Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Bigger on the Inside: The Mystical in Doctor Who

My name is Christian Swenson, and I am a Whovian. This claim--that I am a member of a fandom celebrating the 52-year-old television show called Doctor Who--is not something I'm at all ashamed to admit here. I have watched Doctor Who for just about as long as I've maintained this blog, so I'm actually much more ashamed to say that in those 5 1/2 years, I haven't touched on the show here at all. I intend to change that.

Doctor Who tells the story of an alien simply named "The Doctor," who travels through time and space in his spaceship/time machine called the Tardis, which, though outwardly a 1960s British Police telephone box, is inwardly vaster than you can imagine. He is a member of an alien race called the Time Lords and understands himself to be its sole remaining member for much of the recent series. When he gets close to dying, his body undergoes a process called "regeneration," by which it renews itself into the form of a completely new person with a completely new personality, though his underlying identity and memories remain the same. On his voyages throughout the cosmos, he does his utmost to preserve peace, freedom, and well-being among the many denizens of the universe, and in doing so he becomes something of a savior figure.

Though you may find my religious verbiage there a bit surprising, know that I'm just getting started. As a matter of fact, Doctor Who is chock-full of spiritual and mystical themes, and though many might imagine it to be a bastion of secularism, I know better. Despite what the show's creators may have intended (Douglas Adams being among them at one point), the archetypes of spirituality have "shone through the cracks" of the show, to the point where Doctor Who is a veritable religious mythos all of its own.

This is far from shallow philosophizing. I went to a panel at a local Comic-Con-esque convention last January with some stars from Doctor Who, and I was surprised to see how many fans got up to say that the show had actually changed their lives. With an emotional passion surprising for a mere "television show," they got up to say that the values, stories, and themes from Doctor Who had given them a framework by which to guide and govern their own lives. They also said that the show had given them comfort when life was at its bleakest, and one young woman actually said that it had "saved her life."

Does that sound like just another sci-fi show, a potentially trivial waste of time? Is Doctor Who just an entertaining way to spend an hour of television programming, or is it something more? I think it is. During the time when the Doctor graces our screens, I believe they are actually bigger on the inside--televisions become Tardises. And that is the Doctor's magic: he knows the secret of the Time Lords' craft, and he understands better than anyone alive that anything at all can be inwardly vaster than it appears. When the Doctor shows us this understanding, our hearts swell (and double), and we too become Tardises. It is no accident that when the Doctor's Tardis became temporarily incarnate in a human body, she explained how surprised she was that people were all "so much bigger on the inside!"

The Doctor sees the inner immensity of all things--when he notices the beauty in a gigantic insect or some other apparently disgusting monster, he is just remembering that his time machine is hardly what it appears to be from the outside. When an old, embittered man says that a woman is "nobody important" and the Doctor cheekily remarks "you know, in 900 years of time and space, I've never met somebody who wasn't important before," he is again repeating that secret Time Lord way of seeing the universe, where nothing is insignificant, because they are all inwardly vast.

Could it be that when these young fans tearfully thank a Matt Smith or a Billie Piper for Doctor Who's saving power, they are expressing gratitude for the Doctor's revelation that they are more than mere lumps of expendable flesh, that they too are bigger on the inside? And not just them--with a mere flick of the Doctor's sonic screwdriver, everything becomes a TARDIS: my friend, my lover, my book, that tree, a memory, or a thought all reveal themselves as a hidden world, one that opens up to the entirety of space and time.

How many of us haven't seen "a world in a grain of sand and heaven in a wild flower?" Surely everyone knows the thrill of looking deeply into something or someone, and then seeing them open up to the vastness of eternity. When this "opening" happens, the police box is merely swinging ajar its doors--Blake's "grain of sand" is a Tardis, and through it you can visit anything and everything in creation.

And who says Tardises can't have more Tardises within them--depth within depth, worlds within worlds? Suddenly I am reminded of a passage from C. S. Lewis's last entry in the Chronicles of NarniaThe Last Battle, in which all the Narnians we knew and loved passed from "the Shadowlands" to a more "internal," yet much vaster and richer Narnia. Speaking with her friend Mr. Tumnus from a garden at the top of a hill, the girl-turned-young-woman Lucy Pevensie says:

"'I see,' she said at last, thoughtfully. 'I see now. This garden is like the Stable. It is far bigger inside than it was outside.' 'Of course, Daughter of Eve,' said the Faun. 'The further up and the further in you go, the bigger everything gets. The inside is larger than the outside."Lucy looked hard at the garden and saw that it was not really a garden at all, but a whole world, with its own rivers and woods and sea and mountains. but they were not strange: she knew them all.'I see,' she said. 'This is still Narnia, and more real and more beautiful than the Narnia down below, just as it was more real and more beautiful than the Narnia outside the Stable door! I see...world within world, Narnia within Narnia...''Yes,' said Mr. Tumnus, 'like an onion: except that as you go in and in, each circle is larger than the last.'"

When I open the doors to the Tardises in my friend or my 'companion," I can go forever "further up and further in" to him or her. An angry facial expression can become an intimation of volcanoes or an ancient battle, and a kind word can awaken the long dead or open up Forrest Gump's box of chocolates. Anything can suggest anything; like unto like, forever and ever (see this post for a more lengthy and rigorous discussion of this topic).

And of course, let's not forget the Doctor himself! He comes from another world, irrupting into this one like a flash of lightning in "an oncoming storm." Yes, he looks human, but he isn't; he is a being of fire and light hidden in human flesh, which fire breaks forth to issue him forth from one way of being to another. We can never speak his name, for surely it would burn our tongues if we tried. He goes from here to there and there to here without effort. He is simultaneously boyish and unspeakably old; he is a door between worlds.

What does all this mean? The Doctor always comes in the nick of time, but that is, of course, because he is himself a "nick" in time! He is a tiny hole in the established way of things, one by which the "everlasting burnings" of  eternity can break through and transform us. For he not only regenerates himself--he regenerates the world. That's his job--to transmute the world into gold, to heal us of our ills, to save us all from our own monsters.

I know of many Doctors in the world--Christ, of course, but also anyone who seems not to jibe with the times, but whose foolishness changes the world for good. My favorite is actually Joseph Smith--like Lucy Pevensie discovering a world in a backroom wardrobe, or Amy Pond finding a Tardis in her backyard, Joseph Smith had the privilege and great responsibility of discovering a window to eternity in the backwoods of his hometown. What is this Tardis, you might ask? Well, it's pretty easy to find: The Book of Mormon is also square, blue, and bigger on the inside!

What an odd synchronicity! And I don't think it's accidental--blue is the color of depth, of great distance incarnate in the small and near at hand. The Book of Mormon and the Tardis both come to us "out of the blue," as they are windows onto the "great blue yonder" of eternity, the great expanse of the firmament that links earth and heaven. Heaven on earth; eternity in time; the bigger inside in the smaller outside. Who knows--maybe the Doctor is hidden somewhere in that blue box of a book!

So let us remember the Doctor's secret. As we go throughout our days, let us put on his "brainy-specs" or his eccentric 3D glasses, so that we may see the depth in things.  Don't be afraid to stand up for the tiny--as a Whovian, you should know better than anyone that it is inwardly huge (blessed are the tiny, for they are bigger on the inside!). And finally, see what's hidden in plain sight; look past perception filters; don't blink. If you look carefully, attentively, with the care of a Doctor, you'll find more than just the outside of things--you'll find a Tardis.

1 comment:

  1. I love the idea that this goofy, sometimes deeply astounding show can show us more about ourselves.