18 June 2013

The Doctor Diaries III.3 “Gridlock”

New-new-new-new-new-new-new-new-new-new-new-new-new-new-new Old Story

As you know by now, I am “reading” Doctor Who through two sets of lenses: English-teacher glasses, and Christian glasses. I'm looking at them as I look at carefully-crafted works of literature, searching for literature devices, structure, cultural significance, mythical resonance, and theological implications. That's how my mind works. Sci-fi is a perfect venue for communicating the deeper truths about humanity, because it can use the wildest physical metaphors imaginable, not being restricted by a particular set of historical events or a narrow segment of current science. Sci-fi also taps into the most profound traditions of fantasy and mythology, which means it uses the collective human imagination's most enduring archetypes to communicate emotionally and spiritually.

And “Gridlock” employs what I believe is the most profound archetype of all: the Christ-figure. The entirety of Doctor Who is arguably “about” how the Doctor is a symbol of Christ, so I know I will come back to this idea again and again. I would like to deepen, clarify, and enrich my thoughts on this point, so I would love it if somebody wanted to debate with me about this. In the meanwhile, “Gridlock” makes its christological references very obvious, so it's a good place to begin delving into this idea more deeply.

Let's go through a few of the background ideas first.

There are only a few plots in the world—only a handful of narrative shapes that stories can take.

Here is a list of “Master Plots,” and here are the Seven Basic Plots. I'll talk about a few that came into my mind before reading those lists.

There's the Cinderella plot, in which someone goes from rags-to-riches either literally or figuratively. I think that Hobbit-like plots, in which a small person achieves great things, is a variation on this theme. I think that the making-of-a-hero story (Batman Begins, Man of Steel, etc.) is another such variation.

There's the Rake's progress story, the slow downward trajectory of a bad person—or even an ordinary person—getting gradually worse.

There's the Tragic Hero's demise, usually in a kind of recognition-and-reversal arrangement, on the classical model of Oedipus.

There's the basic Marriage Plot, moving characters towards pairing off, often involving mistaken identity, miscommunication, and disguises before the resolution.

They can be combined, such as the common union of the Cinderella plot with the Marriage Plot.

There are a few other patterns. Can you name some?

And there is the ubiquitous Creation→ Fall→ Redemption story, which is also the Birth→ Death→Resurrection story. It could be argued that this is the oldest, most wide-spread, and most powerful plot arc. It might be the most common. I don't know whether it occurs more frequently than the others, or in more permutations. But I do know that when combined with a strong, admirable main character, especially when that main character chooses sacrifice, it is one of the most moving.

Now, I'm a Christian. And Christianity is a narrative religion. We base our faith on a Story. On a double-layered story, actually: it's Creation → Fall → Redemption and Birth → Death → Resurrection. It's historical, divine, and personal. It's linear and cyclical, universal and individual.

The ubiquity of the Creation→Fall→Redemption/ Birth→Death→Resurrection narrative could present a problem to Christian belief, especially because it occurs in so very many other religions, including ones that appear to have developed before or independently of Christianity. In other words, if this is such a common human story, what makes the Christian one any more likely to be true?

Or let me approach that question another way. How can the Christian story and all these other stories be so similar, if there were no obvious cultural or literary imitations from one to another?

There are lots of possible answers.
1. Somebody came up with a Birth→Death→Resurrection story way back in the beginning of human history, and it got passed around by word-of-mouth from culture to culture, so all the others are just copying that one.
2. There is something in the human imagination, perhaps something like Jung's “collective unconscious,” that makes us all love the same stories, regardless of our culture, education, reading, or anything—so we all come up with the Birth→Death→Resurrection story, independently.
3. The early Christians and the writers of the Gospels were copying one or more of the older stories.
4. Jesus' Birth→Death→Resurrection really happened, and it's just a coincidence that this pattern resembles so many earlier stories and stories from other cultures.
5. God planned all along that Jesus' life would follow that pattern, so He planted the Birth→Death→Resurrection story into the human imagination, intending for lots and lots of poets to tell the story all over the world before Jesus came and acted it out for real, so that then people would be primed and ready to accept it.
6. There is something so inevitable about the Birth→Death→Resurrection pattern that the universe just has to follow it. That is the way things are, on the personal level, in history, and on the divine scale. Even if Jesus' life had not happened yet, it would eventually have to happen just that way, because Birth→Death→Resurrection is the only way things can possibly unfold.

So there are some possible answers. Can you suggest some others?

Numbers 1, 2, and 3 are the most commonly believed in American culture just now, I would say.

#5 is C.S. Lewis'.

#6 is Charles Williams'.

I suggest that #2 is Doctor Who's.

Now, let's finally talk about “Gridlock.” In every episode, the Doctor does something self-sacrificial to save someone else, frequently to save everyone else. He is willing to die, over and over and over, that others may live. Obviously that's based on the Christ-pattern, whichever of those interpretations you accept. Usually the Doctor's selfless love goes un-interpreted. But in “Gridlock,” the association becomes as clear as it can be without a character yelling out, “He's like Jesus!”

It's made clear by the music. As everyone's driving along, year after year, stuck on the motorway, they get a musical interlude on the radio, and they all stop to listen to hymns. Specifically, they listen to “The Old Rugged Cross,” whose lyrics are just about a clear a statement of the Gospel as you will find. When the song first started playing, I cringed, thinking that of course this was going to be parody, mockery. I was certain the screenwriters would be making fun of the characters for their archaic, meaningless faith. While that potential was there, however, Martha's and the Doctor's reactions led to a much different reading.

They take the hymn seriously. Martha starts to cry. She even sings along. 

And then later, Martha made the statement that created an explicit analogy between Jesus and the Doctor. She shouted to the residents of New New York: “You have your hymns and your fiath. I have the Doctor!” In other words, they have the same thing (literarily speaking).

I hope to continue digging into this idea as we proceed, and to point out some of the important differences between the Doctor and Jesus in my next post. Please stay tuned.


Anonymous said...

I am a bit disappointed that you didn't include the classic, "Dreams of Charles Williams, then rain, then the perfume of skunk" plot. It is less formulaic than Twilight!

Ann Ahnemann said...

Great post. I will look up this book!

fred putnam said...

Dear Sorina,

V. well said. And thanks for the links to "the" master plots; somewhere Leland Ryken claims that there are twelve "basic" plots into which all literature fits.

I've found CSL's explanation of this most convincing, but perhaps that is because I too am a Christian, and so think of humanity as united in being bearers of imago Dei.

Thanks again--I look forward to the next!


Iambic Admonit said...

Well, be fair: We didn't discover that was one of the Master Plots until after I had written and scheduled this post! :)

(For other readers who wonder what the heck we're talking about -- follow @IambicAdmonit, @BrentonDana, and @DoctorHurd).

domandkat said...

Wow, Sorina, how do you find the time!

This was a fascinating post - thanks for all the insights...

A few comments.
1 - This episode has always stuck out for me because of the "Old Rugged Cross" hymn, and as you say the sincere way it is treated. Check out the different reactions of Martha and the Doctor, though! Really emphasizes that the Doctor isn't human. It's like this shared faith phenomenon is a thing he can't participate in....

2 – I have always had this paradigm for the Christian “cycle” – creation, fall, redemption, renewal
So, in my mind, we live in the “redemption” part of the cycle – waiting for the renewal (the new heavens and the new earth)

3 – I think your point no. 5 is the closest to what I believe is going on! One thing that has always fascinated me is that the Christian story, with birth, death and resurrection has resonated with all cultures BUT, with more people becoming followers of Christ in the 20th century than any other preceeding it, it’s like many have recognized the basic pattern but also seen its definitive resolution in the coming of Christ. I mean for people from China, Korea, Nicaragua, Brazil, Nigeria etc.etc. A vast array of very different cultures….

Nice work!


Iambic Admonit said...

Well said, Dominic! Thanks very much for these thoughts. I like that you think #5 is operative in this episode. Do you think that's intentional on the part of the writer (Russell T. Davies), or do think it's providence working behind the scenes?

Ed said...

The idea of birth -> death -> resurrection comes from looking at nature. new life in spring leads to growth and thriving in summer then decline in fall and death (or seeming death) in winter, only to be reborn again in spring. This idea is as old as humanity's ability to look at the natural world.

Ed said...

The idea of birth -> death -> resurrection comes from looking at nature. new life in spring leads to growth and thriving in summer then decline in fall and death (or seeming death) in winter, only to be reborn again in spring. This idea is as old as humanity's ability to look at the natural world.