As it is Doctor Who Week (well, at least the 50th Anniversary week), I am going to keep going with my Doctor Who theme! The other day I wrote a post about personified evil, in the Doctor Who episode The Satan Pit. I wanted to once again use the thought of Science Fiction and Religion to consider another Doctor Who episode: The Doctor’s Wife.
This award-winning episode written by Neil Gaiman really is one of the finest episodes of Doctor Who there probably has been or will be. The reason I feel like I can say that is because it explores and discusses the very heart of what the show is, of what happens in it, of that most important and constant of the Doctor’s companions: the TARDIS. Or should I say, the Doctor is the most important and constant of the TARDIS’s companions?
And if you are going to personify an abstract concept, there’s probably not a better writer than Neil Gaiman for the job. Check out Neverwhere (which a guest blogger discussed here on Comparative Geeks before) or American Gods to see what I mean. So as Neil Gaiman is someone who has breathed life into gods, I think I am not out of line in approaching this episode from the stance of Science Fiction and Religion. So read on, for a discussion of this episode, and larger considerations! Spoilers of course!
The Doctor’s Wife
If you haven’t seen the episode, first go watch it. And as a reminder then once you’ve seen it, the Doctor’s wife is, as the episode implies, the TARDIS. In the episode, a sentient consciousness known as House attracts the Doctor, and steals the soul of the TARDIS out of the technological shell – and deposits it into a human(oid) body. House then takes over the TARDIS shell to escape the pocket-plane he lives in, and is off to see the universe.
So there are a couple of things going on here, and my larger discussion is of course going to be about the TARDIS. But a few notes from the episode first.
One is the direct call-back to The Satan Pit – as the Doctor talks about “another Ood I failed to save.” The Ood that House had captive does not make it through the episode – but the Doctor would have liked him too; but he keeps failing the Ood. This sort of direct connection is part of what got me thinking about doing these two posts in the first place – two very specific episodes to consider. Well, three, with the two-parter.
Another is House’s intimidation:
“Fear me, I’ve killed hundreds of Time Lords.”
To which the Doctor replies:
“Fear me, I’ve killed all of them.”
Now, of course, these references to the Time War are nothing new, and by no means limited to these episodes. However, the solid point is made in both of these episodes that the Doctor is the killer of his race, and that is significant. He works so hard at saving people (like the Ood), but he is also the greatest mass murderer in history, potentially. I guess we’ll see tomorrow!
As to House, he is an interesting villain. But if I’m thinking Science Fiction and Religion, there’s a larger observation about him. He is a vast, all-powerful sort of consciousness. When they first find him, he seems to be the whole asteroid. He takes over the TARDIS. He is vast and mighty. But he also keeps around companions, largely unnecessary, but he does. He also lets Amy and Rory live, when he has them caught. And they discuss this with him – he keeps them around because they entertain him.
This is perhaps a small scale version of the thought, as House had an asteroid, and a couple of people he “created” by patching them together from parts of people he lured there. But it is a small-scale exploration of why a powerful being would create life. For entertainment? Let’s consider that in different terms: to see what they would do? More interesting than boredom, than being alone. Even with complete power.
Well, maybe not enough knowledge or power. Because the TARDIS beats him.
Bigger on the Inside
There’s always something of the idea that the TARDIS is conscious, certainly the Doctor seems to talk to it occasionally. Of course, traveling alone for hundreds of years will do that to you. But this episode completes the thought: the TARDIS is absolutely conscious and knows what is going on.
The line is great, too, as she considers life in a body:
“Are all people like this? Bigger on the inside?”
Which is both a play on the line that is constantly used when people go inside the TARDIS, and an accurate description of life. We may seem like these limited shells, but we are so much more.
The spin that this puts on the show is fantastic. The TARDIS calls the Doctor her “Thief,” implying he stole her – but she also points out that she stole him. He wouldn’t have gotten anywhere without her.
And throughout the travels, a hallmark seems to be the Doctor arriving not where he was aiming, not where he planned, but elsewhere. Or elsewhen. As they say in the episode, though, she never took him where he wanted to go – but she always took him where he needed to go. It’s her, leading, all the time.
I mentioned the other day in my post about The Satan Pit that it was the TARDIS which saved the day, and that is, of course, how it goes. Always where they needed to go. And not because of the Doctor, kind of never because of the Doctor. But because of the TARDIS.
Jesus Metaphor – Doctor or TARDIS?
I try to avoid getting too specific into religion, talking instead a bit more generally about the idea of the creator, or of evil, these sorts of things. However, this episode is bringing me into a more specific realm. However, not necessarily one from a church service on Sunday: instead, more from literary criticism.
So a common literary device – or maybe more importantly, common literary critique – is the idea of the Jesus metaphor. I remember from many literature classes, this came up all the time. This is a metaphor of Jesus. That is a metaphor of Jesus. Anyone saves someone? Jesus. Forgive them? Jesus. Sacrifices themselves for someone, in any small way even? Jesus.
In some ways, it’s assigning a lot of meaning on the part of the author. They may not have meant any sort of religious symbolism. Okay, they end up laid out in a cross shape? Carried off by folks? End of Matrix Revolutions? Okay, okay, maybe sometimes it’s deliberate. But it seems like it also diminishes Jesus to say that someone stubbing their toe for someone else is like Jesus. Anyway, overused literary critique, that is my point.
Now, I hear Doctor Who discussed in terms like this occasionally. The Doctor is out there, putting himself on the line for others. Saving, forgiving, sacrificing. Judging. So there are elements that seem like, taken as a whole, there might be room for the metaphor there, if not maybe an intentional direct, constant, episode-for-episode comparison.
However, I’ve just made the point that the Doctor just goes out and does whatever needs doing wherever he arrives. Because he never arrives where he planned, it’s never his plan. He arrives where he is needed. He arrives where the TARDIS takes him. So really, is the TARDIS more the savior here?
I have a larger thought here. The Bible says that Jesus was there with God from the beginning, came to Earth at the appropriate time, and then returned to Heaven, is there still, and will be throughout all of time. But there, in the middle of time, there was the time Jesus came to Earth and was like us.
See where I’m going?
The TARDIS says:
“I’ll always be here, but this is when we talked.”
The TARDIS was there from episode one, and will be there throughout the years to come. The TARDIS has archived versions that haven’t happened yet. Archiving the future! Not only able to see it, but basically having already lived it. Present, and alive, at all points in time. Throughout time.
And for one brief moment, a short time in the middle, the TARDIS was human, came among them, and was able to speak to them. Change the way they thought, and acted. But always before, the TARDIS was helping people and saving people. And always after, more of the same.
So, knowledge of all of time, the power to change and influence any and all of it, but acting largely through others to make good happen in the universe. Present throughout time, but human for a short time in the middle. This, I say, this is a pretty good metaphor for Jesus. An interesting way to consider the life of a being considered at once to be divine and human. Eternal, but also lived and died. It’s kind of like that one Doctor Who episode.