Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Will the Doctor Ever Be In Again?

Peter Capaldi as the Twelfth (current) Doctor
Readers encountering Joseph Campbell’s “Hero’s Journey” structure, from his monograph The Hero With a Thousand Faces, could be forgiven for seeing the structure in the BBC’s internationally popular series Doctor Who. The Doctor’s long journey, fraught with constant peril and usually resulting in a world improved by his presence, would make perfect hero fodder. The entire show premises on passing into the unknown, encountering otherworldly dangers, and emerging transformed.

But this would be a false conclusion. Campbell’s Journey, which he terms the Monomyth for its cross-cultural resonances, has a selection of persistent elements that cross genres, from myth and religion, to folktale and campfire story, to popular novels and movies. Nevertheless, Doctor Who misses one important Monomythic component: the Doctor leaves home, faces trials, and achieves apotheosis. Yet somehow, he never returns home.

For Campbell, who intended his classic as a work of comparative religion, the return to Earth with bestowed divine revelation carried prime importance. At the top of the book, he describes how the Buddha, newly enlightened from his struggles with himself, faced temptations to remain in place, revelling personally in his newfound apotheosis. Yet circumstances (Campbell recounts the Gods, but acknowledges the circumstance was probably more primordial) hastened his return

We see this throughout religious history. Elijah achieved prophethood dwelling in some distant cave, but carried his mission to King Ahab in Jerusalem. Jesus began his ministry by retreating to the desert, withstanding temptations, but ultimately returned to civilization. Gabriel dictated the Koran to Mohammed in a mountain cave, but Mohammed, who couldn’t write, re-dictated his revelations to humans in Mecca and Medina, establishing the first pan-Arab nation, and religion.

Paul McGann as the Eighth Doctor
Even fairy tales continue this tradition. Odysseus faces trials, and is tempted to remain with Calypso, but ultimately returns to Ithaca and restores his people’s order. Red Riding Hood and her grandmother pass through the darkness of the wolf’s body, but return aware, Red promising never to deviate from the path again. And imagine how disappointing Lord of the Rings would’ve been if Frodo never returned to the Shire.

The Doctor, however, never returns home. Oh, sure, he occasionally pops ’round to Gallifrey, chastising the plush-bottomed Time Lords for inaction and corruption. The most recent season, at this writing, concludes with the Doctor rescuing his homeworld from its time loop, chasing its reprobate president off, and humbling his people. But like always, he vanishes again, always heading for another, better adventure. His mission never returns him to his people.

Partly, we can blame this wandering on the demands of episodic television. As possibly the BBC’s most lucrative export, which undoubtedly subsidizes other innovative and risk-taking programming, Doctor Who is too valuable to ever quite end. The Doctor ceaselessly roams because ceasing would stall the story—unless the story transitions to the Doctor’s preaching to his assembled Time Lords, like a prophet, which would make sedentary, talky TV.

But even this doesn’t explain so much as describe. The Doctor doesn’t wander to achieve enlightenment, or to save anybody else. If he intended such, he could’ve stopped wandering, in the episodes “Last of the Time Lords,” which ends with all humanity praying for salvation from the Doctor, or “Journey’s End,” wherein the Doctor, in public view, saves Earth and twenty-six other worlds, personally putting Earth back in orbit.

Tom Baker as the Fourth Doctor
It’s tempting even to attribute the heroic journey to the Doctor’s companions. After all, unlike the Doctor, his companions inevitably return home eventually. Except, usually, they don’t. Rose and Amy return to different worlds than they left. Clara never really returns, spending an unspecified eternity journeying aimlessly. And Donna, well, she returns, but blissfully unenlightened. In the revived series, only Martha has really brought enlightenment home with her.

Thus, somehow, the Doctor never returns, nor helps others return. He’s neither messiah nor prophet, neither buddha nor bodhisattva. For him, the journey becomes all-encompassing, always headed somewhere, never arriving. Even his longest sojourn, over a millennium, in “A Town Called Christmas,” proves temporary. After vanquishing the massed hordes of monsters, the Doctor ultimately resumes his wandering, forever chasing an enlightenment that never quite arrives.

Where this leaves the Doctor’s journey, who can say. Everybody’s journey is unfinished, until it’s finally finished. But one wonders whether the Doctor’s journey ever could end. In Campbell’s Monomyth, the Hero faces a temptation to avoid returning. The Buddha could’ve sat under the Bodhi Tree forever; Christ could’ve accepted sovereignty over reality. But true heroes return. Except the Doctor: somehow, his heroism never involves rejoining his people.

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