Monday, December 27, 2010

The Fellowship and the Lonely God

The Fellowship and the Lonely God

Do not laugh! But once upon a time (my crest has long since fallen) I had a mind to make a body of more or less connected legend, ranging from the large and cosmogonic to the level of romantic fairy-story--the larger founded on the lesser in contact with the earth, the lesser drawing splendour from the vast backcloths--which I could dedicate simply: to England; to my country.
~J.R.R. Tolkien

One of Tolkien’s goals in writing the Lord of the Rings was to create a new mythology for England. He arguably succeeded beyond his wildest dreams: one man drawing on the tapestry of past civilizations to create a myth so deeply rooted in its native land it seems millennia old. The tales of Middle-Earth are firmly bounded on the rich soil of Northern Europe and resplendent with the virtues of fellowship, humility and unity. The leadership of Aragorn, the struggles of Frodo, and the guidance of Gandalf are amazing examples for us, yet I believe they no longer represent the spirit of England. Instead, the BBC TV show “Doctor Who” serves as a new myth for the British Isles.
“Doctor Who” is the longest-running sci-fi television show ever, running from 1963 through the present, with a break from 1989 to 2005 (not including a TV movie.) The title character, known simply as “The Doctor,” is a Time Lord from Gallifrey, with two hearts and the ability to regenerate into a new body after death. This allows a relatively seamless transition between actors in the main role. The current incarnation (11th) of the Doctor is played by Matt Smith, the youngest actor to take on the role.

Several aspects of the show reflect modern Western culture, from the range of settings to moral values. The Doctor travels through space and time in his TARDIS—Time and Relative Dimension(s) In Space—which is disguised as a police box from the 1950s and is bigger on the inside. He journeys throughout the universe, from the beginning of time to the burning of the Earth to strange planets and satellites. If, as Tolkien says in his essay “On Fairy-Stories,' one of the essential components of fantasy is “survey(ing) the depths of space and time,” then Doctor Who has a strong fantasy flavor.
But there are also contrasts between Doctor Who and Lord of the Rings. While Tolkien emphasizes unity and fellowship in the face of danger, the Doctor is an incredibly lonely man. In the revived series, he repeatedly speaks of himself as the last of the Time Lords—only later do viewers learn what lead to the fall of Gallifrey. Even though the Doctor finds companions to travel with, they end up leaving, some in tragic ways.
Furthermore, while Tolkien views fear as a conquerable enemy, Doctor Who tends to emphasis fears as genuine threats. The show has a reputation of being watched from behind the couch, with children peeping out in fright at the monsters. While some of the classic series monsters suffer from dated special effects, the show in general (especially the Steven Moffat episodes) is full of nightmare fuel. From angel statues to shadows, it takes ordinary objects and infuses them with terror. Don’t blink. Don’t blink.
In the episode “The Hungry Earth,” the Doctor says “Monsters are scared of me.” While the line is meant to be reassuring, other episodes show the Doctor’s dark side. In “The Runaway Bride,” a character says to him, “You need somebody to stop you.” Another episode, “The Waters of Mars,” unleashes a truly terrifying side of the Doctor as he declares, “We're fighting Time itself! AND I'M GONNA WIN!” The season five finale drives the point home with a surprising twist of events.
Another area worth commenting on is the romantic angle. The classic show had the Doctor as a celibate hero without romantic entanglements, but three of four female companions in the new series had crushes on the Doctor (only one was reciprocated.) Unfortunately, the new series also has some homosexual relationships among minor characters, but nothing more is shown on-screen than a kiss. Parents might want to skip over some scenes with young children and discuss it with older ones; thankfully, such scenes tend to be only token nods.
But the overall theme of Doctor Who is the struggle between pacifism and fighting. Despite all the enemies the Doctor faces, he is incredibly reluctant to pick up a gun. His trademark ‘weapon’ is not a laser or a pistol, but a sonic screwdriver. And unlike Lord of the Rings, where only some enemies (Southrons and Easterlings) are shown mercy the Doctor’s tries to give everyone a chance, even in cases where it seems ridiculous. His plans tend to have three stages:
1. Talk
2. Sonic
3. Run (often skips to this one)
On the other hand, if the villain rejects the offer, retribution is swift and harsh. One of the clearest examples of this is in the two-part episode Human Nature/Family of Blood. Without spoiling the ending, I will quote a character to describe the Doctor’s wrath.
“He never raised his voice. That was the worst thing — the fury of the Time Lord. And then we discovered why — why this Doctor, who had fought with gods and demons, why he had run away from us and hidden... He was being kind.” (Family of Blood)

According to Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary, a myth is “a popular belief or tradition that has grown up around something or someone; especially : one embodying the ideals and institutions of a society or segment of society.”
The Doctor is a lonely man, one who travels the universe but has no place to call home. He is constantly battling monsters and the dark side of himself, facing things that crawled out of humanity’s worst nightmares and trying to balance respect for all life with the dangerous nature of his enemies.
Tolkien’s mythology exalted lowly heroes like Frodo who succeed with the aid of friends. But the Doctor, who feels alone and caught in a never-ending battle, is an embodiment of today’s society. He is a new mythology built around the values of our time.

1 comment:

  1. This is the best essay on Doctor Who I've read so far. (Granted, I haven't read many.) You explain it much better than I've ever been able to. I'll be showing it to some Ringer but non-Whovian friends.