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GREY MATTERS: DOCTOR WHO’s sublime study of grief, death and transfiguration continues to captivate its viewers

GREY MATTERS: DOCTOR WHO's sublime study of grief, death and transfiguration continues to captivate its viewers

On a recent episode of The Graham Norton Show, the genial goofball host was plainly delighted to have Karen Gillan—known worldwide as Amy Pond, the spirited, ginger-haired companion of The Doctor on Doctor Who—on his guest couch.
Of course, Norton couldn’t pass up commenting on a rumor that Amy Pond would meet her maker on a coming Who episode, chiding her, “Everyone knows nobody on Doctor Who dies!” The joke was that everyone on Doctor Who dies all the time and yet comes back to die yet again and again. Because dying is what you do on Who.
That said, if the show was just a series of expirations and miracle resurrections, it would quickly become hard to care.
But Who is so much more. In the way it ‘does’ mortality, it seems keenly aware of David Cronenberg’s career-long assertion that the SF and horror genres are uniquely able to allow us to rehearse finality, to play act Kübler-Ross, explore entropy, and consider matters of faith and/or the lack of it. This is, after all, a show that not only has an orchestral death theme, but an eerie, reverse-instrumental leading-to-death theme as well. It’s kind of blatant.
Here’s the thing: I do not believe that anyone likes anything deeply for innocent reasons, and by innocent I simply mean nobody is gaga over Star Trek, Lisbeth Salender or The Wire just because. There’s always a subconscious shadow text that makes things resonate.
It would be absurd not to assume linkage between my deepening attraction to Doctor Who, a time travel show that insists on memory’s primacy, just as I began a new labor in my own memory retrieval process, the result of a bus accident and brain trauma a long time ago.
I am even more sensitive to Who’s mortality themes as I write this column. Last week I found out that my mother, who is very old and very frail from several illnesses, will be operated on for cancer.
Before I got that news, the show had me thinking about Barbara — Barbara whose death was the first that shredded my world, Barbara of the too-wild black-brown hair, too-white skin, too-loud laugh, the absurd 50s ball gowns, too-everything, dead at 35 of a hidden cancer.
When you’re vulnerable the strangest things sneak through the cracks. And so when the Doctor tells one person after another after another that nobody is ever really gone, not really, and when The Doctor himself dies and Amy Pond literally remembers him back to life…well, I could barely swallow.
And so as my mother floats between worlds, and Barbara lives in memory, as I slip into a demographic where mortality—if not my own, necessarily, then those around me–the melodies sounded in Doctor Who touch me like no other film or TV. Sometimes the small tears feel almost like healing. Doctor who?
“Bowties are cool!”
The Doctor himself isn’t actually called ‘Doctor Who’. He’s the last of his race, the Timelords, obliterated after some galactic war.
The genius of the Doctor Who conceit—the show runs back to 1963–is that that a Timelord cannot die. Instead, every few years he ‘regenerates’ and is reborn to be played by another actor.
Since ’63 ten actors have played him, meaning that, theoretically, Doctor Who could run forever. (I know that the Doctor says that he can only regenerate 13 times. Rule One: The Doctor always lies.) Despite being about 900, he’s a hyperactive, fashionable loon with great hair. Imagine an upbeat Jarvis Crocker and you’re 75% there.
The Doctor travels through space and time in what looks like a ‘60’s police phone booth but is actually a time/space travelling machine called a TARDIS.  He’s also pathetically lonely and always finds a companion, usually female, always platonic. (Come on, that thing with Rose was with a human Doctor double, sheesh.)
Since Steven Moffat took over the franchise from Who re-animator Russell T. Davis two years ago, the time we’ll be looking at here, the Doctor has shared his adventures with the feckless, insanely brave Rory  and his wife Amy Pond, who is the key to the continued existence of the universes. (Why aim low? the Moffat rule of thumb.)
Also in the mix is River Song, vivaciously played by Alex Kingston as a sort of uber-MILF in Prada complete with her own sardonically endgame-based tagline (“Spoilers!”) who may be the Doctor’s wife, mother, or murderer.
The Doctor, Amy, Rory, River—the closer they become, the better Moffat can hurt you when he kills them.
“If we’re going to die, let’s die looking like a Peruvian folk band.” – Amy Pond
How you die on Doctor Who is romantic in the classical sense because it’s seen as very important. In television/film fan terms, it has additional appeal, as dying is usually a thing done in montage, a montage in waltz time.
It can also be, well, funny. There’s death by aquatic-vampire bite, pterodactyl bite, Dalek ray-blast, feral Ood, sentient tumors, infant liquefaction, being turned to dust by alien-possessed senior citizens and to stone by the Weeping Angels.
And sometimes death is just meaningless, abrupt and mean. In  “A Good Man Goes to War”, we meet Lorna, a 18-ish girl whose entire life has been defined by a few seconds spent running with the Doctor during an old adventure, a literal extra in his life.
She joins a holy war all on the chance that she’ll meet him. After a stupid battle, she’s shot—but she does meet the Doctor.
He caresses her forehead and assures her that he does remember her. She smiles, shudders, dies. It’s almost ghoulish it’s so true to life.
The same episode offers a waltz-time triptych of montage death so exquisitely morbid I imagine two tremulous thumbs up from the shadow of Alexander McQueen. Against Murray Gold’s typically gorgeous score—rather like Christopher Young’s Hellraiser rhapsody, but with the sinister extracted—we see The Doctor and his beloved cross-cut and succumbing in slo-mo, character-defining ways. I perversely wish it could have gone on a while longer.
But Who can also be downright cruel. In a moment that almost shocks with its naked spiritual need, its digital nihilism, “The God Complex” presents us with a Muslim girl trapped in a hallway with a murderous, belief-stealing monster.  The Doctor, trapped in another room watches helplessly on ugly, ‘80s-stle close-circuit TV as she begs him, “Please let me be robbed of my faith in private.” The Doctor, pained into silence, flicks off the video feed. It’s devastating stuff. (Moffat trashes organized religion, but he respects belief. Interestingly, when the Doctor is asked if he is an atheist, he does not answer.)
“The Doctor’s death doesn’t frighten me, nor does my own. There’s a far worse day coming for me.” – River
If she wasn’t such a fun/hot knock-about, River Song would be unbearably tragic.
As at ease leading militarized clerics (“The Time of Angels”) as she is raiding the Third Reich for haute couture (“Let’s Kill Hitler”), River exists in decaying romantic agony, as her ‘time stream’ is running in the opposite direction from that of The Doctor, whom she loves.
Every time she sees The Doctor, he remembers her a little less. Eventually, he will forget her entirely.
I was on the same page as The Onion’s Keith Phipps when he pointed out that River’s situation “echoes the plight of anyone who’s watched a loved one fade into the shadowlands of dementia. This is not a story that ends well for River and she knows it.”
In a show about time and travelling through it, addressing decay is only honest and Who worries on the topic. Every cast member has grown old and fallen apart in multiple episodes to various degrees.
The great literary fantasist Neil Gaiman co-wrote an episode called “The Doctor’s Wife” in which the TARDIS itself manifested in human female form just long enough to become frail and die painfully. We’re sad at the Doctor’s loss—and chilled at the reminder that ours isn’t so much longer.
“Does it ever bother you, Amy, that your life doesn’t make any sense?” – The Doctor
One of the ways Who works is by blindsiding you from oblique angles. Witness: “Vincent and the Doctor” is really about Amy and grief and…well, here’s what it seems to be about. The Doctor takes Amy to a museum to see Vincent Van Gogh’s paintings, then to the past to meet Vincent himself, who is miserable and being attacked my an invisible monster. With The Doctor’s help, the monster is slain, Vincent’s taken to 2010 to see that he’s a cherished artist in the hope he won’t kill himself. He still does.
But this sad fable is just an armature on which to rest the episode’s real concerns, which have to do with Rory having just died in the episode prior. She cannot recall this due to a crazed religious order’s actions.  Amy’s amnesia is a way for Moffat to metaphorically address Kübler-Ross’s first stage of grief, denial.
Amy’s denial is the anxiety engine powering the episode. We know and The Doctor knows Rory’s dead and Amy not remembering is driving us kind of crazy.
When she transfers her considerable energies to poor Vincent—the same height and built as Rory—convinced she can stop his depression and suicide, metaphorically like the relative at a wake who’s cooking, pouring drinks and doing everything but admitting somebody is gone now.
Anyway, Vincent worries for her.
“Amy Pond, I hear the song of your sadness,” he says.
She denies it: “I’m fine!”
“Then why are you crying?” He asks as tears pour down her cheeks. From nowhere a funeral procession appears, covered in sunflowers. Rory is finally grieved over by proxy—and we’re bowled over and choked up because we were unprepared for this, because it only makes dream sense.
Amy is like a child dealing with her first loss. While Vincent’s return to 2010 and discovery of his value is a Spielberg-style spirit lifter, it’s eclipsed by Amy’s rage when she learns of Vincent’s persistent suicide and eclipsed yet again as Amy moves a small step past denial.
She sees that her efforts did matter: a dolly-in on a masterpiece reveals Vincent’s signature, “for Amy.” And so grief, a la Who.
The Dream Lord: If you die in the dream, you wake up in reality…Ask me what happens if you die in reality.
Rory: What happens?
The Dream Lord: You die, stupid. That’s why it’s called “reality”.
But not necessarily. Because this is a time-travel show, it’s possible to be conversant with people earlier in their timelines.
But beware of SF show paradoxes. In other words–dead really is dead. Repeatedly, often in interlocking episodes, across time, space, multiverse, people, robots, aliens and elementals covering half a century of TV, films and novelizations,  we see the Kübler-Ross model—denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance—play out in narratives that are so deeply geek that I’d need a some charts, maps, a PowerPoint presentation, and two laser pointers to convey the situations.
And anyway, the whole death thing—ultimately, it’s not literally about death. Or rather, it is and it isn’t. Doctor Who will be useless when my mother finally leaves us. And it only offers different ways to think about Barbara. Then again, the later is who lot of something. Doctor Who, I find, doesn’t have fans—it has followers. Some since 1963.
Just as The X-Files assured us that The Truth is Out There, Doctor Who assures us, as it obsesses over death, that nobody is forgotten, “not really”.  As The Doctor refuses to deny his faith he becomes an avatar for people with a hungry sort of closeted agnosticism.
But sometimes, Moffat lets his cool slip and lets us know what he’s feeling. It’s very qualified, but it’s very sweet: it’s very Doctor Who.
It’s Rory, surviving yet another conflagration intact to ask The Doctor, “Why am I here?”
“Because you are. The universe is big, it’s vast and complicated and ridiculous and sometimes, very rarely, impossible things happen and we call them miracles.”

Ian Grey has written, co-written or been a contributor to books on cinema, fine art, fashion, identity politics, music and tragedy.

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