Rebooting the Universe: Doctor Who part X, Season Finale

Read all the posts in this series hereDoctor 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) —ed.

James F. McGrath__________
The Big Bang, Take Two

For those who may not remember, the Doctor actually was involved in the original Big Bang. In the episode “Terminus” from the Peter Davison era, the space-and-time ship after which the episode was named had jettisoned fuel in an emergency and caused “Event One”—what we refer to as the Big Bang. The Doctor was also involved in the events that provided the spark to life on Earth. In the Tom Baker episode “City of Death” we discover that a crashed spaceship (the pilot of which the Doctor confronts in later eras in human history) caused life to begin to evolve on our planet.

In both those cases, however, the Doctor was merely on the fringes of the events in question.

In this episode, however, the Doctor attempts to repair space and time itself, and reboot the universe, as it were—with Big Bang Two. Would it be a spoiler if I mentioned whether he succeeds? Does anyone really doubt that the Doctor, somehow, will find a way?

We should not be surprised to find the Doctor involved in starting the universe and, when necessary, restarting it. The Face of Boe called the Doctor a “lonely god” and in “The Pandorica Opens” the Doctor’s future wife, River Song, used his school nickname “Theta Sigma” (ΘΣ) in her graffitied message to him. In New Testament manuscripts, Theta Sigma is a frequent abbreviation for the Greek word theos, meaning “God.”

Like many depictions of deities, the Doctor has always had a certain ambiguity about him. From the original pilot episode, he had an unusually high degree of arrogance and irritability for a TV hero.

But then again, heroes without limitations or flaws can become uninteresting. A truly all-powerful god or hero might be expected to simply make evil disappear, instantaneously, with no need for struggle. That doesn’t make for an interesting story.

Limiting a hero’s (or a villain’s) power in time travel scenarios can be particularly challenging for writers. When time travel is involved, one can be the cause of the universe and thus even of one’s own existence. Although the Doctor says at one point in the episode, “We all become stories in the end,” the time traveler is uniquely poised to not merely live on as a legend, but to actually appear all throughout history, almost as though actually eternal.

But there are some genuine challenges which confront the Doctor in this episode, and perhaps the greatest of these is not rebooting the universe, but managing to survive being wiped away from ever having existed in the universe at all.

What power could accomplish that? The answer given was already hinted at in previous episodes: memory. As long as something or someone is remembered, they aren’t really gone. And somehow Amy Pond proves capable even of remembering that which has been deleted from ever having existed—as she did with Rory. Apparently living next to a crack in the universe has made her special in this way, and her recollection will be the key.

As this story element played out, it was delightful to see the forethought that had been given to plot elements involving this season’s time-travelling storyline. Earlier this season some viewers already wondered about the Doctor’s departure and sudden reappearance in the episode “Flesh and Stone,” speaking to Amy when her eyes were closed and saying things that seemed not to be germane at that time. In the season’s finale, we learn that this was indeed the Doctor from the future, popping up in various places along the crack in the universe before disappearing. But Amy could hear him, and he left her with some clues, some memories. And that led to a very clever device, as the Doctor embedded himself and his TARDIS in Amy’s memory in connection with that famous bit of wedding lore. Because as Amy says at her wedding, the TARDIS is indeed “something old, something new, something borrowed, and something blue.”

That memory could bring a time lord and his TARDIS back from non-existence may seem like a stretch—although not more so than many other plot devices on Doctor Who. But the true power of memory certainly does deserve close attention. It is not merely that “when we forget our history, we are doomed to repeat it,” as the old adage goes. Memory, recent work in psychology has shown, creates the past from stored information, rather than retrieving it as though it were recorded on a DVD or in a photograph. If we try to remember some person, place, or event, it does not appear in our mind as a complete snapshot, nor a filmstrip that begins when we hit the “play” button on our memory. From fragments of data, not always placed in our memory at the same time, we put our past together. And it is precisely because of this that what we recall cannot always be relied on for accuracy.

This is relevant to religion in numerous ways. One of the subjects I study is the historical figure of Jesus. I have encountered with surprising frequency the fringe viewpoint which claims that Jesus is unlikely to have really existed, having been concocted from earlier myths and stories (although why anyone would try to pass off a figure based on dying and rising gods as a crucified Jewish Messiah is never adequately explained by those with such views). On the other hand, there are many who assume that Jesus really was in history as he would later be “remembered” by the church not only in its Gospels but in its creeds and its ongoing experience of worship.

And the challenge to the historian, as James Dunn in particular has recently emphasized, is to deal with the fact that we do not have access to Jesus “as he really was” almost 2,000 years ago, but only to “Jesus remembered”—and that not the direct memory of eyewitnesses but the collective memory of the Christian church which preserved but also transformed the memory of Jesus as it transmitted it. Memory is indeed powerful. I don’t know that it can do what the Doctor Who season finale suggests, but it certainly can turn a nation from one of freedom to one of repression, or vice versa. It can turn fact into fiction or fiction into fact in the collective memory of a nation. Likewise we can choose to “remember” the meaning of sacred texts as this or that, and conveniently forget those texts that do not say things we want to hear.

And so however much a time traveler such as the Doctor may seem like a deity at times, the Bible itself recognizes that even deities depend on being remembered, and remembered in a certain way.

Perhaps this is a particularly fitting theme for the end of a season, as we will seek to keep the memory of our enjoyment of and reflection upon this season alive in the coming months, and eagerly await the story’s continuation in the not-too-distant future.


Gabriel Mckee__________
The Big Bang

Well, that was the cliffhanger to beat ’em all, wasn’t it? “The Pandorica Opens” concluded with the Doctor imprisoned, Amy dead, and every star in the universe simultaneously exploding. Then the curtain drops, and looks like it will never rise again. What could possibly be behind it?

As it turns out, quite a lot can go on after the demise of the universe, and the first half of “The Big Bang” brings out quite a bit of ingenuity in bringing us back not merely from the brink, but from six feet over it. Doctor Who thrives on giving us the impossible—the Doctor always pulls a Gallifreyan rabbit out of his hat just at the right moment. It’s a kind of storytelling that could drive its viewers nuts, if not handled carefully—ultimately, every story relies on a deus ex machina (or, picking up from James’ suggestions about the Doctor’s limited divinity, a machina ex deo). But that’s precisely where much of the show’s charm and drive and sense of sheer wonder come from—the ingenuity of the Doctor, and the ingenuity of his writers in making us believe the impossible.

So what happens in “The Big Bang”? Well, yes, the universe has ended, except for Earth, which is kept going due to some residual energy from the Pandorica (and the replacement of its sun with something wonderfully impossible). The stars are gone—and there’s a great throwaway line about “star cults” that believe in invisible lights in the sky, led by a shady figure named Richard Dawkins—but the Earth abides. And, nearly two thousand years after the destruction of the universe and the imprisonment of the Doctor, a young girl named Amy Pond prays to Santa Claus for help closing the strange crack in her wall. (I loved that scene when it opened “The Eleventh Hour” way back at the beginning of the season, and I still love it now that it’s been reimagined for the finale.) Then there’s some ingenious impossibilities and the Doctor is back, and some more ingenious impossibilities and he re-creates the universe afresh, and it’s all grand and cosmic and just a bit deliberately over your head.

The most striking thing to me about this episode is that, with all the grand cosmic goings-on, all the talk about infinite time-loops and rebooting universes, and all of the ingenious impossibilities in play, the thing impresses me the most in this story is perhaps the smallest and most insignificant: the love story between Amy and her fiancé Rory. Rory died back in “Cold Blood,” shot by the Silurians and then sucked through a crack in reality that made it so that he had never existed at all. We watched as Amy’s memories of him slipped away until finally she didn’t even remember what she was upset about—shouldn’t they be trying to get away from the lizard-people and back to the TARDIS?

Rory returned in “The Pandorica Opens,” an event that the Doctor was at a loss to explain—he actually described it as a miracle, which is saying something on a show where the impossible occurs every week. Rory found himself stationed with the Roman legion at Stonehenge, and had full memories of two lives—one that of a bumbling 21st-century medical student, and the other that of a first-century Roman centurion. By the end of that episode we got an idea of what had happened. This wasn’t really Rory, but an Auton—a plastic alien android programmed with Rory’s memories. He was also programmed, it turned out, to awaken his alien side and kill Amy when the Pandorica finally opened, which he did, despite his conscious, human mind’s protests.

At the opening of “The Big Bang,” Rory, now revealed as a machine, is cradling Amy’s lifeless form, his human grief having overtaken his android heartlessness. When the Doctor finds him, the Time Lord downplays that grief in light of the complete destruction of the universe: “Do you know how many lives now never happened, all the people who never lived?” the Doctor asks. “Your girlfriend isn’t more important than the whole universe.” Whereupon android-Rory rises up and clocks the Doctor in the jaw, shouting “She is to me!” and thereby passing the Time Lord’s test: in the Doctor’s eyes, he has now proven that he’s the real Rory Williams. For the Doctor, there is no qualitative difference between the real Rory and an android programmed to believe he’s Rory, provided that android displays appropriate, human emotions.

With this scene, Doctor Who finds itself firmly in the territory of science fiction author and theologian Philip K. Dick, who wrote dozens of stories on this very theme: appropriate emotion, and more importantly love and caritas, as the defining characteristic of the authentic human being. For Dick, evil is this android coldness, a complete lack of empathy. His stories are full of human beings who are de facto androids because they are unable to feel for their fellow organisms. Empathy and love, not biology, designate humanity—these can be expressed by machines as well as organic lifeforms. (Witness the kindly robotic taxicab in Now Wait for Last Year, or the wise Abraham Lincoln robot in We Can Build You.) Dick drew much of his understanding of love from 1 Corinthians, a text on which he drew throughout his career, though he perhaps best summed it up in an interview in the late ’70s: “St. Paul said, ‘If I have not love than I am jack shit… or something like that.”

Doctor Who’s writers seem to share Dick’s understanding of the blurry line between the android and the human. This is not the first time the show has featured a machine that proves itself the equal of human beings—in this season ‘s “Victory of the Daleks,” for instance, we had Bracewell, the Dalek-made bomb who thought he was a man. The Doctor was able to convince Bracewell that he was more human than machine, hence averting his detonation. To me, that scene felt like a commentary on Philip K. Dick’s early story “Impostor,” a story about an alien bomb dressed up as an very convincing android, who explodes when he learns his true nature. In the face of this kind of mechanical determinism, Doctor Who loudly proclaims that machines, even those designed only to kill, can will themselves into humanity with the right amount of caritas.

Indeed, Doctor Who’s androids may even be better able to love than we biological humans, as demonstrated by the superhuman lengths to which Rory’s android body allows him to carry his love. The Doctor deposits Amy in the Pandorica, which has the ability to restore her to life—but it’s going to take nearly two millennia to do it. Rather than hop through time with the Doctor, Rory insists on staying behind to stand watch over her. Amy’s devotion to the Doctor lasted a decade and a half or so, earning her the occasional sobriquet of “the girl who waited”—now Rory, after standing watch over his fiancée for 1,894 years, is “the boy who waited.” By the episode’s end, Rory is back to his biological self, but it seems he still carries the memories of those two thousand years. That longevity may be superhuman, but the emotion it represents is human to the core—or, rather, a kind of superhumanity that we are actually capable of achieving.

All of Doctor Who’s season finales have involved ever-increasing crises and disasters. And all of these averted apocalypses have pulled me in, from the massive Dalek fleet of the first season to Davros’ theft of the earth in the fourth. With the actual destruction and recreation of the universe, this season may well have the grandest scale yet—but it says something about this season that, for me at least, the apocalypse pales in comparison to the human, and android, drama.