The first part of the Doctor Who Series 8 finale, Dark Water, aired last weekend and it was brilliant and gloriously dark (for Doctor Who). So you could imagine my surprise when I read that the BBC “received complaints from some viewers who were unhappy with a storyline about death and cremation”. This refers to the chilling revelation in the episode that the spirits of the dead are hosted in an afterlife called the Nethersphere, where they still whatever their dead body does. An entity called the 3W cares for the dead after their founder discovered the voices of the dead in white noise saying the same three words over and over: “Don’t cremate me.” So was a family series like Doctor Who finally being downright insensitive by tackling death and cremation?
First of all, this isn’t the first time Doctor Who has handled fundamental issues of life and death, sometimes going into controversial issues as well. The much-lauded Genesis of the Daleks has the Doctor ask whether he has the right to commit genocide, even if it is committed against the most evil Nazi pepperpots in the universe. It’s a basic question on the merits of utilitarianism and the common good. Do these terrible ends justify the means? The Doctor thankfully decides that they don’t, but so terrible are the implications of the mere possibility that they could that Russel T Davies would use the incident as the trigger event of the Last Great Time War. The Doctor’s choice is echoed as his three later incarnations end the same Time War in The Day of the Doctor.
The introduction of ‘fixed points’ of history into the Doctor Who narrative also brought about its own dilemmas, as events are made to be untouchable for the sake of the proper flow of history, no matter how tragic they can be. The ‘Time Lord Victorious’ shown in The Waters of Mars is a terrible being for being omnipotent but flawed. In Flatline, the Doctor resigns himself to the fact that, sometimes, the wrong people survive, the choice over life and death ultimately outside his hands.
Doctor Who has also tackled the prickly question of belief and religion from time to time, especially since the revival in 2005. Sometimes, this has been through a playful nod, like the Doctor taking “the last room” at the origin of Christmas. Other times, he goes against false gods as in Rings of Akhaten or false priests and clergy as in A Good Man Goes to War. Personally, as a practicising Catholic myself, I never took offence at the depiction of a militant church in The Time of Angels/Blood and Stone, A Good Man Goes to War and The Time of the Doctor. It’s an interesting development for a science-fiction (sci-fi) series, especially in light of the latter episode, in which the Doctor explains how the church evolved to protect both body and soul. Organised religion has always been about humans’ interpretations and attempt to live up to ideals, so it can definitely take ‘weird’ turns if twisted away from proper divine purpose.
The series is never, in fact, written in a way to ultimately disprove the existence divinity or higher powers per se. The Doctor has to concede to Charles Dickens that Gwyneth was moved by something inexplicable in normal terms beyond her death in The Unquiet Dead. One incarnation later remains unable to explain away the Beast in The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit in a properly cynical manner. For any complaints on the depiction of the afterlife in Dark Water, some more attention would show that the Doctor immediately dismisses the 3W’s claims, and is proved right as the Nethersphere is revealed to be Time Lord technology Missy uses to create Cybermen from the bodies and minds of the dead or dying, not the real afterlife.
Finally, the last thing – or the first – to remember here is that Doctor Who has been and always will be a work of fiction. As much as it can explore themes which are at the heart of the real world and contain fully human characters, it always explores these elements within a larger sci-fi narrative. If you can suspend belief for a human-looking man with two hearts who can change his body and goes across time and space in a police box-shaped ship which is larger on the inside, then you have to accept that the workings of that universe are not exactly like ours.
I would therefore say that the complaints send to the BBC, while in some respects understandable, are ultimately unfounded. I can understand that death and the afterlife are sensitive topics that trigger strong emotions in people, especially when death is such a widespread and inevitable reality. That being said, to formally complain about this as if it were some fault of the programme to discuss them is to send the wrong message and could lead to such a vital component of our existence becoming taboo. Even as someone who has experienced death before, I simply cannot support starting the path down a slippery slope. Thankfully, the BBC has taken the sensible route and issued the following response:
Doctor Who is a family drama with a long tradition of tackling some of the more fundamental questions about life and death. We were mindful of the themes explored in ‘Dark Water’ and are confident that they are appropriate in the context of the heightened sci-fi world of the show.
The scene in which a character reveals 3W’s unconventional theory about the afterlife was preceded by the same character warning the Doctor and Clara several times that what they were about to hear could be distressing. When the Doctor does hear these claims, he immediately pours scorn on them, dismissing them out of hand as a “con” and a “racket”. It transpires that he is correct, and the entire concept is revealed to be a scam perpetrated by Missy.
The BBC has also shown sensitivity in recent history when it cut out one scene in the episode Robot of Sherwood “out of respect” after the death of two journalists at the hands of the Islamic State. While some may not necessarily agree with the change of such a detail, the compromise didn’t ultimately change the overall episode. Doctor Who can be at its best when it tackles the fundamental questions of human life, so it would be a real shame if we couldn’t see the wood for the trees.
- Doctor Who: BBC defends afterlife cremation scene in series finale after viewers complain (radiotimes.com)
- Doctor Who: is it now too scary for children? (telegraph.co.uk)
- Michelle Gomez Defends Against Finale Complaints (doctorwhotv.co.uk)