Doctor Who and mortality: how fans process death through the Doctor's eyes

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Apr 27, 2017

ReGeneration Who, a Doctor Who convention based in Baltimore, Maryland, has become the place where diehard Whovians come together for an annual March family reunion. The convention has been praised by attendees for providing a solid programming schedule filled with rich content that encourages fans to analyze the show's characters and central themes.

This year, one of ReGeneration Who's most compelling panels focused on the big D in the series. No, not The Doctor. And not the Daleks either. This panel was about The Doctor's most enduring companion and one of the most prevalent themes of the show – death.

"Processing Mortality and Death Using Doctor Who" was a fan-submitted panel led by Decca Dennett and Clay Dockery. A self-proclaimed Jewish atheist, Decca introduced herself to the audience and talked about her involvement in the death positivity movement. She explained that death positive people do not want to die, but rather engage with their mortality and work through their fears about an unavoidable fact of life. Clay also brought in his perspective as a Presbyterian minister about how people use religion to process death.

The 45-minute open forum jumped into the differences of death in the Whoniverse vs. real life. The permanent nature of death in our world and general belief by religious/science authorities that our time stream is fixed goes against The Doctor's world, where death happens but he has the ability to go back in time save someone who may have died without him intervening in the events. He doesn't always make this choice, but his ability to make this choice is profound.

The panelists and audience also discussed how death was approached by the two showrunners in the modern series. In the Russell T Davies era, death had more permanence and characters who died tended to stay dead with the exception of Captain Jack Harkness. One audience member brought up "Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead" and how it suggested a happy afterlife. However, deaths in the Steven Moffat era are continuously circumvented because he just can't break fans hearts. Decca says the Moffat era hasn't dealt with the finality of death and cites Clara Oswald and supporting character Petronella Osgood as examples of characters who were brought back to life in some form.

However, she thinks the show still depicts the effects of loss through companion exits. Fans get to experience a grieving process which is modeled differently with each Doctor and companion. Ten's love hangover prevented him from appreciating Martha Jones, Eleven secluded himself in the clouds after losing Amy/Rory, and Twelve had vivid hallucinations of Clara Oswald. The Doctor's different reactions to losing a companion shows there isn't one way to cope with loss. Many people put on a stone face and carry on, cry when they are alone, and/or fall into a state of despair until they are ready to move forward.

The panel touched on the Doctor's way of dealing with his regenerations and how it related to processing an unavoidable change and/or death. In the modern series, The Doctor's reaction to an impending regeneration varied with each Doctor. The Ninth Doctor calmly explained the regeneration process to Rose Tyler, whom he gave his "life" for after she looked into the heart of the TARDIS, and seemed to embrace his transition into the next chapter in his story.

However, the Tenth Doctor had a much harder time dealing with regenerating, choosing to alter a regeneration by using energy from his severed hand to avoid becoming a new incarnation. And, when it's his time to go, he delays to say goodbye to his friends before declaring "I don't wanna go" and setting his TARDIS on fire with the severity of his regeneration. Ten treated it like a death, which left many people rolling their eyes because The Doctor gets to live on, even if he seems to become a completely different person. But there is a finality in his regeneration because once it happens he cannot go back to a previous incarnation of himself. So, for The Doctor (and some fans), it is a death of sorts as a new version of him takes over. Fans get to experience the end of an era, but they also get to rejoice in the show continuing to move forward and a new reality with another Doctor.

The Doctor is a window into what it would be like to be almost immortal – even he has limits on his regeneration cycle. Wait...the show found a way around this roadblock by having Clara Oswald ask the Time Lords to grant him a new cycle. The Doctor wins once again! Death cheat codes aside, Doctor Who reveals that The Doctor's longevity has some negative effects on his character. He often finds himself battling deadly foes to prevent them from hurting others or causing irreversible damage to history. This usually results in casualties of war – something the Doctor wants to avoid but has been forced to accept because he has to stay focused on the larger picture of saving billions.

Despite losing countless innocent people, having others offer their lives as sacrifice, and dealing with the loss of companions, The Doctor has not become desensitized to death or loss. He feels the weight of death on his shoulders as a certainty in his life just like humans. The big difference is he deals with it on a much larger scale than the average human (including traditional doctors) because of his longevity and traveling abilities. The Tenth Doctor was noted as one who openly spoke about what it felt like to live long after his humans companions "wither and die," referring to it as the "curse of the Time Lord." So, while it seems like a Doctorish life would be incredible, the element of death makes it undesirable. No one, not even a Time Lord, escapes the pain of death.

Outside of Doctor Who, many of TV's most popular shows (Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead) have death as a central theme and viewers have strong reactions to character's exits. Psychologist Nancy Mramor analyzed why fans are so emotionally invested in characters and their deaths/exits in a 2014 interview with Today. Mramor said fans allow these characters into their living rooms and minds so they develop familial ties with them. So, the grieving process is pretty much the same as when a family member or friend passes away. These characters are sometimes put on a pedestal and fans quickly find themselves siding with their behavior, even when they fundamentally disagree with certain actions. Or, a fan identifies with a character on a personal level due to shared life experiences.

Both of these points are seen in Doctor Who. The Doctor, an enduring, omnipotent character, can do/say some awful things. But he gets a pass simply because he is THE Doctor and intellectually superior to humans. Fans are so invested in The Doctor that they absorb his emotions and feel the weight of his losses. Companions, who act as the audience surrogates, capture fans because of shared or desired personality traits and life experiences. Many Doctor Who fans identified with Clara Oswald, a teacher who traveled with The Doctor for pure thrills. She had many desirable traits - intelligence, sharp wit, and bravery - as well as an insatiable wanderlust like most Whovians. So, when she met her gut wrenching "demise" in "Face the Raven," many fans grieved along with The Doctor over a relatable character.

Both panelists explored how Doctor Who presented death as a choice in several situations. The series also has several examples of self-sacrifice in the name of The Doctor. Characters like Jabe Ceth Ceth Jafe, Harriet Jones, and Astrid Peth chose to give their lives so The Doctor could help the greater good. And Adelaide Jones' suicide in "The Waters of Mars" was her choice to die as the universe originally planned instead of accepting a "cheat death" card from a very arrogant Tenth Doctor. Decca believes this opens up the question for the viewing audience about "death with dignity" and people's choice over their own deaths. Clay acknowledged how the religious community generally views death by a person's own hands as well as assisted death but said he was not opposed to death with dignity.

The panel ended with an interesting audience question about Doctor Who's approach to burial and the concept of an afterlife in the modern series. Although the latter subject had been briefly touched on earlier in the panel, more time was spent on how Doctor Who deals with the aftermath of death. Decca noted how the show doesn't deal with the reality of what to do with a body after death, which is a major part of how most people process death.

From different types of burials and the rituals associated with the celebration/mourning of a person's death to cremation and honoring final wishes, people find a sense of closure in how they deal with a loved one's remains. Doctor Who avoids how bodies are processed but does touch on the afterlife in the Moffat era with the Nethersphere. It appears to be a heaven-like place at first but is revealed to be a virtual reality where minds of the deceased were reprogrammed and downloaded into their half-human, half-Cyberman bodies. This is a stark contrast from the world created in "Silence of the Library" but both are still different from the traditional concept of an afterlife. Clay and Decca don't think Doctor Who will cross over into talking about the afterlife in this way because it is easier to say nothing then to think there is something after death.

Overall, the panel brought up a lot of interesting thoughts and theories about Doctor Who and its relationship with death. The show reminds fans that death is a part of life, but gives fans a world where the rules of death can be challenged and allows them to escape into those possibilities. And, the room had a respectful, insightful discussion and came to a conclusion - there is not a "one size fits all" reaction to processing death and other losses. And that's okay.