It doesn’t take much of an excuse for me to want to Talk About Doctor Who. Really, it doesn’t. But this is quite a nice love letter to the series from James Parker over at The Atlantic, and I’ll take the chance it presents —
This is all meat and drink to the 21st-century viewer, who has no idea who he is either. We are now entering the era of post-secular television—of Lost and Heroes, of time loops, unearthly powers, chaotic entrances into parallel dimensions—and the Doctor and his wheezing sci-fi are, finally, bang up-to-date.
— to talk about the latest kerfuffle in the Whoverse.
On its face it’s not the worse thing to befall speculative fiction that the Doctor is immortal. On a purely production level, a show that’s been going off and on for about a half century doesn’t seem like it would be tripped up by a little thing like losing the main character (Ahem), but reaction to the change in canon (oddly made in the CBBC’s Sarah Jane Adventures) has been mainly critical on story grounds.
Which seems odd to me, after all it’s not like english literature doesn’t have its fair share of immortal characters dotted across the landscape. The show even has its own character who is, for all intents and purposes, immortal. Perhaps the Doctor will come upon the day where life really does begin to seem like butter over too much bread. In the last season he certainly made it clear that the TARDIS has let him skip the boring days, and that he would have a difficult time living a normal life, without the Daleks to defeat and silences to break. Maybe someday the Daleks’ latest invasion of the galaxy at l won’t be quite interesting enough to stop and he’ll go west, but having the character’s end be of his own choosing or the tragedy of a too-quick death won’t dispel the magic of the story.
That said, it does seem to run counter to the arc of the last few Doctors since the restart, who, despite being on the younger end of the Doctor-Actor range spectrum, have increasingly noted their age and general universe-weariness (though, really, given that Doctor #1 was 950ish, and Doctor #11 is still 950ish, I’m not sure how much he’s actually aged, except possibly emotionally). Perhaps the closest match to an immortal Doctor would be Dream of the Endless (though, let’s face it, in terms of cool-factor he’s probably a bit more of a Death). Immortal characters still have arcs, and given the relatively short time frames of most works of literature it’s hardly like a character’s oncoming death is a critical motivator of plots. For the Doctor, life has always been about constant movement, especially since the loss of Gallifrey.
The focus on the character’s final death misses the fact, entrenched in series since the reboot, that each regeneration is really a death in and of itself. Look at the anguish of Ten’s last few episodes, or the quiet sadness that met the regeneration of Nine. To see the Doctor’s final death as the only real one for the purposes of the story is missing the trees for the forest.