Tolkienian Dr. Who?


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Some Very Tolkienian Dr. Who?

I've already written in my blog about a couple of episodes from the “new series” of Dr. Who?, and at the end of this essay I'm adding a third. The episodes I've seen most recently had some very Tolkienian moments. I think the new series is more that way than the old - except possibly for Peter Davidson's Doctor, which is probably why I like him so much. This new series is made by people who grew up watching Dr. Who?, which I think makes a difference. There seems to be a lot more of “What would the Doctor do?” asked more or less consciously in the scripts, rather than depending on the situations to work themselves out.

I also find myself wondering if some people who grew up watching Dr. Who? might have also grown up reading Tolkien. No one has mentioned him in the “Confidential” pieces that take us behind the scenes during the making of the show. But Tolkien's most powerful influence is so subtle as to be subliminal (unless you spend, say, 40 years analyzing it), so the fact that no one has mentioned him doesn't mean that he hasn't influenced the show.

In the first of these episodes, the Doctor does the equivalent of refusing the Ring - even to use It in a good cause. The bad guys are coming close to discovering the code that runs the universe. If they get there, they'll be able to control time, space, and matter: to become “gods.” The Doctor, of course, is against this, but not only because it's the bad guys who'd end up with it (as I think would have been more likely in the original series).

To keep him from interfering, the head bad guy invites the Doctor to be part of the plan. This would be of obvious advantage to the bad guys, because his involvement would give them a head start in controlling time and space. As some of the characters in LotR, the Doctor has a moment when he realizes what he could do with such power. There's a lot hidden in his quiet statement to himself: “I could stop the war.” The war he's talking about destroyed his home planet and all the people living there, making him - as he believes - the last Time Lord. In the original series, the Doctor is at various times on the run from, being punished by, or working with the leaders of the Time Lords; he's a maverick, but he's still tied to Time Lord society. There's a profound loneliness in the new series that wasn't in the original. I'd love to ask the people who decided to make the Doctor so alone why they made that decision.

But in a reaction that reminds me of Casey Connor's “I'd rather be afraid,” the Doctor turns down the offer. Why? I may be seeing this through Tolkien-colored glasses, but I do believe one reason is the assumption that there is such a thing as illegitimate power. In the same way that Elves can carry out “elf magic” because it's part of their God-given nature, the Doctor's nature as a Time Lord gives him some distinctly non-mortal powers. But in this episode - especially in that line said quietly to himself - I get the sense that whoever was writing it believed that there's something intrinsically wrong with trying to grasp power you're not meant to have. Tolkien said that, in his cosmos, if power isn't tied to Eru either directly, or indirectly through the Valar, it's a “sinister word.” It's that sinister power that the Doctor turns down.

Another Tolkienian strain in this episode is the dignity of each person - especially each person's free will. The bad guys are using children to work through the calculations needed to discover the code. Scores of mind-controlled children sitting at computer terminals can make fast progress. They're specifically using children because, as the Doctor realizes, they need not only intelligence but imagination. As the Doctor puts it, they're using not only the children's brains but “their souls.” How much more Tolkienian can you get? (And a side note that in many traditional Catholic philosophies, the imagination is, indeed, part of the soul. Much more than a side note if you consider Tolkien's thoughts on the imagination and subcreation.)

Tolkien believed that taking away someone's free will is intrinsically evil. He also believed that the end does not justify the means. The Doctor's being entirely true to Tolkien in turning down the power the bad guys are offering, even though it seems that he could use it for great good.

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The bad guys in the second episode are androids, which makes for a lot less moral conflict; the androids are doing what they've been programmed to do, and those who programmed them didn't realize how far they would take their orders. They still have to be stopped, of course, because they're trying to steal someone's brain - not a good thing. Maybe because of the lack of decision-making on the side of the bad guys, I don't feel a Tolkienian influence throughout this episode as I did in the previous one. But there's one moment when “What would the Doctor do?” meshes beautifully with Tolkien's way of looking at things.

The episode involves discreet time/space windows between a 51st-century spaceship (where the androids are from) and 18th-century France (where their intended brain-theft victim lives). The Doctor first meets the intended victim when she's a small girl, saves her from the android beneath her bed, and promises to protect her. Because the androids have made windows at specific times in the intended victim's life, the Doctor knows when she'll need help; and he can use those same windows to reach her and then go back to the 51st-century spaceship where his companions (and the tardis) are.

But for everyone's good those windows ultimately need to be closed. I'd have to see the episode again to remember exactly why this is true, and exactly how they were closed, but the moment of truth comes when the windows from the 18th century to the 51st have been shut. The climax, when the intended victim most needs the Doctor's protection, occurs at this point. The Doctor (on a white horse - nice touch) crashes through the remaining window from the 51st century to the 18th, leaving himself no way back to the tardis or his companions.

Is this irresponsible? He leaves his companions stranded on an abandoned ship, without the knowledge needed to use the tardis (that they worry particularly about this, rather than about the Doctor - and would evidently leave with the tardis if they could - I try to chalk up to the script clarifying things for the viewer rather than self-centeredness on the part of the companions). Doesn't he have a responsibility toward his companions? After all, he got them into this.

One point is that they'd been working with the Doctor long enough to know that such a liaison isn't “safe.” Although these two seem to have decided to accept danger for the sake of excitement more than altruism, they had made that choice.

But I think it's more important to look at it from the Doctor's point of view. He has a split second to decide what to do. For the Doctor, that means a split second to decide on the right thing to do. He's made a promise to protect the intended victim, and this is the moment she most needs that protection. He keeps his promise, with the side effect of not being able to control what happens to his companions. But, from his point of view, I don't think he's dooming them. Instead, what I think we have is a strong case of hope without assurance. He can't control what happens to them, but that doesn't mean that what happens to them isn't in the hands of something or someone else: fate, the universe, God…  even their own intelligence and daring. It's not unlike a lot of decisions that characters in LotR have to make; the first that comes to mind is Aragorn's decision to follow the orcs rather than Frodo and Sam after the breaking of the fellowship. That the Doctor has to make his decision instantly saves him from the agonizing that Aragorn goes through.  

What the Doctor does accept is that he's trapping himself. (There's some technical reason that I can't remember preventing him from using the tardis to hop back and forth between the two timelines; he has to use the now-closed windows.) The intended victim understands this. After all, she's been seeing him over a period of about 30 years and he hasn't aged a day. She notes his self-sacrifice in joining her on what she calls “the slow path,” and he acknowledges it. (Does the fact that the two have shared an extremely passionate kiss - as Dr. Who? kisses go - have anything to do with his acceptance? It was obvious that, as opposed to most such occasions, the Doctor wasn't completely passive.)

The ending is a bit of a deux et machina, but that's kind of beside the point. We know he's not going to be stuck forever in 18th century France - the series would be over. We just want to see how he gets back. And at the time he makes his decision he doesn't know there will be a way for him to return to the 51st century. That return also has to be a choice. We do get the sense that part of him wants to stay in the 18th - after all, there was that kiss and this is a woman who's his equal in enough ways to make her interesting. The supposition is again that it's the right thing to do. He does end up rescuing his companions. His final farewell to the woman, made at the very end of the program, brings his loneliness home full force - even more so because she's the only person who's ever really understood that loneliness. Have I ever mentioned that David Tennant is a great actor of understated emotion? I would have loved to have seen EJW in a bad-guy role opposite Doctor #10.

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I'm adding this third one later, but it's still David Tennant's Doctor. The Doctor's caught in a situation that the producer says (during the "Confidential" discussion) would be more frightening to him than facing an army of daleks. In a process that reminds me very much of Frodo being taken over by the Ring, an alien consciousness gradually takes over the Doctor's mind (and self?). The Doctor puts himself in the position where the takeover can begin because he's trying to help the people he's with. And the process is gradual enough that he has to watch it happen without being able to stop it, much as Frodo does. He's finally saved by one of the other people present throwing herself to certain death, taking the danger with her (sound familiar?). Watching an actor as good as David Tennant - and a character as good as the Doctor - going through this gradual takeover of mind and will gave me a bit more understanding of Frodo in the similar situation.


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Copyright 2009/2010 by Trudy G. Shaw

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