Regenerations & Celebrations: Doctor Who & Being Present in all of Time & Space
Words By Dominic Loise
For this year’s birthday, my wife put sticky notes on my bathroom mirror. One multi-colored square for each letter of her expression of love ending with “Happy Birthday to You.” The message was so long that I couldn’t see my own reflection in the mirror in the morning. Slowly, over the next few weeks, I would peel away these individual sticky note rows so that now only the “Y-O-U” remains. These three squares still greet me every morning in my bathroom mirror as a reminder to be the “Y-O-U” I am today and not to be hung up on a previous version of myself. I’ll be turning fifty in 2022. That means my old body cells have mostly died and been replaced by new ones about every seven to ten years, so by my math, I’ve gone through a potential five to seven different bodies so far. Pre-mental-health awareness, I would have walked around each new body still hanging on to past anxiety or worrying about my futures not yet lived.
Years ago when I was inpatient, being present was the main focus of my mental health work and it still is something I work on today in talk therapy. While inpatient, I worked with a medical team to deal with my anxiety and panic attacks to function day in and day out again. I also dealt with not being haunted by the past or being frozen due to the fear of making the wrong choice for the future. When I first checked out of the hospital, I felt so raw that the only TV shows that didn’t set off a panic attack were the safe, nonviolent children’s programs found on public television like Sesame Street or Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood created around community and positivemessaging. Then, another doctor joined my recovery team—the Doctor.
The Doctor is the main character of the long-running BBC science fiction series Doctor Who, which first aired over sixty years ago. Doctor Who is about a runaway alien from a race of Time Lords who help wherever they can throughout all of time and across the universe—traveling in their stolen, dimension-hopping ship. Whenever a lead actor needs to leave the role of the Doctor, a new actor takes on their own interpretation after a regeneration storyline, which has kept the show going on for decades.
Doctor Who first aired on the BBC on November 23, 1963. History aficionados will note that it’s the day after the John F. Kennedy Assassination. Even though the Doctor travels through time, in addition to space, I feel the show has never been one to get historical events back on track. It is instead about noticing what is out of place when traveling in history, on distant planets, or one’s own surroundings. The Doctor is not a “time cop” arriving into a situation to bring law and order, even though the Doctor’s ship, the T.A.R.D.I.S. (an anagram standing for Time And Relative Dimensions in Space), has a chameleon circuit stuck as a blue British-police-phone box. For example, the Doctor met Charles Dickens when showrunner Russell T. Davies rebooted the show in 2005, but the episode was about a Dickensian setting with aliens traveling through gaslights and reanimating corpses without Mr. Dicken’s personal timeline and fictional impact being altered. Doctor Who isn’t about fixing divergences in time, but instead about being the best you can be at the moment you’re needed. This point of the show was huge for my mental health healing, as anxiety was keeping me from connecting to my daily life back then, nor was I fully a part of my life. I was no better than those gaslight, reanimated corpses shuffling through the day at my worst moments. Other time travel shows or movies got me in the mindset that I had made a mistake at some point in my past, and my thought process was locked into figuring out that one moment that would make everything fall into place and bring peace of mind. The Doctor’s example got me to break out of this time-travel mindset, to be present and positively interactive in the everyday.
The Doctor is a cosmic wanderer, not a warrior. They have seen almost everything from the Big Bang to the end of time in their hundreds of years of life through different regenerations. One of the other casting hooks of the show in addition to the Doctor is their companion, usually a young human, to keep the Doctor’s perspective of the universe fresh. Traveling through time and space with new wide-open eyes helps the Doctor to continue seeing the individual moments and not the moment as it connects like a cog into the clockwork mechanics of the universe. Rose is the Doctor’s first human companion in the 2005 reboot and it is appropriate since she helps the ninth Doctor—played by Christopher Eccleston—heal from fighting in The Time War and enjoy traveling again—she helps him “smell the roses.” Companion Donna Noble is able to call the Doctor out when he’s being too much of “a spaceman” and not connecting to the beings on the planets they are on. While Amy and Rory Pond actually give the constant wanderer a place at the dinner table and a place to call home on Earth. When I was able to borrow a note from the show and start going for walks outside of our home again, it was a big healing benchmark moment for me. I took in my surroundings instead of staying in my head during the time traveling to appointments trying to figure out past missteps and butterfly effects. At this point, I could see only this life and that there was no set path for myself, which had built to anger management issues. The Doctor helped me stop fighting myself and view beyond a place of anger.
The Doctor isn’t the character’s real name. “It is a promise,” as the eleventh Doctor, played by Matt Smith, explains to one companion. The Doctor does not have superpowers. As a Time Lord from the planet Gallifrey, they can regenerate before the moment of death but they are still human-looking, the only difference being that they have two hearts. The Doctor doesn’t even carry a gun, just a sonic screwdriver to help get into any room or out of any situation. They face armies, mad gods, and dimensional beings, with their wits and a promise. The show’s fiftieth-anniversary special “The Day of The Doctor” revealed that promise as “Never cruel nor cowardly. Never give up. Never give in.” I would borrow this promise of the Doctor as I entered back into the working world after being inpatient. It was a quick catch firewall for anger management as anxiety crept up in situations. The promise of the Doctor reminded me to be kind in each moment, in addition to what I learned in therapy for handling my anxiety, and to talk to everyone with compassion, meeting them where they currently were in life.
A great speech is often given by actors who play the Doctor before their version of the character regenerates to the next actor. These words work as both farewells to the fans and statements of goodwill keeping the Doctor’s spirit in viewers’ hearts till the next season. I’ve lost count of how many times I have watched the twelfth Doctor, Peter Capaldi’s, regeneration speech. The speech is his advice to the next Doctor on what to keep in mind to help the universe, ending with “Run fast, laugh hard, be kind.” This clip is my go-to for when I feel depression coming on and is a lifeline to not sink back into a feeling of despair where I could lose days of a functioning mindset. When I watch fan-theory videos about Doctor Who, it is a warning sign for me—viewing You-Tube videos for spoilers, I am giving into my anxiety instead of allowing myself to sit with that anxiety and experience the natural storytelling of cliffhangers. Or if I find myself looking at these videos when there is recasting news around a Doctor’s regeneration, I am looking for reassurance that I will feel safe with the choice of the new actor stepping into the role. Sometimes videos focus on the merits of another era of the show’s history compared to the present show. I feel these posts have increased recently during the current era with showrunner Chris Chibnall and the thirteenth Doctor played by Jodie Whittaker, who is the first woman to play the Doctor. Recently, the BBC announced that Russell T. Davies will return as showrunner for the sixtieth anniversary and upcoming season in 2023. Till then, Chibnall and Whittaker still have a whole season left to wrap up their storylines and characters. Whittaker has an inspirational approach. The Doctor message she filmed during the early days of the COVID-19 quarantine was uplifting and everything I needed to hear at the time. So, I hope fans will stay in the current moment and give this cast and crew their final sendoff, not just time jump to only focus on 2023. I myself am not focusing on the benchmark of turning fifty either. I wake up each morning and make sure the sticky notes are still on the bathroom mirror for that day’s Y-O-U. When my fiftieth birthday does come around, that will be my only present.