29 June 2013

The Doctor Diaries III.8 & 9: “Human Nature” and “The Family of Blood”

Stories About Stories

This two-episode story is one of the tightest, best-written, and best-acted I've seen so far. It's just packed with brilliant themes and lots of heartbreak. I could write about the love story, the christological themes, the historicist look at the first world war, or so many other topics. I could rave about how these two episodes are a showcase for Tennant's consummate acting skill. I could approach them psychoanalytically, through the Doctor's dreams.

But instead, I want to talk about Meta-Narrative and about The Causes of Creepiness.

OK, meta-narrative is not the right word for what I'm going to discuss. A meta-narrative is a big story that explains everything: science, religion, etc.

What I'm thinking of is more like a sub-narrative: The Journal of Impossible Things. This is the diary John Smith keeps of his dreams, which are dreams of the truth. There are many, many layers here: there is reality, which is his past as the Doctor. There are revelatory dreams, in which he dreams the truth but thinks it's fiction. There is the Journal itself, in which he writes truth as if it is fiction. The Journal is a beautiful artifact, and a beautiful plot device. With images and text, it takes reality and pushes it into a fantasy realm (from the Doctor's point of view), while simultaneously giving that disbelieved reality a new plausibility (to Joan Redfern's point of view).

Then there is the real-fiction of his life as John Smith, which is a real life on earth in a certain place, at a certain time, with real relationships with other people, but which is less real (in one sense) than his true identity as The Doctor and more real (in another sense) as a human existence. It is a real life, for a few months, in which he falls in love with a woman in as serious a manner as man has ever done. For her, this is all the reality: love and heartbreak.

Then there is Martha, again filling in for the viewer, watching him with all of her inside and outside knowledge: only she knows all the stories.
The second theme I want to pick up on is that of The Causes of Creepiness. The writers of Doctor Who do a brilliant job creating explanations for creepy things. What creeps you out for no reason? Spiral staircases? Gauzy window curtains moving in a evening breeze? Or maybe angel statues, mirrors, or scarecrows? Whatever it is, eventually an episode of Doctor Who will explain to you why those things are creepy—and will creep you out permanently while doing so.

25 June 2013

The Doctor Diaries III.7: “42”

What shape is your story?

I have written before about narrative structure. Narrative structure is the short of shape that a story takes: it begins with an exposition in which the characters, setting, and situation are laid out. Then the conflict is introduced, and tension starts to build. At some point, the tension is resolved at the “crisis,” and then the narrative eases back down to a conclusion. The simplest visual representation is Freytag's pyramid:
Another way to think about this is to reveal the screenplay's “Three-Act Structure”:
Now, this episode has essentially the same plot as “The Impossible Planet” and “The Satan Pit” but with a compressed narrative arc, so we can talk about what effect that has. The basic storyline breaks down like this:

Act I/Exposition: The story opens with a limited number of humans trapped on a space ship/space station in a near-fatal situation near a celestial body. In one, it's a black hole. In the other, it's the sun.

Act II/Rising Action: As the danger increases, the human die off one by one. The Doctor prepares to sacrifice himself to hold off evil, nearly dies, and comes through at the last minute. In Impossible Planet/Satan Pit I'd say the midpoint is when the Doctor jumps, and everyone thinks he's dead. In 42, it's when he's possessed by the sun creature.

Act III/Climax and Falling Action. Only the Doctor, his companion, and three people are left, one of whom is actually the enemy. In each, someone else beside the Doctor takes out that last enemy, at great emotional cost to herself, and “equilibrium is restored.”

So, the same story. But “42” takes place in one episode while the other story took up two. Doesn't that mean every element of the story receives half the time in “42”?

Nope. Basically what it means is that the tension part of “42” is disproportionately longer than it is in the the other story, with less time spent on Rising Action and Falling Action. Acts I and III are significantly shorter than Act II, in other words.

 I have not timed this. It is an instinctive response.

Do you think I'm right?

22 June 2013

The Doctor Diaries III.6: “The Lazarus Experiment”

The Power of Music

In my post about “The Shakespeare Code,” I wrote about the saving, magical power of words. Now this episode concludes with a victory based on the power of music.
This is a gorgeous concept: I hope that every one of you readers has had your heart wrenched, your soul uplifted, and your life changed by listening to live music, especially orchestral, operatic, chamber ensemble, piano, or organ music (I find those to be the most powerful). And if you have, perhaps you wondered what exactly was going on. Why should a particular combination of mechanical waves, setting up patterns of oscillating pressure in air (thanks, wikipedia), make me cry or make me feel like I am in heaven? Well, words do the same thing, and words are also sounds; i.e., mechanical waves setting up patterns of oscillating pressure in air. And any particular set of those mechanical waves, originating at someone else's mouth and ending at my ear, to be processed by my brain, can cause me to cry or laugh or want to die or think I'm in heaven.

 But words are different. Words carry meaning. We could have a delightful conversation about whether the meanings words convey are simply arbitrary social conventions, or whether they have an essential relationship with the sounds of the words themselves. But either way, there is something astonishing about how sound waves cause emotional reactions, even when they have no textual meaning.

Why should a Chopin prelude sound sad? It's not that the series of notes sound like certain sad words (in English, or Polish, or any language). Why should Beethoven's Third Symphony sound victorious? It is only because the rhythms and the instrumentation resemble traditional military music? Or is it more than that? Is all of this also only culturally constructed? A minor scale doesn't necessarily sound sad to someone who grew up listening to scales involving microtones.

I don't know the answers to those questions. But the point is, however music has its effect, and whatever kinds of music have particular effects in certain cultures: music is very powerful.

And in “The Lazarus Experiment,” it is powerful enough to kill.

 This is not an original idea, although used to great effect in this episode. I encountered deadly music previously in The Nine Tailors by Dorothy L. Sayers: it's my favorite of all her books (so far; Gaudy Night and Busman's Honeymoon are waiting for me at the library right now). But I can't say any more. Even that much is a bit of a spoiler. After you read The Nine Tailors, check out this amazing sock knitted in its honor.

Yet the music in “The Lazarus Experiment” doesn't only kill; it also saves.

By killing the monster (to whom he had already given chance after chance), the Doctor saves Martha, Letitia, and possibly the whole human race.

 Before I go, I do have one more point to make. When the Doctor plays the organ (so much fun!), he doesn't play a piece of music. He just plays random chords as he tries to find just the right combination of pitches that will destroy the monster. Later, though, Martha says that she didn't know he plays the organ. He says, “Well, you know, you hang around with Beethoven, you're bound to pick a few things up.” That's cute.

 But Beethoven isn't really known for organ music. Here is the rather short list of Beethoven's works for organ. Didn't the Doctor mean Bach?

20 June 2013

The Doctor Diaries III.4 & 5b: “Daleks in Manhattan” and “Evolution of the Daleks”

Professor Diggins' Dragons

I wrote yesterday that I used to get really annoyed every time the Daleks appeared again, until I realize that each time they are threatening different humans, so the Doctor has to intervene over and over again, to save different people.

This has, I believe, a metaphorical application:

The sci-fi enemies represent the recurring problems that humans face over and over and over again. Every human faces the same temptations, the same tragedies, the same weaknesses, the same challenges. We don't really learn by example. We make the same mistakes our parents and grandparents and ancient ancestors made. We suffer the same diseases.

So the Daleks, Cybermen, Carrionites, Sycorax, Weeping Angels, Family of Blood, and all the other enemies recur, season after season, just as we suffer in the same ways, generation after generation, day after day.

This is one way that someone who is not usually a sci-fi fan could perhaps come to enjoy Doctor Who. I mean, even I hate these stupid aliens and overdone monsters.

But they're metaphors. None of us will ever face a Dalek (well, we might dredge one up in a pond somewhere), but each enemy represents something awful that we actually do fight every day.

The Cybermen could represent our addictions to technology and our increasing willingness to allow the virtual world to take over our identities.

(I type this as I'm following the #BenedictCumberbatch hashtag on twitter and clicking on all the pictures).

The Daleks could represent our proclivity towards racism and genocide.

The Family of Blood could be an embodiment of ways in which we prioritize our own tribe, culture, and other in-group over other people's needs.

The Weeping Angels will get a post of their own!

Oh, and by the way, what's with the title of this post? Professor Diggins' Dragons
is a kids' book about just this theme -- dragons are metaphors for whatever challenges the kids need to overcome.

19 June 2013

The Doctor Diaries III.4 & 5a: “Daleks in Manhattan” and “Evolution of the Daleks”

The Doctor Is Not Jesus!

I used to get really annoyed every time the Daleks appeared again. First of all, they're very silly. Their ridiculous computer-generated voices grate on my ears. Their pepper-pot shape drives me crazy. Their arbitrary decisions about when to exterminate and when to stand there like idiots for the convenience of the plot pushed me beyond endurance.

But then I realized why it is important that the same enemies come back over and over again and why the Doctor has to defeat them time and time again. After each encounter, he believes he has eradicated them for good. Each time, they come back and threaten humanity again.

The reason this matters is that each time they are threatening different humans.

Each human needs to be saved, each time. So he saved the earth from Daleks in 2005; well, he needs to save the world from them again in 2007, or in 5100, or in 300 B.C., because the earth contains different people every time. Some have been born and others have died in the intervening time, and he has to save them all, over and over and over.

I see two matters of thematic importance as a result. I'll post this theme today and another one tomorrow.

First, this is a major difference between the Doctor and Jesus. I blogged last time about how the Doctor is a “Christ-figure” in the literary sense. But Jesus only gave Himself once. The Doctor has to give himself over and over and over.

Now, there are a lot of things I could say about that.

I could talk about how the Doctor doesn't really die; he's always saved at the last minute. There are a few times that he does die, though, and then something wibbly-wobbly has to happen to reset time the way it was supposed to be.

That could lead me to talk about Predestination: the Way Things Were Meant To Be. Think back to Series One, the episode “Father's Day.” Pete Tyler was “supposed” to die that day, and when he didn't, the entire universe began to fall apart and everyone else was destroyed. But who said he was supposed to die that day? Did God ordain it? Did it have something to do with linear time, like a story—since he died the “first time” through that time, he had to the “second time” through that time? (we'll come back to that later).

Or I could talk about resurrection and regeneration; is every kind of regeneration/rebirth/return in literature always a symbol of resurrection? Or is resurrection just our longing for regeneration turned into a wish-fulfillment doctrine?

Or I could get into the symbolic ways in which Jesus' sacrifice is remembered over and over again, such as in baptism and the Lord's Supper. In Roman Catholic Christianity, of course, the sacrifice is literal in each celebration of the Mass: the elements become Christ's body and blood, thus enacting His death and resurrection over again for each believer. So maybe in that sense the Doctor's repetitive sacrifice is still a very accurate spiritual symbol.

Or I could talk about another important part of the Dying-and-rising-god conversation. In most other religions that have a Dying-and-rising-god (besides Christianity, I mean), the god's life cycle is tied to the cycle of the seasons: he or she dies and rises every year, and the resurrection is connected to the regeneration of plants in the springtime. So another argument against Christianity is that it is just another permutation of these seasonal cycle myths: after all, Easter is celebrated in the springtime. The opposite argument is possible, too: that all the other seasonal cycle myths are wish-fulfillment and Christianity is the real thing that happened just once, historically.

Which brings me back around to where I started. Jesus died just once, in an efficacious, substitutionary atonement with eternal consequences. In this piece of fiction, even within the fictional world (unlike, say, Aslan, whose sacrifice occurred only once), the Doctor's sacrifices do not stick. He has to do it over and over and over again.

Of course, that's also just necessary to keep the show going. If he went back to the beginning of time and did something so huge that it destroyed the Daleks, Cybermen, Carrionites, Sycorax, and Weeping Angels all in one go, there wouldn't be any story.

Come back tomorrow to read about the other theme this brings to mind!

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.

17 June 2013

King Arthur was an Elf

The Fall of Arthur is AMAZING! It has rocked my world. I hope it rocks your world. It contains information that should make us re-evaluate all of Tolkien's works, plus some of Lewis' and Williams', as well.

But I won't give away the secret here. You have to read it. And then you have to read my review on Curator in a few weeks.

Meanwhile... Did you get to read my "illegal" article on Curator a few weeks ago? Well, here it is, a pre-review of The Fall of Arthur by J.R.R. Tolkien. In it, I made a bunch of predictions about the poem before reading it.

Now I get to rate myself as a prophet.

I'm writing a proper review for Curator, which will appear in due course. Meanwhile, how did I do? Am I oracular? Here are the predictions I made, and my evaluation of them now that I've read the book.

1. I said that The Fall of Arthur will be a thoroughly twentieth-century work. I got this one wrong. It is thoroughly imitative of two sources: the Norse/Old English poetry from which it takes its form, and the later Frenchified romances on King Arthur. 

2. I predicted that there would be echoes of the First World War in the battle scenes. I got this one wrong. There was only a sea battle, and it was quite Viking in its atmosphere.

3. I said there would be a feeling of hopelessness in the Battle of Camlann, counteracted by the individual heroism of ordinary people. Wrong on both counts; the fragment doesn't get as far as that battle, and there are no ordinary people; only big characters. There is a Frisian sea captain who does something heroic, but it's for the wrong reasons, and he goes to hell for it (!). 

4. I said that the little knight whose name has been forgotten will do deeds to rival those of Gawain, Lancelot and Arthur himself. Wrong. See #3 above. 

5. I thought that if The Fall of Arthur contains a description of what T.S. Eliot called “The Wasteland,” it would be seen through Tolkien’s radical environmental vision. Well, there is no such description. So, wrong

6. I said that there would be “Victorian” depictions of stylized women. Right, but Guinevere is a very strong, powerful, active, complex character, even though she has an elvish beauty. 

7. I talked about his concept of absolutism in language. Well, this one is hard to judge. I can't point to any specific moments that go either way.

8. I predicted that it would be a good poem, with a lively meter, vivid imagery and beautiful sounds, but not a great poem. Right. Excellent, masterful meter, but awkward inverted syntax, some amazing descriptions, and a surprisingly lively plot.

9. I said that this poem would show off Tolkien's mythopoeic genius. Right, right, right again. Just wait until you see how right! Whew. 

10. And finally, I said that Tolkien gave up this poem because wanted to refigure the mythic power of the Christian religion, to rewrite it in an entirely new universe of his own creation. Well, perhaps, but I think I have to count this one wrong -- because he found a way to do both! Or perhaps, although he found the way, it was not satisfactory in the end, since he didn't end up using this method in the poem itself, only in his notes. So I'm going to say I'm right on this one. 

That's still not a very good score: 4 out of 10?  
I fail as a prophet. 
I guess I'll stick to literary analysis. 

The Doctor Diaries III.2 “The Shakespeare Code"

Secret, Magical Words

Of course, this has to be my favorite episode. Even if there are others that tug my heartstrings more, stories that go deeper and further, events that lift me higher, I have to pick this episode as my personal favorite, since it was obviously written for English majors and English teachers. Oh, it is delightful.

There are many aspects of this episode I could talk about, since it is packed with literary treats. I'm going to pick out just one: the idea of magical words.

It is the magic of words that saves the world. Of course, though, the words are not magical. There is a quasi-scientific explanation for everything in Doctor Who, no matter how far-fetched. You know that sounds can actually do things here, in the real world. The right pitch can break glass. I heard a radio program once about scientists trying to develop a way of targeting cancer cells with the right musical pitch. So in “The Shakespeare Code,” the Carrionites use words “to channel energy.” The Doctor compares it to quantum physics: “Given the right string numbers, the right equation, you can split the atom. Carrionites use words instead.” So the words are not magical: they are merely the exact sequence of musical pitches and rhythmical beats to set up the proper energy patterns and cause things to happen in the universe: a rift to open for the Carrionites to come through, then the rift to suck all the Carrionites back through and close for good.

Now, the idea of using the power of well-ordered words to channel energy is ancient, in both magic and mysticism. Much magic relies on incantations: particular words chanted in a particular order to yield particular results. But there is another side to the concept of magical words that is practiced in mysticism and even survives in a diluted form in the most respectable churches. Many churches have a liturgy that they follow. What is a liturgy but a series of organized words? These words are said week after week, year after year, millennium after millennium. They are intend to have actual spiritual effects: to prompt the practitioner into repentance, humility, exaltation, and a sense of union with God.

In Mysticism, the practice is even more literal. I want to talk particularly about one mystical tradition: the Qabalah.

You will see this name spelled many different ways: Cabbalah, Kabalah, etc. Some scholars auger that the spelling indicates a specific meaning. I haven't gotten that far yet. But the Qabalah is a system of Jewish mysticism that (among other things) teaches meditation on the Name of God: on the letters of the name of God. The enlightened Qabalistic mystic is supposed to be able to achieve a higher state of consciousness by writing these letters over and over, reciting them, visualizing them, and so forth.

What is this but another form of the magic of words?

The idea of powerful, secret words runs through some of the deep-rooted traditions of English literature. It is important in the legends about King Arthur, which have had a profound influence on the English consciousness.

One early important Arthurian poet was named Robert de Boron. He wrote in French in the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries. He writes about the Holy Grail. In his version, Sir Perceval becomes the Keeper of the Grail, and Perceval is also given charge of secret words that are powerful and operative. This idea was passed down in many versions of the legends.

These ideas suddenly became really important again in England in the early 20th century, when various scientific, political, and religious factors led to an “occult revival” in which many people joined secret societies. So the idea of magical, mystical, powerful words influenced several writers who were in these groups: A.E. Waite, W.B. Yeats, Aleister Crowley, Algernon Blackwood, Arthur Machen, Evelyn Underhill, and Charles Williams. They all practiced various kinds of incantations and meditations with or on words that they believed were spiritually powerful.

And then more recently and more popularly, this idea of magical, secret words appared in the Harry Potter series. The children are taught particular words to say for each spell. While Rowling never meditates on the metaphysics of this magic, words are obviously essential to the working of magic.

Then in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, there is a secret, esoteric teaching handed down by word-of-mouth. This occult message promises that when the Elder Wand, Resurrection Stone, and Invisibility Cloak are “united,” they will “make the possessor master of Death” (Rowling Deathly Hallows 410), “which has usually been understood to mean that they will be invulnerable, even immortal” (Rowling, Tales of Beedle the Bard 96). The Deathly Hallows are very like the Grail Hallows of Arthurian legend, as Denise Roper explains in her fun book The Lord of the Hallows.

But Harry eventually rejects this secret teaching, choosing to ignore it in his determination to act out ultimate love via self-sacrifice.

Isn't that just like the Doctor? While he uses the magical words—or persuades Shakespeare to use them—he always choose plain old-fashioned self-sacrifice over some kind of magical pyrotechnics. And even here, when magical words are used, they are from Harry Potter!

So magical words traveled through King Arthur stories through occult poets into Harry Potter and then into Doctor Who (whether by direct descent or sub-conscious imagination doesn't matter here), but the final messages about love and sacrifice are the same.

I think that's beautiful. 

14 June 2013

The Doctor Diaries III.1b: Smith and Jones

Some Notes on Names and Narrators

Have you noticed that all of the Doctor's companions and hangers-on are very ordinary people with common names? Rose Tyler, Mickey Smith, Martha Jones, Sarah Jane Smith, Donna Noble.... I think there are a couple of reasons for this.

[Yes, Amelia Pond has a fairy-tale name, and she turns out to be pretty important—but that doesn't invalidate my main ideas here. Hold on.]

First, the point is that he is not picking out someone who is “special” in the world's eyes: not someone famous, or extra-talented, or noteworthy. He's not even really picking people out; he stumbles across someone's path, or she stumbles across his, and they have a connection, and so he invites her along.

The point with that scenario is that any ordinary person has the potential to do really amazing things. An uneducated, lower-class shop girl can save the world, over and over and over, or become a conduit for the Time Vortex, gaining power over life and death, out of the depths of her love and self-sacrifice. A hard-working, intelligent, but otherwise unremarkable medical student can reveal all the truly remarkable depths and complexities of her nature when paired with the Doctor and faced with peril and adventure.

So that's the first point: There are no ordinary humans. Every one can be amazing if given the chance. But that's the point within the narrative, taking the characters as people, inhabiting the world of the fiction.

There is another purpose for the ordinary names altogether when we look at Doctor Who from a literary point of view. This has to do with the narrator. Wait, you say, there is no narrator. There is (thankfully) no voiceover—except in a few odd episodes like “Love and Monsters”, but that's an exception with its own particular purpose. Television is not like written fiction.

When a story is written down, there has to be somebody telling the story. You remember those lessons in high school English class about the narrator: first or third person, limited or omniscient? A movie takes a totally different approach, by filming perspective. It could be filmed from just one character's perspective, but that is rare. I have written a bit about perspective here, in this post about The Hunger Games.

But there is another narrative matter I want to discuss now. I believe that the Doctor Who team used companions with ordinary names because they represent us. Each one is an EveryHuman. She stands in for us, observing the Doctor as we would observe him. This is very important. It is very important to have an outside, ordinary perspective on a Genius or otherwise extraordinary character, so that the reader/viewer will have a way in, a way of understanding the Genius and his relationship to “normal” people. In written fiction, this person often tells the story, so that the reader can identify with the narrator's responses to the Genius. It would be more difficult to identify with the Genius directly, so the writer often puts in an ordinary guy or girl so that we have a way in. Even when the main character is not a genius, but merely someone out of the ordinary in one way or another, we often need a mundane character to bring us in. Even when the narrator does not speak in first person, there is often an ordinary person at the heart of the action.
 - We read Sherlock Holmes through the eyes and words of John Watson. (watch this)
- Lord of the Rings is told mostly from a hobbit's perspective, not from a king's or a wizard's.
- The Great Gatsby is told by Gatsby's very ordinary (and very culpable) neighbor, Nick Carraway.
- Mr. Lockwood, an ordinary guy, narrates Wuthering Heights, about people who live at the peaks and troughs of extreme emotions.
- Frankenstein is a complex series of nested narratives in which the two geniuses, the scientist and the monster, get to speak, but the whole is mediated through the letters of a ship's captain to his sister. He is ambitious, but his decisions render him more human than Victor Frankenstein.
- Atticus Finch might be the superhero of To Kill A Mockingbird, but the story is told by a little girl.
- Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad is a story of traveling through ever-smaller circles to approach the supposed genius of Kurtz, narrated by the more down-to-earth Marlow.
- Captain Horatio Hornblower has Lieutenant Bush.
- Jeeves has Wooster.
- Lord Peter Whimsy has Bunter.
- Winston Smith in 1984 is a very ordinary guy in extraordinary circumstances, under the control of people with unthinkable power, and he responds as just about any of us would.
- Professor Pierre Aronnax narrates 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, about the crazy genius Captain Nemo.
- In The Chosen by Chaim Potok, Danny Saunders is the genius, and the novel is narrated by his barely-below genius friend Reuven Malter.
- Although Harry Potter is “special,” chosen, and powerful, the narrative focuses so much on his ordinary humanness that he is our stand-in for ourselves, then develops into what we want to become. - (feel free to shoot me for this one) Bella, a human, narrates Twilight: no vampire gets to tell the tale (although a werewolf does narrate a third of the final book).

OK, so that's a lot of examples. And of course there are counter-examples of novels whose third-person narrative focus is on the genius (such as The Agony and the Ecstasy, about Michelangelo) or whose genius is the first-person narrator (such as Chaim Potok's My Name is Asher Lev). And of course there are first-person memoirs by geniuses, such as Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!.

But you get the idea. I think that Sherlock Holmes is probably the best parallel to the Doctor: his is someone who is apparently human, but who has superhuman powers, accompanied by a faithful follower who stands in for the reader/viewer.

 You know, this is funny, but isn't the Bible like this in some ways? It's all about God, it's all about Jesus and His one-and-only true story, but it's told by and about all these shabby little humans making awful mistakes all the time. Even in a narrative about a slightly more admirable human like, say, Paul, it's written down and narrated by Luke, the ordinary guy who gives us a glimpse into Paul's great work.

So that's how it works with Rose, Martha, Donna, Amy, and the rest. They are Us. They allow us to watch the Doctor do his amazing stuff from both the inside (as someone close to him) and the outside (as someone not as brilliant as he). And I suspect that's one of the reasons for the mostly ordinary names. They are just little humans—and every little human is as important as the whole universe.

06 June 2013

Charles Williams blog is live!

My brand-new blog, "The Oddest Inkling," began its career yesterday! The first post is "An Introduction to Charles Williams". Please give it a read and leave your comments! Stay tuned in the next few weeks as more exciting announcements related to this project are unveiled.

01 June 2013

The Doctor Diaries III.1a

Smith and Jones

This episode, one of my favorites, is the perfect opener for Series Three. It is a far better first episode than those that opened the first two seasons (in my opinion). I think it strikes just the right tone. It is one of the more light-hearted episodes, and yet the Doctor faces an enemy as dangerous as any other. The plasmavore is all the more sinister because she takes the form of a little old lady—but more on uncanny human resemblances in a later post. Putting the dear, sweet blood-sucker aside for a moment, I love that the alien race that dominates this story, the Judoon, are among the better species we have encountered. I hate the idea that an entire species is worthless by its very nature, fit only to destroy and be destroyed, and this is often the concept given in Doctor Who. The Cybermen and the Dalek are, simply because of what they are, thoroughly evil. This, by the way, is one of the problems I have with Tolkien's world: orcs are fit to be wiped from the face of the earth like mosquitoes or flies, in spite of the fact that they are rational beings who and think and talk. They are portrayed in Lord of the Rings as beyond redemption. And here again Doctor Who rises to a new level: there are episodes in which the Doctor has to acknowledge that even his worst enemies, the Dalek, are capable of moral awareness and are fit to be saved rather than destroyed. All that to say, I like the Judoon. They are disciplined, moral, and just. Their justice is harsh, but they do nothing out of personal malice. They are orderly, objective ministers of the law.

The other reason I adore this episode is, of course, its christological climax. The Doctor is called upon to sacrifice himself over and over again throughout the course of the show, and he rushes to offer his life as readily in exchange for that of one person as for the entire planet earth. I'll blog more specifically about what I mean by “christology” and all of its implications some other time. For now, I just want to luxuriate in the beautiful sorrow of the crisis in “Smith and Jones”: the Doctor gives his last drop of blood to save half of humanity; Martha gives her last breath to save him. And what makes this mutual sacrifice apart from real ones is that, by so doing, they save each other. Neither ends up dying, but each is saved in the other.

This is very like an idea that is central to my academic work: the idea is “co-inherence,” and it is the core teaching of the poet whose works I study, Charles Williams. You might want to check out my other blog, The Oddest Inkling, which is dedicated to his work. He was a peculiar fellow who mixed Christianity with the occult and who gathered disciples around him to practice his particular version of sanctity.

Co-inherence is the idea that we are all members of one body, all part of one another, and all able to live in and for each other. Co-inherence teaches that Christ’s risen life is in each person who accepts Him; therefore, we can share in the divine interrelationship of the Trinity and live as members of one another.

In 1939, Charles Williams founded an “order” called the Companions of the Co-inherence and laid down rules for them to follow as they practiced co-inherence in action, also known as the Doctrine of Substitution or the Way of Exchange. These exchanges are based on the simple fact that everyone participates in physical exchange (I am dependent on the farmers who produce my food; those who go to war die in the place of those who stay home and for whom peace is purchased, etc). We can choose to see these personal, social, and political contacts as blessings and practice co-inherence in the strength of Christ’s resurrections. We can make compacts to bear one another’s burdens. We can voluntarily substitute ourselves for others and “carry their burdens” quite literally, even though those burdens may be spiritual, emotional, or medical. These principles can work among the living in any space and time, and also with the dead and the unborn.

The clearest explication of “The Doctrine of Substituted Love” occurs in Williams' novel Descent into Hell. One character is terrified of meeting her doppleganger. Someone else offers to carry her fear for her. This happens, and she is able to meet her double fearlessly. 
The ending of “Smith and Jones,” then, is an example of The Way of Exchange in fiction. The Doctor chooses to die in exchange for the lives of 3 billion people; Martha chooses to die in exchange for the Doctor. His exchange works: no one on earth is killed by the souped-up MRI. Her exchange works: the Doctor is revived by her last breath. And the blessing that results from Martha's sacrifice is that his resuscitation results in hers, so the circle is closed: the Doctor saves the people, Martha saves the Doctor, so then the Doctor saves Martha without sacrificing himself again.

And they all live happily ever after.....?