I’ve decided to work on achieving the next level of my Doctor Who nerd cred that I’ve been meaning to do for some time, especially after the Doctor Who convention in May: the Big Finish audio adventures.
This is an aspect of the series that not a lot of fans know about or get into – especially newer fans of the 2005 reboot who have debates over whether David Tennant or Matt Smith is the best Doctor evaaaah.
Personally, I’m a fan of the Third Doctor, Jon Pertwee. A lot of people aren’t crazy about him. They find him cold, condescending, and even callous. But he’s the scientist Doctor. There is no mystery he can’t solve by using calm logic and deductive reasoning. And when all else fails, there’s always Venusian aikido.
So back to Big Finish.
The British company was founded in 1996, and they started releasing Doctor Who stories in 1999. Basically, they’re audio plays that follow the first eight incarnations of the Doctor and his companions outside of the TV show.
I got into radio plays as a teenager with the Focus on the Family radio theater productions of The Chronicles of Narnia, which I still think are the best adaptations of those stories. Radio is a different medium than television or film. The action takes place in your imagination. It’s so much more engaging, in my opinion.
So yesterday, I downloaded my first Doctor Who story: Zagreus (2003). In short, the Eighth Doctor (Paul McGann) and the TARDIS are exposed to anti-time after an explosion and he is taken over by Zagreus, a creature from an ancient Gallifreyan nursery rhyme. There are quite a few references to Alice in Wonderland, which in several places feels a bit silly. The Third, Fifth, Sixth, and Seventh Doctors are pulled into the story and help Eight regain power over himself and defeat Rassilon. Rassilon is one of the founders of the Time Lords who turned out to be something of a psychopath and even a shadow of Josef Mengele after he experimented with Time Lord physiology to give the race its thirteen regenerations.
There was a moment at the very end of the story though that took me by surprise. Leela, the “savage” companion of the Fourth Doctor, made an appearance. I love Leela, partly because she’s one of the strongest female characters in the entire series, and is probably the most capable and independent of all the companions.
Her weapon of choice in her first episodes is the Janis thorn, a plant from Leela’s home world that causes paralysis and death in victims, something the Fourth Doctor finds so disturbing that he forbids her from using it anymore.
She doesn’t hesitate to fight or to kill, and shows no fear of death or dying. In one episode, The Horror of Fang Rock (1977), Leela is temporarily blinded by a flash and asks the Doctor to kill her. “It is the fate of the old and crippled!” she says. In The Image of the Fendahl (1977), she says to the Doctor, “There is a guard. I shall kill him.” He tells her not to, explaining that it’ll disturb K-9 (his robotic dog).
In The Sun Makers (1977), Leela is about to preemptively kill a guard. The Doctor stops her, saying that he hasn’t done her any harm. She replies, “Then I shall kill him before he does!”
At the end of Zagreus, the Doctor has told Charley (Charlotte Pollard) that she can’t come with him into another universe; that it’s too dangerous and that he doesn’t trust that he’s entirely free of Zagreus. She and Leela are sitting outside the TARDIS.
Leela: You are crying, Charlotte Pollard.
Charley: I am not.
Leela: Not on the outside. In my tribe, a witch-woman grieves on behalf of us all. Better that than for an enemy to witness a warrior’s tears.
Charley: I am not crying, all right!
Leela: Then let me cry for you.
It was a moment that really took me by surprise for how moving it was. Leela is a woman of action. She doesn’t hesitate to fight, to kill, to charge into battle. And here, we see that she is also a woman of deep feeling, that she can also allow herself to take on and feel the grief of another person.
That is notion of grieving with and for another person is something that, in the United States at least, is a very foreign idea. We don’t do very well with “negative” emotions as Americans. We try to get through them as quickly and privately as possible. We slap a smiley face on everything to pretend that it’s all okay.
It’s a practice that is also common in many other cultures and parts of the world. When someone is killed in, say, the Middle East, the entire community turns out to mourn. Men and women wail and weep loudly. To our emotionally repressed Western eyes, it’s something that’s distasteful, unseemly, immodest — savage, even.
Community is not something that we do well in the Western world. There’s more a sense of communal living in places like Europe. But we Americans like our space, independence, and freedom. We lock ourselves away in our houses, in cars as we drive to and from those houses. We have offices and cubicles at work that we stake out as “ours.”
“Let me cry for you.”
Grief is an intensely private thing. Rather than let others join with us in experiencing and mourning loss, we shut them out. We gather with close family and friends, but for the most part we cry alone. And we heal alone.
A friend of mine recently lost his grandmother. He got the news that she was dying during one of our recent band practices for Sunday Assembly, and a few days ago she died. We had a discussion that night about community, and how we deal with grief and death as atheists.
I wonder: how would it be if we could cry for each other?