Monday, November 18, 2013

Whoniversary: Bigger on the Inside by Michael A. Goodwin

You never forget your first Doctor. That’s the saying, anyway. There are many shirts and galleries of art that repeat the phrase, though I am unclear who said it first. Of course, it’s entirely true. You don’t forget your first Doctor. You can’t. You travel the universe, past and future, whirling and bouncing through time in his blue TARDIS box. You run with him. You laugh with him. You cry with him. You can’t ever quite tell what your Doctor will teach you, how wonderful or painful the lesson will be, or how much bigger that lesson will turn out to be on the inside than it first appeared.

I suppose in some way my first Doctor was one of the old Doctors. My mother spoke of watching the show with her father, a stiff upper lip man who, despite being full Greek by blood, had grown up in England and remains the most proper British gentleman I know. But I never saw that Doctor as a child. I never witnessed him in action, never saw him fight monsters and run and save the day. I don’t really even know which Doctor it was, though I suspect the Fourth. That was definitely the Doctor my father reported seeing for a few episodes when he sampled the show long ago. The iconic Doctor. The one with the scarf and the strange face. The one you could believe was an alien just looking at him. Tom Baker filled that role so well it defined him for the rest of his acting career. He is a remarkable Doctor. But he is not my Doctor.

The first real Whovian I knew—well the first to identify his fandom and wear it proudly—was my best friend (and frequent Needless Things guest star) Beau Brown. The subject of the show came up, as all manner of nerdy things did, in the course of our meandering discussions. But Beau didn’t talk about Doctor Who like he talked about other shows. There was a reverence in his voice when he spoke of The Doctor, a reverence that my friend with no particular faith to speak of did not seem to hold toward the other luminaries of his pop culture pantheon. The Doctor was special, is special. He was a thing apart. I remember noticing that early on, but it was not so fascinating to me that I felt a compulsion to seek this show out and find out why this Doctor mattered so much. I can be very dense at times.

And then came the Dragon*Con where Beau dressed up as the Tenth Doctor and he did so brilliantly. He had the look, the perfect costume, and this was before the Tenth Doctor had come to America, at least officially. Beau was, in his own words, a walking spoiler. Ah, spoilers! A word I would come to love when River Song said it, but that’s jumping ahead in the tale (as River Song is wont to do). I did not know this Doctor, and few people I saw did, but those who recognized the costume went nuts for it. And that swagger! That handsome braggadocio and well-earned arrogance that Beau poured into the role—he became someone else entirely, he carried a spark of magic that was truly enchanting to watch. He ran around like a madman, whether chased or chasing I could not tell. And I ran after him, and wherever he was known, smiles erupted and cameras flashed. And still I did not watch Doctor Who, fool that I was.

I was not there when Beau later crashed a senior prom during an Anime Comics Expo, waltzing about in character and remarking upon how delightfully human the whole ritual of prom was. I can only imagine how confused some of those students must have been, just as everyone is confused when The Doctor arrives. I suspect that seeing that surreal encounter might have enticed me to watch the show, but I only heard about it in retrospect and hearing about The Doctor just isn’t the same.
One night, all that changed. Beau told me to stay late after an evening hanging out. He said I had to see this two-part episode that he absolutely knew I would love. This time, invited directly, I stayed. I watched the Tenth Doctor in “The Impossible Planet” and “The Satan Pit” and in those hours the Tenth Doctor became MY Doctor. He was handsome and insufferably clever, haughty enough to wrestle with a hivemind horde of Lovecraftian tentacled horrors and the very Devil himself and somehow emerged the Time Lord victorious. He had no weapons and stood alone when he shouted his faith into the teeth of cosmic evil, not faith in some god or good, but in a person, in a very human person that he had chosen to love and take with him on his madcap adventures through space and time.

How marvelous that this lonely alien man-god, this eternal wanderer, would choose someone so… ordinary as Rose! It was a miracle! It was a reminder that great things, amazing things, sometimes just happen to everyday people, perhaps even people like me.

You can’t predict it. You can’t build your life around the hope of that blue box appearing out of thin air and a dashing stranger bounding into your life to turn everything topsy-turvy. But you could imagine it. You could start looking around for what magical moments do fall into your life when you least expect them.

The brief crossover special “Time Crash” further reinforced my understanding of The Doctor and his importance. It was only a few minutes of fanservice, a conversation of crossed timelines between the Tenth and the Fifth, in which the two Doctors bantered about brainy spectacles and good running sneakers and the interior decoration of the TARDIS. But then came that one achingly poignant line, delivered intimately and warmly by my Doctor with love for long ago: “You were my Doctor.” I got it. I felt the generational legacy and the passing of the torch. I saw how much that meant. 
If only the magic of The Doctor were the sum of his legacy in my life, it would be sufficient—grand, really. But he is so much more than that, and not all his lessons are so cheerful.

For a being so timeless, so immortal, one constant remains true across all his adventures. Every so often, The Doctor dies and a new Doctor takes his place. I knew this before I watched a single episode. My Doctor couldn’t exactly be a Tenth without nine predecessors. I just didn’t know how much it would hurt when one life ended and a new regeneration began.

I did not like the Eleventh Doctor. My dislike was not entirely rational. I found him more arrogant than his predecessor, but generally I’m fond of well-earned arrogance. No, my dislike ran much deeper. This Doctor killed MY Doctor. This Doctor ended that story before I had finished with it, because in truth, I could have watched the Tenth Doctor forever.

But that’s not how The Doctor works. Just when you know him, just when you become comfortable with who that man is, he changes. He regenerates and someone new walks off with his life, someone with a new face, new quirks, new flavors of madness and glee and pain and wonder. He changes, because that’s life and every story must have an ending or else fade away to a whimper of unresolved plots. The Doctor does not whimper. He boldly goes, the original bold goer across the cosmos.

I never suspected that The Doctor was teaching me how to grieve, and more importantly, how to recover from grief. He is an insidious teacher. I was so angry at my Doctor for leaving me, but in time I learned to see the charms of his successor. The Eleventh is sillier, for one thing. He has a greater sense of whimsy. He is a fairy tale transposed into science fiction effortlessly, daring anyone to call him out for being a fairy godfather with a magic wand upon a set full of aliens and lasers and time machines. He is still not my Doctor, but he is The Doctor, and I can respect that.

Next month, another regeneration will come, and the whole cycle will begin again. But before then, very soon, I will receive an incomparable gift. My Doctor is coming back. Give me a day like this. Give me this one. Just this once, everybody lives! Even my Doctor lives, long-thought gone and mourned. Because that’s my Doctor, turning up when he’s least expected and most needed.
Somewhere in all there, I went back. I became the time traveler sampling adventures from earlier incarnations and earlier sagas. I looked past the bubble wrap and tinfoil as a child might to glimpse the astonishing earnestness of it all. Like The Doctor, the show’s creators did remarkable and impossible things with no particularly large budget or fancy special effects, but a great deal of heart and fun and an invitation to every viewer that if you just believed, if you just dared to see through the silliness, something magical happened.

Like all mythologies, some of The Doctor’s tales have been lost to time. And sometimes what was lost is found, as though The Doctor himself were delivering the gift of himself, haphazardly and with utter disregard for linear chronology. He’s like that, in every Doctor, in every tale. I think you cannot be a time traveler for so long and retain any reverence for time’s usual flow.

Sometimes The Doctor loves. My Doctor loved and lost with Rose, and politely spurned love with her successor, Martha. Only in his final arc did he realize that what he needed most of all was a true and faithful friend. There is definitely a lesson in that. But no matter who he is, he always has companions and he is always alone.

This is a powerful truth that everyone who is insufferably clever learns: you can surround yourself with very nice and very caring people and still know on some level, that they don’t get you and never will. There is dignity in being alone in the midst of loved ones, and still being present with them, even when they don’t get you and especially when they can’t. It’s one of those things that very clever people have to do to get by, because when you are alone—when you are really and truly alone—it changes you. You become grimmer. You become bitter and cold and hollow. The magic is not so magical without someone to share it with. The journey loses its luster when only your footfalls sound in the dark.

The Doctor needs people. For all his brilliance, for all his bravado and bluster, he needs people. He needs them to stop him sometimes, because he is also terrible and cruel, a destroyer of lives and peoples and whole species sometimes. He is the Great Exterminator. The fury of the Time Lord is awesome in its chilling finality and the absolute scope of destruction. He always gives enemies a chance, he always hopes that even his direst foes will find some grace and forgo their path of ruin. Sometimes they do. Sometimes miracles happen. But often they don’t and his justice has no mercy in it. I learned more about justice and wrath in my Doctor’s eerie glacial calm than any other teacher. This was me. This was all I aspired to be, not a masked vigilante or a paladin in shining mail, but this terrible and sad figure who did what was necessary even if part of him had to die to do it.

Mostly, though, The Doctor reminded me that everyone needs people because people are wonderful. People are fantastic! People are the reason to go on. They give us the transcendent joy of sharing adventures and stories and running toward those infinitely precious moments that slip through the fingers like falling rain.

I learned to love many of The Doctor’s companions, especially my Doctor’s companions. There was something sad and stately to see my Doctor faced with Sarah Jane, a friend of another life now so much older and him vastly older still, but timelessly young in his Time Lord way. I ached to see both of their pain at the gulf of time that now separated them and brutal irony that time not only could separate The Doctor from anyone he loved, but must do so because every story ends.

I loved Martha’s faithfulness to The Doctor despite him not returning her affections. She was there as long as he needed her, smart and talented enough save his life on their first outing. Yet she also had the bravery to walk away, to choose her own path and be the hero that The Doctor had inspired her to be. Similarly, Mickey’s transformation from a goofball comedy sidekick into a stalwart defender who stayed behind in a parallel Earth to fight an army of Cybermen, showed just how radically a companion could change for the better with The Doctor’s inspiration to lead the way.

Rose was lovely enough in her simplicity, proof that The Doctor did not require his friends to be remarkable people. He knew that all people are remarkable given the right opportunity, the right moment to shine. By contrast, Captain Jack was an over-the-top heartthrob almost on par with my Doctor. Almost. Watching those two banter gave me shivers. That much pretty just shouldn’t be allowed on the same screen. But I loved it.

River Song, whose story ended first before it began, a fellow time traveler met out of sequence, painfully reminded me that love cannot be counted upon to happen when it is convenient or even necessarily in the proper order. Love, like time, is so very wibbly-wobbly, so capriciously fragile and beautiful and necessary. Love needs no tense. It just is, and even The Doctor can’t change that. 
Finally, there was Donna. Donna the great friend, the funniest of them all, the one who burst The Doctor’s bubble over and over every time his ego grew too much to bear. I loved that he loved her for that. We all need bubble-bursters in our lives who are deft enough and kind enough to do so without wounding our souls. I think perhaps that such friends make the difference between kind genius and cruel genius. Ego feeds itself, hungrily and greedily, and it does not relinquish its hold once it sinks in its claws. It takes someone brave enough to exorcise that demon with wit and laughter and bold words. Such friends are rare and precious. They are to be valued and loved whenever we are lucky enough to find them.

Throughout all his travels and adventures, The Doctor taught me how to love better, to cherish friends more, and how to seize the moment when great moments come. They always do, if you’re looking for them. He showed me that life must be run forward—always forward and never back—and that journeys with no destinations pass through many waypoints that matter and change the people who visit them. But it was that darkest lesson that mattered most, how to grieve and how to embrace those melancholy miracles when people you love suddenly and spectacularly change.

Grieving for a television character seems a silly thing to do, a small thing really. But it is one of those experiences that proved undeniably bigger on the inside than I ever suspected.

The Doctor prepared me to have my father go away. My daddy was never a particularly happy man in my childhood despite how often he made everyone around him laugh, but he was always astonishingly and insufferably clever. He took me on adventures and expeditions, grew my mind, and challenged me with all the dizzying and spectacular things he knew. Long before I knew The Doctor, his very real echo held me and loved me and guided me.

One day, not so very long ago, my father fell in love, madly and truly. In a burst of incandescent bliss, he changed. Even his face was different for the smile now etched in near perpetuity upon it. His personality shifted, molded by happiness, spurring him on to other continents, other adventures that I could only hear about and read about and marvel at from afar. My father vanished, replaced by a new man who walked off to a new life, who loved me and still wanted to share stories and teachings and very deliberately stayed in touch, despite being so unreachably far away.

I grieved.

I hated myself for every corner of bitterness that wanted my old and familiar father back where I could see him and hold him and know who he was. Yet I could not, I would not, begrudge him this new and better life he had long deserved. I could not be angry with my new father. In our own way, we are all Time Lords. We all change every day, but sometimes we change so much that we die and live again and it is glorious.

The Doctor prepared me to love my new father. To my utter and bewildered surprise, my dashing stranger jumped from his blue box into my life and gave me the gift of accepting change. Even hard change. Especially hard change. He can do that, you know. Because he is The Doctor and my Doctor goes where he is needed.


Always and forever.

Michael A. Goodwin, 11/8/2013

The next two weeks here on Needless Things will be dedicated to Doctor Who. I have Guest Posts, Toy Reviews, and more on the way. The site will be jam-packed – relatively – with content. Please share these links wherever you can and spread the word. And if you’re so inclined, throw a few dollars at the Needless Things family. I have to send you to the podcast homepage because Blogger doesn't want this sort of thing. Just check out the widget on the bottom right here.This is all out of pocket for me, so anything I receive during this time will got to site costs, hosting, and possibly new merchandise if I get really ambitious.

Also, you can buy the Limited Edition Luchador vs. Owlbear t-shirts here. I can’t say they’re selling fast, but once this style is gone, they’re gone forever. And I do intend on being famous one day, so wouldn’t it be cool to have the first shirt I ever designed?

Remember to check in every weekday between now and the 23rd for new, original content.

Finally, be sure and come out to the HUGE 50th Anniversary Party that TimeGate, Earth Station Who, the folks behind The Forgotten Doctor, and (others) are throwing at the Holiday Inn Select; the same location where TimeGate is held each and every year. There will be panels, games, Whovian carousing, and a LIVE recording of Earth Station Who immediately after “The Day of the Doctor” airs. You will literally never have another opportunity to attend a party like this!

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