Saturday, April 21, 2007

Deconstructing the Doctor (and Rani, and Fayubi...)

"He is ancient and forever. He burns at the center of Time,
and he can see the turn of the Universe."
- voiceover, Doctor Who 2007 series trailer

"I am not the Doctor" - Dr. John Smith(?), same trailer

There's a British trailer for the new season of Doctor Who that I've been watching and rewatching for the last couple of days, mostly because of the two snippets referenced above. I don't know for sure which upcoming episode that first quote is from, or even what it means, but it certainly sounds impressive. The second quote is in complete contrast to the first. I'm reasonably certain that it's from the episode "Human Nature," which will air in the U.K. on John's and my 28th anniversary, May 19th. Based on what I've read, the Doctor will transform himself into a human being temporarily in that story, giving up his Time Lord abilities and sensibilities, and probably all or most of his memories. The writer of the episode, Paul Cornell, previously wrote a Doctor Who novel with the same title and basic premise. Unable to understand his companion's grief at the death of a friend, the Seventh Doctor spends part of the novel as a human teacher named Dr John Smith. I've got the book in a box around here somewhere, but I haven't read it since it came out over a decade ago.

Now, I'm not sure I quite like the idea that the series is going to do this to the Doctor even for one episode, especially if it is taken as far as the novel did. But there's no denying that the concept fascinates me, and not just because of my current Doctor Who binge. Start with a well-established character, find a way to take away half of his or her defining traits, and what have you got? Does some essential personality remain, or is the person someone else entirely? If the character then regains what was lost, is he or she the same person as before, or forever changed? The answers to those questions will determine whether I like or hate "Human Nature," the episode.

The last time I was this trepidatious about a tv episode was when the revival of Doctor Who premiered in 2005, and I was worried that the Doctor as depicted would be too different from the established character to be the same person. The last time before that was when Sam Beckett had a shock treatment at the leap-out to the Quantum Leap episode "Shock Theater." If Sam didn't remember or acknowledge being the time traveling physicist, even to Al, could he really be Sam at all? It turned out that he was, to a degree, but the mixing up of Sam Beckett with personalities from his past leaps was pretty compelling to watch, and said a lot about the character that we might never have discovered otherwise. Similarly, in the Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode "Anne," Buffy without her home, family, friends or real name is still the Slayer, no matter how much she tries to hide from her identity. In another episode, "Tabula Rasa," the Scoobies all forget who they are, and yet very quickly reestablish their basic characters and relationships.

This concept of what makes a person who he or she is, and what changes the person into someone else, has been knocking around in my head for a very long time. As a young child, I wondered how I would communicate to the world if I were transformed into a tiger with human intelligence. If I changed that much outside, and was treated like a wild animal, could I truly be human inside? I'm not claiming that I thought it through in depth at the age of six, beyond the communication angle; but the germ of the idea was there. About a decade later, I started a novel about a man who becomes an ape - and when that didn't work out, I wrote a scene in which a boy becomes a monster, and is subsequently hunted as his own murderer. The boy's name was Rani Fost, and I've been constructing and deconstructing him ever since. I can't even leave his picture alone:

Rani Fost, smilingWelcome to Mâvarin, where circumstance, choices and magic can turn a person into someone else entirely. Human to tengrem, villager to royalty, friend to foe, daughter to mother, magician to trader… the one thing you can count on in Mâvarin is that people change, one way or another. - introduction, Welcome to Mâvarin web page

As a tengrem, Rani worries almost constantly about his feral side, about losing control and possibly killing his best friend. In some ways he has lost his humanity, but his struggle to cope with his animal side helps to make him a hero, further defining the character's moral sense. Once he gets all that sorted out at the end of Heirs, I give him magic and then strip away even more of his humanity in Mages. Is he the same person by the time it's all over? Not quite, but his journey is an interesting one.

Fayubi has a similar odyssey in Mages. I don't want to give away too much here, but his temporary loss of magic in Heirs is nothing compared to what he goes through in Mages. He very definitely becomes a different person in the process. About halfway through the trilogy, two versions of the character have a series of encounters in a chapter called "The Forty-Year Conversation":

Just for a moment, Fabi felt the Infinite around him, all of time and space as seen by the eye of Thâle. Then the focus sharpened on a boy with dark hair that needed a trim, sitting on a stool by himself at a little family table. The boy was writing and humming to himself, but he looked up at Fabi’s approach. “Hello. Who are you?”

“I’m not quite sure who I am,” Fabi said. “Just think of me as a friend.” He had not expected the boy to see him. If the boy was Fabi himself, then this was a scene from the past, over forty years ago.

The boy cocked his head. “You look kind of like my father. Are you here about my parents?”

“Tell me about your parents,” Fabi suggested quietly. From the next room he heard the sound of coughing, the horrible racking cough that kills.

“They’re going to die today,” the boy said matter-of-factly. “I dreamed about it, weeks ago, and told them before they even got sick. They didn’t believe that my dream was real. They just got mad at me. They thought I wanted them to die, but I don’t.” Fabi could see tears in the boy’s eyes. “I don’t,” he repeated.

“Of course you don’t,” Fabi said. “What will happen to you if your parents die?”

“My Uncle Arti is going to try to take me south with him, and make me pick cotton in his fields. I’m not going to do it, though. I’m going to run away to Mâton instead. I’ll be a mage someday.”

“Are you sure that’s what you want to do? Wouldn’t you rather do something else with your life, something better?”

“There’s nothing better than being a mage,” the boy said fervently.

Considering my tendency to pick apart my characters with spells and transformations, and watch them change as a result, it's not surprising that I'm similarly fascinated with the Doctor, whose personality changes slightly with each new face. But this "Human Nature" story sounds much more drastic than that, for all that it's temporary. The show's writers and producers had better not mess it up!


Art by Sherlock, with photographic elements added by Karen. Digital photos or screen shots by KFB.

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