Growing up I fell in love with a British science fiction series called Doctor Who. When I first discovered it, the show had already been airing weekly “across the pond” for 20+ years and was picking up substantial cult following in 1980’s America. Doctor Who owed its staying power to an unconventional but very effective formula. In a day and age when sci-fi shows and movies focused on blowing their resources on fancy-dancy special effects but placed little (or no) emphasis on story-telling, Doctor Who chose the opposite approach. The series had shoe-string budget which it more than made up for in sheer resourcefulness and creativity. Since exotic laser blasts and explosions were out of the question, the creators concentrated all of their efforts on crafting and telling compelling stories. The result was the same kind of delightful alchemy that immortalized the original 1930’s King Kong. Like the claymation Kong, Doctor Who’s monsters and aliens were obviously not real. Costumes were rubber and the sets were little more than cardboard and plaster but week after week viewers tuned in faithfully. They did so because Doctor Who invited viewers to open the eyes of their imagination rather than just to sit idly by as passive observers.
In recent years, Doctor Who has been renewed and updated and has once again gained a large following here in the U.S. And to my delight it continues to rely on the same story-driven approach that made the series so popular when I was a kid. I’ve been happy to recently bring the joy of Doctor Who to my own family. And I’m pleased to say that they’ve become just as enamored as I was.
The premise behind Doctor Who is very simple. The Doctor (the series namesake and protagonist) is the last of an alien race that was once blessed with the knowledge and ability to travel through time. Furthermore this race, the Time Lords, once shouldered the responsibility for making sure that the structure of time itself (including important events from the beginning to end of the universe) was not altered or manipulated by evil forces. The Doctor travels in a special time machine that senses disturbances in the fabric of the time-continuum and uncannily brings him to times and places where the universe needs rebalancing. This leads him not only to Earth (where he meets a Pantheon of historical figures Kubli Khan to Winston Churchill) but to a myriad of other planets and cultures. The Doctor is a weaponless warrior, who refuses to use guns or bombs to settle his problems, even against ruthless enemies. Though there are times that he’s had to use lethal force against the universe’s most sinister of criminals he prefers the sword of diplomacy and will go to great lengths to reason with his enemies before resorting to extreme measures. The Doctor relies on intellect, humor and sharp wit to overcome seemingly impossible odds in (of course) just the nick of time.
To me, one of the most fascinating aspects of the show (and the one that is the catalyst for our little conversation here today) is the Doctor’s ability to regenerate. When the Doctor sustains a mortal wound his body has the ability to reconfigure and heal the damage. However, as a side effect, the process also completely changes his looks and personality. The only thing that remains in tact after a regeneration cycle is his memory, accrued knowledge and logic skills. He, in essence, becomes a brand-new man. Since Doctor Who’s debut back in 1963 there have been eleven separate incarnations of the character, each one very different from one another, complete with their own unique strengths and weaknesses.
It’s a pure stroke of genius on the part of the show’s creators to build into the storyline mandatory periodic recasting. Doing so insures that the show can adapt to the times, and remain cutting edge while still being able to hang onto its core premise. Yet, for viewers the change is always difficult. On average an actor might play the role of the Doctor for only 3-4 seasons—which is just long enough for us to get to know and love the current Doctor. Then they unceremoniously have him killed off and replace him with someone we’ve never seen before. “Surely” we reason “this new guy can never fill [the outgoing Doctor’s] shoes.” But somehow he always does. And in a few years we’ll be mourning him when it’s his turn to take his final bow.
Change is GOOD—but often painful
My family and I have spent the last few months catching up with the regular viewers thanks to DVD. Recently, we reached the episode where the 10th incarnation of the Doctor (played by the wildly popular David Tennant) regenerated into the gentleman who currently plays the Doctor.
Truthfully, I was dreading it.
The coming change wasn’t a secret by any means. I mean, you could look at the cover of the next season’s DVD and there was a different fella there—standing in Tennant’s place. But this time the regeneration was especially painful to watch. See, on this particular night the winds of change were blowing in my own life. Ironically, it was the night before my son Chris graduated from High School. My work life was in a state of flux because of the economy. Many of the old, well-worn doors were closing in my personal life as friends moved on. And to top all of that off it was less than a month before the one year mission of Character-Quest would come to an end. In a few short weeks so much that I’ve come to know and love would be over. On that magical, but melancholy evening I felt my own impending change coming on. It felt as if somewhere in the heavens above God had licked His finger and was reaching forth to turn my page. As I sat on the couch that night, a willing captive, the Doctor and I both waited for our ‘four knocks’ even as those winds swirled around us.
Then the time came.
For the Doctor the fateful event was cut-and-dried…it always is. His personal imperative is to help others—even at great cost to himself. No matter what personal desires he wrestles with, inner demons he fights or hopes for the future that he might have—the one thing that makes the Doctor the Doctor is his proclivity to give himself for others. On this particular night he faced the choice (just as he always does) of whether to save himself or save some innocent person from imminent peril. And of course, he always chooses the same way—selflessness—and always at great cost.
With his death impending, the Doctor screams “I could have done so much more! It’s not fair!” in anger, despair and agony. Regeneration for him means both death and life. Sure, he’ll come back. But much will have changed. He won’t have the same tastes, dreams and desires. He’ll feel different; love and hate different things. His memories will be intact but he’ll be removed a step or two from them because he (like us) sees the past as much with our heart as we do our eyes. After the moment of despair and weakness passes the Doctor turns to the individual who he had was essentially giving his life for, and with a smile tells him that doing so has been “his honor”. And then nobly—without regret the Doctor lays down his life for his friend.
At my house there was not a dry eye in the room.
Then it happened. The Doctor regenerated. For a long moment he is obviously in terrible pain. Then all at once he bursts open and radiant energy and light flood the room. When the flash subsides a brand new man stands in his place. Gone is the fear, the sadness and the pain. In their place is a glowing smile. Immediately, the new Doctor (played masterfully by Matt Smith) begins comically patting down his body to count his various appendages and enthusiastically rejoices over every single one that he finds intact.
Then he’s off. No sign of mourning, regret or sorrow at all. For him there’s a whole universe out there to see with ‘new eyes’ and he goes right to the task of doing it. But first he has to save his ship which incidentally has spiraled out of control while he was regenerating. This challenge he greets with a hearty “Geronimo!” and an ecstatic laugh. The former things had passed away.
NEEDED: A Periodic Reboot
Now my fellow Character-Questers the time has come for me to follow the example of the 10th Doctor. Just like David Tennant on that fateful night, my turn on stage is over, this act of the play is ending and the time has come for me to take my bow. Character-Quest has been one of my great joys in life. Its sole purpose was to help me grow and develop both as a writer and as a person. It’s been the most ambitious endeavor that I’ve ever undertaken in my life. But it has also been (by far) one of the most rewarding. To do this—to write these things—has required me to ‘open up a vain and bleed’ (as the old writer’s saying goes). You have witnessed my ups and downs, my high points and low points—the times I’ve pushed the envelope way to far and the times I walked away when I should have said a lot more. To do this—this thing—I’ve had to become a new man. The old one—the one that always self-sabotaged his writing, his opportunities, his character—had to die. He had to regenerate in someone who was not afraid of stepping outside of his comfort zone, pushing the boundaries or being controversial and guileless.
I risked a lot—and sacrificed a lot—in order to be where I am now and write these sentences for you. All that I can say is that I’m glad I did and I wouldn’t trade the experience for the world. To do so has truly been my honor.
I must admit that I feel a little bit like David Tenant’s Doctor in the final moments before his regeneration. I am filled with a little fear and despair. See, I have this computer file that’s FULL of half-written posts and article ideas that have never been developed and completed. There is SO MUCH MORE that I could have done! Oh, the places we could have gone together and the things we could have seen…if there was just a little more time! Aaaahhh!!! (Sigh) Indeed Doctor, it is quite ‘unfair’. But that’s what makes life so rich isn’t it? Every moment—every experience—is precious beyond words because it is here for an instant and then it’s gone—a wave that has graced our shore and then spirited away into the depths of the sea.
As a kid, Doctor Who taught me so much. He taught me that it was okay to be different from others. He taught me that true courage having the strength to do right just because it’s right—irregardless of whether doing so was popular or not. He taught me that real monsters were monsters because they were ugly on the inside. However, what the Doctor has taught me as an adult trumps all of that. He has taught me to cope with change. Change is inevitable and necessary for all things. In fact, change is healthy and good. The Doctor taught me that it’s ‘OK’ to mourn for the things that are being lost so long as we have the courage to celebrate the things that lie ahead; that when God decides that it’s time to turn our page that the best thing we can do is count limbs, scream “Geronimo!” and run forth to seize the day. Why? Well, for one thing, unlike the Doctor, we will meet our end one day. The time of its coming will not be of our choosing nor will it be on our terms. Until that time we should learn to truly live and appreciate every moment.
In this next-to-the-last article of The Character-Quest Project I encourage all of you to periodically take advantage of your opportunities to regenerate, re-invent and reboot your self. Don’t EVER stagnate mentally, physically or spiritually! That’s not saying you change any of the good things about who you are. It also doesn’t mean that you quit reaching for your goals. (The Doctor never quit fighting the forces of evil—not even for one minute.) Don’t seek to find ‘who you are’ in life. You’ll see that in the mirror every morning. Instead, seek to find who you are meant to be and throw yourself into becoming it.
That being said, I have one more thing to share with you before you go. Within the next couple of weeks you and I will finally reach the mountain side—you know, the one I promised at the beginning of our trip together. Then this leg of our journey together will end. But fear not; another begins—it will just look a little different. You’ve come a long way faithful Character-Quest reader. (I’m so proud of you!) And guess what? So have I!
Until Next Time…..