cycle of dying and being reborn and experiencing the same thing over and over again. Like the bird in the Grimm’s tale he references, the Doctor slowly makes his way through the wall. Justice work often feels the same way. The Cuban Church had to have patience. I’m sure it felt as if they were not getting anywhere with the Cuban or American governments. Yet they continued pushing for normalization of relationships between the two countries and they kept advocating for a greater say in Cuban politics. Their work isn’t done and thy will face more problems and setbacks in the future. But this is the nature of social justice work. Sometimes all we can do, as individuals or as a group is keep punching against the azbantium wall hoping that one day there will be a breakthrough.

 

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1. The Day of the Doctor: These are the people you’re going to burn?

I’m sure it doesn’t come as a surprise to anyone that The Day of the Doctor is my favorite episode from the Matt Smith era. Frankly, this episode is my favorite episode of Nuwho thus far. For me, The Day of the Doctor typifies the very best of Doctor: it has genuinely funny bits, it has a weird looking alien that I’m sure children will try to imitate and because it is the 50th anniversary special it has a bunch of little Easter eggs that hark back to the earlier era of Doctor Who. It is no wonder that this episode has been described as “a love letter to fans.” However, the episode also deals with a pretty dark chapter in the Doctor’s life, the day he committed double genocide and killed not only the Daleks but also annihilated his own planet.

Since the show came back the Doctor’s role in ending the Time War has always been in the background. As viewers we knew that he performed such an action, and in some episodes we can see how his role in the war has shaped him, noticeably through his anger and self-hatred, but at the same time, it has never been the central aspect of his character or the focal point of an episode. As a result, as audience members we consciously and intellectually knew that the Doctor killed the Daleks and destroyed Gallifrey but we didn’t need to fully imagine what it meant for our hero and beloved character to kill billions of people. But in this episode Moffat has no qualms about forcing us to confront the full gravity of the situation as well as the impossible choice the Doctor had to make: kill billions of his own people, including children, or allow the whole universe to be destroyed.

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I know that while watching this scene, my chest tightened up a bit at the mention of children. In every other episode, when the Time War was discussed, it was talked about in such an abstract way that it was easy to forget that the Doctor killed people. Yet in this episode, Moffat bluntly points out that the people the Doctor killed aren’t just faceless beings, but they are actually living beings. They are children. Even if you are like me and you don’t have children, I’m sure we can all think of kids who have touched our hearts. Kids whose lives have brought us so much joy, happiness, and silliness. Kids whose presence we couldn’t imagine not being around. Then imagine them cruelly snatched away, even if for a “good” reason. Even if the action that took them away was necessary for the greater good of humanity the pain would be unbearable.

The thing about war is that it is almost always presented as necessary and actions, even those that decimate the environment and kill thousands, millions, (or in the Doctor’s case, billions) are always justified as stating that such action needed to be taken in order to prevent an even greater loss of life. But even so, rarely do citizens, (especially those not having to directly fight in or experience war) think about what such actions truly mean. What does it mean to bomb a city or a town? What does it mean to say that hundreds of thousands of people are dead? Who are these people? Not all of them are enemies, in fact most are probably just citizens who are caught in the cross-hairs of a battle they never asked for. In war, many of those who die are in fact children.

Yet it’s easier to not think about that, especially if we can pretend that war is an unpleasant reality that happens somewhere else. It is easy to view war in real life, the same way we view the fictional Time War when the Doctor would discusses it during the earlier seasons: as an abstract concept that was necessary and should be quickly forgotten.

But despite all the funny gags between the three doctors, Moffat brings us back again and again to the children:

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As most of the readers of my blog know I am in seminary. But what I haven’t discussed is the subject matter that I have spent years researching:  the consequences of war, especially on those called to wage war. War leaves a devastating impact on those whom a nation calls to perform acts that the average citizenry would never in a million years imagine doing. War not only impacts one physically or mentally but spiritually. In regards to the consequences of war, most people have heard of PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) but not as many people have heard of moral injury. Moral injury is defined as, “Perpetrating, failing to prevent, bearing witness to, or learning about acts that deeply transgress deeply held moral beliefs and expectations.”  In their book, Soul Repair Dr. Gabriella Lettini and Dr. Rita Nakashima Brock Brock explain, “Moral Injury is the result of reflection on memories of war or other extreme traumatic conditions. It comes from having transgressed one’s basic moral identity and violated core moral beliefs.”

It is important to note that moral injury does not just occur when someone witnesses or actively does something that society would consider to be “wrong” (a term that is relatively useless in a war zone) but it can result from actions that are necessary in order to save lives. Moral injury impacts one’s view of the world and also one’s understanding of who they are. Those experiencing moral injury often wonder: “Who am I, in light of what I have witnessed/done? Can I reconcile the person I was before experiencing moral injury, with the person I am now?”

We can see how the Doctor’s action to end the Time War has impacted him to the core. He hates himself, he repeatedly defines himself in terms of what he did and didn’t do during the  war and multiple times he has wondered if the universe would be better off without him. In the midst of the light-hearted series, we are given glimpses into the Doctor’s troubled soul. And the fact that the Doctor did what needed to be done, does not ease his pain or guilt. Every relationship is impacted by his actions in the time war-he finds it hard to confide in people, to let them know who he really is and what he has done, he views himself as a danger to others and therefore tries to prevent himself from getting close to people. It is clear that the Time War is an event he would like to forget.

Yet no matter how hard the Doctor has tried to forget, he can’t. The Time War lingers on in his mind and heart. The Doctor knew he didn’t have any other choice. It was Gallifrey or the universe. He chose the universe. Yet he still needs to deal with the consequences of his action:

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I’ve mentioned this before but what I love about Doctor Who is that if you just want to watch a fun, silly romp around the universe as a form of entertainment, this show is for you. If you want to think more deeply about difficult notions such as love, loss, death, and war, this show is also for you. In The Day of the Doctor, both the audience and the Doctor are forced to confront head on what it means to have the lives of billions of people in one’s hands. What must it feel like to have to make a decision to kill some people in order to save an untold number of others? Especially when it seems as if there is no other way. “No other way.” Isn’t that how war is often described? I’m not asking to get into a debate about the ethics of war nor am I interested in arguing about pacifism or just war theory, what I am interested in is pointing out how we as a society and a species often limit our imagination and are unable to envision new possibilities. At one point the Doctor believed that he had no other choice. He had to kill billions of people or the entire universe would be annihilated. And the Doctor’s action in destroying Gallifrey was not “wrong” or “evil,” The Doctor needed to do what was best to prevent the time war from enveloping the universe. It was the lives of a certain number of time lords in exchange for the lives of all those across the universe… and so often in the real world, the options are just as stark. But what happens when we can imagine new possibilities?

Part two next week!

11. The Beast Below

10. Amy’s Choice

9. Vincent and the Doctor

8. The Girl Who Waited]

7. The God Complex

6. A Town Called Mercy

5. Angels Take Manhattan 

4. The Snowmen

3. The Rings of Akhaten

2. The Name of the Doctor