An intriguing thread winding through Series 7 of Doctor Who concerns the interplay of light and dark and how they can exist in one person, or even one thing, at the same time. This is illustrated beautifully with the use of flickering light bulbs, which are in essence, at least to our perception since they are cycling so rapidly, both emitting light and allowing darkness to encroach in the same instance.
One of the most fascinating things about Doctor Who is how it forces us to think in a non-linear fashion. We are conditioned to think of time as a progression, as if we were climbing a long ladder with life events happening at more or less regular intervals along the way. The Doctor however, does not experience time, and therefore life, in this way at all. For him all events are happening all the time, always. There is no past or future, no line to follow or look back on. For the Doctor, like the flickering bulb, light and dark exist together at the same time always and everywhere and it can be very hard to distinguish between them.
Imagine if you were standing at a crossroad. You look down one path and then another, trying to choose the best way to go. Suddenly you are surrounded by an enormous crowd of figures filling up every nanometer of space along all the roads and even the places around the roads on into infinity. Your eyes open wide and you almost dare not breathe as you realize every single figure is a different aspect of you. These are not different people. You are still you. You know yourself in every potential moment and every implication those moments lead to branching off and extending forever, constantly forking and changing every time a new decision is made. You experience yourself across all of space and time. You hold all those experiences, all that potential, inside your head. This is how the Doctor lives every day. No wonder it’s so hard for him to see what’s right under his nose.
The role of the companion is to keep the Doctor in balance. To remind him of what he’s forgotten when the chaos of his existence threatens to overwhelm him. One of the consistent themes running through Series 7 is what happens when the Doctor spends too much time alone. When we separate ourselves from the universe around us we begin to feel that we are outside of it. We forget that we are also a part of it.
Near the end of the Time War the Time Lords isolate themselves on Gallifrey. Rather than remember their place as part of a larger universe they decide they are the universe. The Doctor disagrees. When the Time Lords formulate a scheme to transform themselves into beings of pure consciousness, annihilating all other life in the process, the Doctor destroys them. He obliterates an entire race – his family, his friends. He also saves the universe. Both these states of being, the nightmare and the dream, exist in one man. He is neither dark nor light and yet he is both.
The ambiguous hero is not a new idea in storytelling. He exists within the mythos of many cultures, often portrayed as a confounding god who both helps and hinders the human race. In modern literature he can be found in Neil Gaiman’s “Sandman” series or Stephen King’s “The Dark Tower”. The Doctor is the multiplicity of human nature on a universal scale. He is endlessly complicated and ever shifting and changing. His life is not a still point in time, but then no one’s life is. We are not meant to remain in stasis but to constantly question and adapt, make mistakes and learn from them, open doors and walk through them, explore, revise and then revise again.
Sacrifice is another concept cropping up in Series 7. Our decisions are never without consequences. What must we give up in order to gain what we desire? In “Asylum of the Daleks”, Oswin gives up her life to preserve her humanity. In “Dinosaurs on a Spaceship”, Solomon trades his compassion for commerce. In “A Town Called Mercy”, Jex self destructs, offering up his existence for a chance to end the Gunslinger’s personal war. The Doctor constantly barters with the universe – exchanging notoriety for obscurity in “Asylum”, mercy for self-righteousness in “Dinosaurs”, and then self-righteousness for mercy in “Town”. The Pond’s sacrifice their home life to travel with the Doctor and sacrifice their concern for the Doctor’s solitude to be at home.
Death is perhaps the most constant companion in Doctor Who and Series 7 is no exception. Stephen Moffat and his team of writers are not afraid to confront the randomness of who lives and dies – Oswin in “Asylum” was young and just beginning her journey, the triceratops in “Dinosaurs” was goofy and sweet and undeserving of its fate. Isaac in “Town” was kind, compassionate and reasonable. They all died anyway. The Doctor couldn’t save them. Our culture has shied away from confronting the reality of death. Not that long ago, most people died at home. Because death was never far from our door we learned to live with it. It was heartbreaking but not a mystery. It happened right in front of us and we dealt with it and moved on. Now we have separated it from our lives, sanitized it, clinicalized it, compartmentalized it. We pretend it’s not there; we try to forget about it. And it dehumanizes us, desensitizes us to the suffering but also the beauty of transformation. Whether you subscribe to an afterlife or not, there is profundity in simply returning to the earth. What would happen if instead of turning away from death we walked right up to it and stared into its eyes? Even the Doctor has trouble doing this. He has seen so much of it, caused so much of it himself that perhaps it is not an ending he fears but rather a continuation. Haven’t we all felt at one time or another what bliss it would be to simply not have to worry about anything anymore, to experience an end to decision making, to slide into eternal sleep without dreaming? What if we don’t get let off the hook quite so easily?
Doctor Who Series 7 is definitely a show about a mad man in a box who has thrilling adventures. It is also a piece of dark theater following a lonely god as he wanders around the universe. Except when it’s a morality play exploring the consequences of love and anger and the tough decisions we are forced to make. It is all of these things and more. Some times in the same episode. This is the strength and weakness of Doctor Who, both the character and the program. It’s messy. Most of life is.
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