Not Really Dead (or, Bigger On The Inside)

I’ve been having too much caffeine lately. I’ve been having too much caffeine because I’ve been up way too late a lot over the past week or so. The main reason is I’m nervous and excited about the wedding (the whole past week or so has definitely had a night-before-Christmas feel to it, even despite the hurricane) — but related to that is the fact that Jeff and I have been staying up late watching Doctor Who.

It’s “our show.”3-01-Smith-and-Jones-the-tenth-doctor-23885091-1280-720 Most people have an “our song,” I guess — but “our song” is the loop of atmospheric music set to the sound of the TARDIS whirring that plays while the Doctor Who DVD menu screen is up. Our first real date was hanging out on my futon as I introduced him to the Doctor. (Our first kiss happened while that blessed TARDIS whirred in the background.) That’s the test, really. I’m not sure I could love a man who didn’t love the Doctor. At least not completely. Luckily for me, I snagged a good one.

For a long time, I couldn’t bring myself to watch the last few episodes of David Tennant’s run as the Doctor. I had a lot of emotional investment in the Tenth. Just as Rose helped to save the Doctor from the destructive despair and guilt of the extinction of his race, the Tenth Doctor was there for me during a time of deep, deep loneliness and sadness. Sitting alone in my little city apartment, I could weep openly during each episode, embracing that moment of catharsis. When the Doctor would say, “You know me, I’m always okay” — I could let my heart break… and then I could get on with getting on, just like he did, with humor and love and a kind of fierce, stupid hope. David Tennant will always be “my Doctor.”

A couple months ago, I finally worked up the courage to watch the Specials from the year between the fourth and fifth series. I made it through passably well, with Jeff right there with me. But after that last episode, when the Doctor hears those four little knocks and suddenly understands how he will die… and we watch him as he moves through all the stages of grief, anger and denial and fear and finally a kind of amused acceptance…. After that episode, I cried and cried. And I laughed and laughed. Mostly at myself. Watching the Tenth Doctor finally go was like watching that younger, lonelier self of mine finally pass completely away. I wept for that self, who had endured so much loneliness and self-doubt and who would in some small way always be there, stuck in those years, waiting for the day she would live her way into my present life, so full of happiness and love. And I also mourned her passing as a dear, dear friend who was finally, once and for all, really dead.

That’s the weird thing, isn’t it? That’s what made me laugh. As much as that time in my life was full of sorrow and loneliness, the final end of that life, that self, has its own poignant grief. I think this is true whenever we have truly transformative experiences, even when those transformations are for the better, even when they help us to embrace love and open ourselves up more fully to the universe. There is a part of us that will always mourn the old self, the self that suffered, the self that died.

Now Jeff and I are moving on to Series 5 and 6 of Doctor Who, featuring Matt Smith as the Eleventh Doctor. I was determined not to like him. And I don’t. I don’t dislike him, don’t get me wrong. But I don’t like him. He’s just kind of… there. He’s quick and somewhat smart and occasionally even hilarious. But ultimately the Eleventh Doctor is, well, kind of shallow. And maybe that’s a good thing. The Tenth Doctor went dark, very dark, and lost pretty much everything a person can. I related to him intensely, grieving and soldiering on as each companion left, one by one. I’m not sure I could have withstood another season of that kind of intensity.

One thing I will say, though, is that I’m bored with people dying. I woke up at 4 AM this morning on a caffeine buzz flashback, and that’s the thought that kept rolling over and over in my hyper-wired, sleep-deprived mind. Because when it comes to the Eleventh Doctor, no one’s ever really dead. I’ve given up trying to count the number of times Amy or Rory are supposed to have died. They never really do. They never stay dead. So when we watched the episode with the mermaid the other day, when first Rory gets taken by the scary blue chick and then later they take him off life-support and have to resuscitate him…. I just waited it out. I think I went downstairs to get some orange juice. Because I already knew he wasn’t going to die. And no amount of hysterical sobbing on Amy’s part could stir up my sympathy. (If you’ve been the Doctor’s companion that long and have died that many times, wouldn’t you start to be a bit more cynical and calm in the face of death? I mean, geesh!)

When it comes to Steven Moffat’s writing, he reminds me a lot of Michael Scott from The Office. Whenever Michael jumps into a sketch with his improv class, he immediately pulls a “gun” and starts shouting at people, turning the scene into a hold-up scenario. Why? “Because what’s more exciting than a gun?” he explains. The reason it’s funny, of course, is because we the audience know that by doing it over and over again, not only is it not exciting anymore, it’s actually quite predictable and annoying. Sometimes, watching Series 5 and 6, I get the impression that Moffat is there saying, “Okay, we need a good emotional jolt here…. I know! SOMEBODY DIES!” As though physical death, or the threat of it, is the only way to up the ante and provoke emotional investment in the characters.

Contrast that with, say, the two-parter episodes from Series 3, “Human Nature”/”The Family of Blood.” Here, the Doctor faces actual death, yeah, but the real kicker is the death of the self that the plot turns on. After the loss of Rose, it almost feels like a relief when the Doctor becomes human and loses all memory of the past — even though we the audience know that he’s done it to escape a deadly enemy. We get to see him innocent and even kind of dull, falling in love with an ordinary, rather matronly woman and imagining a simple life of domestic happiness stretching out before him. From the beginning, we know it won’t last. We sigh and hold on anyway, hoping against hope that somehow things will work out. This is the “denial” stage of grieving, and there’s no way out but through.

Yet when the time comes for “John Smith” to die so that he can become once again the Doctor in all his Time Lordy glory and power…. we witness a very real fear, and we feel a very real grief. It was inevitable, of course, we know that. It’s also for the best — not only for everyone else, but for the Doctor himself as well. We know he can’t stay in that state of denial — we know he has the potential for greatness that demands he rise to the occasion, to become better than he was before. But that doesn’t make that transformative moment any less painful, nor the grief at the loss of humble John Smith, the old, limited self, any less poignant. The truth is that we grieve the old self because we love the old self, deeply, and the old self was a self of love. It had to be. Otherwise, we could never have been able to transform in the first place. It is love that pushes us past our boundaries in that final transformative moment, the love of the old self for something greater, beyond itself. The Doctor might save the day, but it is humble, simple John Smith who performs the greater act of love in choosing to die.

And the Doctor might insist that John Smith isn’t really dead, that he still lives on as part of the Doctor himself. But we know better. Because part of self-identity is our experience of limitations. A self that is transformed and subsumed within a greater, better self isn’t really the same anymore. Its boundaries have fallen away. The old self is dead, even if the memory lives on.

This is also why the most emotionally-powerful episode of these new series that I’ve seen so far has been “Vincent and the Doctor.” Here again, death is a forgone conclusion — the tragic suicide of a tender artist. The emotional investment comes not from whether or not Vincent van Gogh will die… it comes from how he would live the rest of his life, whether or not he will experience that transformative moment that can take him from depression and loneliness to someplace new. He has that moment. He is given the rare and most precious gift an artist can receive — the sure knowledge that his work will live on, that it will make a difference and help to make the world a better, more beautiful place.

And like John Smith, we want to believe that Vincent van Gogh isn’t really dead. He lives on in his work, and in the memories of those whose lives have been changed by his art. But we know that even despite this, the more profound truth is that he is dead. The transformative moment when the old self dies will always be followed by another challenge, another boundary and another opportunity for transformation. There is no end to this process.

And that, too, is why we grieve for the old self. Because we know that someday this self will be the old self that must finally die in order to be transformed, and we will face the same fear and sorrow. We might trust that we will survive it, that some part of us will live on, that we won’t really be dead. But that doesn’t make the fear less real, or the grief any lighter. Still, however great the fear, the love is greater still. Love is what got us here so far…. and love will lead us on, come hell or high water.

So I’m getting married. That’s what this post is about.

Alison Leigh Lilly
Alison Leigh Lilly nurtures the earth-rooted, sea-soaked, mist-and-mystic spiritual heritage of her Celtic ancestors, exploring themes of peace, poesis and wilderness through essays, articles, poetry and podcasting. You can learn more about her work here.

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