Doctor Who: Memory and the Question of Existence
By Kevin Rigdon (@pralix1138)
When I got my degree I was ready to change the world by challenging the axioms of the world’s structures. The world, obviously, had different ideas. You see, my degree is in philosophy–well, technically, it’s religious studies with a minor in philosophy, but that’s just quibbling over details. Regardless, my degree qualifies me to do one thing better than most other people, and that is to sit on the toilet and think. If you’ve ever wondered what philosophy majors do, they spend a lot of time in the bathroom. Don’t judge me.
Recently, as I was pondering the implications of the lack of metaphysical dualism in Disney’s Phineas and Ferb (a topic I hope to discuss later on), in the small, tiled sanctum I share with the other members of my household, a thought occurred to me that I’d like to share–and yes, I’ve washed my hands. The thought has to do with Doctor Who, memory, and the question of existence.
Memory is a complicated concept from a scientific standpoint. We may understand some of the mechanical processes involved in memory, but we can’t quite talk about the significance of memory–what it actually means. For a truer understanding of memory, we need to look at the religious and mythological traditions of humanity, and in this instance, at Doctor Who.
Throughout history there have been fixed religious practices which ritually remember ancestors, saints, significant events, and so on. But are these simply reminders of a past event, or person, or is there something far more significant going on? Enter the 11th Doctor, Amy Pond, and the Pandorica.
“Nothing is ever forgotten, not completely. And if something can be remembered, it can come back.” – The Doctor, The Pandorica Opens
In series 5 of Doctor Who, we see that Amy Pond, an impossible girl with a crack in her wall, is the key to mythically understanding the power of memory. The collective races of the universe gather together to build a prison in order to contain the Doctor. Those who build the prison devise a trap for the Doctor based on Amy’s memories, and so the prison is called the Pandorica, a reference to Pandora’s Box, Amy’s favorite book as a child. Also, in close proximity to the Pandorica, are a couple Roman legions from another book Amy read as a child. Lastly, Rory appears as a Roman. Rory, who got swallowed up by one of the cracks in the universe and erased from history. He was unmade, and as a result, never existed. Yet even he is brought back because, deep down, Amy remembers.
Throughout these two episodes, The Pandorica Opens and The Big Bang, the Doctor reinforces the idea that if Amy remembers, whatever and whomever she remembers, will be brought back. In other words, their existence will be fully realized and confirmed. The Doctor is able to reboot the entire universe because the Pandorica holds memories of the old universe (the one that is destroyed), and the restoration field, which contains the memories of the universe, combined with the exploding TARDIS brings back the whole of creation. Finally, at Amy and Rory’s wedding, Amy remembers the Doctor, bringing him back from never-have-existedness. She remembers and brings back everyone that the crack had erased from her life.
This is certainly a mythological perspective, but it does show us the power of memory. When we remember people and events of the past, particularly people that are dear to us, we bring them back in some sense. Look at the 10th Doctor and his first meeting with River Song in The Library of Silence. River, and the others, are “saved” by being encoded, uploaded, and ultimately remembered, on the library’s computer. What is saving information to a hard drive other than the remembrance of that information? Again, in the words of the Doctor: “Nothing is ever forgotten.”
This necessarily brings up the question of existence, and the role memory plays in it. If we take Doctor Who seriously, and we should as solid myth, than we intuitively recognize that the memory of those who’ve left us somehow makes them present with us. Look at what Sirius tells Harry about his parents in Prisoner of Azkaban, “The ones that love us never really leave us.” As a matter of fact, in the Deathly Hallows the Resurrection Stone brings Harry’s loved ones back to him to accompany him into the woods to face Voldemort. Harry remembers them, and through the power of the Stone, is able to make them present with him.
Now, Doctor Who has stressed to us the possibility of bringing back our loved ones, indeed the entirety of the cosmos, as an act of remembrance. This is supported by other stories and myths like Harry Potter, and numerous religious practices throughout the history of the world. In various religious traditions there are specific times of ritual commemoration. By this I mean that the faith community gathers together to mark an event or person, and in so doing makes the event or person present within the commemoration itself.
I’m not actually telling you that you have to believe this or that myth or religious tradition. What I am attempting to say, however, is that perhaps there’s something to this understanding of the capacity of the mind to grant a type of existence–or better, to confirm the existence of another. Perhaps Doctor Who is showing us an unquantifiable aspect of truth: remembering imparts a type of existence to the one remembered. This existence may not resemble ours perfectly, but maybe that’s ok. Regardless, remembering allows us a participation, a connection, to the one, or thing, remembered. You see, this is the power of myth, and good storytelling: it helps us to reach beyond the empirical and easily quantifiable. It touches the deeper truths of what it means to be human; what it means to be.