Two broken hearts: the vulnerability of Doctor Who

"the doctor and his companion (cube)" | Art by shorelle. Used with permission.
I first encountered Doctor Who when I was a child visiting my grandparents. Their TV was on in the background, featuring a cast of accented actors. One man stood out, with wildly curly hair and an over-long scarf of various colours. However, it was when the characters crowded into what looked like a tiny blue phone booth, only to be welcomed into a large, technologically advanced interior, that my attention was firmly captured.  And so was born my future as a Whovian (i.e. Doctor Who fan).

For more than half a century, Doctor Who, an alien Time Lord from the planet Gallifrey, has been traveling time and space in his stolen Time and Relative Dimension in Space—better known to all as his TARDIS, which is stuck in the exterior form of a blue British Police box (not phone booth). His unique alien physiology (which includes two hearts) gives him the power, when old or mortally injured, to transform into a new body with a slightly altered personality. All of this, combined with his vast knowledge of science, history (both past and future) and unique technology (namely his sonic screwdriver) make for one impressive time-travelling adventurer.

What makes the Doctor’s journeys so compelling to follow is his choice of companion (usually human) to share his adventures with. As viewers, we share the same sense of wonder that these companions experience, vicariously boarding the TARDIS ourselves.

Doctor Who is at his best when he is vulnerable, facing the fear of death.

Yet, all too often these same companions thrust the Doctor into danger. His deep affection for these people make him vulnerable in many ways, like the countless times a companion has been captured as a means to coerce the Doctor to do the villain’s will. When companions leave the Doctor, they are never left fully unharmed and the Doctor finds himself alone again with two broken hearts. Given the risks and the costs of such friendships, why would the Doctor take companions with him in the first place?

Beyond the obvious answer of needing a consistent cast for the Doctor to interact with, it is, in fact, the very vulnerability the companions create that make their place in the series so compelling and necessary. Throughout the series, the Doctor consistently struggles with his purpose, his identity and the limits to his powers and responsibilities. Again and again, it is these companions who, in the face of danger and death, bring the Doctor to a sense of clarity.

I think of Rose, who breaks through the Doctor’s hard exterior to reach his hearts. I think of Donna, who reminds him he is not always the center of everyone’s universe, and of Rory, who shows him what true love and perseverance can look like. In essence, the companions make this alien Time Lord more human. It is his very love for them that makes him the hero that he has become. As C.S. Lewis said, “To love at all is to be vulnerable.”

One of the critical keys to the success of the Doctor Who franchise has been the presence of this very vulnerability, which reminds us of the importance of that same vulnerability in our own lives. Like the Doctor, we face challenges and tensions every day that require us to make critical choices—choices that threaten who and what we are. While we may not face choices on the scale of universal annihilation, as the Doctor so often does, we do face the fundamental fear of all humanity: the fear of death.

Why would the Doctor take companions with him in the first place?

When I think about death, I’m reminded of Hebrews 2:14-15, which says:

“Since, therefore, the children share flesh and blood, he himself likewise shared the same things, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death.” (emphasis added)

This fear includes, not only a fear of our mortality, but also includes the fear of existential death—that fear of inadequacy, rejection, judgment and alienation. We not only want to stay alive at all costs, but we want to live with stability, acceptance and a sense of social affirmed significance. Too often we will compromise a great deal to secure these seeming safeties.

This is why true heroes are always vulnerable. Doctor Who is at his best when he is vulnerable, facing the fear of death, yet choosing love and sacrifice over self-preservation. Jesus, God-incarnate, embodied this freedom like no other has or will. Just like the Doctor could have walked away and left Wilfrid to die in the radiation booth, Jesus could have saved himself. But He didn’t. Through Him, we are invited to discover the freedom from the bondage of sin and death, if we are simply willing to be vulnerable.

Jamie Arpin-Ricci

Jamie Arpin-Ricci

Guest Writer at Area of Effect
Jamie Arpin-Ricci is the author of Vulnerable Faith: Missional Living in the Radical Way of St. Patrickand The Cost of Community: Jesus, St. Francis and Life in the Kingdom. He pastors at Little Flowers Community in the inner city of Winnipeg.
Jamie Arpin-Ricci

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