Thursday, July 29, 2010

Why I love 'Doctor Who'

"My experience is that there is, you know, surprisingly always hope.”

~the Doctor, “Vincent and the Doctor”
I’ve watched Doctor Who since the early 1980s, but I must say that I’ve particularly enjoyed the recent manifestation of the series. And lately, I’ve started to nail down exactly what it is about this latest incarnation that I like so much—and the above quote by the Doctor gets to the heart of it.

One of the aspects of Doctor Who I appreciate most is that within all its campiness and entertaining adventure it invites us to consider how much more there is to this world than we think. In “Vincent and the Doctor,” the Doctor and Amy (his current companion) encounter Vincent van Gogh (yes, that van Gogh) who expresses this concept wonderfully:
Vincent van Gogh: It seems to me there's so much more to the world then the average eye is allowed to see. I believe, if you look hard, there are more wonders in this universe then you could ever have dreamt of.

The Doctor: You don't have to tell me.
Like our universe, however, not that all that’s encountered in the Doctor’s is good or full of wonder and beauty. In fact, malevolent machinations abound—yet, interestingly, those malicious forces who’ve encountered the Doctor aren’t keen on doing so again. In “The Hungry Earth,” the Doctor is helping a group of people determine what kind of beings is threatening them. At one point, a young boy talks with the Doctor:
Elliott: Have you met monsters before?

The Doctor: Yep.

Elliott: Are you scared of them?

The Doctor: No, they're scared of me.
The recent “The Pandorica Opens” episode illustrates this magnificently. A confederation of the Doctor’s worst and most dangerous enemies has gathered together against him at Stonehenge. He stands beneath a sky full of their armed ships and booms up at them:
The Doctor: Come on, look at me! No plan, no back up, no weapons worth a damn, oh, and something else: I don't have anything to lose! So, if you're sitting up there in your silly little space ships with all your silly little guns, and you've got any plans on taking the Pandorica tonight, just remember who's standing in your way! Remember every black day I ever stopped you, and then, and then, do the smart thing!”

He pauses, then booms out--

The Doctor: “Let somebody else try first!”

A beat--then all the ships flee and disappear.
But even though the Doctor has thwarted and defeated these forces, his encounters with malevolence and maliciousness have left deep scars and wounds. Our Doctor has seen and experienced much death, darkness, betrayal and horror in his travels, and one of the deepest wounds and losses he bears is watching his entire race wiped out in a war with the Daleks. He is the last of his kind, a lonely and isolating reality he continues to grapple with. Yet, in spite of it all, he’s remained a hope-full creature, consistently faithful that (as he declares in "New Earth") life will out—“that there is, you know, surprisingly always hope.”

And that is something with which I resonate most deeply because it is a powerful echo of one of the most beautiful, compelling and formidable aspects of God: From the beginning, he has been relentlessly working towards routing from us and his creation that insidious darkness that’s infiltrated his handiwork, to transform death and darkness into Life and Light. His plans bend towards Jesus and then explode outward—and Love, Light, Life and Right-ness swallow darkness, evil and sin. Darkness lashes out against its fate, but it is doomed. And, mind-bogglingly, God weaves even its destructive and lethal lashing into his saving, life-creating work. Life will out. Death cannot prevail. He is so much more powerful than evil that even the results or effects of evil are overcome, bent towards, and woven into his plan and transformed within his "plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”

Indeed, this theme of transforming goodness echoes throughout Doctor Who. I found a most moving and powerful example of this in “Vincent and the Doctor,” when the Doctor brings van Gogh—unappreciated as an artist in his own time and deeply discouraged about his art—forward in time to the Musée d’Orsay and a room full of his now famous paintings. The Doctor searches out an art historian, and making sure van Gogh is within earshot, asks:
The Doctor: Between you and me, in a hundred words, where do you think Van Gogh rates in the history of art?

Mr. Black: Well... um... big question, but, to me Van Gogh is the finest painter in the world. Certainly the most popular, great painter of all time. The most beloved, his command of color most magnificent. He transformed the pain of his tormented life into ecstatic beauty. Pain is easy to portray, but to use your passion and pain to portray the ecstasy and joy and magnificence of our world, no one had ever done it before. Perhaps no one ever will again. To my mind, that strange, wild man who roamed the fields of Provenance was not only the world's greatest artist, but also one of the greatest men who ever lived.
What a beautiful gift to give a doubting and suffering man—not simply a vision of what his work has become or even such a powerful description of himself but the ability to see that overall hope triumphs and life outs. In the midst of our pain and suffering, it seems impossible to see the pattern of goodness triumphing over evil, life over death, light over darkness. I love that this is what the Doctor—who spans all time and space—concludes because it is a profound and beautiful echo and affirmation of the reality in which we live. Our take on life is indeed hope-full—not wishful thinking but the anticipation of something sure. It is what underlies that “What’s next, Papa?!” outlook on life that Paul talks about in his letter to the Romans. Creation itself groans as it moves with pregnant anticipation of what is to come, and if we pay attention, we can’t help but hear the echoes and blasts of that birth all around and through us.

I think it is the kind of vision that sees life out consistently that plays into the Doctor’s hopefulness and his willingness to lay down his life time and again for humanity and the universe. And I think it is an echo of the kind of vision which calls us to do the same.

Lest you think I am reading too much into Doctor Who, I beg you to consider how religious imagery—lately it’s been churches—continues to weave throughout these modern chapters of this series. The use of such images, allusions and language deepens the context and themes related to something more in the world around us. And the use of such imagery invites us to consider the implications in the context of those images and allusions. And I can’t help but think about how Paul pulls out echoes and bits and pieces of God’s truth from ancient poets and even pagan religion to connect his listeners to God when he speaks at Mars Hill. Tolkien and Lewis later echo this, suggesting that God expresses himself and his truth through storytellers who don’t know him: “The Pagan stories are God expressing Himself through the minds of poets, using such images as He found there, while Christianity is God expressing Himself through what we call ‘real things.’"

I, for one, think Doctor Who like one of those stories—and one that brings some deliciously wonderful and fun God-talk into these open spaces.
(Images: BBC via Wiki and Wikipedia)

3 comments:

Beth said...

Thanks for re-tweeting about this post, because I had missed it, and it's wonderful! I've only been really watching Doctor Who since the 9th Doctor, and from what I've seen, you're right on target. The Doctor of these seasons is very much in the model of T.S. Eliot's "wounded surgeon" (Four Quartets:"East Coker").

J. L. Watts said...

And excellent post, Carmen and I think that I tend to agree with you.

Carmen Andres said...

Beth, I'll check out Eliot's poem again--thanks for the head's up on that.

J.L., thanks for stopping by!