DOCTOR WHO Taps Into Its Inner Shakespeare (2011)

As the British time-traveling adventure series DOCTOR WHO returned last weekend with the debut of its new season, it both surprised and shocked viewers.  Channeling the Bard himself, it wove a tightly woven tale of comedy and tragedy.  Within the first few minutes, it reintroduced its principal characters as they were happily scattered throughout time and space, then cleverly brought them together for a seemingly idyllic picnic beside a desert lake.  But, as a space-suit clad astronaut rose out of the calm waters, the illusion of peace was shattered in an instant:  The Doctor was shot and killed before our eyes.  As any true fan knows, The Doctor cannot die; he simply regenerates.  But, in a twist that felt simultaneously gut-wrenching and heart-breaking, we watched in horror as The Doctor futilely tried to regenerate – and with the echo of another bullet, our hearts shattered into a thousand pieces.  Could this truly be the end of an icon that has graced television screens for nearly half a century?  What in the world was Steven Moffat thinking to dream up a scenario where The Doctor dies?

Fortunately, in short order, another twist was revealed.  We had just begun to grieve as we watched Amy, Rory and River Song hold the lakeside funeral.  Uncertain as to where the story was going, we watched in shock as The Doctor’s body burned on the lake.  Yet, as they despondently regrouped at a nearby café trying to fathom how such an atrocity could have come to pass, a door opened and out popped The Doctor.  As jaws dropped and a stinging slap rang out across the Who-realm, there he was – The Doctor, alive and well.

With a bit of mind-bending reflection, Amy and River were able to piece together that The Doctor they watched die was over 200 years older than the version of him standing in the café.  Thus, they had witnessed a death that would not occur in The Doctor’s life-span for another two centuries.  It was just through a twist in time that they were invited to be present for that specific moment in his timeline – a time that would not occur in his life for quite a while in fact.  But, for them, his death felt as raw as ever – for in their time-line, it had happened just moments before.  And that is the world of DOCTOR WHO.  It is all about time-loops, time-travel and bending time around so that it is barely recognizable.

As the remainder of the episode raced against the clock to solve the mystery of how such an event came to pass and to save the world yet again from another alien threat about to be unleashed on an unsuspecting planet, it was not the adventure story that captivated our attention – but, rather, it was the underlying tragedy.  It is one of the foundations of DOCTOR WHO that The Doctor cannot die – at least not permanently.  He is the last Time Lord – the last of a race of beings that were decimated during the Time War.  The Doctor may not be immortal, but it is one of the tenets of a timeless sci-fi series that we hold as unbreakable that he will not die.  He is, after all, the reason we all tune in faithfully year after year.  We want to journey throughout space and time with the zany man who believes so strongly that all human and alien life is precious – that he will break all the rules to keep harmony in the universe.

So with the foreshadowing of a future loss so great that the universe would weep tears of unending grief, we are left to wonder:  why would The Doctor walk willingly towards his death? He clearly knew it was coming.  He had sent the TARDIS-blue invitations to his carefully chosen friends and picked the time and place with the utmost care.  He knew exactly what that moment held and yet he still embraced it.  For a man who has escaped and cheated death thousands of times, it seemed wrong that it ended in an instant and with such ease.  What was the message it was supposed to convey?  Was it a call to arms – to rally his friends and allies into finding a way yet again to rewrite time?

As this season continues to unfold, this is undoubtedly the very theme that will run throughout and linger in the back of our minds.  While other viewers may have been haunted by The Silence (the tall, distinctly alien-looking gentlemen in suits) who lurked throughout “The Impossible Astronaut” or were distracted by the pleas of a young girl calling for help, some of us are haunted more by the scepter of death hanging over The Doctor.  For, to us, we cannot imagine anything worse.

Yet interestingly when River Song told Amy, “The Doctor’s death doesn’t frighten me, nor does my own.  There’s a far worse day coming for me,” a chill ran down my spine.  For what could be worse than the death of The Doctor?  Particularly having just watched it — and that was heart-breaking enough.  But when Rory curiously asked River, “What did you mean? What you said to Amy — there’s a worse day coming for you?”  River softly replied, “When I first met The Doctor a long, long time ago, he knew all about me.  Think about that:  impressionable young girl and suddenly this man just drops out of the sky — and he’s clever and mad and wonderful and knows every last thing about her.  Imagine what that does to a girl.”  Rory, knowing all too well the affect it had on Amy, mumbled, “I really don’t have to.”  However, not really listening to him, River whispered, “The trouble is:  it’s all back to front.  My past is his future.  We’re traveling in opposite directions.  Every time we meet, I know him more — he knows me less.  I live for the days I see him.  But I know that every time I do, he is one step further away.  The day is coming when I’ll look into that man’s eyes  — my Doctor — and he won’t have the faintest idea who I am.  And I think it’s going to kill me.”

To River, her greatest fear is to be forgotten.  The day looming on her horizon is the day The Doctor will meet her and does not know who she is.  She will have shared a lifetime of adventures with him and he will stare blankly into her face and not know her at all.  As seen, when The Doctor’s former companion Donna Noble’s memory of all her adventures with The Doctor were erased in order to save her life, there is a deeper tragedy in being forgotten.  The Doctor did not forget Donna, but we all ached knowing that she would never remember him – or all the amazing adventures they had shared in traveling the universe.  In River’s case, it is the reverse – she is condemned to remember every single miraculous moment, while The Doctor she meets, forgets her more and more.  It is a death of a different sort.

DOCTOR WHO may be the tale of a time-traveler who darts in and out of Earth’s history to pluck ordinary humans out of their lives for a time in order to share extraordinary adventures, but it is more the tale of the people than the adventures themselves.  Without The Doctor, it is simply a tale of disconnected stories; and, as fans and viewers, we simply cannot imagine a life without him.   His death would create a hole in the universe, if not our own hearts.  So it remains to be seen if River’s fear of a death by being forgotten, or the actual death of The Doctor will be more tragic.  It is my fear that both will shred our hearts and haunt us forever.

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