Planetary Profiling: Dr. Who Part II

Read the first and introductory post to this series here. Doctor Who airs in the U.S. on BBC America on Saturdays at 9PM/8C (and though it’s by no means necessary, those interested in watching the first four seasons can find them streaming on Netflix). You can also stream all of this season’s episodes for free here. — ed.

Gabriel McKee_____________

At the beginning of “The Time of Angels,” the first half of Doctor Who’s latest two-parter, the Doctor and Amy have found themselves in the 51st century, assisting a military mission to recover a crashed ship’s cargo. We meet a military commander who identifies himself as “Father Octavian—Bishop Second Class, 20 clerics at my command.” Clearly there is some interesting church history in the thirty centuries between that future and our present, but the episode doesn’t explore it, beyond a throwaway line to the effect that “it’s the 51st century—the church has moved on.”

Of course, Father Octavian isn’t what’s exciting about this episode. It’s the return of the Weeping Angels, perhaps the most original, and most frightening, villains this series has yet presented. Originally appearing in the third season’s “Blink,” the Angels look for all the world like stone sculptures of heavenly protectors. But they’re actually a sinister alien species that, due to a trick of quantum physics, can only move when no one is looking (even if, as the title of “Blink” indicates, they’re only unobserved for a moment). The Weeping Angels are pretty darned scary, and “Blink”—written, incidentally, by new show-runner Stephen Moffat—was widely acclaimed, winning two BAFTAs and a Hugo. Needless to say, their return was much anticipated.

There’s a bit of a parallel in this episode between the Angels and the religious-military hierarchy: both have hijacked religious terminology and/or imagery for decidedly non-spiritual purposes. That’s not to say that Father Octavian’s platoon are presented as villainous in the least, but I think there’s a reason that these bishops and clerics are pitted against the Angels instead of, say, the Daleks. 

Given how excited we all are to see the Weeping Angels again, it’s a bit surprising how thoroughly the second half of the two-parter, “Flesh and Stone,” shows them up, as their threat is upstaged by a series of ontological disruptions to rival Philip K. Dick. An unseen, unknowable force begins taking people away—erasing them from time so thoroughly that no one but the Doctor and Amy notices anything has changed. Whatever this terror is, it’s somehow connected to Amy Pond—it emerges from a crack identical to the one seen in the wall of her childhood bedroom in the first episode of the season. My guess is that whatever is causing this temporal-ontological mess is related to Amy changing something in time, somehow destabilizing the structure of reality by her presence—or absence—in some place or time. 

This echoes one of my favorite episodes from the first season—“Father’s Day,” in which then-companion Rose Tyler saves her father from the car accident that took his life when she was a baby. This change causes a bunch of giant, bat-like creatures to show up and start devouring the very fabric of the universe. Of course, the Doctor does change the past; his presence in history changes it—even if that change causes it to be how we already know it to be.

I’ve gotten a sense that there’s a semi-eternal aspect to Time Lords, that part of them exists outside of time, allowing them to make changes that other, temporal beings wouldn’t be allowed to make. But mere humans don’t have that ability. Thus, an answer to the question posed by James McGrath in our last post, why not change the past? might be: because bat-things will destroy the multiverse. Or, in this case, a crack in the fabric of reality will begin to erase the world around you until… what? Well, that’s what we’re going to find out…


James F. McGrath_____________

Some of the obvious religious references in the past few episodes of Doctor Who deserve mentioning. The two-part “The Time Of The Angels” and “Flesh and Stone” are particularly full of interesting religious imagery and ideas. We are given a depiction of a church in the far future that has “moved on,” with its bishops and clerics being soldiers. And at a key moment the Doctor asks for trust, for faith, from Amy, explaining that if he told her exactly what he was doing, or always told her the truth, it wouldn’t be faith/trust. There’s a lot there to discuss.

But let’s dig even deeper.

In the third, fourth and fifth episodes starring Matt Smith as the Doctor, we see him confronting old enemies: the Daleks and the Weeping Angels. At one point he describes the latter as among the most malevolent forms of life in the universe.

That’s problematic language. Can there be a whole species of sentient beings that are purely malevolent? Perhaps the Daleks fit that description—but only because they are the result of a concerted effort to genetically eliminate sentiment and weakness. And of course if the survival and propagation of our genes into the distant future is an end in and of itself, then the Daleks might be deemed highly successful. And so the question of what our long-term aims ought to be as a species is another ethical issue that Doctor Who raises.

When it comes to the Weeping Angels, it seems noteworthy that we have yet to encounter a benevolent one. Yet they seem for the most part to displace their victims in time and feast on the resulting energy. They “eat” to survive, as far as we can tell, and their “food” is not actually killed. Yet they are one of the most malevolent species in the universe? It seems that there are ethical issues here that require further investigation and discussion. If a species evolves to feed on other species, as we humans have, then is it unethical to choose the survival of our species at the expense of other species that represent our food supply? Is it perhaps simply good fortune that humans have so many food options that are both non-sentient and delicious?

Perhaps an even more important question is whether there can be sentient beings without the capacity for good as well as evil. That seems to be the presumption quite regularly on the show. Now, to be fair, Doctor Who does at least as well as most sci-fi shows at avoiding the “stereotyping of aliens.” But in the end, people and TV shows alike are judged not by how often we avoid stereotypes but how often we fall into them. And to the extent that we today show ourselves capable of thinking of other human beings as though they were demons or Daleks—as being so remorseless and cruel that the only viable option is to exterminate them—we have shown a lack of imagination that may not be particularly troubling on a fictional sci-fi show, but in real life can have dire consequences.

Thankfully, Doctor Who has occasionally explored the possibility of redemption even for the Daleks, the Master, and others of the Doctor’s archenemies. And that is something genuinely wonderful. If it were not for the Doctor’s capacity to look beneath the surface and see underlying goodness, he might not have saved humanity as often has he has.

And so, while at its least creative Doctor Who falls into some disappointingly typical modes of human storytelling, in its most creative moments it challenges us to see, in entities which might at first glance seem like creatures from a nightmare, sentient persons with the same capacity for good and evil as you or I have.

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