Saturday, October 01, 2011

The Doctor's death: some thoughts

Alex Kingston as River Song

(For those who have yet to see the Sixth season, a warning: story  to be discussed in close detail)

Just a few hours to the new Dr. Who's sixth season finale and I thought I'd put my ideas down on record, before I'm proven completely correct (in which case dress me in a wig and toga and call me nuts) or completely wrong (in which case you've just wasted your time reading this blog note).

By now we (meaning all who care) know of the Doctor's death back in The Impossible Astronaut; we've speculated on the validity of this death and the possibility of the Doctor somehow evading it, or proving it false ("It's an android! A banger! It's the Doctor whisking himself away in an elaborate timey-wimey plot to fake his death!"). Moffat after all has proven himself time and again to be a fiendishly inventive plotter (see Blink), capable of pulling off all kinds of narrative coups (the sudden introduction of a major character like Mels in Let's Kill Hitler is in every way and form an unforgivable cheat save for one thing--it's hilariously written and enormously entertaining). The alleged death of a Time Lord should be no small matter to resolve, considering how many times said Gallifreyan has escaped the clutches of Death time and time again (almost fifty years by our reckoning; some thousand years by his). The Doctor is about to cheat death for the umpteenth time in tonight's episode, and the manner by which he will cheat it will (in classic Moffat fashion) stun everyone with its ingeniousness, humor, and fiendish complexity.

But here is where I think Moffat's about to pull off his riskiest, most daring stunt yet: the Doctor will not cheat. He's not going to throw some hapless banger in harm's way, and he's not going to pull some last minute regeneration schtick out of his holed Stetson. "That," as Canton Delaware III puts it "most certainly is the Doctor, and he is most certainly dead."

Why, one wants to ask. Why would Moffat want to kill off one of the most popular if not the most popular character in BBC's history, the source of millions of dollars in income from ad revenues, royalty fees, and merchandise sales? Why slay the golden goose just when it's laying so many 24-karat eggs?

For one thing Moffat's not actually slaying the goose; just giving him a deadline (some 200 years in his future, which should leave plenty of time for Moffat and actor Matt Smith to grow a few gray hairs while still involved with the show). For another it's Moffat's way of demonstrating the intricate consequences of time (its "timey-wimey"-ness, if you like, a term that has yet to have its own Wiki page as of this writing, but seems to have entered common lexicon anyway)--arguably the overarching theme of his writing career (check out Coupling, a non-SF sex farce TV series, where in one episode the story splits into two time streams, Steve's and Susan's, and some of the biggest laughs come out of the unintended consequences that arise when the two streams abruptly merge).

I suspect, though, that one  reason Moffat has done this is to--well, let me put it this way: in the very best scripts (a goodly proportion of which were penned by Moffat himself) one appreciates the Doctor's many virtues (wit, courage, an often commendable moral compass). What one never felt was a sense that at any moment the Doctor can actually, truly die; that he's capable of experiencing irreparable harm (that's what regeneration's supposed to fix in a Time Lord), that he will not step aside or fail to dodge the coming bullet. 

It's a comforting trait this invincibility, and it's encouraged the kind of blind faith we put on all recurring characters of a beloved TV show, that as long as the series continues so do they--Moffat tonight is going to screw with that in a very major way. As for how Season 7 will proceed, why, there are hints in The Impossible Astronaut all this time, albeit writ in a smaller scale--the episode's first few minutes having given the series an endpoint, it then shows us how the series can continue anyway, despite having reached said endpoint. Timey-wimey indeed.

But beyond that, beyond the need to fiddle with basic assumptions, Moffat wants to give the Doctor a quality many great legends of old have: a sense of mortality. Robin Hood was bled to death by a treacherous nun; King Arthur met his end at the hands of his son; Beowulf suffered mortal wounds from his fight with the dragon. None of these myths would be half as poignant if we knew they'd go on forever, eventually to become old and grumpy with age (and tiresomeness). The best legends die young, and we mourn the loss--mourn our loss, since they're figments of our imagination.

This then is the Doctor's best chance at true immortality, the kind that inspires tears in grown men's eyes, generosity in their souls, a steadfast flame in their hearts.

In the meantime: what keeps the Doctor from hatching some intricate plot to save himself? Why, I suspect, that's where River Song comes in. I predict--with all the accuracy and reliability I can muster (not much, I know)--that her survival will depend on the Doctor's death, and that he goes willingly to his doom out of love for her. Harm River, whose life he is responsible for in many ways, has already screwed up in as many others? He'd rather die.

And if--somehow, someday, but please not too soon--Moffat decides to hand the reins over to someone else (Neil Gaiman? Wish away!), I'm willing to bet Moffat's going to take back everything he has plotted, prepared for, and so carefully established for the last two years. If years from now we have to prepare (after having resisted all of this season) for the idea of the Doctor not dying last April 22, 2011, then River will (I suspect) suddenly look very expendable indeed. And I hope--no, expect--Moffat to write some appropriately witty, sad, and wise dialogue to accompany poor River out of the series; we owe her no less. The classical symmetries must be preserved, in a timey-wimey, wibbly-wobbly manner.

Maybe. We'll know for sure tonight, of course, and if I'm wrong I'm wrong, if I'm right I'll buy a Lotto ticket. Wish me--well, either outcome is fine with me--

Oct. 1, 2011

1 comment:

Noel Vera said...

And I'm wrong! But hey, this version ain't bad. I prefer mine, but this wasn't too bad.