Monday, May 17, 2010

The Last Temptation of Doctor Who

He's like fire and ice and rage. He's like the night, and the storm in the heart of the sun. He's ancient and forever. He burns at the center of time and he can see the turn of the universe and... he's wonderful.

Doctor Who is an unflappable optimist who often becomes giddy when he encounters new alien technology, an undiscovered species or a genuinely dangerous situation. He always has a clever quip or two when trying to save the world, his companions, random strangers or himself. At times, he bounces around almost like a caffeinated cartoon. All of this helps keep the demons away.

He’s a lonely man, and why shouldn’t he be? As the sole survivor of his home planet and the last of the Time Lords, he’s been haunted by loss and the fact that the pain will never go away due to his immortality. He regularly seeks out companions to travel through space and time on his ship, knowing full well that he will outlive them. He has fun, saves the day, but in the end, he’s all alone. All those comical adventures and entertaining partners are just a Band-Aid to his deep emotional wounds, and the more he travels, the more death he sees. Still, he keeps on moving forward despite the suffering. Somebody has to right all the wrongs throughout time, and it’s the Doctor that carries that burden. 
He’s emotionally withdrawn and he has to be, especially after seeing so much death and for living so long. He’s seen thousands of people die in wars, like the Time War that destroyed his planet or the London Blitz that shattered a city. He’s given pain as well as he’s received it by mercilessly executing some of the more evil aliens throughout the galaxies. What he really wants is love. Normally, he just pushes away anyone once they become too close. A couple times, love was snatched away from him. One time, love actually happens for the Doctor. It’s raw, heartbreaking, and in the end, impossible. He’s not human enough to make it last.
In a two-part episode in season three of the re-launched version of the show (there are technically about 30-something seasons dating back to the 60s), I couldn’t help but think of another tragic figure: Jesus. I know; it’s ridiculous to compare the star of a long-running sci-fi show to the main figure of a religion that has been around since antiquity, but hear me out. Martin Scorsese’s controversial The Last Temptation of Jesus Christ, adapted from a novel, was an intriguing humanization of the deity. The unintentional similarities between the episode “The Family of Blood” and the movie resonate strongly.

In The Last Temptation, Jesus is on the cross when an angel appears before him and tells him that God is happy with him, but that he is not the Messiah and is free to go live his life. He’s lowered from the cross and weds Mary Magdalene. He becomes a father and lives an entire life in peace. His former apostles gathered around his deathbed as Jerusalem is burned to the ground. It’s revealed that the angel who released him was Satan tempting him into a normal life in order to destroy the world.

With this revelation, Jesus knows he must die to save everything and everyone. He crawls through the city and makes it to the site of the crucifixion. He begs God to let him die the way he should, and then the film flashes back to the when he was first on the cross. A mere moment had passed, and Jesus completes the task that was given to him. He dies, in agony, and salvages the world.

Heavy stuff, for sure, and it all pertains to the good Doctor. I won’t get into the nitty-gritty of the nerdy plot, but the Doctor turns himself into a human through the aid of a contraption in order to hide himself from a villainous race seeking his immortality. With that device, he loses all his memories and gains new ones. Now he’s John Smith, a somewhat absent-minded teacher at a boarding school before the onset of World War I.

With all the pain and misery of his existence wiped from his mind, he falls in love with the head nurse. As the narrative progresses, the threat of the evil aliens grows and he’s eventually faced with a choice: regain all the Doctor’s memories in order to destroy the aliens, or remain plain John Smith and live a normal life despite the death toll that’s steadily rising.

Seeing the Doctor as John Smith is startling. The viewers are used to a confident, almost cocky, hero that always has the means to save the day. John Smith isn’t necessarily weak, but he’s just like anyone else. He doesn’t want his life to end and this stranger - the Doctor – to take over. He just wants to be with the woman he loves. The scene where he contemplates ending the existence of John Smith with his lover sitting beside him is moving, and then the tragedy begins to truly unfold. When they touch hands, they see the life they could have through the aid of a piece of technology. The Doctor becomes married. He strolls through the park with his wife and two kids. Finally, he’s old man thanking his wife before breathing his final breath. The temptation for him to remain at John Smith is great.

Seeing the Doctor grow old is an impossible thought for fans to have. It’s like seeing James Bond cry or witnessing Forrest Gump played by Arnold Schwarzenegger (which almost happened, believe it or not). Everything fans thought they knew was turned upside down in that fleeting moment. It was unforgettable to see the life that could have been, but reality soon sets in. John Smith willingly turns back into the Doctor, sacrificing the love and normalcy in order to rescue mankind. His tortured existence must continue on.

Still, there’s a piece of John Smith remaining in the Doctor, and he told the lover that in an attempt to get a piece of that old life back at the end of the episode. “Answer me this - just one question, that's all,” she said. “If the Doctor had never visited us, if he'd never chosen this place on a whim... would anybody here have died? 

He doesn’t say a word to this. You can go now,” she said. It's the last words she told him.

That’s the price the Doctor paid after putting himself back on the cross.

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