Thursday, November 21, 2013

The Ivory Cubicle | Bigger on the Inside: Doctor Who and the Story of Redemption

The charmingly witty, action-packed, and occasionally cheesy sci-fi classic Doctor Who will be celebrating it's 50 year anniversary this Saturday. In honor of the monumentous occasion, it is my privilege to feature my close friend and fellow Whovian, Danielle Builta, as she explains to you why you should throw out the remaining dignity you have, immediately go purchase a sonic screwdriver and a fez, and wear suspenders and bowties for the rest of your life (or just tune in on Saturday evenings like a normal human being).

-Nick Barden


Science-fiction in the United States has many memorable characters and catchphrases:

“Beam me up, Scotty!”

“The Force is strong with this one.”

Lightsabers. Transporters. A whole history of metaphors, images, and themes, which can either instantly unite generations of people -- or cause eye-rolling. 

In England, if you brandish a “sonic screwdriver,” exclaim “Allons-y!” or mention that you have to “reverse the polarity of the neutron flow,” you’ll likely get the same reaction.

Doctor Who, the longest running science fiction show on television (with a 16 year hiatus in the middle), has become a British cultural icon. It's gradually sailed across the pond since its re-start in 2005, and is celebrating its 50th Anniversary on Saturday, which is quite an accomplishment for any show. Full of zippy characters, aliens, monsters, it’s unquestionably exciting, but what has made it different from any other science-fiction show (not to mention longer lasting)? The main qualities of the show are:

  1. The Doctor regenerates every time he “dies” (so a new actor takes over the role).
  2. The time-travel episodic, format leaves it open to any genre. (episodes have taken place on the moon, watching Earth explode, to English parlors where Agatha Christie solved crimes).
But I think there’s one more reason it’s lasted this long:

  1. The characters in the show, its central metaphors, resonate deeply with us, especially in a culture familiar with the Bible.
Doctor Who's genre is technically science-fiction, but the show often seems more like myth. The show is BASED on an archetype -- the Doctor -- and we're never even given his name. He is larger than life, partly because of his anonymity. He’s a “Time Lord”, a nearly immortal, transcendent species that travels through time and space, powerful and intelligent, but despite all this, he cares about humans. He spends his time saving Earth and humans from aliens, monsters, and terrible things we do to ourselves. Why? For no other reason than he is awfully fond of them.

“You’re not of this world,” says an alien menace to him, once.

“No, but I’ve put a lot of work into it,” he replies. “Is this world protected?” he challenges the alien. “You’re not the first lot who have come here, there have been SO MANY.”

The alien scans through pictures of all the villains from the show.

“What you’ve got to ask is…what happened to them?”

As the alien sees all the past faces of the Doctor, the latest regeneration steps through, smiling and introduces himself.

“Hello, I’m the Doctor. Basically….run.”

It’s not a perfect metaphor, by any means, as he often fails, makes bad decisions, and sometimes unforgivably betrays the trust placed in him. But the trust is still there, and it tugs at something deep inside of us.

His companions are a motley bunch, humans and aliens. The one thing that binds them together is their love for the Doctor. Why?

This crazy, sci-fi Willy Wonka, who varies between Sherlock with a heart, or Tigger with brain, is reminiscent of the description given to Aslan in The Chronicles of Narnia -- “he isn't safe, but he's good.” Because following the Doctor…it’s legitimately dangerous, and often terrifying.

“You live your life like this?” asks Donna.

 “It’s beautiful!” says the Doctor.

“And it’s terrible! It was flooding, and burning, and those people were dying, and you stood there, like…I don’t know. You scare me to death,” Donna says.

His companions are put in the tension of trusting and doubting, acting on faith in their everyday adventures. Like the disciples dropping fish nets, companions leave whatever they’re doing, and are willing to navigate tough family lives as a result of their commitment to the Doctor.

But it makes sense, because abundant life is the only thing the Doctor is interested in.

“Things going on. Well, four things. Weeeelll, four things and a lizard,” he sheepishly informs a passer-by in the episode "Blink."

Companions see other worlds and help save whole peoples. “We get a taste of that splendor, and then we have to come back,” lamented Sarah-Jane Smith, a companion from the 70’s who returned for one episode in 2006.

Martha Jones, one of his companions, travels alone through a dystopian earth after the Doctor has been kidnapped by his nemesis, the Master. She gives this speech to a bunch of survivors, huddled up and asking her for news, since she’s become a legend.
Everywhere I went, I saw people living as slaves. But if ‘Martha Jones’ became a legend, which doesn’t matter because my name isn’t important, there’s someone else. The man who sent me out there, the man who told me to walk the earth, his name is the Doctor. He’s saved your lives so many times and you never even knew he was there…but I’ve seen him! I know him. I love him.
The show’s conception of Time hints at larger truths as well. The TARDIS, the Doctor’s ship, which stands for Time And Relative Dimension In Space, looks like a phonebox, but is a huge spaceship on the inside. It’s “bigger on the inside!” as characters routinely exclaim. It sounds crazy, yet seems natural to think of, because we, as humans, are bigger on the inside as well. 

 I have seen the burden God has laid on the human race. He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart; yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end.” –Ecc. 3:10-11 (italics added).

The only difference is, we can’t see what’s coming ahead, we can’t zip through timelines, and pop back forth. But we do have a sense of eternity that weights our every movement. Our sense of time even affects how we make art and view morality. Josef Pieper, in his book Tradition: Concept and Claim, asks “how do we really know what a blissful life is? Do we not know because we remember it? This would mean we were once blissful—perhaps in that man who was the first sinner?"

As T.S. Eliot, in his Four Quartets, says in his meditation on time:
Time present and time past
Are both perhaps contained in time future
And time future contained in time past
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable.
To Christians, time is cyclical AND linear AND ever-present…in an essence, time is kind of “a big ball of wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey stuff.” But just as all of time contains within it the longings of a blissful life and a knowledge of man's fall, so time, no matter where you stand in it, requires a Redeemer.

However, just like a trip with the Doctor, going around and coming back with new eyes isn’t a waste of time, but a valuable experience that can change your viewpoint for the better. As T.S. Eliot said at the end of his Four Quartets:
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Perhaps, like the Doctor, no matter how many times our culture “regenerates”, there are still desires and questions wrapped up in our heart that will always remain -- the whisper of Eden, the promise of a Savior.

by Danielle Builta

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