Saturday, June 07, 2008

Thoughts on Doctor Who, Forest of the Dead


Like last year's Christmas special, Voyage of the Damned, the Doctor uses technology in this episode to attempt to save the life of someone close to him. Whereas in the Christmas special, the tool was the teleport memory buffer, this time around it is the use of a neural link and a massive computer at the heart of the universe's largest library. Of course, the resurrection this time isn't complete--corporal life isn't restored. Just "virtual" existence within the memory of the computer. And this existence is a perpetual existence, in some sort of 'spiritual' mode (though still corporeal, in the form of swarming electrons)--so long as the computer has a power source and is running, and the memory isn't deleted or the disk reformatted.

I've talked about the treatment of death by popular culture before, in reference to Torchwood and House. As one might expect from a post-Christian culture, death is the greatest tragedy, the greatest evil that can befall someone. This time around though, since there's no final 'death' to the character, there is no real confrontation of the afterlife, no regret, no judgment--just assurance of a virtual immortality. (When River Song sacrifices herself to prevent the library from self-destructing, she says her good-byes to the Doctor and reassures him that his happy times with her are yet to come. There isn't much time in the story for her to reflect upon what is about to happen to her, and have regrets.)

It is true that the natural desire for continued existence, for immortality, is the most fundamental natural desire there is, common to all things. Moreover, there is even some awareness in our post-Christian culture that bare life is not in itself the highest good (as we see in the arguments given in support of euthanasia and also abortion); rather life is valuable in so far as it is the foundation which allows us to be engaged in other acts. But what the best sort of acts may be, that is left to us to decide.

What happens after death? Secular humanists and atheists are not necessarily materialists. (Was it Fr. Vincent Micelli, S.J. or William Mara who talked about practical atheists, people who might be believers of some sort but live as if there were no God? As distinguished from intellectually committed atheists, who have convinced themselves of His non-existence, or will it to be the case.) And even strict materialists do not necessarily believe that there is nothing beyond death. For example, some may believe that we persist, in some form of 'life energy.' But this does not appear to be a common view.

The promise of some sort of virtual immortality might appeal to a materialist. Otherwise, in public or in pop culture at least, they adopt a pseudo-stoic attitude that eventually everyone's time to die comes, and we should resign ourselves to that fact. It's much like how we would view the passing of a pet or an animal. "They've lived a good life, and now it's over." But privately is this how they face death when their own time comes? Or do they hope that it happens when they are asleep or unconscious either through illness or medication?

It is difficult to generalize what Western non-Christians believe with respect to what happens after death. What is certain is that this corporal life does not endure, and everyone of sound mind recognizes this. In many areas, we have lost sight of the judgment that awaits us at the end of our lives, which even primitives and pre-Christian cultures acknowledged (probably through the passing on of the contents of what was revealed by God the first human parents.). Many of those Americans who do believe in the existence of a non-corporeal realm and a day of reckoning believe that most people are good or at least decent, even if they concede that some are a little bit better than others; the only ones who are truly evil are the terrible monsters like Hitler, who are responsible for causing so much death and destruction and are guilty of grave crimes against mankind. There's no awareness that offenses against God are worse.

If we do think believe in an afterlife, those of us who do not have faith or educated reason rely too much upon our imagination. We may not have a body, but we do have some sort of a corporeal form, and our activities are much like the ones we have know--communication, leisure, etc. We see this in with the shades/souls of the Greek myths and in popular depictions today.

This is mirrored in the virtual existence provided by the computer in this episode, even if the 'afterlife' is founded upon sci-fi technology, instead of being a naturally occurring event.

As far as I know, even in the classic Who death is final, and while the Doctor has witnessed the death of companions, he has avoided death himself by regenerating. Indeed, that is part of the curse of being a Time Lord, living so long while those he cares about get old and die--hence the Doctor prefers at some point to cut things off with people (as we see with Sarah Jane Smith) to avoid dealing with this unpleasant part of his reality. There is no God in the Who universe, just various sentient races that arise (and eventually disappear), some even learning the secrets of the universe and gaining great power as a result.

The computer was first used to perpetuate an individual's existence when one of the girls in the Lux family (which built the library) was dying, and the family decided to upload her memory into the computer. She thus became the central library computer. The family thought this would give her the happiness she would miss if she were to die, as she could now read all the books she wanted, as the library database saved every book ever published, and "learn" about the universe. It reminds me of the statement put onto a plaque at the new Cupertino library, something along the lines that heaven is like a library.

(Next time I go to the library, I will get the exact quote and edit this post.)

One might think that Aristotle would be happy with that sort of everlasting activity, but his theoria is much different from the Enlightenment encyclopedic project of amassing 'knowledge' through books and passing 'knowledge' on through them. Of course, either is not the salvation that God has offered to us through His Son.

*Edit: Here is the quote -- "I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library." -- Jorge Luis Borges.

So what is the Doctor's name? And under what circumstances would he reveal it?

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