Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Jesus Who

Over the Easter just past we had two major events celebrated: the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and the broadcast of the first episode in series six of Doctor Who.

I will review the first episode, The Impossible Astronaut, a little later. However, here I will comment on an aspect of personhood shared by the Doctor and Jesus.

I’m increasingly becoming a fan of the refreshed version of British science fiction show Doctor Who, the latest series of which just started in the UK on BBC and in the USA on BBC America.

Here’s some brief background for the uninitiated: the Doctor is a centuries-old mega-genius from a race of ‘Time Lords’. He has a machine (the TARDIS) that’s bigger on the inside than on the outside, and allows him to travel through time and space. One reason he has lived so long (and the show has been able to run so long) is because he can “regenerate” after fatal harm. Therefore, the character of ‘The Doctor’ has been played by different people and has a different appearance and personality.

The series originally ran from 1963 through 1990, which I watched it as a youngun’ during the late 70s and early 80s, but lost interest in after the Peter Davison run ended in 1984. I watched again inconsistently as Russell T Davies revamped the series from 2005, and consistently since Steven Moffat took over as showrunner from 2010 with the current Doctor, played by Matt Smith.

In the renewed series two very good actors, Christopher Eccleston and David Tennant, did great work portraying the Doctor. A little less impressive was showrunner Russell Davies’ often overwrought “everything including the kitchen sink” approach to the stories. Cheesiness and melodrama come with the territory on Doctor Who, but I felt he needed to dial it down a little, although his reinvention and invigoration of the show overall must be applauded.

Steven Moffat wrote most of the best episodes under Davies’ reign, and I’ve preferred Moffat’s tenure in charge a little more overall. There are still episodes that start intriguingly then fall flat (such as Vampires of Venice), and episodes that end up just plain naff (Victory of the Daleks). But overall there are some nice twists on the Doctor Who themes and motifs and some interesting ideas. Also, it’s once again well cast.

I was thinking about the transition between the Doctors played by Eccleston, Tennant and Smith. In particular I considered that both Eccleston and Tennant’s characters went out in ways that implied that death, rather than just change, was upon them. The latter, in particular, did not go gentle into that good night.

Firstly, upon his impending regeneration, Eccleston said triumphantly to his companion Rose (played by Billy Piper): “before I go I just wanna tell you – you were fantastic...absolutely fantastic...and d'you know what? So was I!”

Then, right at the end of Davies’ run (with what I assume to be partly a meta-comment by Davies) David Tennant’s incarnation leaves with the last line “I don’t want to go”.

Earlier in the final story of the 11th Doctor, Tennant’s character is discussing regeneration with a friend, and opines that it isn’t really like being able to live on in a new body, but more a case of a new person with a memory transplant walking away to take over your life. In his finale, Davies tries to place some emphasis on the Doctor’s mortality – either actual or perceived by Tennant’s character – so as to create a more genuine sense of loss amongst the audience. Personally, I think he went a little too far, and by the end the Doctor’s exit was pathetic, rather than the dignified ‘death’/transition that we would want for such a great and longstanding incarnation of the character. (Contrast the celebratory and defiant exit of the previous Doctor with Tennant’s whimpering final moments.) Nevertheless, Davies certainly succeeded in creating a genuine, almost elegiac, sense of loss and passing.

It’s clear that in both cases these characters saw themselves as about to die. Given that they regenerate with different bodies and distinct personalities that’s understandable. On the other hand, each new Doctor always retains his memories and abilities; he knows who and where he is and what he’s doing.

Doctor Who has at times featured fairly heavy handed Christian symbolism, and has been commented on, not disapprovingly, by Christianity Today.

In one of the later ‘Christmas Specials’, The Last of the Time Lords, the Doctor is given a Christ-like role to the point of having his adoring sidekick, Martha Jones (Freeman Agyeman) travel the planet Proselytising his cause – namely, to save mankind. The analogy wasn’t quite as crude as with Superman Returns, but it was close.

Like the Doctor, Jesus underwent a regeneration of sorts when, according to many, he was resurrected. Also, as with the Doctor, followers of Jesus have had issues with his identity. The nature of the Christ has been the subject of much dispute, especially in early Christian theological thinking. How he could be both God and man; how could he be part of the Trinity and part of humanity? It’s the “heretical” sects that have had perhaps the most clear, coherent positions.

One position is the Docetic view held by groups such as the Gnostics, who reasoned that God would not so abase himself as to become a truly flesh and blood human, not even temporarily. The human Christ was merely a notion, an illusion. It was all holy smoke and mirrors.

On the other hand, there were those that concluded that there was this separate (human) being that was Christ. Therefore, he was less than fully divine - a lesser member of the Trinity in terms of holiness. The Arian groups, which included Germanic tribes such as the infamous Vandals, held this position from about the third century AD.

The orthodox position is basically: “Why can’t it be both”. It says Christ is actually human for the period he lives on earth before his death on the cross, and therefore capable of suffering and dying for our sins. However he is in a general, more timeless sense, an equal part of the Holy Trinity, and therefore genuinely divine and immortal. The fact that I now refer to it as “orthodox” indicates which position won out. It seems to me a kind of cop out option. Christ as a projected illusion vitiates the suffering that is important to the Christian mythos. So if Christ was genuinely a lesser form of the divine, closer to a mortal, the impact of his testament is, ironically, much more compelling. The orthodoxy tries to have its consecrated cake and eat it too.

So the most resonant comparison between Jesus and the Doctor is not resurrection, or being humanity’s saviour; it is this sly blurring of the nature of the person. Theologians and other followers of Christ ponder the reconciliation of an entity being both fully holy and divine, and yet somehow human. The Doctor has a kind of limited immortality, and through that the fanatics and the general audience get to experience his continued presence. But the show has always associated his diegetic change of appearance (and extra-diegetic change of actor) with a change in personality. If you change the personality, do you change the person? Should the overly attached viewer be shedding a tear at the death of David Tennant’s Doctor?

Davies succeeded in making the end of Tennant’s version of the Doctor about mortality, much more so than any ‘regeneration’ before. He had an Arian take on it, in the sense that he emphasised that the Doctor feared death, or at least appreciated its significance to him. The Doctor’s transition wasn’t just ‘change’, whereby he returned with a bow-tie instead of a pin-striped shirt, it was loss. Whether protecting us from Daleks or devils, it’s more affecting when our saviours have something to lose.


alex-ness said...


Stephen Parkes said...

Oops, I referred to Tennant as being the 11th Dr. He was the 10th, FTR.

Charles Reece said...

There's one of those thought experiments that asks do you have the same building if you take it apart brick by brick and rebuild it exactly down to the last brick. I tend to think not, but that causes problems for transportation within Star Trek, namely that we get a new Kirk every time he beams down to a planet. Don't know what that says about Jesus, but I'd probably go with the notion that each Doctor dies, regardless of his memory implant. If you had your memory duplicated within a neural network, would that really be you? I'd call it a simulation.

alex-ness said...

Good God that's brilliant.