As I roll past day forty in quarantine, I’ve found myself thinking a lot about the Doctor Who specials that marked the end of David Tennant’s run as the Doctor. Not so much the finale two-parter which contained his showdown with the Master, but rather “The Next Doctor” (Dec 2008), “Planet of the Dead” (April 2009), and “The Waters of Mars” (Nov 2009). The reason these specials have been on my mind is they explore the Doctor travelling alone, roaming the whole of time and space without any companion(s) by his side. The pain of loneliness and isolation are universal – something we all experience, in various degrees and at various times in our lives. In fact, I’d wager this constant struggle with loneliness is part of what makes the Doctor such an appealing character. We all can relate. While always relevant, this seems particularly poignant now.
Part of the power of these episodes comes with how showrunner Russell T. Davies set them up. As Series Four (Tennant’s last full series as the Doctor) drew to a close, Davies’ finale saw a crisis large enough to reunite the Doctor with all of his companions – all his friends, those he loves, his only family – he’d been with over Davies’ entire four series run. The sheer joy and excitement of seeing everyone together around the TARDIS console makes the emotional shift only moments away so much more heartbreaking, as the narrative ends with the Doctor standing in the TARDIS all alone. While Series One begins with the Doctor travelling alone, indicating he’s travelled that way for some time, the 2005 premiere introduces Rose Tyler. The episode ends with Rose accepting the Doctor’s invitation and running into the TARDIS to explore the universe with him. So these final moments of “Journey’s End,” the 2008 finale of Series Four, mark the first time viewers see the Doctor venturing off truly and completely alone. The way it’s directed and the way David Tennant plays it, the scene sits like a weight in the pit of your stomach leaving a cold emptiness in your heart.
What I love about “The Next Doctor,” “Planet of the Dead,” and “The Waters of Mars” is, when taken together and read as one story, they show how loneliness weighs on our souls. By the end of each episode, the sadness behind the Doctor’s eyes rises with increasing prominence despite the veil of manic excitement he presents whatever problem is before him. But it’s more than just the subtleties in how the Doctor carries himself. Over the course of these episodes, the Doctor makes choices he wouldn’t usually make. He becomes colder, too. Alone and cut off from those we love most, the episodes seem to suggest, we slowly lose more and more of ourselves. We become just a reflection of who we really are seen, as Paul says in 1 Corinthians 13:12, through a glass, darkly.
It’s important to note the Doctor isn’t travelling alone due to tragedy befalling all his loved ones. No, the end of “Journey’s End” sees Rose and her mother Jackie return to the parallel dimension they now call home. Captain Jack Harkness returns to lead Torchwood (the secret organization investigating and protecting the Earth from alien threats when the Doctor isn’t around) alongside Gwen Cooper and Ianto Jones, inviting Martha Jones and Mickey Smith with him to talk potential jobs on the team. Sarah Jane Smith returns to her son, Luke. Only Donna Noble’s fate is more tragic. They all have other lives without the Doctor, lives they naturally return to.
The Doctor could ask any of them to travel with him again for a bit…but he won’t. He won’t let his needs weigh them down. While he has forever touched each of their lives, just as they’ve touched his, he doesn’t quite fit in their lives, not at the moment, not anymore. So he goes on alone while they return to lives in which he no longer has a place.
The way these scenes play out – moving in an emotional lightening strike from you being so happy to bittersweet goodbyes to crying because of the weight of loneliness sitting in your stomach – is a remarkable bit of storytelling. So the Doctor, unwilling to let his need for companionship upend the lives of those he loves, leaves choosing to instead take the weight of his loneliness. He honors their choices, their lives, and he carries his pain alone.
This is where we find the Doctor when the 2008 Christmas special “The Next Doctor” begins. The Doctor exits the TARDIS on Christmas Eve in 1861 and smiles at a snowy London bustling at Christmas time. Quickly, the Doctor learns the Cyberman are in London (a race of cybernetically modified human beings, programmed to strip away all feelings or emotion, who scour the galaxy seeking to assimilate or delete all life). He meets another man calling himself the Doctor (David Morrissey) and his companion Rosita (VelileTshabalala), both fighting against the Cybermen. Presuming this man to be a future regeneration who’s lost some of his memories, the Doctor allies himself with them and they work to stop the rise of the mysterious CyberKing.
Putting the puzzle pieces together, the Doctor learns this man isn’t a future version of himself but a human being named Jackson Lake. When Jackson encountered the Cybermen upon his arrival in London, they killed his wife and kidnapped his son. The trauma was too much to bear so, when the infostamp (a piece of Cyberman tech for storing information) he used against them backfired – an infostamp containing all their knowledge of the Doctor – his mind latched onto the story, taking the identity as his own. Shortly after revealing this painful truth to Jackson, the call to arms goes out for the Cybermen and the Doctor is off. Even in his grief Jackson looks at Rosita and tells her, “The Doctor needs help. I learned that much about him. There should be someone at his side. Now go. Go.”
Yet the Doctor has no one, the ramifications of which are evident when, as the CyberKing rises, the Doctor tells Jackson to take his just-rescued son and get to safety.
Jackson – “But where are you going?”
The Doctor – “To stop that thing!”
Jackson – “Well, I should be with you!”
The Doctor – “Jackson, you’ve got your son. You’ve got a reason to live.”
Jackson – “And you haven’t?”
The Doctor – …..
Jackson – “[with understanding] God save you Doctor.”
With the Cybermen defeated, Jackson invites the Doctor to Christmas dinner with him, Rosita, and his son. His experience showed him a bit of the pain of loneliness which haunts the Doctor and how important it is for him to have people around him. The Doctor, as usual, refuses, not being one to stay behind and socialize after the adventuring.
Jackson – “I take it this is goodbye?”
The Doctor – “Onwards and upwards.”
Jackson – “But tell me one thing. All those facts and figures I saw of the Doctor’s life, you were never alone. All those bright and shining companions but…not anymore?”
The Doctor – “No.”
Jackson – “Might I ask why not?”
The Doctor – “They leave. Because they should or they find someone else. And some of them…some of them….forget me. I suppose in the end…….they break my heart.”
Jackson – “That offer of Christmas dinner is no longer a request it’s a demand.”
The Doctor – “‘In memory of those we lost.’ Ahh, go on then.”
Jackson – “Really?!”
The Doctor – “Just this once. You’ve actually gone and changed my mind, not many people can do that. Jackson, if anyone hadda be the Doctor, I’m glad it was you.”
Jackson – “The feast awaits! Come on, with me. Walk this way.”
The Doctor – “I certainly will. Merry Christmas to you, Jackson.”
Jackson – “Merry Christmas indeed, Doctor.”
These few short exchanges show us much of the Doctor’s emotional state. He is alone because those who have travelled with him have left, a choice he honors…even if it breaks his heart. Yet in honoring their needs, his life is stripped of significant meaning. What is worth living for when you are cutoff from those you love? Yet, even in his self-imposed isolation, he capitulates when Jackson urges he join them for Christmas dinner. The Doctor accepts the offer of community gratefully, all hesitation gone with his smile and agreement. He’s still eager to embrace the joy of life and relationship.
When “Planet of the Dead” begins, the Doctor finds himself back in present day London (so 2009 for those of you keeping track at home), sitting on a bus next to wealthy socialite-turned-jewel-thief-for-fun Lady Christina de Souza (Michelle Ryan) who’s on the run from the police after robbing a museum. With the police in pursuit, the bus unsuspectingly drives through a wormhole and ends up on the planet San Helios. The planet is barren, destroyed by a swarm of metallic stingray-like creatures which also happen to be the force that opened the wormhole, seeking a path to another planet to feast upon. It’s up to the Doctor, naturally, to get everyone on the bus back to Earth and stop the destructive stingray swarm from following.
As the Doctor rallies the people on the bus, trying to give them courage, he asks them where they were heading. After everyone shares he says, “Just think of them. ‘Cause that planet out there? All three suns and worm holes and alien sand, that planet is nothing, you hear me? Nothing compared to all those things waiting for you. Food and home and people – hold on to that. ‘Cause we’re gonna get there. I promise. I’m gonna get you home.” It’s a classic Doctor speech and I always get that warm, fuzzy feeling when I hear it. But, in the context of this episode, it’s tinged with sadness. All the Doctor has now are alien planets and worm holes, no one or home waiting for him.
The easy chemistry between the Doctor and Christina is immediately evident. As they lead the other refugees from Earth and investigate the world of San Helios, the viewer can’t help but wonder if the Doctor’s ready to take a new companion into the TARDIS with him again. He keeps saying things like “We make quite the couple” or “We’re made for each other” or “We’re a team.” At one point, when Christian asks him why he’s smiling he tells her, “Because the worse it gets the more I love it.” She returns an equally big smile and says, “Me too.”
Once they are safely back on Earth, Christina comes running over to the Doctor as he reunites with his TARDIS. During their exchange, all his manic energy drains away. His eyes grow colder, his tone serious as they talk – a stark contrast to her excitement.
Christina – “Little blue box, just like you said. Right then, off we go. C’mon Doctor, show me the stars.”
The Doctor – “No.”
Christina – “What?”
The Doctor – “I said no.”
Christina – “But I saved your life. And you saved mine.”
The Doctor – “So?”
Christina – “We’re surrounded by police. I’ll go to prison.”
The Doctor – “Yeah.”
Christina – “But you’re right. It’s not about money. I only steal things for the adventure and today, with you, I want more days like this. I want every day to be like this. We’re made for each other. You said so yourself, the perfect team.”
The Doctor – …..
Christina – “Why not?”
The Doctor – “People have travelled with me and I’ve lost them. Lost them all. Never again.”
This is a far different Doctor than we see at the end of “The Next Doctor.” With Jackson Lake, the Doctor was mourning the companions he lost yet was still willing to be pulled into Christmas dinner with Jackson, Rosita, and their friends. Here, after an adventure with Christina – a perfect fit for a new companion – the Doctor becomes cold. He won’t even consider taking her with him. It’s not because she’s a thief. As he told her, even he stole the TARDIS from his own people when he ran away to his adventures. In fact, after the Doctor refuses to take Christina with him, he still makes absolutely sure she escapes from the police before he leaves.
No, now his self-isolation has become the choice. He’s not honoring his loved ones’ needs but building walls to keep people from the presumed harm life with him brings…and to protect himself from the pain of losing them. This is not the Doctor we’ve followed for four series. With the adventure behind them, the façade drops. Being alone is changing him. We see the colder, closed off person he’s becoming. We see his pain.
This all comes to a head in “The Waters of Mars.” As Doctor Who episodes go, this one is CREEPY. Doctor Who often utilizes classic horror tropes to great effect but, put within the larger context of reading these episodes as one narrative, we see this horror aesthetic has a deeper symbolic purpose. Yes, the water-born sentient virus infecting the crew is scary. But what is far scarier is what’s happening within the Doctor’s own hearts. He is so far from himself with consequences more haunting than the creatures the virus makes can ever be.
The Doctor’s arrived at Bowie Base One, located in the Gustav Crater on Mars – the first off-world colony in Earth’s history. Led by Captain Adelaide Brook (Lindsay Duncan), her team is comprised of Deputy Edward Gold (Peter O’Brien), Dr. Tarak Ital MD (Chook Sibtain), Nurse Yuri Kerenski (Aleksander Mikic), senior technician Steffi Ehrlich (Cosima Shaw), junior technician Roman Groom (Michael Goldsmith), geologist Mia Bennett (Gemma Chan), Officer Maggie Cain (Sharon Duncan Brewster), and Officer Andy Stone (Alan Ruscoe). When the Doctor realizes he’s arrived on November 21st 2059, he knows this is a fixed point in time.
Quick sidebar if you’re unfamiliar, the way time travel works on Doctor Who is most of history is fluid, so the Doctor can affect events and try to save lives and make things better wherever he goes. However, there are certain moments in history that are FIXED. These must always happen. The whole flow of time depends on it and if a fixed point in time is altered, catastrophe will follow threatening the whole of reality.
Through the entire episode the Doctor keeps reiterating how he can’t be there and how he has to leave…yet he keeps allowing himself to be pulled into the events unfolding on Bowie Base One. At first it’s curiosity. No one ever knew what happened that led Captain Adelaide Brook to detonate the base, leading to its destruction and the death of her entire crew. Along with the crew, the Doctor learns this ancient and sentient virus is turning the crew into creatures as it’s intent on reaching Earth’s fresh water supply. As things get worse, the tension within the Doctor is evident.
He wants to help but he knows he can’t. For the whole of history, he has to let these people die. Adelaide’s example inspires her granddaughter who will lead humanity into the stars. The whole of human space exploration begins here. As the Doctor listens to the comms while preparing to leave the base he hears the crew’s growing panic at the water floods all their paths to safety. All-consuming heartbreak spreads on his face. It’s a long scene, by TV standards, cutting back and forth between the Doctor frozen in resignation and the crew’s frantic attempts to save themselves. As he walks away from the base listening to them die…fuck, I cry every time.
As the Doctor watches flames engulf Bowie Base One, he makes a decision with far-reaching implications. He returns to save Adelaide and the remaining members of her crew. While he’s helping them sure up their line of defense, she questions him. His reply comes with an excitement wrapped in an almost unhinged mania.
Adelaide – “You said we died, for the future, for the human race.”
The Doctor – “Yes, because there are laws, there are laws of time. And once upon a time there were people in charge of those rules. But they died. They all died. Do you know who that leaves? Me. It’s taken me all these years to realize the laws of time are MINE and THEY WILL OBEY ME. We’re not just fighting the flood we’re fighting time itself and I’M GONNA WIN.”
The Doctor is successful. When the TARDIS materializes on Earth, outside Adelaide’s house, they share a sobering conversation. There is steel in the Doctor’s voice now, overlaying the cold seriousness we saw at the end of “Planet of the Dead.”
Adelaide – “You saved us?”
The Doctor – “[happily] Just think though, your daughter and your daughter’s daughter, you can see them again. Family reunion.”
Adelaide – “But I’m supposed to be dead.”
The Doctor – “[with pride] Not anymore.”
Adelaide – “But Susie…my granddaughter, the person she’s supposed to become, might never exist now.”
The Doctor – “Nah, Captain Adelaide can inspire her face-to-face. Different details but the story’s the same.”
Adelaide – “You can’t know that! And if my family changes…the whole of history could change…the future of the human race. No one should have that much power.”
The Doctor – “[with the steel entering his voice] Tough.”
Adelaide – “You should’ve left us there.”
The Doctor – “Adelaide, I’ve done this sort of thing before. In small ways, saved some little people. [with pride again] But never someone as important as you. Oooo, I’m good.”
Adelaide – “‘Little people’? Who decides they’re so unimportant? You?”
The Doctor – “For a long time now I thought I was just a survivor, but I’m not. I’m the winner. That’s who I am – the Time Lord Victorious.”
Adelaide – “And there’s no one to stop you.”
The Doctor – “No.”
Adelaide – “This is wrong Doctor, I don’t care who you are. The Time Lord Victorious is wrong.”
The Doctor – “That’s for me to decide. Now you better get home. Oh, it’s all locked up. You’ve been away. Still, that’s easy. [using the sonic screwdriver to open her door] All yours.”
Adelaide – “Is there nothing you can’t do?”
The Doctor – “Not anymore.”
In a brutally shocking moment, Adelaide enters her house, draws her pistol, and kills herself. The balance of history is restored. Upon hearing the shot, regret and realization instantly wash over the Doctor. His coldness and arrogance crumble. With a pained look on his face he mutters, “I’ve gone too far.” The loneliness and isolation changed the Doctor and when he realizes this, he is transformed yet again. Far from saving Captain Adelaide Brooks, he now becomes directly responsible for her death. The Doctor will carry the weight of what he did as a result of how he allowed the pain and fear of his isolation to change him for the rest of his very long life. Her death is now his fault, the price of his thoughtlessness, his arrogance, his selfishness.
This story, this lesson, is why I keep thinking of “The Next Doctor,” “Planet of the Dead,” and “The Waters of Mars” as I sit at home in my quarantine. It’s not all bad. As a student of mine so brilliantly put it in a reflection I asked them to write about how they were dealing with self-isolation, “There’s a lot to like, even though this isn’t fun.” I agree. There’s plenty to enjoy. I’ve loved my extra time to read. I’ve loved the Doctor Who Lockdown viewings Emily Cook has been organizing on Twitter. I’ve loved waving to people and seeing people wave back when I go out walking, as human interaction is valued now in a way it hasn’t been in…well, maybe in my entire lifetime. So there are plenty of good days.
But there are bad days, too. And when they hit, they hit. Personally, Friday was a shitty day for me. I was over it twenty minutes after I woke up. Emotionally it hit me hard and it took a lot from me. More, if I’m being honest, than I’m probably fully aware of yet. Thursday was awesome. Thursday I’d actually told my therapist that – accounting for the struggles with quarantine – I was the happiest I’ve been in a long time. Then Friday came.
As I wrestle with the bad days, I can understand these protests to reopen the states/reopen the economy. Even though I absolutely believe our lockdowns are necessary and they are saving lives, even though I don’t agree with the ends the protests hope to achieve, I can empathize with them. Some protestors, of course, are just thoughtlessly marching to the Trump and/or Fox New drumbeat. But some, I’m sure, are reacting because they don’t know what else to do with themselves anymore. I understand that. It is hard, frustrating, and scary to be living as we are. To be cutoff from our normal lives, our relationships, our routines, for some our jobs and sources of income, and our very ability to choose is unlike anything most of us have faced before. Every time I wear my mask to go grocery shopping I feel claustrophobic and it reminds me of how powerless I am in the face of what’s around us. It’s shitty and scary and I don’t like it.
Then, on top of that, I have days like Friday. Emotionally and spiritually, it was unbearable in so many ways.
Still, I knew I had to bear it. I had to figure out a way to bear it. So, amongst other things, I turned to the Doctor.
In these episodes, the Doctor gives us a model and a warning. We see him shouldering the burden of being alone to honor what’s best for his loved ones, accepting he is not what they need in their lives at the moment. Willingly embracing self-isolation to honor and protect those we love is admirable. More than admirable, it’s love in action. It can be hard, but whoever said love was easy? We take the pain of loneliness because others need us to. We also see a cautionary tale of what can happen to us and those around us, if we lose sight of why we’re doing what we’re doing. Cutoff from everything, it’s easy to lose our grip on the delicate balance of our interdependence. With so much time on our own, it’s even easier than normal to focus exclusively on what we want, what we feel is best for ourselves. When that happens, we can lose sight of the potential ramifications of our thoughtless actions and this can leave us carrying a guilt we’d rather not have weighing on our souls.
In all the fear, in all the pain, in all the uncertainty we have to try and be like the Doctor. We have to try to look deep within and find that same courage. Sometimes there are reasons we can’t be around the people we love. A global pandemic is certainly a good one. In love, we have to do our best to shoulder that burden, to take the loneliness and isolation and bear the seemingly unbearable because that’s what loves does. Sometimes our presence can hurt. Sometimes being with us may be asking too much, may be too big a burden for the other. In love, we endure the loneliness to help those we love and we look with courage and with hope to when we can be together again. We just have to try our best to maintain the awareness of our motivations that should ground all our actions because the Doctor has shown us, in haunting clarity, what can happen when we lose sight of it.