Could a good enough Doctor make you live forever?

In Television
July 22, 2007

A warning: this post is spoilerific. Don’t read it if you haven’t seen the last six episodes of season 3 of the new Dr Who. Go and watch them instead, they’re good.

A further warning: this post treats Television as Art. Because that’s what I happen to believe is (sometimes) true.

A final warning: this has got very long. I entirely accept that no one but me will read it. Don’t feel bad.


It’s been quite popular among old-school Who fans to rubbish much of what Russell T Davies has done with the past three seasons of Dr Who. I’ve heard a lot of moaning, anyway, such that I’ve begun almost to believe that the fact that I’ve enjoyed it *so very much* just indicates that I’m easily pleased. Especially by the Doctor getting his first ever gay snog and so on and so forth.

But, I’ve watched the last six episodes of season three through about five times now and I’m willing to say it: I think they’re literature, investigating one of the great themes of human art: immortality. Seriously. Bear with me for a moment.

Why is immortality interesting? Because, really, this is what we desire. At least, some of the time, at least we think we do. Death is the single unanswerable fact of human life. It’s going to come for all of us eventually but how we wish it weren’t.

There are so many stories which investigate immortality. It is one of the great Stories of literature. It is the concrete block under religion. From the Homeric gods, to belief in reincarnation, from vampires to zombies, from the World To Come to the geek rapture we ask ourselves over and over again in stories: what would it be like if we didn’t have to die? Would it be better? It seems like it’d have to be better. But would it possibly be worse? Could we even call ourselves human anymore?

Doctor Who is allied to the new images of immortality which emerged in the 20th century – stasis and cryogenic freezing, robot bodies and genetic “perfection”. But the Timelords are also different. They look like humans but they’re not humans, and they’re not humans-turned-immortal. Like vampires and like angels, they are an immortal race. Like gods. 

So I make a case, particularly, for the last six episodes of season 3 of New Who as forming a complete arc investigating this question.

Doctor Who is a god. That’s what it means when you don’t die. He’s a god and he has avatars and walks on Earth in a body at times but that body isn’t *him*. You know, just like Krishna and Jesus.

So, in Human Nature, like a god he discards his divinity for a time and walks among men. He even falls in love – the pleasure which humans tend to reserve for themselves in stories of Immortals, the pleasure we somehow feel is part of mortality (why is that? Why is love linked to death? Freud would probably have a thing or two to say about it). But it doesn’t work. Like a god, like Zeus or YHVH Himself the Doctor’s love is destructive, corrosive. It burns those it touches.

And in Family of Blood, like a god, he gives up his mortal pleasures to provide the salvation which can only come from an immortal being. There’s such a beautiful moment at the end of the episode, where Martha and the Doctor have travelled forward in time to attend a Remembrance Sunday service. One of the young men they encountered 80 years earlier is now an old wheelchair-bound man; he looks at the Doctor as the Vicar speaks the words “they shall not grow old, as we that are left grow old”. This is the Doctor’s tragedy. He doesn’t grow old, he doesn’t die. But because of that, he is on the side of death already.

After all that deep and potent thematic content, Blink has a much lighter touch. The Doctor’s mostly in it as a peripheral presence, a helper from the sidelines, stranded away from his Tardis. But, Blink remains (among other things) an investigation of mortality. The Weeping Angels don’t kill you, they “let you live to death”. In a sense, they do nothing, just move people a few decades back in time. In another sense, they do everything. Dalek-style extermination is almost banal. “Living to death” is, of course, what we all do and all the more powerful for that. The episode contemplates the fullness of a human life over and over again: is it a tragedy to die now rather than later? Even if you’ve already lived a long life?

And then there’s Utopia. Now we’re at the end of the universe, where the Doctor must face the death even of the indomitable human race itself. As a stand-alone episode Utopia has its problems. Like Mission to the Unknown (and *oh*, let’s have another ep with none of the regular cast in it. At any point. Can you imagine a TV show having the guts to do that these days?) it’s a feeder episode in a longer narrative. It has beautiful touches – ChanTho is great – but it doesn’t quite cohere. Thematically, though, it’s dead on. Like God, the Doctor has the long view. He’ll always have a human companion or two but eventually there will be no more human race at all. It’s reminiscent of that most devastating scene in the Time Machine: not the Morlocks and the Eloi but the further-than-that future

“I looked about me to see if any traces of animal life remained. A certain indefinable apprehension still kept me in the saddle of the machine. But I saw nothing moving, in earth or sky or sea. The green slime on the rocks alone testified that life was not extinct. A shallow sandbank had appeared in the sea and the water had receded from the beach. I fancied I saw some black object flopping about upon this bank, but it became motionless as I looked at it, and I judged that my eye had been deceived, and that the black object was merely a rock. ….

From the edge of the sea came a ripple and whisper. Beyond these lifeless sounds the world was silent. Silent? It would be hard to convey the stillness of it. All the sounds of man, the bleating of sheep, the cries of birds, the hum of insects, the stir that makes the background of our lives—all that was over.”

Can there be any meaning in a world without a future? This is a question about individual human life – none of us gets out of here alive – and about the whole human race. And if the Doctor is the thematic opposite to the individual, mortal, human, then the Timelords are the thematic opposite to the whole inevitably mortal human race. And so it transpires, in this episode which deals with the end of humanity, that the Timelord race isn’t *quite* as gone as might have been supposed.

[As an aside, it occurs to me that New Who, particularly Torchwood, has taken great pains to state that there’s no afterlife, that when we’re gone we’re gone. But. If Dr Who is a god (which he is) we still have the old religious get-out, that our lives are eternal because they continue to live in the mind of The Eternal. If the Doctor lives forever, if he always remembers you, if, for no obvious reason, he Loves All Humans, then in a way you go on forever too.]

So. The Sound of Drums and Last of the Time Lords. They are awesome, is the first thing, and get better the more you watch them. Either that, or they contain some kind of brain-altering signal which just makes you *think* they’re getting better and better. Eh, who cares, it’s all about the experience, right? But, the Doctor has a dog bowl that says Doctor! And, he and the Master have the hottest phone sex ever! And the Master’s wife is so beautifully, subtly played, just try watching it through keeping your eyes on her face whenever she’s on the screen. OK, but also, thematically…

Would it be OK to be immortal if there were other people who were immortal too? Fundamentally, it seems to me, this two-parter says “yes, as long as you could persuade them to stay with you. But that could be a lot harder than you think.” All phone sex jokes aside, the Doctor and the Master want each other. They are each other’s only solution to the Problem of Immortality – that, because they will not grow old as we that are left grow old, they will forever be alone. Interestingly, they each want to do precisely the same thing to each other. The Master puts the Doctor in a cage. The Doctor wants to imprison the Master in his Tardis – he is the only person for whom the Doctor would consider giving up his wandering.

Among other thematic elements which I haven’t properly sorted through yet: the Master’s weapon against the Doctor is not his most favourite tissue compression but *age*. The fundamental proof of the grotesqueness of his immortality. And the revelation of the identity of the Face of Boe as another grotesque immortal. And the ring, and what it signifies, and the nod to the Ring of Rassillon. Must come back to this.

And then of course there’s the return of the human race. Utopia, the Way Out of the end of the world turned out to be a U-turn. Is that OK? Resoundingly no. Would it have been better for them to stay at the end of the universe and die? Probably not. Are there any answers to this question? No. There aren’t. And this is where these six episodes are glorious. They are a full investigation, a probing analysis from about a dozen different angles, of what it means to be mortal, of what it could mean to be a god. And of course they give no easy answers, because there are no easy answers. That’s what art means.

I find I have *so much more to say about this*. Anyone know of a Dr Who conference running in the next year or two?

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