“The Runaway Bride” and The Ultimate Things
What makes a work of fiction terribly powerful? What makes it memorable? What makes it emotionally wrenching? One factor is often how it deals with The Ultimate Things: birth, death, and the end of the world. I've written a bit about The End of the World in fiction previously.
According to Christian theology, there are either Four Last Things: Death, Judgment, Heaven, and Hell, or Seven Last Things: the second coming of Christ, the defeat of antichrist, the binding of Satan, the millennial kingdom, the release of Satan, the last judgment (a.k.a. the end of the world), and the revelation of the new heaven and the new earth. These are often presented archetypally in fiction, especially the defeat of antichrist: the protagonist and antagonist are often presented as being equal-but-opposite to each other, necessary to one another's continued purpose and/or existence. This is presented most clearly in fiction of the comic book, superhero, and epic kinds. See, for instance, the (SPOILERS!) ending of Unbreakableor Sherlock and Moriarty's last conversation. Since the “good guy” and the “bad guy” are presented as complimentary opposites, or foils for one another, this is typologically resonant with the theological concept of Christ defeating Antichrist.
Another factor in making a work of fiction terrifically powerful is how it pushes its characters to the extremes of human action and emotion, which might be considered another set of Ultimate Things: murder, suicide, star-crossed love affairs, betrayal, loss of a child, loss of the beloved, salvation, and damnation.
The characters in Doctor Who encounter one of the Ultimate Things in nearly every episode. That's as much part of the genre as the fights with silly aliens or the Doctor's obsession with picking up pretty young companions.
In “The Runaway Bride,” the Doctor takes Donna to witness the beginning of the Earth. It turns out that the particularly overdone villain in this episode (a giant red spider who apparently can't walk and just stands in place listening to all her children being murdered) was there at the creation of earth—in fact, she caused earth's beginnings by using her spaceship as the first rock in the center of a cluster, thus creating a gravity field that began drawing in all the other rocks and space debris around it. All this rubble eventually coalesced into the planet we know and love.
Anyway, the point is that Donna gets to witness the birth of the Planet Earth. This is obviously quite a ultimate Ultimate Thing. And it has on her exactly the effect the Doctor planned; Donna is singularly gifted at missing the Big Picture. She missed the invasion of the Sycorax because she had a hangover. She was unaware of World War Three because she was scuba diving off the coast of Spain. So the Doctor decides she needs a little perspective in her life. And what better way to infuse a bit of Big-Picture Perspective than to shove a little human right into the middle of one of the Ultimate Things? And which Ultimate Thing could be better than one that no human has ever seen before, which is beyond human ability to observe? It's like watching one's own birth—only it's more like watching everyone's birth, at once.
And it works. Donna says, “That puts the wedding into perspective.” Indeed it does. It puts most everything into perspective. That what The Ultimate Things does, and I believe that is one reason that fiction of the epic, fantasy, and comic book types are so popular, and always will be—at least until we experience the Ultimate Things themselves directly, without fictional mediation. /