05 July 2013

The Doctor Diaries III.11, 12, & 13

 This three-episode story is almost too beautiful, and too sad, to write about. I love how each season works its way towards a multi-episode climax, as if the writers and actors are saving up their energy and their ingenuity to make sure they end well. Each ending-story is kind of a summary of all the themes that have preceded in that season, as well as the emotional high point of the season

Similarly, this three-episode story summarizes all the themes I've been blogging about in this series, and raises the theological and emotional stakes of all those experiences

The Shape of the Story

I wrote about how all stories follow a narrative arc, and that the size of each part of that arc changes with the length of the story (number of pages or minutes). Each of these three episodes has its own shape, and then the three-episode story has a larger shape of its own. “Utopia” and “The Sound of Drums” each follows only an upward trajectory: those each end on a “cliff-hanger,” a crisis, without a following resolution. This means that the overall story goes up and up and up, with three peaks, three moments of crisis, and only one resolution. There are mini-crises, too, when the character or the audience think a disaster is impending, or when a disaster actually happens. So the three-episode story form is an excellent shape to use for ramping up tension. Within the story, it corresponds to just how awful things are: the very family Martha loves has betrayed her, then been captured and endangered in turn; the one person who promised to take care of the human race has betrayed them; and the one person who could be a real friend and companion to the Doctor has betrayed him. Each horror is big enough that it deserves, and receives, its own narrative high point. 

But then the length of the three episodes allows for a good resolution, too. All that tension needs to be diffused, and it is, in the glorious, magical, Peter-Pan-style ending. 

I Am You

I wrote about the tradition in comic books, superhero stories, and epics, for the antagonist and protagonist to be paired in an equal-but-opposite relationship:
 the bad guy is a foil for the good guy. Sometimes this is expressed in the chemistry between the two, which gives the feeling that if they weren't enemies, they'd be best friends. Sometimes each is delighted to find a worthy enemy. Sometimes their hatred runs deeper than any fellow-feeling and each is the exact polar opposite of the other. Some versions of this paring may be found in:
Batman vs. the Joker
Luke Skywalker vs. Darth Vader/Anakin Skywalker

David Dunn vs. Mr. Glass in Unbreakable

Indiana Jones vs. Rene Belloq
Kirk/Spock vs. Khan
Harry Potter vs. Voldemort/Tom Riddle
Eragon vs. Murtagh in the Inheritance Cycle
Cockatrice vs. Chauntecleer in The Book Of The Dun Cow
Picard vs. Shinzon in Star Trek Nemesis
Gandalf vs. Saruman (or more generally, the Wise vs. Sauron, Morgoth, and Ungoliant)
Ransom vs. Weston in Perelandra
Sherlock vs. Moriarty

This theme is very strongly developed in the “Last of the Time Lords” story, because the Doctor has finally found an equal. The Master is just like him: a Time Lord from Gallifry, a time-and-space traveler who can regenerate, a brilliant scientist and engineer who can fly the TARDIS, someone who shares his past and his memories and experiences: someone who should be his best friend. If they joined together, they could multiple exponentially the good that the Doctor does alone.

And there is the final temptation scene that almost always happens in these kinds of stories: “Turn to the Dark Side, Luke!” – but it is in reverse. The Doctor begs the Master to regenerate, to join him, to turn to the side of Good and join him. He won't, and his loss is as heartbreaking as the loss of a family member.

This seems to be a biblical principle: there is no criminal so bad that I do not resemble him. And there is no criminal so lost that I should wish for his destruction rather than his redemption. 
The Doctor is Jesus
On that note, I have written about literary christology throughout Doctor Who. I don't think I need to say much here; it's so obvious, and so well developed, in this story. Two quotes stand out for me in relation to this theme:

I didn't come here to kill him; I came here to save him
You know what happens now....You wouldn't listen... Because you know what I'm going to say....I forgive you.

I don't think any commentary is required! 

It's The Story that Saves

There's another biblical parallel going on in “The Sound of Drums” and “The Last of the Time Lords.” Martha leaves, and the viewer is horrified: Where is she going? What is she doing? How can she leave the Doctor and her family for a year? When she returns, she claims to have been seeking out the components for the one gun that will kill the Master. When I first heard that, I was kind of horrified, kind of skeptical. The Doctor wouldn't ask her to do that, would he?

And of course, he didn't. So what was she doing?

She was telling a story. Just telling his story:
I travelled across the world. From the ruins of New York, to the fusion mills of China, right across the radiation pits of Europe. And everywhere I went I saw people just like you, living as slaves! But if Martha Jones became a legend then that's wrong, because my name isn't important. There's someone else. The man who sent me out there, the man who told me to walk the Earth. And his name is The Doctor. He has saved your lives so many times and you never even knew he was there. He never stops. He never stays. He never asks to be thanked. But I've seen him, I know him... I love him... And I know what he can do.
What a wonderful way for that season to end.

Now, further up and further in!

04 July 2013

The Doctor Diaries III.10c:

“Blink” and you'll miss it

As if I haven't written enough about “Blink,” here's one final go. It's such a good episode, it deserves all this attention, I think. I want to touch on one more topic.

You know the saying “Blink and you'll miss it”? Well, as the writers of Doctor Who so often do, they took the concept behind this phrase and literalized it into plot and characters.

In the story, if you blink while looking at a Weeping Angel, you will be taken out of your proper timeline and put into another: wrenched from your life, your loved ones, your possessions, your ambitions, and your work. In Billy's case, his life was put back just so far that he could then see, after opening his eyes from the blink, what he had missed. He was 40 years away, and could glimpse the life he should have had.

In our lives, doesn't think happen? We “blink” and find we've missed something huge.

We've stopped paying attention, and children have grown up and we've missed their childhoods.

We've looked away, and found a marriage or a friendship has died from lack of care.

We've gotten busy, blinked, and suddenly discovered we're too old to have kids, or to go back to school, or to run a marathon, or to learn how to dance, or to climb a mountain.

We blink, and we're on our deathbed, never having repented, though we meant to, we meant to, we meant to change and live a good life and love God and others.

But we blinked. 

03 July 2013

The Doctor Diaries III.10b: “Blink”

The Trouble with Time-Stories

C.S. Lewis has ruined Doctor Who for me. Well, not really, obviously. But Lewis made one simple statement about time travel once that has spoiled ever other time-travel story I've encountered ever since. So I'm going to share that with you, then talk about a couple of time-travel stories and their problems.

The Dark Tower and the Problem of Bodies

Even if you are a super C.S. Lewis fan, you may not have read The Dark Tower. It is a fragment, just the first few chapters of a projected novel. [There is an interesting controversy about this novel]. I do recommend reading it; I love it and am distressed that CSL didn't finish it. If he had, it would have been a powerful part of his extended Ransom cycle, along with Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, That Hideous Strength, and The Screwtape Letters. In fact, if Tolkien had finished The Fall of Arthur, all of CSL's Ransom books and everything Tolkien every wrote and all of Charles Williams' Arthurian poetry could have been mapped on to one another in a massive multi-layered totalizing mythology. But that's a totally different topic!

Anyway, The Dark Tower is a creepy story about a scientist who has invented a "chronoscope" with which he can watch some other time period. He doesn't know what time period it he is watching, whether past or future, and as the story progresses, the characters watching this time unfold start to suspect it's more like a parallel time, or the same time in a parallel universe, or perhaps even a glimpse into Hell. The action heats up when two characters are apparently exchanged between Othertime and our time, with a wild chase ensuing. It breaks off in the middle of a sentence, just as things are getting exciting. The best bit, from a literary-philosophical-science [fiction] point of view is this discussion (which I was delighted to find already transcribed here):
“Of course,” said Orfieu, “the sort of timetravelling you read about in books -- time-travelling in the body -- is absolutely impossible.” ...
“Absolutely impossible?” said Ransom. “Why?”
“I bet you see,” said Orfieu, glancing towards MacPhee.
“Go on, go on,” said the Scot with the air of one refusing to interrupt children at their play. We all echoed him.
“Well,: said Orfieu, “time-travelling clearly means going into the future or the past. Now where will the particles that compose your body be five hundred years hence? They'll be all over the place -- some in the earth, some in plants and animals, and some in the bodies of your descendents, if you have any. Thus, to go to the year 3000 AD means going to a time at which your body doesn't exist; and that means according to one hypothesis, becoming nothing, and, according to the other, becoming a disembodied spirit.”
“But half a moment,” said I, rather foolishly, “you don't need to find a body waiting for you in the year 3000. You would take your present body with you.”
“But don't you see that's just what you can't do?” said Orfieu. “All the matter which makes up your body now will be being used for different purposes in 3000.”
I still gaped.
“Look here,” he said. “You will grant me that the same piece of matter can't be in two different places at the same time. Very well. Now, suppose that the particles which at present make up the tip of your nose by the year 3000 form part of a chair. If you could travel to the year 3000 and, as you suggest, take your present body with you, that would mean that at some moment in 3000 the very same particles would have to be both in your nose and in the chair -- which is absurd.”
And that has ruined it for me. Right there. With his usual clean cuts, CSL has sliced open the heart of time-travel fiction and revealed its emptiness. Really, I can't see any way out of that difficulty. Can you?

There are, of course, many other problems with time travel.

The Blue Yonder and The Problem of Infinite Recurrence 

 One problem is the simple fact that if you went back in time and changed something, well then, it was changed in the past, so it would always have been that way. There would be nothing for you to change.

 Nearly any time-travel movie or show would work as an example. I'm going to use The Blue Yonder, one I remember vividly from childhood. In this film, a little boy grows up knowing that his grandfather had died while attempting to make it across the Atlantic in a solo flight. Then the boy finds a time machine, goes back in time, and changes the past so his grandfather makes it.

Here's the difficulty. If the boy had done that, then since it was in the past, his grandfather would always already have made it, and the boy wouldn't know any differently—so then he wouldn't go back into the past to make that change, which means it wouldn't have been made, and he would have to go back, and we've got ourselves stuck in a strange loop.

Another big problem has to do with the way in which time-travel stories are told.

Harry Potter and The Trouble with Narrative

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is the perfect example of this problem. Here's how it goes.

It is important to understand that there are two passes in the narrative: two trips, as it were, through the same period of time, the same three hours one evening. (Watch this great split-screen presentation):

Narrative #1. Harry, Ron, and Hermione go to Hagrid's hut to console him over the upcoming execution of Buckbeak the hippogriff. Events unfold all the way until the moment Harry and Sirius are about to have their souls sucked out by dementors, when Harry sees a young man across the lake. This person sends out a stag patronus, which scatters the dementors and saves Harry.

Narrative #2. This is the second pass. Keep in mind that this is the same three hours as described in #1 above. It is another narrative—another story told to the reader/viewer, but it is the same set of minutes that the characters are passing through in linear fashion, 4:00, 4:01, 4:02, etc. Harry and Hermione go back in time, conveniently acquiring a second set of bodies in complete defiance of C.S. Lewis' principle described above. But they travel a different path physically, though it is the same path in time. Events unfold again, the same events, just seen from a different perspective, until Harry and Sirius are about to have their souls sucked out by dementors. This time, Harry is on the other side of the lake, waiting for the young man he thinks was his father. At the last minute (at the same minute as in the sequence before), he realizes he saw himself, so he sends out the stag patronus.

Now, here's the problem with the unfolding of the same narrative twice, or two narratives in one time period. In order for that to work—for Harry to mistake himself for his father—he had to have traveled through story #1 FIRST, then through story #2 (the same way in which the reader/viewer encountered those stories)—but it's time travel, so the two stories happened at the same time. There was no first story and second story—that's only a convention of story-telling, not a chronological reality. Harry could just as well have gone through the second story first, but really he went through both at the same time, so he would have known the figure with the stag patronus was himself, not his father, because, well, because it was himself and he was doing those actions at the same time.

I was of Two Minds

There is, of course, another enormous problem there with both the narrative and the bodies: what about the mind? If you somehow magically got an extra body to run around in the past with, watching your other self, what about your consciousness?

In Harry Potter, the reader is led to assume that time-travel creates two consciousnesses, one for each body (the “past” body that is going through its timeline naturally, and the “present” body that is going through its past timeline by unnatural means). But then these two consciousnesses are unaware of one another. Even supposing, for the sake of the fantasy, that time travel did create two bodies (and thus two consciousnesses), why does that then mean that the two consciousnesses would be unaware of one another? Why would they not be in communication? And why would their memories be different? The “past” body contains a consciousness with a memory up to its current moment on its natural timeline, while the “present” body that has traveled back contains a memory up to the moment that it left its natural timeline. Why wouldn't traveling back in time erase the memories back to that previous point? Or why wouldn't traveling into the future dump “future memories” into the consciousness of the traveling body? Or why wouldn't traveling either direction give unlived memories to the non-traveling body?

Well, again, simply because of narrative. Simply so that the story works, so that the story can be told.

“Blink” and the Causeless Circle

Now, “Blink” is one of the better time-travel stories I've come across, and one of the best episodes in all of Doctor Who from that point of view. But there are some problems.

First, the Angels chucked Billy back in 1969 so that they could consume the life-energy he would have had if he had kept living out his years naturally. So, there's just random extra life-energy waiting for him in 1969? That doesn't make sense.

And there's another problem that's actually a beautiful one: it's really quite a lovely philosophical conundrum rather than a flaw in the story. Let's see if I can express it—this is a tough one. Here goes.

Sally reads warnings that the Doctor left for her on the wall. He traveled back in time from the future to leave those warnings. He knew she would be there at that time and place because he had the advantage of the future, so he could “look back” and warn her. OK, so far so good. Same thing with the letter from her friend Kathy.

But then there's the whole bit with the dvds and the transcript. I wonder if I can do this, talk through it – it's quite difficult! Here goes.
- Billy got kicked back into 1969.
- He sat down with the Doctor and recorded the Doctor reading that transcript.
- Sally watched the dvd and had a conversation with the Doctor.
- Larry transcribed the conversation.
- Sally met the Doctor and gave him the transcript in 2007.
- The Doctor got chucked back to 1969 where he met Billy and recorded the conversation.

Did I get that right?

OK, so you see how neatly that loop avoids the problem created in The Blue Yonder. It's not a strange loop, because Sally didn't change anything. Nobody changed anything. Instead, they acted out a series of events that would have gone otherwise if they hadn't had information that relied on time travel for its transmission. Very good, Moffat!

The problem of bodies is averted: each person's one body is taken from a time period and put into another. There aren't two bodies. (Of course there are in other episodes, in which the Doctor meets himself, or Rose or Amy meets her younger self). Sally stays in her time period, and Kathy's and Billy's bodies move from one era to another without leaving a body behind. (Of course, that doesn't answer the question of where they got the molecules to make up a body in that period, though). Decent job, Moffat.

They don't have two minds, then, either: as a matter of fact, the way the story works depends upon the limited knowledge of a single, time-bound consciousness for Sally, and a single, time-moveable consciousness for the Doctor. Nice work, Moffat.

So then, what's the problem? Well, it's that the events in “Blink” constitute a nice chain of cause-and-effect, but that the final effect is the cause of the first cause

 Aristotle would not approve. Or would he?

Aristotle wrote about how every effect must have a cause, and that this is one way to go about pondering God's existence. In this kind of reasoning, God would be the ultimate Cause of all things: He would be the one who got everything going. He started the first effect, which caused the next effect, and so on. He is the Unmoved Mover who got everything else moving.

In “Blink,” there is no Unmoved Mover. The last mover moves the first mover in a circle. It is not an endless circle, however: it went around once. And that's where I have a problem. Wouldn't it either have to go around infinitely, happening over and over again, or else have an outside force breaking in at some point along the circle to get it rolling?

So you see what I meant when I said this is a lovely philosophical conundrum rather than a flaw in the story. It's more a question about how things—time, events, causation—work, rather than an action plot that uses time travel as a cheap device. Brilliant work, Moffat.

02 July 2013

The Doctor Diaries III.10a: “Blink”

The Best Episode?

“Blink” is the favorite episode of many connoisseurs. It is really a perfect episode: perhaps the quintessential single piece of Doctor Who. If you had to pick just one episode to watch, ever, or a first episode as an introduction for a new viewer, this might be the one.
Its narrative perspective is great as an introduction to the Doctor, because [nearly] the whole episode is from the point of view of someone who knows nothing about him, and who is justifiably confused by the strange events in which she is involved. Sally Sparrow is a sweet, loveable, beautiful person, too (played by the charming and talented Carey Mulligan, more recently of The Great Gatsby fame): someone whose narrative position we are happy to inhabit.

The dramatis personae is stocked with delightful characters: Billy Shipton, Larry Nightingale, and Kathy Nightingale are all tons of fun, just a little bit cooler than people you know. Again, they provide a way into the story: they are like us, or like what we want to be, or like our friends, or like how we imagine our friends to be. This takes us into the plot so that we get wrapped up into it.

Its story-arc is ideal: It is contained within one 45-minute episode, but it has a long, slow, carefully-developed exposition. For a very long time, it doesn't seem to have anything to do with the Doctor. This connects with the narrative position, as both Sally and the viewer gradually get to know about powerful, mysterious, dangerous forces at work in time and space, and about the one Person who can control them. But he cannot: he is trapped, and needs the help of ordinary little humans to set him free again. That is the conflict: can Sally help the Doctor escape from his time-trap without being destroyed in the process? {wow, that sounds like a cheesy back-of-the-box blurb. Sorry}.

And the tension ratchets up higher and higher, with a delicate handling of fear and creepiness not often matched in Doctor Who, which frequently relies on simple race-against-the-clock and race-against-death matches with superbly unsubtle monsters and disasters. This one takes a more sophisticated approach, with a slow, patient introduction to one of the worst enemies ever: the Weeping Angels.

Now, I had the misfortune of watching “The Time of Angels” and “Flesh and Stone” first, in my crazy backwards introduction to Doctor Who (remember I watched series 5, 2, 1, 3 in that order). I LOVE those two episodes. I think they are amazing. I do not mean to disparage them at all, as the writing and acting of those two Angel-episodes are superb. But since those angels are even more dangerous than these—those kill you, these chuck you back in time somewhere so they can consume your life-energy—and since Amy's terrifying encounter with them is drawn out and amped up, I found the Weeping Angels in “Blink” much less scary than I would have otherwise. Because, really, their terror is far greater, because so much more subtle and psychologically realistic. Amy meets them on another planet, in another time period, as just one more horrific enemy that wants to kill the Doctor in a long chain of horrific enemies who want to kill the Doctor. Sally meets them in her own time period, during her ordinary linear life, in a very creepy old abandoned house. Whereas Amy's encounter is (from her point of view) clearly science fiction she is caught up in, Sally's is a nightmare come to life.

Do you see what an enormous difference that is? Meeting terror in a foreign situation is pretty much expected; expected as a genre convention, and as part of life. We expect to meet monsters in a far-away jungle or on a far-away planet. But meeting something ordinary—a garden statue—in your ordinary life and having it turn out to be a monster? That is much, much worse.

Then, finally, there is the plot: the time-story. It may be the best and most convoluted time-story Moffat ever wrote. If you've seen the episode, you know it, so there's no sense my summarizing it: if you haven't, I won't spoil it here. But tomorrow's post will be about time-stories, using this one as a point of discussion, so I will spoil it there. So go and watch “Blink,” then come back tomorrow!