Doctor Who: Relative Heroes

With Death in Heaven and Interstellar I’ve been thinking about relativity and time, cycles, and returns, and death and how these are represented in narrative.

Then I remembered Buddhism.


To be Buddhist is to be awake to reality. It occurs to me that to be in suspended animation sleep to cross space is like being a ‘normal person’ and those who cross the threshold (through a wormhole, through a black hole) perceive a different reality and are thus Awake. Maybe.

Any who, in Buddhist practice, Bodhisattvas are beings who sacrifice Nirvana to return to bring enlightenment to others and ease the suffering of the world through their efforts.

SHANTIDEVA: For as long as space endures, and for as long as living beings remain, until then may I too abide to dispel the misery of the world.

You could apply the above line by Shantideva to The Doctor. With each of his endless lives rejecting the annihilation of Self, he remains immured in his ever-changing but same self-hood, travelling across all of time and space to save the universe and its various miserable inhabitants. In this way, he is the embodiment of the Bodhisattva mission.

He is also an ascetic in that while he appreciates the finer things of the world (everything from lolly ball bearings to jelly beans) he has little attachment to them. He rarely sleeps, and we seldom see him eat or even rest.

Almost every moment he is awake to possibilities – even when he dreams.

THE DOCTOR: Clara sometimes asks me if I dream. “Of course I dream”, I tell her. “Everybody dreams”. “But what do you dream about?”, she’ll ask. “The same thing everybody dreams about”, I tell her. “I dream about where I’m going.” She always laughs at that. “But you’re not going anywhere, you’re just wandering about.” That’s not true. Not any more. I have a new destination. My journey is the same as yours, the same as anyone’s. It’s taken me so many years, so many lifetimes, but at last I know where I’m going. Where I’ve always been going. Home. The long way around.

You can see it a bit in Cooper too, in Interstellar, a man who transcends time and space, repeating his mission of rescue over more than one lifetime (in his sleep, on his journeys, and in the black hole).

And their journey is always to home. The long way ’round.

While The Doctor is certainly not a perfected being, what with the casualties of his adventures, his temper and disdain for so many people and their rules, his eyes are always on the greater good and his phenomenal powers and authority do put him a category beyond human.

Lonely God

Of course this risks The Doctor seeing himself as a god and he has battled the dangers of believing this before. In Waters of Mars for instance he is willing to make the rules of the universe obey him. Later, in End of Time Part II, he admits to Wilf that that path is the way of The Master, who seeks to dominate others through force, fear and mental guile.

The Doctor also risks being worshipped by others as Amitabha Buddha. This is the Buddha whose existence is efficacious to followers through prayer or petition rather than personal effort. While his companions (followers) can benefit from The Doctor’s presence and his kindness, and do seek favours, they suffer too and undergo their own tests and trials.

He could also be considered Shiva. The Doctor is a Yogi, but also a husband and parent, he is a destroyer and creator. He slays demons (Daleks) and is also a patron of the Arts (the Great Curator – in The Day of the Doctor). But like any god/hero, his qualities make him like, and unlike all of them.

The Followers

Most of the companions who really understand his complexity would never worship The Doctor. Or if they do, like Amy, they are cured of it for their own salvation (as in The God Complex). It is interesting too how their experiences change them. Some are saved and learn to save others (Rose and Mickey), some suffer (Martha) some are embittered (Sarah-Jane), some forget (Donna) and some are transformed so utterly they are no longer the people they were (Amy and Rory) before The Doctor. I have no conclusion for Clara. I think of all of them she is the most Doctor-like, even compared to Donna. Donna was situated as to be ‘dosed’ with The Doctor, Clara was taught.

With our thoughts we shape the world

The TARDIS is a bio-mechanical representation of relativity and quantum mechanics folded up and accessible in three-dimensional space. It is also a part of The Doctor. They share a connection, it is only truly alive when The Doctor is conscious (The Christmas Invasion). But it travels (mostly) beyond language and the everyday world. It works because it has a will of its own that is coeval to The Doctor’s existence. Thus, it takes him where he needs to be, rather than where he wants to be or intends to go (The Doctor’s Wife).

It is, in some ways, analogous to the body, which is a vehicle for the will but also subject to laws the mind (if such a thing exists) doesn’t always understand. Just as the mind shapes the body and the experience of the physical world shapes the mind, so are The Doctor and his Tardis. You can’t have one without the other, because they are not Other to each other (if you follow).

See I told you: The Meditating Stick Insect Ascetic.

See I told you: The Meditating Stick Insect Ascetic.


Via Negativa

If The Doctor is a Bodhisattva, what is The Master? He embodies samsara, the endless flow of life, which is why he never really dies and also why he never masters himself. Depending on the tradition samsara can be seen as negative, or inevitable, or neutral. Mostly though samsara and The Master are, like Monkey (from Monkey Magic) and Loki irrepressible, mischievous and difficult to control and understand.

The Master is full of ego and suffering and mundane things like desiring power over other people, but like The Doctor sees temporal existence for what it is and acknowledges, on good days, that there is more to it than his/her caprice.

 Karma chameleon

What about Danny Pink’s sacrifice? He is not quite the Bodhisattva The Doctor is; Danny represents more closely a different kind of Buddhist. He returned from the dead, yes, and then had the chance to have his entire life back, complete with his unresolved warrior guilt and girlfriend. He rejects this return to samsaric suffering because this sacrifice extinguishes his karma. He can return the boy he mistakenly killed and transcend his Self, dying free of guilt – or live as the person he was. Through his choice of renunciation, he escapes the wheel of birth and rebirth. It is by this effort that he embodies the path of the Paccekabuddha – one who dwells alone in his enlightenment and the one who doesn’t return from it.



Ode to the Joy

Of course a Bodhisattva like The Doctor would meet Santa, who symbolises Coca Cola sure. But more importantly, embodies the spirit of joy whose annual return celebrates the hope of life (spring) in the middle of darkness (winter). These notions of life returning predate our known stories of such avatars as Jesus and Buddha because they represent all of life itself, this giant ball of life we live and die on, constantly recycling itself to gift more life.

The Astronauts of the Endurance, especially Cooper, through their experience of time, use the laws of relativity and gravity as tools to transcend their limited three-dimensional state to direct the fate of the Earth. If nothing else, that is the one big cool idea of the film.

If you like, as a Timelord, ie one who calibrates time through his understanding of the nature of the universe, The Doctor is the Lord of the Seasons. In this aspect, he represents knowledge of the laws that keep the moon and the stars and the turn of the worlds in balance. His existence rights the world just as Father Christmas’ cheers it.


Hopefully more will be right and cheerful, come the Christmas Special.


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