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Scott Larson

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The last temptation of Doctor Who

Wha…? Blimey, he’s not writing about that daft Doctor Who show again, is he?

Well, yes I am. And why not? If you’re not happy about it, please contact the customer service department and they will cheerfully issue you a refund in full. The fact is that these weeks at the end of June and the beginning of July constitute a creative and emotional pinnacle for us diehard Doctor fans. The fourth series on BBC is coming to its conclusion, and it promises to be a real lollapalooza. Every one of the Doctor’s companions (in his 21st century incarnation) will be on board, as well as the main characters from the two spinoffs and I don’t know who else will all be back for a climactic battle against (who else?) the evil, implacable Daleks—with nothing less at stake than pretty much all of creation itself. All of this buildup and then… the dreaded hiatus. Just the usual Christmas Day special episodes at the end of 2008 and 2009, with a few other one-off special episodes in between. It’s all a bit too much to take in and bear.

Naturally, at a time like this my thoughts turn to… Jimmy Stewart.

Really? Jimmy Stewart? That’s right. In a strange way, Jimmy Stewart was sort of a precursor to the Doctor. After all, a regular feature of the Doctor’s adventures, in addition to traveling up and down the spectrums of time and space, has been the odd detour into a parallel universe. And, one of the earliest examples I can think of a movie hero venturing into a parallel timeline is the aforementioned Mr. Stewart, in the classic 1946 film It’s a Wonderful Life. Now there may be still earlier examples, but frankly I am writing this in a house being battered by rain and wind in the wilds of southwest Ireland, with no decent internet connection, and I am not going to bother trying to research it. Besides, I can’t be bothered because I’m on a holiday (such as it is), and frankly I’m too lazy. Okay, I just went back and read what I wrote six and a half years ago, and it reminded me that the first instance of a parallel/alternative timeline in the movies was probably the first adaptation of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. That story is about a bitter old man who is shown what the future holds if he does not change his ways. In the end, he gets a chance to change that timeline—assuming you buy the supernatural angle and don’t dismiss the whole thing as a dream. In Capra’s film, by contrast, the hero is shown what the world would have been like if he had never been born. In other words, the alternate timeline diverges somewhere in the past, not in the present, as in A Christmas Carol.

As I think I have mentioned before, It’s a Wonderful Life was a great movie based on a brilliant concept that has essentially been borrowed, stolen and paid homage to ever since. (A somewhat recent example would be the 2003 Jim Carrey vehicle Bruce Almighty.) This what-if concept occasionally also shows up on television shows, and last weekend on BBC it showed up on Doctor Who. In the episode called “Turn Left,” the Doctor’s current companion, the dim but blossoming Donna Noble (played by TV sketch comedy star Catherine Tate) was ambushed by a gross, insect-like alien that spins an alternative universe around her—one in which she misses meeting the Doctor in the Christmas 2006 episode called “The Runaway Bride.” The upshot is that, but for her intervention in that episode, the Doctor would have been killed and not able to regenerate. We then see every wave of extraterrestrial invasion that he would otherwise have stopped succeed and further reduce our planet to one of devastation and misery. (The writers conveniently ignore all the threats in previous time periods the Doctor subsequently thwarted.) How does Donna escape this parallel timeline that she doesn’t even know is a parallel timeline? What do I look like? Some kind of spoiler freak?

If the It’s a Wonderful Life gambit has now been used once in the current edition of Doctor Who, there is another variation of the alternate timeline idea that has been used twice in the past two seasons. That would be the Last Temptation of Christ gambit. This refers to the Martin Scorsese movie, adapted from the novel by Nikos Kazantzakis, in which Jesus is seen undergoing the titular last temptation when Satan appears to send him into an alternate future timeline. (Or, as I wrote two years ago, it might just be a mere hallucination.) This scenario is the flip side of the Frank Capra movie in that it shows a happy alternative to the true reality, whereas Capra’s movie showed an unhappy alternative to the true reality. Basically, Satan was showing Jesus that he could have a happy, normal life with a wife and children if he would just forego dying on the cross. Now that doesn’t seem like much of a choice, but for all sorts of theological reasons, Jesus knew that he had to be sacrificed (willingly) and there was no way around it.

Well, something similar happened to the Doctor in the third season last year. (Just in case there was any doubt that the Doctor seems to getting more Christ-like as a literary figure all the time.) In a two-part adventure, he had to hide out from a family of aliens that could track him anywhere in time and space. So he converted himself into a human being with a false memory of a normal human life in an English boarding school in the year before World War I. Much to the dismay of his loyal companion, Martha Jones, who was smitten with him from the beginning, the self-amnesia-ized Doctor embarked on a romantic liaison with the school nurse. When the truth all comes out (naturally the aliens find him anyway), from the Doctor’s point of view his human life is the real one and the Tardis-hopping adventures are part of some unreal dream world. He has to make the rending decision to give up his life (essentially commit suicide) to save the world. (Overt theological symbolism, anyone?) But before he does, he and his lady friend experience a flash forward—not unlike Scorsese’s movie—in which they experience marriage, children, old age and even death. Just so he knows—like Jesus in the movie—exactly what he is giving up.

As if that wasn’t enough, they played the same gambit in the current season in another two-parter. This time it was Donna Noble, who didn’t exactly experience an alternative timeline but rather a computer simulation when she was sucked into a giant computer on a planet-sized library. The computer gave her a husband and two children, presumably the life she always wanted. In the end, she was rescued from this virtual reality by the Doctor and his apparent future companion Professor River Song—left wondering if her ideal husband was a real person, like her trapped in the computer, or merely part of the simulated world. Will she find him again? And is he involved with the significant destiny that seems to be waiting for her, at least according to all the foreshadowing we’ve been getting all season?

With so many loose ends to tie up in the two remaining episodes, how will they ever manage it all—and defeat the Daleks too? And when is the Doctor due for another regeneration (uh, resurrection)? Presumably not for a while, since the current player of the role, the magnificent David Tennant, is reportedly on board through the next two Christmas episodes. Still, there is also a report that David Morrissey will be on hand this Christmas as well, as “the other Doctor.” It all makes the mind boggle.

It will be sad to be without the Doctor for such long periods of time. But, as with many religious and quasi-religious figures, all we can do is to be the best people we can be and to wait patiently for his return.

-S.L., 26 June 2008

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