Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
– Dylan Thomas
It’s the end of an era. David Tennant, the Tenth Doctor, MY Doctor, and THE Doctor for many, many others, ended his four year run on BBC’s Doctor Who this weekend in the final part of the two-part episode, The End of Time. I’ll admit it. I shed some tears. What can I say? I’m a huge sap.
But what made The End of Time such great television wasn’t merely the passing of the torch from one Doctor to another. It wasn’t that we got to see so many faces from Who’s past. It was the fact that, at the end of the year, in the thick of the death of the world just before the New Year and the rebirth of things in the spring, Russell T. Davies told a story about what a frightening thing it is to die.
The story begins with a Doctor who knows that his life is coming to an end, and he is miserable. He has refused further companionship after Donna so no one else’s life would be in danger, and yet he has left himself to die alone, whenever and however that is to happen. And then there’s The Master, who when we last saw him was being burned on a pyre by The Doctor after being defeated by the prayers of the world and shot by his human wife. He would not abide death, so he left instructions to a group of disciples on how to bring him back. Lastly, there’s Joshua Naismith, a wealthy man who finds and employs The Master for help with a piece of alien tech he’s found, which he dubs “The Immortality Gate.” It is a gate that was originally designed as a piece of medical equipment, one that could “mend” entire planets at a time. Upon finding this, Naismith decides to invest his resources in making this work again, hoping to use The Master’s genius to make it capable of “mending” permanently, making whoever steps into it immortal—not for himself, but for his daughter. He wanted to give her immortality as a gift. While Naismith tries to stay a step ahead of The Master, his reputation as the Harry Saxon Who Took Over The World and Brought Himself Back to Life preceding him, he can’t stay far enough ahead, and The Master ends up using the gate to transfer his genetic template across the entire human race. Immortality via cloning.
And that’s just Part One.
In Part Two, we see that all of these goings-on are the machinations of—wait for it—THE TIME LORDS! Specifically, the Time Lord President, who “WILL NOT DIE!” We have flashed back (if such a thing is possible on a show involving time travel…is it a flashback? A flashforward? A…flash? But I digress…) to the very end of the Time War, and everyone is losing. A Time Lord prophet sees the end of Gallifrey, and the President refuses to allow their demise to happen. However, the prophet also sees that two Children of Gallifrey—The Doctor and The Master—survive the Time War, and the President, who refuses to allow Gallifrey’s demise, comes up with a plan to reach out to The Master, setting an elaborate scheme in motion that would end with not only the return of the Time Lords to the present, but the return of Gallifrey itself.
Not only is no one in this story willing to die, but they go to extraordinary lengths to stave it off. The Time Lords, supposedly wise because of their awesome responsibility over time, use time to selfishly prolong their civilization without taking consequences into account. The Master clones himself all over Earth not suspecting that his Grand Plan is really just a speck in the larger scheme of things, and not realizing that despite that effort, his original self is still dying.
And then there’s The Doctor.
Throughout both parts of The End of Time, The Doctor knows he’s going to die, though he doesn’t know how or when. Despite that knowledge, despite the fact that he’s had a bit of time to get used to the idea and prepare, and despite the fact that he can regenerate, he is deeply saddened by this. For The Doctor loves life and devours it with the enthusiasm of a child. We watch as he is overwhelmed with emotion when talking to Wilfred Mott in a cafe about his impending death and his sadness about dying alone. He barely smiles the entire episode. And when the moment comes when he hears the four knocks that lead to his death from an unexpected place, he rages at the unfairness of it all in a heartbreaking tirade. But he is The Doctor, and in that moment a helpless human being needs his help. His heroic nature and his selflessness call for him to put another’s life before his own. And so he does. And it isn’t fair. But it’s right.
Yet, even as he takes this on, willingly causing his own death to save another, he clings to life with both hands, taking the time to say goodbye to anyone who has ever meant anything to him. Martha and Mickey. Captain Jack. Wilfred and his daughter (and Donna by proxy). The descendant of Joan Redfern. Even Rose. He only goes back to the TARDIS to regenerate when he can no longer physically go on. An Ood appears to him and tells him that the Universe will sing him to sleep. And as he stands in the TARDIS, alone, his last words before regeneration are I don’t want to go.
Therein lies the strength of this story. The Doctor doesn’t go quietly, nor does he go with any kind of a Zen peace about it, or a British stiff upper lip. He goes fighting, angry, and visibly scared. This episode acknowledges that death is absolutely frightening, even if one is over 900 years old and has experienced this kind of thing before. It acknowledges that, even if one dies nobly, heroically, it doesn’t mean they’re dying peacefully. However, in a way, knowing that even The Doctor can feel this way, is a comfort. It teaches us that fear of death isn’t something that we need get over. It is frightening, and we shouldn’t ignore it. Rather, we should stare it in the face and scream at it. We shouldn’t just go on living, but we should live, for as long as we are physically able. And when the end is near, it’s OK to be afraid. It’s OK to want to hang on; to love everyone and everything you’ve experienced so much that you don’t want to let it go. That fear doesn’t make one weak, it makes one human.
Interesting that it takes a Gallifreyan to teach us that.
Teresa Jusino was born on the same day that Skylab fell. Coincidence? She doesn’t think so. She is the NY Geek Culture Examiner at Examiner.com, and she’s also a contributor to PinkRaygun.com, a webzine examining geekery from a feminine perspective. Her work has also been seen on PopMatters.com, on the sadly-defunct literary site CentralBooking.com, edited by Kevin Smokler, and in the Elmont Life community newspaper. She is currently writing a web series for Pareidolia Films called The Pack, which is set to debut Summer 2010! Get Twitterpated with Teresa, Follow The Pack or visit her at The Teresa Jusino Experience.