If you really come down to any large story that interests people or can hold their attention for a considerable time, the story is practically always a human story, it’s practically always about one thing isn’t it: death! The inevitability of death…
There’s a quotation from Simone de Beauvoir that I read in the paper the other day which seems to me to put it in a nutshell. I think I’ll read it to you.
“There is no such thing as a natural death. Nothing that happens to man is ever natural, since his presence calls the whole world into question. All men must die, but for every man his death is an accident, and even if he knows of it and consents to it, it is an unjustifiable violation.”
Now you may agree with those words or not, but those are the key spring of The Lord of the Rings.
—J.R.R. Tolkien, from the BBC documentary Tolkien in Oxford
One of the paradoxical insights that J.R.R. Tolkien explored in his work is the idea of death as gift. Death is depicted in The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion as woven through with sadness and grief yet also carrying with it a bittersweet sense of that which is to come in the hereafter. Those beings in Middle Earth who are immortal do not face death, yes, but they are also cursed with seeing the world pass away before their eyes. And the mortals who dare seek immortality are inevitably corrupted and enslaved by their own desires. Immortality is not something to be sought, and mortality is something which must be embraced, however reluctantly.
In this last season of Doctor Who, some of these same notions are there in the story arc. Clara, the Doctor, and a young girl named Ashildr all have to struggle with mortality. And the result is one of the most satisfying season-long stories that the show has ever accomplished.
Consider yourself warned about spoilers if you haven’t watched the latest season yet.
Since the beginning of the show in the 1960s, Doctor Who has from time to time acknowledged the sadness of the Doctor’s essentially immortal life. He is drawn to helping human beings, but also faces time and again the fact that his human companions will pass away. As in Tolkien, those mortals who attempt to grasp the curse of immortality are doomed to a bad end. The Tenth Doctor says in the 2007 episode The Lazarus Experiment, speaking to a scientist obsessed with granting himself immortality, “Facing death is part of being human; you can’t change that… I’m old enough to know that a longer life isn’t always a better one. In the end, you just get tired; tired of the struggle, tired of losing everyone that matters to you, tired of watching everything you love turn to dust.”
In our current Doctor, the Twelfth, played by Peter Capaldi, that weariness with loss has turned to anger. The Doctor has decided that he needs to save those around him, and that saving them means saving their lives—at any cost, and without consideration of what that person may want. Early in the season he saves a young Viking girl named Ashildr by granting her immortality.
As he and his companion Clara travel through time, they keep encountering Ashildr. Immortal yet with a finite human memory, she no longer remembers her origins. In order to have a record of her long life, she keeps journals. Yet she also rips out the pages with memories too sad to bear. As her life extends centuries, she becomes colder and less feeling to those who surround her.
Clara, on the other hand, is becoming reckless. Having journeyed so long with the Doctor, she is beginning to act in ways that are dangerous for a mortal human. Eventually during one of their meetings with Ashildr (now simply calling herself “Me” since all other names are forgotten in the mists of time), Clara does something noble but foolhardy, bringing certain death upon herself. The Doctor is furious, but Clara extracts a promise from him before she dies: he will have no revenge for her death, he will make no one suffer for what happened to her.
The Doctor is sent into a Gallifreyan “confession dial”, a sort of prison, with the purpose of extracting a confession from him. His fellow Time Lords on Gallifrey are convinced he is withholding information about a creature which could spell the end of the universe. That’s largely a MacGuffin. What happens to the Doctor in the confession dial is purgatorial. Trapped for a billion years, he painfully works his way through a maze-like castle to a wall harder than diamond, and punches his way through it with his bare hands. After each punch, he is mortally wounded and drags himself back to the start to regenerate for the next try.
This painful ordeal could have become a sort of expiation for his sins of rage and disregard for the people who have helped him. But when he finally escapes, it becomes clear—he has not truly learned his lesson. First hinting at a humbled Doctor, we learn that he has emerged prison as full of wrath as when he entered. But now his rage has become cold and focused. Using his status as war hero, he tricks his fellow Time Lords into rescuing Clara from her death.
Upon her rescue Clara realizes with mounting dread what is happening. The Doctor is allowing his anger at loss to lead him into darkness. In rescuing her, he is breaking his promise to her as she faced death. He is willing to go to extreme lengths and willing to use others to get his way, to ensure that he doesn’t have to face loss again. He has ceased to see Clara as a person, but as a thing he must save; not for her sake, but his. He’s become trapped within his own desires. And so she finds a way to help him move forward and avoid the trap of the corrupt immortal.
There are some small missteps here. The writers soften the blow a bit too much, leaving Clara alive for an indefinite period as she travels back to the fixed point in time to face her death. And Ashildr, who appears again, is too easily rescued from her own indifference to humanity. But the Doctor is the one who must pay a price, and he does: his memory of Clara is wiped and he is left on the side of a road, far from his TARDIS and not knowing how he got there.
As mentioned in an earlier piece I wrote on Doctor Who here, the world of the Doctor is one firmly based in a Christian understanding of morality. It doesn’t function without it. The Doctor’s experience of loss can lead to great empathy, as in the two episodes involving Zygons this season, where he eloquently pleads for an end to war. But as Tolkien shows in his work, an outright rejection of loss and death leads, not outward to empathy and a sense of communion with others, but inward to rage, selfishness, and corruption. It’s this inward turn that is a stronger temptation than ever today: people rejecting the idea of death in any way except upon their own terms; glossing over loss rather than fully expressing grief; discomfort with having to be with or visit those who are suffering and dying.
Does the Doctor learn his lesson? The Christmas special shows that he has. Of a lighter tone than the note the season ended upon, it nevertheless continues with the theme of mortality. This time the one he will lose is his glamorous wife, River Song. She hasn’t met him yet in this incarnation, and he knows something she doesn’t: that the next time she sees him it will be her last. And yet, he has grown to accept this, and the parting shot of the episode is a lovely, bittersweet look at a man who is finally ready to let go of those he loves, even if it hurts.
Image: Peter Capaldi in the Doctor Who episode Heaven Sent. Image copyright BBC.