Late in August, I put the new Doctor Who on the strictest probation. One week later I gladly re-welcomed the time-traveling Doctor into my living room. I feel silly now, but the BBC science-fiction franchise’s first series eight episode, titled “Deep Breath,” was a total clunker. Given the series’ sudden improvement for episode two and its even stronger showing for episode three, I wonder if showrunner Steven Moffat was off his game for the first episode — or even intentionally lowering fans’ expectations.
Now I see that Doctor Who is going deeper. Behind each of series eight’s first three episodes — even the choppy, lackluster “Deep Breath” — seems to lie probing questions about not only the very identity of the Doctor himself but the whole concept of Doctor Who. If I’m right, Doctor Who‘s eighth series is going meta. Somewhere at the BBC may lie a revised copy of the series bible in which Moffat outlines the new season’s big idea: To challenge the series’ nature. And so far, each story has asked big questions of itself and explored possible answers. The Doctor acts like his “doctorate” isn’t of medicine. He’s a Doctor of philosophy.
Question: Do new parts change ‘Doctor Who’?
As show fans and readers of Christ and Pop Culture’s “Doctor Who’s Doctrine” series know, Doctor Who “rebooted” again in December 2013 with a Christmas special that saw the Eleventh Doctor (Matt Smith) regenerate into the Twelfth Doctor (Peter Capaldi).
After complaining about the color of his regenerated kidneys, the Twelfth Doctor’s last words in his introductory scene were, “Do you happen to know how to fly this thing?” And in “Deep Breath,” his questions don’t stop. But his own pilots seem unable to fly the story and instead, steer it into choppy editing, literal relegation of big ideas (a dinosaur comes to Victorian London!) to the background, and jumbles of tones and ideas. (It’s similar to the story’s central villain, a robot that collects human parts to replace itself and thereby becomes a grotesque creature, but if that’s the conceit then it’s too meta-clever for itself.) The better bits are when the Doctor stumbles through the cold streets with his nightdress and identity crisis and ponders his and his story’s existence.
Last year Moffat spoiled his own lines. “When [the Doctor] turns into Peter [Capaldi] he’ll actually have lines on his face,” Moffat said. “So where did that face come from?”
Question: “It’s covered in lines, but I didn’t do the frowning,” the Doctor says. “Why did I choose this face?”
What is molded says to its molder, “Why have you made me like this?”
Any subtlety to the meta-question is thrown out the airship when the Doctor rhetorically confronts the evil human-part-collecting robot. “You take a broom, you replace the handle, and then later you replace the brush and you do that over and over again,” the Doctor asks. “Is it still the same broom?”
Question: If you take a half-century-old sci-fi series, replace the lead actor, and then later replace the theme, supporting cast, and writers — and you do that over and over again — is it still the same show?
Answer: Yes, but it may be a confused and stumbling show until it finally finds its new self.
Question: Is the Doctor a good man?
The second episode, “Into the Dalek,” sends the Doctor and Clara into an exploration of human morality at the atomic level. Rebel soldiers have captured a Dalek (i.e., an evil alien in a weaponized robotic shell). The Dalek is acting less depraved than usual. In fact, it downright decently shrieks that all Daleks must be destroyed. It’s time for an exam from the inside-out. But first the less-medically-minded Doctor poses the theme question: “Am I a good man?”
From there we’re off to one of those Fantastic Voyage shrink-capsules that cuts folks down to Arietty-size (not atom-size) for the journey. The Doctor asks why “Rusty” changed.
“I saw beauty,” the mono-toned Dalek seems to whisper back. “The birth of a star.”
“And you learned something,” the Doctor says. “Oh, Dalek, do not be lying to me. Come on.”
It turns out that if your Dalek gets sick and starts developing a moral conscience, you’d best leave it alone. Instead, the Doctor repairs the creature. Naturally its “conversion” is proved false. Seed fell on rocky ground. It backslides to evil and goes on an exterminating rampage.
“Daleks don’t turn good,” the Doctor proclaims. But is he disappointed or vindicated? “It was just radiation affecting its brain chemistry, nothing more than that. No miracle.”
His companion Clara insists a good Dalek is possible. They just witnessed it.
Question: Can the Doctor help convert a Dalek by helping regenerate its sinful heart?
The Doctor makes his way to the now-giant creature’s organic center. There he rigs a way to restore the original memory that had triggered “Rusty’s” temporal morality shift.
The Doctor: Memories, all those memories. Do you remember the star you saw being born?
Rusty: I… I remember.
Doctor: You saw the truth, Rusty! Remember how you felt! You saw a star being born. The endless rebirth of the universe.
Doctor: And you realized the truth about the Daleks.
Rusty: Truth? What is the truth?
Doctor: Let me show you the truth. I’ve opened your mind and now I’m coming in.
(With bare hands the Doctor splices together a glowing cord and screams.)
Doctor: I’m part of you. My mind is in your mind.
Rusty: I see your mind, Doctor. I see your universe.
Doctor: And isn’t the universe beautiful?
Rusty: I see… beauty.
Doctor: Yes, that’s good. That is good! Hold onto that!
Rusty: I see endless, divine perfection.
Doctor: Make it a part of you. Remember how you feel right now. Put it inside you and live by it.
Rusty: I see into your soul, Doctor. I see beauty. I see divinity. I see… HA-TRED!
Rusty: I see your hatred of the Daleks! AND IT IS GOOD!
Doctor: No, no, no! You must see more than that! There must be more than that!
Rusty: DEATH TO THE DALEKS!
I might guess that someone wrote this with a Reformed systematic theology text open on the table. But that wouldn’t be necessary. All this storyteller needed is an honest look at human nature after the Fall — a nature that blends beauty, even divinity, but also hatred.
Question: Is the Doctor a good man?
Answer: No. Perhaps a good Man could have regenerated a depraved Dalek without also contaminating it with evil from his own nature. But as Clara finally answers, “I don’t know. But I think you try to be and I think that’s probably the point.” In-universe and apart from it, that’s all the answer fans need about this and any other story about a flawed hero.
Question: Why tell stories with impossible heroes?
So if the Doctor is a flawed hero, what about another perfect hero in whom we want to believe? He’s not real, the Doctor insists when Clara begs to go to Sherwood Forest and meet Robin Hood. But as soon as they show up, thunk comes the arrow on the TARDIS and there he is, as forest-green as Santa Claus is red: Robin Hood, handsome, blond-haired, blue-eyed, laughing Errol Flynn-like at every little thing and driving the Doctor mental.
Some fans hate “Robot of Sherwood.” They disliked its unapologetically anti-cynical story. Maybe they’re like the Doctor who insists that none of this can be real, pokes at the merry men, and snatches a blood sample from Alan-a-Dale. He claims there must be a dystopian sci-fi catch to all this. (It turns out there is, but Robin isn’t the titular robot.)
Question: “When did you start believing in impossible heroes?” as the Doctor asks Clara.
Robin Hood: So is it true, Doctor?
The Doctor: Is what true?
Robin: That in the future I am forgotten as a real man? I am but a legend?
Doctor: I’m afraid it is.
Robin: Hmm. Good. History is a burden. Stories can make us fly.
Doctor: I’m still having a little trouble believing yours, I’m afraid.
Robin: Is it so hard to credit? That a man born into wealth and privilege should find the plight of the oppressed and weak too much to bear?
Robin: Until one night he is moved to steal a TARDIS? Fly among the stars, fighting the good fight. Clara told me your stories.
Doctor: She should not have told you any of that.
Robin:. Well, once the story started, she could hardly stop herself. You are her hero, I think.
Doctor: I’m not a hero.
Robin: Well, neither am I. But if we both keep pretending to be. Ha-ha! Perhaps others will be heroes in our name. Perhaps we will both be stories. And may those stories never end.
(They shake hands)
Robin: Goodbye, Doctor, Time Lord of Gallifrey.
Doctor: Goodbye, Robin Hood, Earl of Loxley.
Robin: And remember, Doctor… I’m just as real as you are.
Yes, stories make us fly, even old stories that fictionalize history, or newer stories that add to the fiction, “canonize” it, and then explore meta-philosophical questions about their own purpose. Stories can help real-life people become true heroes. But stories don’t need this justification if they are good stories. Their beauty, goodness, and truth are in a sense their own reward. And the Christian who knows the cultural mandate that powers all our stories in a sinful age agrees: May all these stories never end, for they honor the chief Storyteller.