The Doctor Who Christmas Special was recently made available via online streaming to those of us who do not have access to the BBC on our televisions. I’ve been thinking about it for a month now and cannot stop. The episode, entitled “The Time of the Doctor” marks the transition from Matt Smith’s Doctor to Peter Capaldi’s Doctor.
The goodbye scene is… well, let’s just say that because I already knew it was coming I was able to adequately prepare my emotions:
Oh my, when the bowtie hits the floor…
Doctor Who has a densely packed mythology that underlies the events leading up to the regeneration (the Doctor occasionally regenerates and is subsequently played by a new actor. This is the secret to keeping a show going for decade after decade after decade…). It would be well nigh impossible to unpack all of the background, but there are abundant theological themes throughout for us to muse upon. I have always thought that we ought to “read” Doctor Who in the same way we might read Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. This is to say, not as a straightforward retelling of another story with silly characters and magic but rather as a fairy tale that is implicitly Catholic-shaped simply because it assumes the presence of a greater reality of beauty and goodness. Now, I have no idea if the writers of Doctor Who are even the tiniest bit religious, but they certainly have created a world in which virtues and destiny and good and evil have meaning. Their stories are highly mythopoetic and dense with symbol.
Edith Stein writes in Science of the Cross,
“every genuine work of art is a symbol…that is, it comes from that infinite fullness of meaning into which every bit of human knowledge is projected to grasp something positive and speak of it. It does so in such a manner, in fact, that it mysteriously suggests the whole fullness of meaning , which for all human knowledge is inexhaustible. Understood this way, all genuine art is revelation and all artistic creation is sacred service.”
A world in which everything means something is a world that is highly charged with the Divine presence. Nothing is merely a true to life “adult” recounting of grim facts. No gritty, dour, post-modern drama, here. This is why science fiction in general and Doctor Who in specific are so wonderful; it hasn’t given up telling stories. The Doctor may or may not be a Christ figure (I think probably not), but his actions always have resounding significance. He is very old and very wise, a true hero, journeying through a noble world in which nature is shot through with grace. Our lives are lived with precisely the same significance. Each day is a heroic journey, and at our best we make of ourselves a gift for those we love. All of our actions have eternal significance.
The Christmas special finds the Doctor, appropriately enough, in a town called Christmas where snow is always on the ground and the truth is always told. All of the ancient enemies of the Doctor and his species the Time Lords have gathered here in response to a mysterious question beamed out to all time and space. It is a question: Tell us your name, doctor…who? The enquirers turn out to be the long lost Time Lords, speaking through a crack to another universe. To answer and speak his name, forbidden to all, unlocks the door to allow the Time Lords back to their rightful place in this universe, but for the new world to come on the one we have now must die. To answer doctor who? brings on apocalypse as The Silence, Daleks, Cyber Men, and Weeping Angels are all eager for a final battle to push back the new world and destroy the Time Lords forever. Under these circumstances, the Doctor is and must remain unknowable. The question remains unanswered.
The Doctor has seen all of this before, this planet with the town called Christmas. He has journeyed here many years in the future and stood at the foot of his grave. This is where he dies for the last time. No more regenerations. It is predestined.
In such conditions, his only victory is to keep the villagers of Christmas safe. And this he does for hundreds of years, steadfastly refusing to say his name out loud but also steadfastly refusing to abandon these innocent people to the monsters at the edge of town, drawn in by the mysterious question like moths to a flame. The Doctor forestalls the apocalypse, but experiences a long, slow apocalypse of another sort. This one is personal, and he knows that it only ends with his own death. Is this a picture of a sacrificial Christ figure? A tragic hero? A simple, confused man unsure how to make a big decision? Perhaps all of these, but I would say that he is most clearly a saint. A sometimes flawed yet entirely virtuous martyr for the good of those he loves.
In the end, a miracle is granted. It is occasioned by life energy (or whatever the fancy, sci fi name of the sparkly blue stuff is) being sent through the crack from the other Time Lords. This is most certainly a graced moment, a pure gift from those who love him. Without it his regeneration will not take place and the last Time Lord will have fulfilled his predestined death, the way of all creatures. With renewed energy, though, instead of the final end there is a regeneration. The viewer never has it spelled out, but obviously the future that the Doctor had seen is not so set in stone. His grave will not be here after all.
However, this regeneration is not cheap grace. There is most certainly still a death. The transition from one face to another is not a mere change in appearance, a new face on the same essential personality. The old Doctor is gone. He dies and undergoes the transfiguration of the grave and new life.
“Goodbye, Raggedy Man,” bids a vision of his faithful friend. Indeed, goodbye. We are all breath on a mirror and we fade away so quickly. We have but a short time to become saints. In this life is much that is difficult and suffering and goodbyes. The heroic journey must always end in a death, and yet, grace is lingering, drifting along through a crack in the universe waiting for us to inhale.