Doctor Who: Enlightenment

Enlightenment” is the third and final episode in the Black Guardian trilogy, and another of my favorites from when I was younger. On the DVD release there is a second disc in which some of the special effects have been redone using CGI technology.

The episode features godlike beings that had already been encountered on the show – the white and black guardians – but adds to the mix other immortals, who are engaging in a celestial boat race through the solar system. The prize for the winner is enlightenment.

The depiction of the eternals and their relationship to those beings they refer to as “ephemerals” is fascinating. These entities might seem impossible to outwit, and yet it turns out not to be impossible at all. They are powerful and can read minds, but are not omnipotent and do not always know what you are thinking.

I intentionally waited until after blogging about “The Celestial Toymaker” so as to be able to emphasize how this sort of scenario – the Doctor and human companions against immortal godlike beings – has been an important feature of Doctor Who from the William Hartnell era.

The eternals actually need ephemerals, in the sense that their lives would be incredibly dull without them, and they actually fail to come up with original ideas without parasitically deriving them from mortals. The lives of ephemerals are not valued by immortals – and since our lives are so very short even at their fullest length, why should eternals care if they are cut slightly shorter? When the idea of ephemerals being punished by immortals for disobedience, one of them responds that superior beings do not punish inferior ones: they use them, kindly. And derive entertainment even from their disobedience.

Enlightenment for such entities would be a greater wisdom and knowledge than they have, which would allow them to create and destroy as they wish, without depending on mortals. It is the promise of never needing to be bored again.

That didn’t work out so well for the Toymaker. But perhaps he would have done better with enlightenment. Perhaps he was the captain of one of the ships. It seems like the sort of thing we’d expect him to be involved in.

Towards the end of the fourth and final episode, the Doctor having brought the winning ship to the finish line is offered enlightenment by the white and black guardian. The Doctor refuses, saying he isn’t ready for it, and that no one is fit to have full enlightenment. They then offer a small piece of it to Turlough. The Black Guardian then reminds Turlough of their bargain and demands that he give him either the Doctor or the enlightenment, a bright shining prize in the form of a diamond. Turlough chooses to save the Doctor. The Doctor will then point out that enlightenment wasn’t the diamond, it was the choice. We are reminded at this point of the way some understand the tree of knowledge in Genesis – not as an actual fruit that can give knowledge of good and evil, but as a choice that can do so.

It might have seemed that the Black Guardian was destroyed, but not so. The White Guardian points out that as long as one of them exists, they both will. Light and dark: one cannot exist without the other. This view is reminiscent of Zoroastrian dualism. The episode ends with intriguing hints that the Doctor and the Black Guardian will meet again, and that the two guardians will continue to exist “until they are no longer needed.”

I would point out that the above is science fiction, but it is also unmistakably theology as well. Immortality, immortals, enlightenment, mortality, good and evil – all major religious themes, and dealt with even in this sci-fi context in a manner that is not without deep roots in religious mythology.

And as myth or religion, this episode offers a vision that is rather profound. Immortality is not a goal in and of itself. Mortality gives us the capacity to relish moments, to appreciate the ephemeral even as we are ephemeral, to blaze passionately in ways that seem impossible for entities without limits to their lifespans or other constraints that characterize human existence. Nor is all enlightenment and power something to be desired nor even a gift to be accepted should we be offered it. And ultimately, enlightenment comes not as something we choose but as a result of our choices themselves.

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