Doctor Who: Sense of Time

December 9, 2014:

Any exposition on the ethos of Doctor Who has the potential for further exploration of what is quite simply one of the most iconic television shows of all time. That is in part because of the richness of the elements of the mythos such as the TARDIS and the archetypal villains and monsters; and also in part due to the coherency of the narrative structures and thematic contents that drive the show. Ultimately, what makes it so lovable is the way it is so alien to us and yet allows us to identify with countless aspects, none more so than the pathos of the Doctor himself and his companions as well.

When one is so far removed from the human race and then plunged into the rest of the cosmos exploring the strangest of lands and even stranger creatures, the overwhelming message that one receives is the sense of what it means to be human. The world described in this story is built on science, logic and reason and yet superstition and magic abound. Clara accepts that there are mystical forces because of which an entire planet gets covered by a forest overnight. The Doctor believes that there is a scientific explanation for it. And we as viewers, are asked to cede to both. By describing the limits of imposing a clean line of divide between science and mysticism, one is forced to confront the two warring sides in us. Thus this world is one where ritual and reason are basic tenets, anthropologically speaking. The Doctor lives in this world, subscribes to a rigid orthodoxy of rationalism by accepting only the logic part and abhors the superstitions of humans by constantly deriding them. The companions on the other hand are characters who have accepted and combined the rational and the irrational into one worldview.

We, humans, are used to divorcing the within from the without.  The Doctor and the companions represent these aforementioned two warring sides within us. The eternal internal conflict we struggle with. By believing in one and rejecting the other, we are attempting to recreate the world in our own image. When the world itself does not conform to this, the endeavour is doomed to fail. The Master is their way of showing this. When an embodiment of chaos tries to impose an order on the world, the result is never going to be a happy one. As an aside, that is why it an interesting result. Not to mention, watching Simm torment Tennant is just pure fun !
However, there is hope for redemption because we have a sense of time. Being human means having this remarkable characteristic; alongside so much selfishness and cruelty in specific instances, there is freedom from envy which the present displays towards the future. There is a certain innocence to idiocy in that one refuses to consider the larger ramifications of immediate actions. By choosing to let the universe explode just so that Smith could restart it and “save” everyone, shows the complete disregard to that present’s future in favour of the new world that is essentially the same.

Our display of utter forgetfulness towards the past is indeed a sad loss. There is much to glean from it. We are able to look further into the future only by standing on the shoulders of the giants of the past. Newton’s unified theory of gravity is the direct genesis of Galileo’s invention of the telescope and the subsequent observation that the earth does in fact revolve around the sun. Having the War Doctor begin calculations on the door in his time, so that they are complete by the time Smith arrives, although this all happens in the same instant, is the show’s way of showing that without the knowledge of the past, the present cannot function and the future cannot be built. A sense of time is thus very important. TARDIS is this show’s Chekhov’s gun in that it is irreplaceable and necessary and uniquely identifiable. Moreover, it stresses this very importance of the sense of time that being human, entails. We humans are TARDISes in our own right. We are bigger on the inside than the outside. We are able to recollect and rewrite our own past in the way we want and make designs on our future as well. We move through space and time, meet new people, encounter perplexing events and through it all try to maintain some semblance of balance in our own universes. And if we break, so does the universe.

Immanuel Kant posited a distinction between analytic and synthetic semiotics. He defined analytic as that which when negated, leads to a contradiction. Synthetic is everything else that is not analytic. Although according to Husserl’s phenomenology, nothing can ever be truly known, Kant’s theory that synthetic is the source of all new knowledge is thus a welcome one. One of the fundamental reasons that a show could get boring is if it sticks to the analytic and fails to bring in something new. You don’t want to see the same trait, same story rehashed and reiterated in a different way. Then, it can’t be negated and there is nothing new to learn. Who constantly chooses to reinvent its titular character by coming up with stories that tell us something that we didn’t know before. And that is why we choose to come back to it. The new hypothesis about the Doctor has the potential to be erroneous and that’s what sparks the debate. That’s what keeps us hooked.

Too much of anything, however good, is bad. You can’t change everything because you want your viewers to be grounded, tethered to familiar terra firma before launching them into the deep unknown. You can bring in cool bowties and fezzes, you can redesign the interior of the TARDIS, but at the end of the day you want the sonic screwdriver to be there. You want the Doctor to show up, figure out the answer and rain down on the wrong-doers with silent fury. Tennant did that in his first scene, and so did Smith and so did Capaldi ! Every time the Doctor regenerates and his persona changes, you want the new one to be different from the ones before him. But the underlying traits that make him the Doctor must be self-evident. Something old, something new. Moreover, while Doctor Who has become ubiquitous in popular culture today, it still has to be influenced by the happenings around the real world. The stories must thematically resonate with the audience. And so you must bring in elements from other genres, the real world and so on. The target audience being children, it is a great way to teach them history by literally going back in time and taking from legends and creating stories around it. Vincent and the Doctor, Shakespeare Code are but two examples of that. And TARDIS is a wonderful storytelling device that allows for this to happen. Something ‘borrowed’, something blue ! And when you marry these two rules together in perfect harmony, one can vow that the end result will be a happy one, for ever after. Here’s to fifty more years of Who and fifty after that… !

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