Friday, November 22, 2013

What The Doctor Taught Me About Life and Death

What The Doctor Taught Me About Life and Death
By Catherine Elcik

The first Doctor Who episode I watched on purpose was Matt Smith's first full episode as the Doctor.

Oh, the channel flipper I was as a kid would often scream past that weird British show with an English man in an extraordinarily long scarf, but I never could figure out what was going on—Tom Baker always seemed to be disappearing when I flipped past. With a little orientation to The Doctor, I would have been hooked—as a kid I watched the Twilight Zone, Quantum Leap, and episodes of Friday the 13th like they were the second-coming of Shakespeare—but I believe the stories we need to hear find us at the moment we most need to hear them.

And I needed to hear the Doctor’s story in the fall of 2011.

During that fall, my mother-in-law, Fran, was in the grip of a lung cancer that would toy with her cruelly until the end of January. In response, my husband, Mike, and I had stopped having anything like fun. I couldn’t remember the last time we’d laughed.

So imagine my surprise when I came home from work one night to Mike’s insistence that I watch the opening to Matt Smith’s Dr. Who.

I suppose this is as good a place as any to catch up anyone who doesn’t know the world of Who: The Doctor is the alias of a human-like alien of the Time Lord race, the sole remaining survivor of a planet called Gallifrey. The Time Lords don’t die, they regenerate, and they have the ability to visit (almost) any place in space or time through the use of a spaceship called the TARDIS, an acronym that stands for Time And Relative Dimension in Space. From the outside, the Doctor’s TARDIS looks like a blue police box (think British-y), but on the inside, the space is massive—we’re told of a library and a pool we never get to see. “It’s bigger on the inside,” every new companion would quip upon seeing the TARDIS for the first time. Which was all well and good, but the key was this little blue box could whisk the Doctor and his companion (almost) anywhere in space and time (almost) instantly.

In Matt Smith's first episode, the Doctor doesn’t go very far. He crash lands in the tiny village of Leadworth, waking a young girl named Amy Pond who he enlists to help him figure out what his favorite food is—he doesn’t know because he’s just regenerated and he’s not all the sure of who he is anymore (is it any wonder that I was confused as a kid). The Doctor demands she cook him one food after another, spitting each one out in increasingly fraught physical comedy. It’s a hilarious set piece that ends with the Doctor happily dipping fish sticks into custard—his new favorite. He vanishes in his blue box to come back minutes later for him to find that the girl is a woman and she’s angry with him for leaving her for twelve years. To make it up to her, he whisks her away and hijinks ensue.


I don’t remember the details of the episode’s plot. What I remember is that Mike and I laughed.  We cared about the characters. It was the perfect respite for the sad turn life around us had taken. We had found a little something to help us through. The next day was Sunday—a long work day for me. But I came home ready to watch the next episode and found that my husband had binge watched the next three.

“But I thought we were going to watch this together?” I said, more hurt than I had a right to be, really. But we had laughed together. It was lightness in a period of dark, and if I was to share the dark, it was only fair that I share the light, too. Not that I could put any of that into words in that moment. I had spend the day looking forward to the next episode, and he’d watched that one and two more. He offered to let me catch up alone, and I found myself near tears. That wasn’t the way this was supposed to go.

But Mike had a compromise.

He’d keep flying through the Matt Smith episodes (and then the Christopher Eccleston episodes after that) while he and I watched the David Tennant episodes together. Never mind how fitting I would later learn it was for Mike to watch Dr. Who in nothing resembling chronological order.

As Dr. Who, David Tenant had a frantically kinetic energy that was at times sweet and cruel. He had wild hair. He wore glasses. He wore Chucks. He made me laugh and cry, sometimes in the same episode. And while I’ll never know what my reaction to David Tennant’s Doctor might have been if I had watched it when life was on more of an even keel, I know that Tennant’s Doctor’s heartfelt and enthusiastic antics were a lifeline during a time when the lifeline’s seemed few and far between.

Every time we visited my mother-in-law, she’d wasted away a little bit more.

Always a thin woman, her limbs started to look like they belonged to an albino frog, and her eyes—always beautiful—seemed to grow impossibly large as all the fat melted from her face. Looking into those big eyes staring out of her slight frame, I caught myself thinking she was bigger on the inside, and my breath caught.

On the show, “it’s bigger on the inside” was a running gag, a throw-away line, but it’s true of people, too, isn’t it? The shallow people we can’t understand are bigger hearted on the inside, the shy unreachable people have oceans of depth we can’t see in their downcast eyes, and my mother-in-law whose body was getting smaller by the minute was so, so much bigger on the inside. Her big blue eyes reminded me of that.

Though the ambient temperature in Berlin, NH in the winter is generally in the single digits before windchill, I’d bundle up my trusty greyhound and zip myself into a giant down-filled blue coat and walk up the side of a hill to the high point where I could look out on the mountains around me, as if that blue coat was a personal TARDIS spinning me out of my present and away to a world of beauty for just a little while. The episodes themselves became a kind of TARDIS, too—every time we cued up the next episode, Tennant put his blue box around the pain and fear Mike and I were navigating and whisked us away for the hour it took to tell us the next chapter in his story. Sometimes he made me laugh; other times he made me cry, but the best episodes taught me to look at the dark and sad world I was navigating in a new way.  

Here’s what the doctor taught me:

1) Be thrilled.
The Doctor is over 900 years old. In his long life, his planet has been destroyed, he is the last of his species, and he’s said goodbye to so many of the humans whose lifespans are downright ephemeral compared to his. And yet despite all the losses The Doctor has known, he’s still thrilled to make new friends, to share the wonders of the universe, to be completely thrilled about how fantastic it would be if he ever met a man names Alonzo so that he could get the opportunity to say Allons-y Alonzo.

What I learned was this—there is no pain so great that it can or should completely wipe out the thrills of this world, and that even when Fran was nearing the end, she still got playful enough to tease her favorite home health aide and tell her she was going to lock the door so she couldn’t go, her eyes full of twinkle and mischief as she said it. And for my part, that it was OK to take some time out in the morning to climb that hill after a fresh snowfall and be in awe of the way the sunlight danced on the icicles that the bare tree limbs had become. That it was OK to feel a thrill of pleasant anticipation when we got home from a weekend at Fran’s and breath out a relieved sigh of allons-y as we tuned into whatever antics the Doctor got into on this next episode.

2) Take time for the little joys.
In the middle of an episode in which The Doctor must save the world from a space ship with a nuclear bomb on board that will denote if it crashes into the earth, he discovers that the captain of the ship—his only help in his bid to save the earth—is named Alonzo, and his eyes light up with something akin to devilish ecstasy.

Never mind that the fate of the world quite literally rests in how well Alonzo and the Doctor are able to work together as the time between safety and assured Armageddon ticks away—the Doctor’s been waiting for this moment.

As they take control of the cockpit and prepare to save the world, the Doctor’s face lights up with boyish glee as he finally has his moment to shout, Allons-Y Alonzo! Then he does his stressful-save-the-world thing, but only after experiencing that moment of joy. 

A Belle Brigade album cranked on the car stereo as I went on a grocery run in the middle of a visit? Singing WhereNot to Look for Freedom and Belt of Orion at the top of my lungs? Yes, please!

The Doctor taught me to take time for the little joys. Or maybe he just reminded me, but in the moment it amounts to the same thing, doesn’t it? 

3. Assume you will come up with the answers you need
Half the time you know the Doctor has shit under control, but the other half of the time, when people ask him about his plan he admits that he has none but he’s sure he’ll think of something.

He always thinks of something.

Early on in Fran’s illness I wasted too much time and energy worrying about what we would do when we reached any number of scary crossroads with Fran’s end of life care. And when the problems did arise, they were never the ones I’d assumed they would be, and we found an answer as a family. Episode after episode, the Doctor’s ideas come to him just in time, and ours did, too.

4. Love what’s amazing in your enemies.
An episode of Dr. Who often involves a monster-of-the-week in the form of an alien species on the attack. The threat is imminent—the doctor and his companion are usually quite literally running for their lives—but when the doctor comes face to face with the menace he will often take the time to inspect it, marvel at the intricacy of the alien design beneath the immediate horror, and shake his head in wonder, saying, "ah, you’re beauuuutiful.”

Cancer may seem like a terrifically unrepentant monster while it’s ravaging someone you love, but there is a beauty in its design. I’m not taking about cancer’s biological resilience and tenacity—those are unrepentant evils—but terminal cancer gives the gift of time to its victims and their loved ones. Cancer may have turned Fran into an ever-diminishing box of the woman that she once was, but we had warning that she was leaving us, and we had visits where talks went deep and we looked each other in the eye and said all the things we would never have said if death had come for in the form of a heart attack or a car accident. I’m not saying that the suffering she went through was justified—cancer is my enemy for a reason—but what I’m saying is that the Doctor taught me to love what’s amazing in my enemies, and I grateful for the gift of time Fran’s cancer gave to her and her son and me.

Tomorrow is the global simulcast of the Doctor Who 50th anniversary special episode, “The Day of the Doctor,” and I’m looking forward to seeing the big splash of the story with all the other Whovians in the world have been promised for what feels like months now.

But I’m also watching because David Tennant will be part of the show.

David Tennant will forever be my Doctor, and I watched him die at the end of his run and felt a great hole had been torn through my middle. Yes, I know he didn't actually die. That he just regenerated into Matt Smith. But while many of those episodes were good—great, even—they weren’t the same.

The 50th anniversary episode will be  pic for all the good global reasons—what other television show has lasted this long?—but it’s also epic for me because the doctor who was deadmy Doctorwas dead and he’s returning.

So I’ll be watching rapt, not just because I’ve fallen in love with Dr. Who as a franchise, but because I wish the idea that the dead can come back—even for just one episode—was true.