Yes, the Asgardian Avenger’s second franchise episode includes a new antagonist, Malekith, played by Christopher Eccleston, yet in marketing currently takes second place to Tom Hiddleston as Loki. But while many may know Eccleston first as a hollow-sounding villain in Thor trailers, I “met” him sans elf makeup, in this early Doctor Who promo.
Long, dark, creepy corridor. Running footsteps. A crew-cut, black jacket-clad man looks up. Double-take/repeat edit. He asks suddenly and earnestly: “Do you want to come with me?”
Rush through darker corridor. Grinding sound — the classic landing sound of the Doctor’s time-travel blue box. “‘Cause if you do, then I should warn you,” the man continues, rising to stride across a steampunk-esque, sci-fi set. Electronic sounds and sweet theme music. Briefly we see him, the Doctor, doing the classic run-away-from-hallway-explosion shot.
“You’re gonna see all sorts of things. Ghosts from the past. Aliens from the future. The day the Earth died in a ball of flame. It won’t be quiet, it won’t be safe, and it won’t be calm. But I’ll tell you what it will be.” (Dramatic pause and another echo.) “The trip of a lifetime.”
I saw this promo in 2007, long after Doctor Who had exchanged Ninth Doctor Eccleston for Tenth Doctor David Tennant, and I disliked Tennant. I’ve since learned fans have diagnoses for the cycle of refusing to accept a new Doctor Who lead and then getting over yourself. Now I enjoy Eccleston, Tennant, and Eleventh Doctor Matt Smith alike. But Eccleston is still “my first Doctor,” or “my Doctor” — fan parlance for the first Doctor actor you enjoyed.
For me, his version of the Doctor first delivered the show’s promise of “a trip of a lifetime.”
Surely this is why Doctor Who has gathered such dedicated fans in just eight years. It’s not just nostalgia, intricate plotting, fantastic places, lifelike and larger-than-life characters, action, music, or themes borrowing from Christianity and humanism. All these instruments instead harmonize for an epic performance, in every series and in most of the short seasons’ episodes — a performance that leads fans to wonder.
Newcomers to Who first meet the Doctor in London fighting plastic creatures animated by a molten-lava consciousness. Not a very inspiring storyline. Things go wider-screen when the Doctor takes his new friend Rose to the actual end of planet Earth. But if the first of series 1 is Genesis and Exodus — despite some slow spots, easy to get through — its Leviticus is “Aliens of London”/“World War 3,” e.g., The Ones with the Farting Aliens.
Still not very inspiring, not awesome, and not necessarily the wondrous “trip of a lifetime.”
Then suddenly, perhaps halfway through series 1, it begins. You realize you are on said trip. You enjoy the Doctor, you’re putting up fine with Rose, and the imagination is increasing. What if this diverse world were out there? What if this past, present and future were real?
The Tenth Doctor carries travelers even further. His debut series episode “New Earth” remains one of my favorites — the title alone recalls Scripture and the story shines with reflected light from God’s story. The Doctor travels to another dimension to fight robotic evils; fights a werewolf in Scotland; and during impending doom from a black hole, drops into a bottomed pit to confront an entity who’s pretty much meant to be the “real” devil. In Series 3 the Doctor returns to New Earth, then travels to the end of the universe and of humanity. In series 4, Earth gets stolen — yes, the whole place.
I’m unsure if I envy the viewer who binge-watches all this on Netflix over one weekend. But I do envy those who charge with the Doctor into these worlds. Yes, I could do with fewer genocidal Daleks, cold-logic Cybermen, or stone-freaky Weeping Angels. But to see a planet that somehow orbits a black hole, existence’s near-end, or the universe’s largest library? That’s inspiring.
New Doctor, TARDIS, showrunner, story arc, theme music, everything — series 5 and up continues the promised lifetime trip. Eleventh Doctor Matt Smith, who will depart in this year’s Christmas special, never slows with the stories. Earth-history journeys, cracks that retroactively erase time, and the Doctor’s own impending can’t-stop-it, really-it’s-real-now, once-and-forever, cry-fans-cry-because-we’re-serious-this-time deaths (I count one apiece for series 6 and 7) — all of this takes the journey in bold, and mostly new directions.
The Doctor’s Cure
If the Doctor prescribes this time-and-space vacation, what is the disease? His companions could tell us, and often do in their voiceover narrations. Rose Tyler has a dull department store-working London life. Amy Pond is longing for the “raggedy Doctor” she met as a child.
Yet perhaps companion Donna Noble best shows the disease and the cure. Ah, how fans once lamented this casting! But when this “shouting fishwife” from a single Christmas special returned as a series regular, her single trip with the Doctor had changed her life. No longer did she live, as someone described her, obsessed with “Brad and Angelina, ‘is Posh pregnant?’ ‘X Factor,’ Atkins diet, feng shui, split ends … the never-ending fountain of fat, stupid trivia.” Instead Donna gazes to the stars with her grandfather and whispers, “If you ever see a little blue box fly up there in the sky, you shout for me, Gramps.”
Like the Doctor’s companions, we wish we could go on such a trip of a lifetime. And if we yearn to discern and enjoy stories for more, this may help us anticipate our real journey.
For Christians, we expect our final destination, and then travels lasting for eternity. Beyond this age of sin and salvation will at last come the trip of a lifetime — in Christ’s resurrected world, the New Heavens and New Earth. And we will definitely want to come with him.