Afterlife, the Whoniverse and Everything

“There’s all sorts of realities around us, different dimensions, billions of parallel universes all stacked up against each other. The Void is the space in between, containing absolutely nothing. Imagine that. Nothing. No light, no dark, no up, no down, no life, no time. Without end. My people called it the Void. The Eternals call it the Howling. But some people call it Hell.”

(The Tenth Doctor, Army of Ghosts)

I once knew a minister who told us one Sunday that his idea of hell was being trapped in a room with Adolf Hitler, Margaret Thatcher and Arthur Scargill. If you had to Google one of those names, you’re forgiven. This was the mid-1980s: it was topical, particularly for a Methodist. We don’t talk about anything important unless we have to. There is an old joke that says “How many Methodists does it take to change a light bulb?”. Answer: “We choose not to make a statement either in favour of or against the need for a light bulb. However, if in your own journey you have found that a light bulb works for you, that is fine.”

Unless you attend a particular type of church – one that I’m not inclined to visit myself, largely because of the bigotry and intolerance that comes embedded – you will find that organised religion in general has become increasingly cagey about the subject of heaven, hell and the afterlife. Oh, it’s not that we don’t believe in it. The idea of general salvation and the life to come is still a vital part of the mindset. The Church is a little afraid to talk too much about it, because then it gets accused of dwelling too much on eternal reward and not enough on earthly problems that need fixing, but nonetheless the belief in it is as fundamental as ever. It’s just the specifics we can’t agree on. What’s heaven going to be like? What do you have to do – or, perhaps more specifically, not do – to get there? And, perhaps most intriguing of all, who’s going to be up there with you?

I was ruminating on this the other week when I sat down to consider the idea of the Void – the dark, in-between space that Tennant describes to Rose, neatly foreshadowing the not-quite events of Doomsday. (Somewhere there is a parallel timeline where Pete didn’t arrive in time to save Rose – or missed, and got sucked into the Void with her. I confess I’m intrigued as to what such a moment would have done to the Doctor – would it have eradicated his compassion, hardening him into the Valeyard? Would he have flown the TARDIS into the heart of the sun? Or would he have followed in hot pursuit, determined to rescue them both, come hell or high Void Dust?)

Times change, of course, and so must we if it serves the plot. In The Lost Dimension – which the DWC are covering this week – the Void ceases to be an impenetrable darkness and instead becomes a kind of Whovian Galactus, spreading across the universe like a rash, devouring space and time at a rate of intergalactic knots. That’s all well and good, although it is a little been-there, done-that: forces that threaten THE ENTIRE WORLD AS WE KNOW IT are seldom very interesting, and when it comes to planet-devouring monsters, no one does it better than Lovecraft, with the possible exception of Tony Ross.

(Ross owes a tremendous debt to Douglas Adams, of course, but it’s still funny.)

Personally, I’m far more interested in the idea of the cosmic prison. It’s curious that in the brief moments we actually see the Void it’s depicted as a bright white light – typically hell is dark – but it’s its very establishment as an embodiment of the afterlife that is perhaps the most interesting thing about the conversation. It’s never directly stated whether this is supposed to be metaphorical (some people’s idea of hell) or an actual origin story, but it’s only been a couple of episodes since the Doctor met Satan, so it’s reasonable to assume that we’re supposed to take it as gospel, if you’ll pardon the obvious pun. However Doctor Who tackles death – something we’ve written about before – it’s even cagier on the subject of what comes afterwards, which is why stories like Dark Water are such a slap in the face. It’s one thing to stick your toe in philosophical waters; it’s another to suggest – as Moffat does, quite empirically – that humanity’s entire conception of the afterlife is thanks to a crazed Time Lord who dresses like Mary Poppins, and that (for the sake of shock tactics) the deceased continue to experience pain long after the heart has stopped. We can write this off with ‘Missy lies’, but in any case it’s typical of the sort of retconning for which the outgoing chief writer has become renowned; only this time it’s worse, as he’s not retconning the show, he’s retconning the human race.

But aside from scenes like that, the afterlife is something to be skated around. People die, of course. They don’t always stay dead. Bodily reanimation, uploaded brain patters, reconstructed neural activity – oh, the theories are endless and tedious. But insofar as what actually happens later, after brain death – in other words, the concept of the soul – well, that’s something you try and avoid, largely because this is a family audience and presumably not the sort of thing a family wants to be discussing on a Saturday evening, unless they’re Amish or something. Death In Heaven aside, it’s off the table completely – or it’s given as little screen time as possible (“They’re ghosts!” exclaims the Doctor, midway through Under The Lake, before going on to prove that they’re nothing of the kind). Time travel circumnavigates the difficulty of reviving dead characters. Supernatural activity is explained away with science. And dreams explain the rest. For better or worse, the only God in Doctor Who is the lonely kind, and he carries a small ‘g’.

It’s the sort of avoidance you don’t encounter in Torchwood – a programme that sets out its philosophical agenda almost as soon as the first body’s hit the floor. Indeed, the revival of said body is practically the first task the central characters have to perform, briefly reanimating the unfortunate corpse with the resurrection gauntlet in order to get an idea about the afterlife. The answer isn’t reassuring: “Oh my God, there’s nothing!”, exclaims the terrified guest actor, before immediately expiring again, presumably without having had time to process the irony of his final message to humanity. It should be noted that this occurs approximately three minutes after the word ‘F**k’ is first used, thereby setting the tone nicely for Torchwood’s particular brand of gratuitous bad language and existential moodiness. (Next episode: nightclub sex.)

I had hoped that we might be able to get through this without having to revisit Random Shoes, but I don’t think we have much of a choice. While Torchwood never shies away from death, it’s this episode that deals specifically with the idea of a supernatural presence, hanging around because of what turns out to be unfinished business, rather than an extraterrestrial implant. It’s The Sixth Sense, without the budget or script or atmosphere, or anything we might call acting. It is forty-nine minutes of the most excruciating television my other half and I have ever had the misfortune to sit through, and I say that as someone who’s watched Partners In Rhyme. Come the finale (after the silliest rendition of the Londonderry Air you’ll find outside of a first round X-Factor audition) Eugene has inexplicably saved Gwen from the road traffic accident that would have granted her a merciful release from all this, and the two are briefly reunited at the side of the road, just before Eugene’s spirit ascends – perhaps towards oblivion, but ostensibly in the direction of a heaven that Russell T Davies doesn’t actually believe exists.

But it may not be that simple, and that’s where Doomsday comes in. Because the suggestion that hell is fire-and-brimstone is basically Catholic, taking its cue from the writings of Paul, and it grants it a specificity that’s personally never sat comfortably with me. It’s the sort of Dante-eseque narrative that’s borne out in the likes of 23 Minutes In Hell – a supposedly true account of a near death experience, as told by a former real estate broker, who had his flesh ripped by blasphemous monsters and then wandered into a firepit where he could hear the screams of the damned. It reads like bad fiction because that is in all likelihood precisely what it is: every televangelist box is ticked. It is a doom-laden tale of the fate that awaits us all if we die unsaved, but it ends with a message of hope and redemption and a full schedule on the lecture circuit. There are three possibilities here: Bill Wiese made up a story he knew would sell, or he experienced something that was nothing but psychogenic halllucination…or he was telling the truth. “Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?”

Something happens in theological thinking whereby conceptual afterlife is rendered in exclusively human terms – shimmering banquet halls and lakes of fire. This is unavoidable and essentially harmless until the moment it is considered empirical. Just because our conception of eternity is grounded within a framework of human perception, it does not follow that it will actually be like this. (Try telling that to the Latter Day Saints, who – for all their philanthropic deeds – have conceptions of eternal, heaven-based marriage and celestial offspring that are frankly baffling.) If you’ve been watching Preacher, you’ll know that hell is a real, tangible place, with its own rules and infrastructure and presumably a GPS location. Each cell contains your personal worst memory, played on a loop, with meal breaks in between. One of the characters winds up there, where he shares a cell block with Adolf Hitler, who turns out to be incredibly nice.

But it serves a narrative purpose to give hell a physical presence – at least it does in a TV show about the power play between God and the Devil and the Macchiavellian forces on Earth who are interacting with both. There’s no reason why it should be the same in real life, or even in the worlds of Doctor Who – a programme that dabbles with eternity on a frequent basis, whether it’s the beast chained up in the pit or an episode where the Doctor spends four billion years punching a wall. Perhaps Doctor Who has dealt with heaven and hell with more transparency than we’ve noticed. “The universe,” said someone (either Haldane or Eddington, depending on where you look) “is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose.” Created In God’s Image aside, why should the same not apply to conceptions of the afterlife?

There is a Big Finish audio in which the Sixth Doctor pairs up (somewhat reluctantly) with Davros in a research facility. In an effective reversal, it is Davros who gains unexpected audience sympathy – as chastened and humbled as Julian Bleach would later portray him in The Witch’s Familiar – while the Doctor is all bluster and arrogance. It’s a ruse, of course: Davros is up to no good, and his deception comes as no surprise. But one of the most effective scenes comes midway through the first episode, where Davros describes exactly what happened to him during his nine decades of suspended animation: transcribed more or less in its entirety because, although Davros presumably wasn’t in the Void, you could almost think he’d been there.

“Ninety years to you must be nothing. For me, it was a lifetime. Unable to move. I was in complete sensory deprivation. I wasn’t breathing. I couldn’t even feel my heart beating. I sat, utterly alone. I thought I would go insane. I wondered if I would die after all. How would I know? I started hearing voices. I started imagining things, out there, in the darkness. Terrifying things, larger than me, all around me. It was like I had been cast adrift on a raft in the middle of the ocean. I heard the Daleks there – every one of them – calling out my name in unison. It sounded so faint. Then I saw your face. Tormenting, sneering, cruel, cowardly, just as it is now. Just as it has always been. Your true face, not the one you happen to be wearing today. Then there was nothing. A near century of nothing. I turned inward…my mind, consumed by memories, forced me to live and re-live every single experience from the moment I was born, maybe even before that. I was locked in my past, unable to change my mistakes, condemned to relive them over and over and over. Every death, every failure, every lie, every betrayal – even those I thought I had completely erased from my memory, like…every one of the foul deeds I thought I had buried rose up. Taunted me. I felt so ashamed. So naked. The process stripped me of everything. It showed me how small I was, how insignificant my achievements had been. I was nothing…the mere dreams of a man who should have died millennia before. I passed through eternity, imagining every possible fear, every possible book, every possible idea, and then, as I’d exhausted every possible combination, in that moment, I felt myself transcending. I felt myself starting to lift away from my body, to join with something greater than me, greater than all things. And then I felt my heart beat. That had just been the first second of my imprisonment.”

It’s ghastly. But if it’s this or the prospect of having to see Random Shoes again, I think I’ll take my chances with the Void.

Issue #3 of Titan Comics’ ongoing summer event Doctor Who – The Lost Dimension is available to buy now from all good stockists and digitally via Comixology.