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The Doctor’s Eternal Perseverance} ?> “This traffic is taking forever.” “I’m never going to find the right woman.” “Waiting for the DMV took an eternity.”
I recognize these statements, of course, as the hyperbole that they are, even as I speak them. But such a blasé attitude towards the concept of eternity and infinity cheapens it. I have never experienced more than a lifetime and my exaggerations do not come close to expressing what eternity must feel like.
Therefore, to be patient or persevere in the face of eternity is an ideal that escapes me completely. I know there is either a finite time that I will have to wait or I recognize that death will claim me before I ever see the consummation of my hope, whatever it may be. What would happen, though, if somehow I could comprehend eternity to the point that, no matter what happens, I can push through?
In the penultimate episode of the ninth season of the “new” Doctor Who (titled “Heaven Sent”), Peter Capaldi’s Doctor explores this concept of forever. He finds himself in some sort of elaborate trap with a mysterious stalker who elicits something we’re not familiar with the Doctor experiencing: fear. The Doctor is afraid of this… thing. We know it’s called “The Veil” only by the end credits, but, beyond that, we don’t know anything other than it was specifically designed from the Doctor’s worst nightmares to evoke a reaction of fear from the rogue Time Lord.
The Doctor reasons that fear is being used as a motivation to coerce him to reveal his deepest, darkest secrets. As fear does its work, every time the Doctor confesses something, the Veil halts, the castle reconfigures, and he is given a brief reprieve before he is taken into the darkness of fear yet again. Internally, in his mind palace of a TARDIS, the Doctor tries desperately to fight off the despair that, eventually, wears him down. He wants to be released from the obligation to win. “Can’t I lose just this once?”
In reflection, this is the Doctor’s biggest tragedy. He has lived for literally thousands of years to the point that his age is, effectively, unknown. Of any creature in the universe, so far, he has come the closest to experiencing eternity. In all that time he is driven by an apparent compulsion to win, to be the good guy, and to protect the innocent.
But in this episode, he is tired of winning. He’s won so many times that he reasons he will eventually lose. He might as well give up. He has lost Clara, one of the very few people that he can honestly say he loved. Exhausted, grieving, lost, and alone, can we blame him for wanting to give up? Eternity is so long, so incredibly long, that, just once, just once would it hurt for him to not win?
It is at this moment, that Clara appears to him fully in his mind palace. In this moment, she sets him straight. And they are strange words of comfort. I’d probably smack someone who told me to “get off my arse” and just deal with it. But in this situation it worked. Why? I can only guess as we aren’t given much to go on within the episode, but there’s really only one thing that would motivate the Doctor to get going again, especially since his other motivation, obligation, has broken down. Just one four letter word:
It is the love of Clara, the love of people, the love of righteousness, the love of justice, the love of his home planet, the love of everything else in the universe that gets him back on his feet to reconsider the price of eternity. The intense grief of losing Clara and the darkness of being alone can only be overcome by his memory of Clara and his love for her. For her, and her alone, will he persevere eternally. And it is an eternity of fear, pain, and death in what the Doctor called his “personal hell” as he effectively re-enacts the story of the bird sharpening its beak on the diamond mountain to measure eternity.
Why do I face eternity with hope? Looking around the world, looking at the capacity of humanity to do such horrible things to each other, considering it with fear and despair that nothing will ever change, nothing will ever improve, and all this will just keep going on and on forever with no end in sight, it is so easy to just collapse in grief and say, “Can’t I just lose, just this once?” But like Clara, we have someone who tells us, “Yeah, where prophecies happen, they’ll cease. Knowledge will pass away. Language will stop being meaningful. In all this, my understanding was that of a child and I couldn’t see clearly. But now, now I see it clearly, even if in part. There are three things we are left with of eternal importance: trust in something bigger than ourselves, hope that there is good in the world, and love that makes it all worth it. And of these three, love is the most important.”
Because of love, something that is truly heaven sent, I can face even the worst eternity.