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Deep Breath: What I Learned

“Deep Breath” was what “Doctor Who” always seems to be for me: Exactly what I needed exactly when I needed it most. In Rose Tyler’s words, the Doctor, when he’s at his absolute best – at the top of his game – shows you a “better way of living your life.” I’ve been looking forward to, anticipating, even needing, a truly new episode of “Doctor Who,” and a truly new Doctor, for years now.

There hasn’t been a regeneration since I withdrew from my doctoral program, and all my life’s ambitions, in July 2011. A couple of weeks after the last time I closed the Word document that had been my dissertation in early December 2010, Matt Smith became the Doctor. I’d understood the David Tennant Doctor. As he reached his demise in “The End of Time,” I empathized with his pain, his loneliness, his feelings of abandonment, overreaching, and failure. I knew where he was emotionally when Adelaide Brooke took her own life at the end of “The Waters of Mars.” He felt he had disgraced himself and the promise he’d made to himself when he began his journey.

I felt the same, having closed the document that had become my entire life, my entire identity, for well over ten years. I’d sacrificed everything for the chance, for the remote opportunity, to be a university English professor. When that was no longer possible, I felt like the Doctor did when he, as Christopher Eccleston and Tennant, talked about the Last Great Time War. Like I’d gotten to the other side, but at too great a cost. Why was I, “only…escaped alone to tell thee,” like Job or Melville’s Ishmael?

Like the Doctor, a full lifetime on from the Time War, a whole new personality and state-of-being onwards, I have obsessed about the past for too long. I’ve let it define me. In “The Day of the Doctor,” the Moment calls the Tennant and Smith Doctors, “the Man who Regrets and the Man who Forgets.” Three years on from leaving academia, I completely comprehended that. I’ve become different Melvins since I quit. I’ve had to, in order to survive. If I was still alive, I should do something. I had to become a different person, even though my consciousness was continuous.

“Deep Breath” showed me that such a thing is possible, if not inevitable, if I want to move forward. If I want to achieve my goals, Peter Capaldi’s debut illuminates, I have to change my entire outlook, my entire perception of the world. That’s what we should take away from every regeneration: that changing our fundamental hermeneutic is not only possible, but also vital, if we want to continue to change and grow through our lives.

Before changing into Peter Capaldi, Matt Smith’s Doctor asserts that, “We all change…we’re all different people all through our lives. And that’s okay…so long as you remember all the people that you used to be.” I thought I got what that meant; at least, I understood it as well as I could without more data. So much has happened since I wrote the grad-student-guilt essay for Rebecca Schuman. I feel like I belong in several communities. It’s an amazing feeling after more than a decade of feeling like an outsider. I feel confident that there are people who care for me, and who want me to be the me that I think that they think that I think I am. I want to be the me that they perceive, the one they believe in.

The span of a few moments between rewatching the end of “The Time of the Doctor” and seeing “Deep Breath” was my first post-regeneration regeneration, and I needed it. Capaldi’s first full-length interpretation of the Doctor showed me that change is not only inevitable in our lives – or at least mine – but plausible. There’s a difference between necessary and plausible. Anything can be necessary in a story. There’s a big difference between whether we can believe in and can fulfill that change in our own lives.

Change is such a part of “Doctor Who.” But it’s hard to change, at least for me. I was still lamenting the loss of my ability to teach at the university level while many of my former colleagues, lucky enough to have made it in academia, complain about the return of students to their campuses. I would do anything to be in front of a top-flight university classroom again, even as I know it will never happen to the me I am now. That potential future is gone, and, since it’s gone, I have to stop idealizing it as the only true path for me.

“Deep Breath” also showed me the truth of something I’ve long believed. You’ve heard the truism that “a friend in need is a friend indeed.” I spell it a slightly different way, to wit, that “a friend in need is a friend in deed.” The spelling change alters the meaning slightly, or should at least make you consider it from a different perspective. I had very few friends that were what I required while I was in academia. The ones I had were rare and precious. I know this because they’re still the friends I need when I need them, and adaptable to the ways that I need them.

These days, I seem to have more friends and meet new people who are willing to give me support and guidance when I need it, and, when I’m able, in the ways I ask for it. That is the trust and community that Smith’s Doctor is talking about in “The Name of the Doctor” when he says, “they cared for me during the dark times.” That is what friends, not-yet-friends, and total strangers have done for me since I started to change – to really change who I am – over the last year. It’s not been easy. Fundamentally changing who you are never is.

In Peter Capaldi’s first full episode, we see this dramatized. Friends who are willing to change with us are the ones that stay in our minds and hearts; they’re the ones we remember through all our different phases of life. “Deep Breath” revealed all this and much more. What a tremendously uplifting episode! When your hero asks, even in series trailers, “Am I a good man?” that should be the first clue. We need help figuring it out. We change, but we’re better at it supported by people we trust.

As far as I’m concerned, it’s the most important question we can ask ourselves in the first decades of the 21st century. Can I trust the people I associate with, and are we, am I, doing right by those around me? It’s a new show now, and the degree of change it evinced is inspiring. It promises all new things to think about, and all new ways of seeing the world. This is what every new iteration of the Doctor has brought to the show, and why it’s persisted for more than fifty years.

* header image original, “these days i’m saving my strength for running,” on flickr.

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