Tuesday 27 October 2015

Doctor Who Wants To Live Forever

Vi veri veniversum vivus vici.
- Dr. John Faust (attrib.)

This is the text of an audio ‘lecture’ that I’ll be delivering at some point in the near future.

The Queen1 once asked, somewhere else, “Who Wants to Live Forever?”  Leaving aside the fact that they then request that you touch their wart with your fingertips, let’s see if we can find an answer.  And maybe flag up why the thirty-fifth series of Doctor Who might be starting to wobble alarmingly.

Let’s start where we’ll end: Greece.  A while ago.  The Ancient Greeks had the idea that body and soul were united together eternally: first, last, always.  Of course, this was a time when mythic traditions were still being regarded as historically accurate – mostly because it didn’t do your family any harm to be related to a god a few generations back.  Even so, the Greeks noticed that bodies had an annoying tendency to… well… die.  Life was harsh and philosophy was taken seriously, but there had to be an explanation for what happened to the soul when the body refused to join in with debates for reasons other than grumpy stubbornness.  Okay, so they changed the ‘facts’ to fit their views, but hey.  Who doesn’t?

The Greeks worked on the assumption that the parts of eternity that the soul wasn't stumbling around driving a meat suit and fighting a constant losing battle against entropy, hemlock, maths and endless bloody slow-motion fights, it was in Hades.  And, as no self-respecting soul-above-ground would be seen dead without a body, they weren’t.   A soul without a body was seen as being dead.

The Greeks also had a thing for Tragedy and Gods.  We’ll come back to both in a bit, but seeing as we’ve already mentioned goths a couple of times let’s have a chat about Melmoth.  In 1820, a gentleman named Charles Maturin published his contribution to Romantic fiction, which was promptly lumped in with the Gothic novels, penny dreadfuls and other general moral-panicking works that wives and servants shouldn’t be reading.  The novel's main character swaps his soul for a bonus 150 years of world-wandering.  Melmoth bears a resemblance to – and is almost undoubtedly based on – the legend of the Wandering Jew, which itself had already been knocking around for 500 years at the time.  The Wandering Jew, so the story goes, mocked Jesus on his grim trudge to crucifixion and was cursed to walk the Earth until the Second Coming.  Both variations can be regarded as cautionary tales, carrying the same message that Rassilon delivers so plummily at the end of The Five Doctors.

A lot of the immortals in Greek myth/family history have a tendency to die and then be reborn, like Kenny Pond or Rory McCormick.  In a way this process isn’t dissimilar to god-myths all over the world (including one we’ve already touched on), the cycle of day and night, and the one genuinely immortal creature that science doesn't point at and laugh.  This intriguing wonder is
Turritopsis dohrnii, also known as 'the immortal jellyfish'.  Look it up, it’s fascinating.  Unfortunately, because Julia Roberts’ brother didn’t delightedly announce that the Doctor was half-jellyfish we’ll have to leave it noshing on plankton while we get back to why there’s so much talking in this series of Doctor Who.

You’ll have noticed all those two-parters we've been having recently.  You’ve probably also noticed the pace has slowed a little and allowed the characters to chat more.  It’s been particularly evident in the last two stories, The Girl Doctor Who Killed and The Woman Doctor Who Brought Back To Life.  Ashildr, or Lady Me, or the Knightmare Child, represents what TV Tropes might well describe as The Mistake That Returns.  Maturin’s Melmoth was part of the same movement as Mary Shelly’s wager-winning masterpiece, Frankenstein; Or; The Modern Prometheus which was published two years earlier.  In the original Prometheus legend, the Titan is punished by Zeus after giving humanity the secret of fire – his very immortality adding to the… 

Hang on.  A godlike figure who gave fire to humanity?  By Gum, that sounds familiar for some reason...

Anyway, just in case you aren’t up to speed with the story of Frankenstein (; Or; The Modern Prometheus), it's basically about a genius who, having not thought things through far enough, gives the godlike gift of life to something dead and then refuses to take responsibility for it.  (As a quick aside, apart from being an album by The Sisterhood, ‘gift’ is also German for 'poison'.)  The Monster in the book, and some of the films, is eloquent and lonely and, because of a lack of mates, punishes his creator by taking that most dear to him.  So, no potential parallels with the Doctor and Ashildr there then.  Unless there's a professionally incompetent teacher that might possibly be classed as ‘that most dear’ to the Gallifreyan? 

Yeah, Clara’s doomed. 

Other immortals in fiction include the alliterative Endless siblings who appear in Neil Gaiman’s epic Tragedy, The Sandman.  There’re many similarities between Gaiman’s Morpheus, the Lord of Dreams and Moffat’s Who, the Lord of Time, but the one that’s most obvious this week is the character of Hob Gadling.  Hob’s a gentleman who decides that living forever is easy (just plain refuse to die) and as a result of stating this slightly too loudly in the same pub as Morpheus and his sister Death, becomes part of a bet between the two.  Morpheus and Gadling agree to meet at the same tavern every hundred years until Hob's end.  No spoilers here, gang. 
Also, Morpheus’ son Orpheus descends into the underworld to retrieve the soul of Eurydice, ‘that most dear’ to him.  But that won’t be relevant until the final three-parter of this twelve-part, decade-long story.  Anyway, we’re running out of time and we need to get back to the original question.

“Who wants to live forever?” 

Let’s talk about the quote back at the start.  It’s taken from Alan Moore and David Lloyd’s astounding graphic novel, V For Vendetta.  V’s young charge Evey finds it inscribed on a mirror and asks V what’s… uh… the deal?  V tells her it means, “
By the power of truth, I, while living, have conquered the universe.”  Which is pretty cool.  Evey asks where it's from, and V replies, “Nobody you’d have heard of.  A German gentleman named Dr. John Faust.”  But here V, like the Doctor, lies.  The phrase doesn’t appear anywhere in the Faust story as told by Marlowe, Goethe or Reuss.  It does however, crop up in Aleister Crowley’s The Vision and the Voice, but you'll have to wait until you're older to hear that one. 

Gods’re immortal, obviously, and the Doctor’s just told us that the Greek gods were alien.  Possibly, he’s thinking of the non-canonical story The Life Bringer that appeared in Doctor Who Comic (that’s what it’s called) a lifetime ago.  More likely he’s thinking back to The Myth Makers, when he appeared as Zeus and – as I’ve proved incontrovertibly elsewhere – became responsible for kick-starting Tragedy. 

A child destroying their parent happens a lot in Tragedy.  If you wanted to, you could argue that’s the theme of Frankenstein (; Or; The Modern Prometheus) without breaking a sweat.  It’s not a huge leap to also see it as an analogy for the process of regeneration that the immortal jellyfish undulates its way through, but let’s get back to why this season’s wobbly with some random speculation.  Ready?

Clara’s final story was told last year, she perfectly fits the role of the Hero in a textbook Tragedy structure.  Trust me.  But Jenna Coleman didn’t leave, and that knocked on into this series.   This series is a celebration of the last ten years of Doctor Who, and'll need to end with either a Time War or a slap-up party.  Slap-up parties need a lot of planning, and often cost a lot to throw.  Words however, are cheap.  Slowing down the action earlier in the run means fewer sets, costumes, special effects and so on, all the cash saved can then be splashed over a spectacular finale.

The problem is that there’s an impossible girl alive in the world who wasn’t alive before – or, at least possibly, wasn't alive last year when 2015’s arc was first being planned. 

Perhaps Ashildr’s taken over a role previously intended for someone Steven Moffat'd saved for it.  After all, how much more of a Tragedy would it be if the Doctor’s Monster turned out, rather than a random stranger created the previous week and then aged through an accelerated process, to be someone the audience already knew?

What if the Doctor’s Monster was never meant to be The Girl Who Died? 

What if she was actually The Doctor’s Daughter?

For Bev, Kev and Rev.

1.  Not that one.

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