The fourth of a series of essays inspired by the stories of Doctor Who Series Nine. The show kept us in the past, this time landing on the highways of the seventeenth century to pick up on the consequences of the Doctor’s actions at the end of his Viking adventure. What do the adventures of the Ashildir now the Lady Me, the latest in a long line of the undying, tell us about humanity?
It’s an immortal question. Inspired by The Woman who Lived…
DID YOU FEEL ROBBED? WERE THE HOOKS OF THE GIRL WHO DIED NOT FULFILLED? Perhaps the MacGuffins and red herrings confounded expectation? But in any event, there’s no doubt that this casual two-parter was always intended to realign itself as one of Doctor Who’s occasional treatises on immortality.
The resulting 45 minutes, with its unusual structure pushing full force onto Peter Capaldi and Maisie William’s double-act, proved one of the show’s great explorations of that mighty theme. An irresistible concept that the show’s often danced around but never answered. If it ever did, there’s a good chance things would never be the same again.
“People like us, we go on too long”
Immortality is built into Doctor Who, and not just in the inexhaustible fuel of the show’s format: Ideas and imagination without constraint that may outlast the Eye of Harmony. At the heart of the show is a Time Lord, almost the last one – recently given a whole new regeneration cycle when the first one might simply have allowed him to live forever. “Barring accidents” as the Fourth Doctor put it once. You can imagine the TimeWhich statistics on Gallifrey, warning year after year that most regenerations happen in the kitchen. Regeneration means every Time Lord or Lady has 12 reset buttons on his genome and mannerisms that could give them a new life as a woman, girl, Mekon, dog or sentient lamp – but has so far always landed the Doctor as a humanoid male between the Earth years of 25 and 60.
Since the show’s return, the revelation of the Great Time War has left unexplored the concept of these regenerating immortals fighting across time zones. It hasn’t touched the compelling possibility of fully piloted WAR TARDISES containing an endless domino spiral of regenerations or soaking up all the ships power just delicately juggle their dying/regenerating inhabitants in various states of temporal grace.
‘Accidents’ is the key understatement in the fourth Doctor’s unhelpful reasoning. Within two generation we saw the Doctor expire due to old age and then forcibly change (after execution we can only presume – nasty). Other times he’s been irradiated several times, poisoned, squashed and found on the wrong side of gravity. Only on occasion has the Doctor regenerated through direct selflessness (the Fifth’s self-sacrifice did more for his reputation than the Ninth’s) unless you want to argue that every regeneration is a result of the indirect selflessness of his universal intervention; a Gallifreyan who had their Type-40 TARDIS stolen would certainly disagree with that.
But as much as the Doctor and the universe combine to pit him against mortal danger, I doubt the latter will ever let him expire. Certainly, the Time Lords who’ve retreated to God-like status while their planet’s AWOL, were happy to break one of Rassilon’s directives to extend the Doctor’s life. I can’t see how that mad despot perished, but I’d be surprised if he’s calmed down.
The modern Prometheus to go with the Eyes of Hades.
In opposition to the Doctor and usually his people, Doctor Who presents a universe full of undeniable, illusionary and distorted versions of immortality. The list is a long one.
There are those not really of our time and space, who no doubt have no need word for immortality, being as it is very much in the eye of the beholder, and as a result little regard for mortals. These include the Eternals seen in 1983’s Enlightenment, elementals who live outside of time, who barely consider the transitory lives of lesser creatures. Those latter years of the Fifth Doctor’s life, coinciding with the show’s 20th anniversary, saw immortality became a focus as the Eternals were joined by returning Black and White Guardians, maintaining the balance of the universe as personifications of chaos and order. In the 21st century we’d meet a member of the Pantheon of Discord in The Sarah Jane Adventures, the immortal Trickster for one lived on the power of chaos that emerged from the Faustian pacts he dangled in front of vulnerable humans. Similar carnage was wrought by the Gods of Ragnarok in Season 25’s The Greatest Show in the Galaxy. Those rogues forced sentient beings to endlessly entertain them at point of elimination, and provided a neat tribute to an old category of the Doctor’s rogues gallery in that silver anniversary year. Those gods joined the Discord and Guardians under the title The Great Old Ones in expanded Who universe prose.
Perhaps the greatest of the Doctors foes belonging to that pantheon is the Great Intelligence who first battled the Second Doctor in the Himalayas and the London Underground before meeting an improbable death in the time streams of The Name of the Doctor. In particular the prose of Andy Lane and Craig Hinton equated the Great Intelligence with Yog-Sothoth, a Lovecraftian cosmic entity of Cthulhu Mythos.
The Woman who Lived forwent Norse mythology to dwell on Hades…
The Doctor will always have eternal foes to undermine, tangle with and fight while there is a universe. Elsewhere, a special mention must go to Fenric, the time travelling ancient member of the Great Old Ones encountered by the Doctor in the in the last season of the Classic Series.
Fenric, as its name suggests, was tied up with Nordic heritage and mythology – something that’s made an appearance in almost every episode of Series Nine so far. But, The Woman who Lived forwent Norse mythology to dwell on Hades, the underworld of the ancient Greek world. Greek mythology is well stocked with tales of immortality, from the gods of Olympus to the punishments of Titans and mortals. This time the MacGuffin was the Eye of Hades, alien technology that inspired the ponderous observations: “Purple the colour of death… The light of immortality”.
In one of Doctor Who’s best regarded stories, Egyptian mythology fell under the microscope. The Osirans of Season 12’s Pyramids of Mars Could live thousands of years without sustenance and the most evil of their kind was only trapped by the Doctor thanks to a time tunnel pointed to infinity. Similarly long-lived, potentially immortal, and just as influential on humanity were was Azal in The Daemons and that other horned one, the Beast in The Satan Pit.
The Woman who Lived dragged alien intrigue into the mix like a cat dragging a mouse into a working lunch on everlasting life. Tying into those grand plans of aliens influencing the planet, it only seems natural that the immortal girl, the supernatural human, attracted them. After all, science fiction has taught us again and again that Arthur C. Clarke‘s third law is right: ”Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”
Dedication to enduring existence is often shown to eliminate individuality…
Many species have survived from the dawn of time to what we can call the present day. They are easy to spot if they are recorded as scaring the ancient Time Lords or even worse, making it into Gallifreyan nursery rhymes or legends. The most famous recent example may be the Weeping Angels – along with their effective forbears the Fendahl, who even the Great Old Ones were said to flee – races almost viral in their persistent survival. Certainly not individualistic, that’s something Doctor Who often shows to be eliminated by dedication to enduring existence. Continue reading “Doctor Who Series 9: The Knightmare of Immortality”