The Arc of Alchemy (Doctor Who: Season Twenty)

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What is it about anniversaries? We made another circle around the sun, that's all. Well, not a circle. An ellipse. There are no perfect circles in the universe. There is no perfection in the Universe, let alone in Doctor Who’s twentieth season, back in 1983.

But perfection is so much more boring than messiness, than the chaos that lies at the heart of all truly surprising art. Perhaps that's why we love Doctor Who so much, why it even works—the mercurial element of the show feeds on chaos, on messiness, on constant change, which is truly the natural arc of history, not to mention the unfolding of the cosmos.

Back in Season Eighteen, we had something resembling thematic unity for the season, and on a cosmic scale: Entropy. Yes, it's explicit in Logopolis, a force that only psychomathematics can shunt into a box for safe keeping. But it's present throughout the season. You've got it working on the Argolins in The Leisure Hive. Its perniciousness is what prompted the Logopolitans to create a CVE through which the Doctor and Romana fly in the third episode of the season. The "state of decay" they later find in E-Space. The collapse of the Warriors' gate. The dying of the Keeper. The gobbling up of Traken. And, of course, the fall of the Doctor. The Arc of Entropy: death comes to us all.

Entropy is a state of decay. It is vampiric, sucking away order and producing chaos. But look what entropy actually produces in Season Eighteen—it's not all doom and gloom. There's still a circle. The Argolins are renewed. The Alzurians have their evolutionary circle. So too do the lion-men of the Gate. And, of course, there’s the resurrection of the Doctor, at the “Pharos” project, no less. So while entropy is a metaphor for death, it is trumped by the Eternal Return implicit in the structure of the show.

With all that in mind, let’s take a look at a similar thematic resonance that permeates Season Twenty, the first self-conscious “anniversary year” of the show. Because it’s fascinating. There’s more here than anniversary appearances and the nostalgic trotting out of old memories. But let's get past the reverie of the past. When dipping into those memories, let’s bring them up from the deeps and look at them with free eyes, fresh feelings, that we might better understand Season Twenty’s “arc to infinity.”

 
Arc of Infinity
 
First up is Arc of Infinity, which is a telling phrase in of itself. I posit that the “arc of infinity” is in fact a descriptor of Season Twenty, insofar as the season’s “arc” is one oriented around themes of “infinity” in juxtaposition with “death.” There’s more than one kind of infinity, of course. There’s the infinity of the line, something stretching out in either direction and having no boundaries. But this isn’t quite the infinity of this season, for “arc” implies curvature; the other sort of infinity which is nonetheless finite—the infinity of a circle, or a figure 8, or any sort of path that implies an Eternal Return.
 
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves here. The esoteric image I want to explore in Arc of Infinity is that of the Doctor floating in the Matrix. He’s just willingly walked into a Termination Chamber, calmly accepted his unjust execution in the name of preserving the Universe. And what this leads to is an “out-of-body” (OBE) experience, for indeed his body still “exists” in the “Termination Chamber,” which is just a fancy way of saying “coffin,” and so this represents a rather lovely coffin-escape on the part of the Doctor, even though it wasn’t of his own doing. OBEs are often characterized by the sensation of floating, perhaps because consciousness isn’t tethered to those maps in the body that report on the current affect of gravity, data which is generated from the “labyrinth” of the inner ear. 
 
Anyways, the Matrix is a repository of Time Lord knowledge, and as such can function esoterically as an “Akashic Records” of sort in which the Doctor finds himself. In much of the Near Death Experience literature, an encounter with a library of containing all the knowledge of the Universe on an “astral plane” is not infrequent. Nor should it be, for in the dissolution of the ego, Oneness with the Universe is a logical experience to have. Note that Arc of Infinity’s “arc of infinity” is also described as a “gateway to dimensions,” implying that the “infinite” in question here is one tied to “other” experiences, the dimensions of the mind and soul as much as the dimensions of time and space. And it’s interesting that the Arc itself is depicted as a form of Light—when Omega appears on Gallifrey, and later tries to “fuse” with the Doctor, we see a wide “arc” of light surrounding him.
 
Names are important in storytelling, and they’re certainly important here. The villain of this serial, “Omega,” certainly has a poignant name, suggesting the “end” (and indeed in Christian mythology, the “alpha and omega” phrase bears some mention) and at the same time invokes a basic alchemical principle, namely the union of opposites, for Omega himself is situated at the beginning of Time Lord mythology and engineering.
 
Another name, lesser examined, is of the monster in the Crypt (a place of death) which is called an Ergon. The word “ergon” refers to “work,” and in the Western esoteric tradition, the practice of alchemy is called “the Great Work.” But what does such “great work” mean? It’s perhaps aptly illustrated by the symbol of the Circle in the Square, which represents the union of the Divine and the material body. Funnily enough, the Doctor calls the Ergon an attempt at “psycho-synthesis,” which hints at what is ultimately a psychological union. Which gets back to how Omega (who is now comprised of “anti-matter”) is trying to enter our universe, through “bonding” or “fusing with the Doctor, which is almost but not quite a cosmic “union of opposites.” This impetus is reflected in the particular choice of words for a bit of technobabble, as a “fusion booster element” is what Omega needs to create the energy for his great magic trick.
 
Finally, there’s the issue of how all this is all wrapped up in the question of identity. Or, rather, “the Question” of identity. The Question—“Who are you?”—is invoked by the Doctor while floating in the Matrix. So it’s terribly apt that Omega seeks to take the Doctor’s identity as a means of rematerializing into our world. This makes Omega a sort of mirror to the Doctor. A dark mirror, to be sure.
 
I find it interesting that this final union (and subsequent dissolution of ego) happens to happen in Amsterdam. The city is named for its damming of the river Amstel, the etymology of which reveals the simple meaning of “water area.” Amsterdam is its water. And it is by the water where Omega finally dies in smoke and flame. The juxtaposition of Fire and Water is the most basic of alchemical unions, but more importantly, water is a reflective surface, nature’s original mirror.
 
Snakedance
 
Snakedance makes much more explicit the season’s concern with esoteric and altered states of consciousness—mystical experiences, if you will. Most obvious are its nods to Buddhism, such as through the Doctor’s practice of meditation during the titular “snakedance,” which just happens to involve sitting cross-legged (while taking venomous psychoactive drugs, which is not technically speaking very Buddhist in nature). The Doctor’s posture not a full lotus position, nor even a half lotus, but Westerners often struggle with those positions. It does, however, lean in that general direction. Coupled with the all the focus on a crystal (and a snake, which we’ll get to) I think we have something here that’s akin to the “Jewel in the Lotus,” a motif borne out of the “om mani padme hum” chant.

 Finding the “still point” as implored by Dojjen invokes the teachings of Dogen, a Japanese Buddhist who founded one of the major schools in the tradition. “Cast off body and mind” he said, pointing to the egolessness that’s at the heart of so many spiritual traditions:
 
“To study the Way is to study the Self. To study the Self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be enlightened by all things of the universe. To be enlightened by all things of the universe is to cast off the body and mind of the self as well as those of others. Even the traces of enlightenment are wiped out, and life with traceless enlightenment goes on forever and ever.”

Which brings us to the episode’s mirrors. There are literal mirrors, of course, in the Hawker’s pavilion, where we can view “the truth about yourself.” Mirrors are highly symbolic of Identity, and indeed the Question of “Who are you?” doth verily appear at the Hall of Mirrors, as well as at the Seer’s tent, with her crystal ball and visions of suffering. (Both locations have doorways with silvery-beaded curtains that “chime” when passed through.)
 
So what we have here is a concern with interiority that drives the story, and informs its metaphors. For example, in Episode Three we have the Doctor caged up almost the entire time, which is a metaphor for his psychological shortcomings, how his mind is trapped in the Black Iron Prison as Philip K Dick would put it. All he can do is “wait” until Chela releases him. Chela’s name means “servant/disciple,” and as the “worker” in this tale he might represent the need for spiritual work and realization to escape one’s own delusions (the Doctor’s delusion being his desire for an “authority” to deal with the Mara as opposed to himself).



But lest we think this Jewel in the Lotus motif is one that the show unequivocally advances, we must consider its juxtaposition of crystals with the snake that represents the Mara. As we see from the images above, the snake’s head emerges from the seer’s crystal ball, a reversal of the Sumaran culture’s historical representation of The Great Crystal lodged within the snake’s mouth. This juxtaposition is then transferred to Tegan. She faces herself in a mirror, and the snake skull has taken over her head. In the climax, though, it’s Tegan’s head that’s lodged within the snake’s mouth, which suggests that she herself is a “crystal.”
 
So, following the structure of the Jewel in the Lotus, we can by analogy liken the Snake to the Lotus. As such, the overall aesthetic suggests that the Jewel/Crystal represents some kind of divinity (the crystals in Snakedance are said to be “free of all flaws and imperfections”) while the Lotus points to the material world, with the Snake representing that aspect of the material world that threatens to overwhelm and destroy us, for the polarity of creation and destruction is always present in the material universe. Funny, then, how the Sumaran culture itself is swallowed by the “mouth” of the Snake that forms the entrance to the Cave where the final climax takes place.
 
Finally, unlike in Kinda, the Mara here is not necessarily representative of Christian mythology. In Buddhism, dukkha or suffering comes from the endless cycle of death and rebirth. This, then, is what is to be escaped—not unlike the black iron cage in which the Doctor is locked away throughout Episode Three. And in Snakedance we have that sense of the imprisonment of cyclicality coming from the repetition of history, through the Mara’s return and use of the Federator’s son in the climactic ritual (itself a form of cyclical repetition). In which case, we have not the Serpent of Eden, but the Ouroborus, the Snake eating its tail, and in so doing consuming the universe.
 
Mawdryn Undead
 
So in the previous two episodes we’ve had an “arc of infinity” that connects the world of antimatter to matter, and the Ouroborus of the Mara, and neither of these are particularly good things. With Mawdryn Undead we get these two concepts fused together in the form of a “warp ellipse.” This central conceit of a “warp ellipse,” according to the episode, will carry the Red Ship (The Queen Mary? The Mary Celeste? “Mary” is, of course, the mother of Jesus) “through infinity,” a perpetual orbit of eternity. In other words, the warp ellipse is an “arc of infinity” in of itself. And aboard this dread ship, along this infinite arc, there’s a group of men who sought immortality, found it, and lived to regret it. They are caught in a cycle of endless regeneration, which sounds an awful lot like the perpetual cycle of death and rebirth from which Buddhism seeks to escape.
 
And once again we’re struck with issues of Identity, on several levels. We’ve got Mawdryn, who happily accepts being mistaken for the Doctor. We’ve got the Brigadier, who doesn’t really know who he is anymore, on account of not being able to remember. And of course there’s Turlough, whose identity remains shrouded and obscure. Indeed, the mighty question “Who are you?” is asked three times here.
 
Might as well start with the titular character. Interesting that he’s a “red” man who ends up wearing a red coat as he struggles to get back to his red ship. Red is the color of the rubedo stage in alchemy, the final step in “the Great Work” of personal transformation. And Mawdryn really has just about finished his work, having realized that the eternity of the personal material body is not, in fact, the actual goal of alchemy. Instead, when the promise of the sweet release of death becomes available to him and his brothers, he rouses them to action saying it’s time for “the awakening.” An interesting choice of word, for in Buddhism the idea of “awakening” and attaining “enlightenment” are deeply intertwined, at least in Western translations (as would concern us regarding Doctor Who).
 
Turlough also partakes of the rubedo, aesthetically speaking—he has red hair. The most significant part he has to play in this thematic opera revolves around his “out of body experience” when he crashes the Brig’s car and has an “out of body experience” or OBE.  He finds himself in a “heavenly” context, what with that swirling halo around his head, where he meets his guardian angel. Not unlike Snakedance, though, this imagery is subverted through the participation of the Black Guardian, who implores Turlough to kill the Doctor. (I like Turlough. There’s a neat bit of “coming out” for him when he speaks with knowledge about technology and concepts beyond a school boy, which the Doctor takes in stride.) 
 
This isn’t the only OBE for Turlough.  He also has one in the infirmary at the school. He tries to leave, only to discover that his body is still in bed, and that the Headmaster is actually the Black Guardian.  He is “twinned” in this process, and in an interesting bit of imagery, his two selves join together as one in the scene.  But it’s not like he’s got much of a choice.  Turlough is kept in line through a magic crystal that glows in his hand and permits continued communication with his “guardian.”
 
There’s another crystal of note here, too, namely the continuity-glitched homing beacon, which the Brigadier receives twice, once from Tegan and once from the transmit capsule. But we shouldn’t be too hard on continuity errors in stories that hinge on time-travel conceits. More important is the Brigadier himself, who also abounds in ascension motifs, and partakes of his own bit of twinning. 
 
For the Brig, it’s all about Remembering, which is another form of enlightenment. Two moments to note: first, his remembrance of his time with the Doctor, which is presented with scenes that the character was never quite privy to—this is a remembering for us, the audience, and as such represents a bit of slippage in the fourth wall. Neatly, the beginning of this scene is likened by the Brigadier to the sensation of someone walking over his “grave.” Second, when the two Brigadiers converge, one asks “Who on earth?” while the other says, “I remember,” and that union of past and future into the here and now, on a ship designated to ride through eternity, is a lovely fusion of opposites.
 
This convergence functions as a Moment of Grace within the story. The Doctor has already given up, he’s let go of holding onto his regenerations, which will facilitate the deaths of Mawdryn and his brothers. This “letting go” is borne out of his compassion for Nyssa and Tegan, who wouldn’t be able to time-travel on the TARDIS again without his intervention; they would be stuck on the Red Ship for the rest of their days. That realization came during another union of opposites, as the Doctor tried to “reverse the polarity of the neutron flow” in attempting to escape, only to discover that traveling forward or backwards in time would lead Tegan and Nyssa to either age to death or regress back to their births. (Perhaps that’s why the transmit capsule is shaped like an egg.) In the end, Mawdryn and his ilk achieve death, something that can only be strived for when Ego is no longer concerned with its own perpetuation.  Ego loss is, in fact, the ultimate change in identity.
 
Terminus
 
Alchemy cannot be solely concerned with ascension of the individual, despite the annihilation of ego, for all the enlightenment in the world means nothing without material social progress. Which really amounts to work, tangible work, beyond the Great Work of the esoteric. I probably should have brought this up in the Mawdryn entry, but the “doctor” of that piece, a minor character surely, was named “Runciman,” which derives etymologically from “workhorse.” But we’re in Terminus now, and we have work to do. (So does Turlough, apparently—his guardian explicitly states, “You have work to do.”)
 
Nyssa, we should point out, is an alchemist. She studies biochemistry not just for the fun of it, but because she wants to improve people’s lives. In Terminusshe gets to do just that, all the while partaking of the season’s emphasis on near-death experiences. She does this by passing through a doorway marked with a skull and contracting Lazars’ Disease.
 
Much has already been made elsewhere of the influence of Norse mythology in this episode. Not so much the Christian mysteries. Lazars’ Disease is obviously derived from the myth of Lazarus, who was raised from the dead by Jesus Christ. It’s not the Christianity here that’s particularly important (there is, after all, the aforementioned infusion of Norse mythology) so much as the continued motif of death and rebirth. It’s entirely symbolic, of course—Nyssa doesn’t literally die. But her character certainly regresses earlier in the episode (in other words, her characterization dies) and after she’s contracted the disease she’s treated by everyone else as if she were already dead. Which is understandable, given that Lazars shamble about the place like the Walking Dead themselves, but without the gnawing hunger.
Nyssa’s passing through Terminus functions symbolically as a Near Death Experience. She’s brought to the light at the end of the proverbial tunnel by the Garm, a walking dog-like creature whose name derives from the hound that guards the Underworld.
 
(to be continued…)

Comments

numinousnimon 1 year, 6 months ago

Ah, so there is a "read more" link I was missing. No time to read this now, though I am excited to do so soon. This afternoon I only got as far as the cut and thought "I know it is two parts, but that's a rather short part one."

There were never "read more" cuts before. Not sure whether they are a good thing or not, but maybe they should be a bit more prominent?

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Phil Sandifer 1 year, 6 months ago

Yeah, we switched to read more links, mainly because two posts a day is now a thing that can happen and so we want to make it harder to miss a post.

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Matt M 1 year, 6 months ago

Yay Jane. I now see mirrors everywhere, you know!

I wonder how significant the idea of infinity ending in death is when combined with the anniversary year of a show that expected to go on forever. Or is that the point you're working towards?

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Matt M 1 year, 6 months ago

Uh wow it took 4 goes for the CAPCHA to recognise I wasn't a robot. Should I be worried?

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Phil Sandifer 1 year, 6 months ago

The Captchas aren't ideal; we'll eventually replace the comments system, but it's not a first week priority.

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Jane 1 year, 6 months ago

Glad to hear you've passed through the looking glass, Matt! As to your speculation on how the essay will end, well... I can't say just yet, because spoilers...

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