The Arc of Alchemy (Part Two)


(Continued from Part One)
Again: 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.
Nyssa’s “resurrected” (well, cured) by the light that started the Universe, and which now threatens to end it—she is placed, mythologically, in the light of the Alpha and the Omega, which could only emanate from the Center. And here we should note the importance of Norse mythology, for the Center of the World Tree, the axis mundi, is the place where Past and Future, Above and Below, come together in the Here and Now. The very notion of such a union of opposites is implicit in the word “Terminus,” as the place-name denoted here functions as both the beginning and the end of “the line.“
As above, so below—this alchemical principle suggests the repetition of certain structures regardless of scale. The Terminus itself is a labyrinth, as is the ship that brings the Lazars, the ductwork underneath that ship, and indeed the TARDIS itself. A labyrinth is distinct from a maze, the latter being generally multicursal, whereas most labyrinths are traditionally unicursal, symbolizing the path to the Center (the seat of divinity) and back out again. As such, labyrinths are generally traversed twice, going in, then out, making them cyclical in nature.
Which brings us to the central conceit of Terminus itself, namely the impossible astronaut that lies at its heart, who supposedly “created” the Universe—but where did this pilot come from? Surely a time traveler came from a Universe, in which case the Universe wasn’t created but rebooted. Which is ultimately a form of Eternal Return. In which case, what happened to the astronaut’s universe? Wasn’t it, too, destroyed, to bring forth the Universe of our own? That seems to be the implication, hence the Doctor’s determination to prevent it from happening again. The eternal return of death and rebirth is indeed the source of suffering, so it seems.
But once Terminus is de-mythologized, when Nyssa figures out what’s really going on, proper alchemy can be exercised. Nyssa can use her knowledge of alchemy to synthesize Hyrdomel, which keeps the labor force both alive and enslaved until they themselves can control the means of production. It’s an interesting word, “Hydromel.” It’s simply a combination of water (hyrdo) and honey (mel), the “bittersweet taste of life” as one of the Vanir puts it. Honey has its own esoteric connotations, as beehives were long ago likened to the process of death and rebirth, not unlike dung beetles in Egypt. Of greater interest to me, in context with Season Twenty, is that the socket in the Vanir armor where this elixir is placed happens to be adorned with a snake—harkening back to Snakedance.
Alchemically, though, this watery substance is what keeps the fire of the Terminus Light at bay, another union of opposites that actually leads to salvation. Which is what Nyssa offers, albeit at the sacrifice of her own life, the rest of her days. Funny, she says she make an “endless” supply of it, in “good faith,” and when she departs, she invokes Tegan’s line at the end of Arc of Infinity, declaring that she too is “indestructible.”
So now we come to the titular theme of the season: Enlightenment. Probably the thematic climax of the season, though we still have a couple more stories after this one. So let’s get cracking!
By virtue of having creatures called “Eternals” in contrast to us mere “Ephemerals” we get another juxtaposition of immorality and death, coupled with ships sailing in space a la Mawdryn Undead. And once again it’s made painfully clear that Eternity is not something to cherish, for to exist in Eternity isn’t actually “existence” as far as the Eternals are concerned, given Marriner’s at least as far as the Eternal called Marriner is concerned, when challenged by Tegan as to whether he’s in love with her.
And then we have the Doctor calling them “empty nothings.” Which is funny, considering how much “emptiness” plays into the Buddhist conception of enlightenment. Perhaps this is why the Doctor says he isn’t ready for it. The Eternals are beyond the Qlippothic, husks so empty they can’t even claim existence. How could they, when they reside in eternity? Which is why they want Enlightenment, as if that would give them a light of their own.
So what is “Enlightenment?” Captain Striker describes it as, “The wisdom which knows all things and which will enable me to achieve what I desire most.” Wrack’s definition is remarkably similar, “Everything conceived in time, from the beginning to the end,” and now we’re yet again invoking the Alpha and Omega, with a dash of the Akashic Records thrown in for good measure. But most interestingly, the Black Guardian suggests that they will “invade time itself.” Which suggests a kind of alchemy, a union of Eternity and Ephemerality. For the Eternals, then, “Enlightenment” is simply the knowledge of death, and hence of limitation.
And this goes rather well with the Doctor’s saying, that “Enlightenment is the choice,” for choices only make sense given ephemerality, limitation, death—we can’t have it all, not given the short time we have in this Universe. Indeed, if I could have it all, and you could have it all, then there’s no choice to make, and indeed no distinguishing between the two of us. So ephemerality actually confers both free will and identity. Huh. So of course the Doctor wants no part of it—he’s a time-traveler, to have access to the knowledge of the Universe would destroy him, for seeing everything played out in front of him would destroy his free will, his choices, his identity. Indeed, for time-travelers, it seems that it’s not knowing, the lack of enlightenment, that actually confers freedom. What a funny union of opposites—true enlightenment coming only from the lack of it.
Turlough’s choice is more easy to parse—he gives up his own personal ambitions for the sake of the Doctor. Which is to say, he gives up his ego for the sake of another. It’s more than compassion, I think—it really is a letting go, an admission there’s more to the world than one’s self. Again, however, there’s an irony here, for so much of the season has been concerned with Identity (here the Doctor is mistaken for the ship’s cook, and yet again the Question of “Who are you?” is repeated, several times at that), and yet the knowledge of one’s true self seems to contradict this movement towards egolessness. It’s almost as if one has to look at one’s self from outside one’s self, to let go of ego, and yet this sounds so much like the experience of Eternity itself. Funny.
There’s some interesting imagery to explore in this one. First up is the City of Lights, which is the final destination of the tall ships, the place where Enlightenment is to be conferred. In the literature of Near Death Experiences, it’s not uncommon. One report says, “These cathedrals were made entirely of a crystalline substance that glowed with a light that shone powerfully from within. I was awestruck. This place had a power that seemed to pulsate through the air. I knew that I was in a place of learning.” Another, “In the distance I saw a sight so magnificent and astounding—a city made up of what seemed to be glass or crystal!” A third, “Then all of a sudden I was standing before a massive set of steps! They led up to what seemed to be a bridge or walk of some kind. In the distance I saw a sight so magnificent and astounding—a city made up of what seemed to be glass or crystal!” Not to say that these are reliable accounts, only that there’s a correlation between them and the imagery employed here.
Indeed, so much is made of Crystals in this episode, harkening back to Snakedance and Mawdryn Undead. The city of lights appears to be made of crystal (and vaguely resembles a chandelier), while the form of Enlightenment offered to Turlough is a diamond big enough to “buy a galaxy.” Captain Wrack uses red crystals to focus a destructive energy beam on her competitors. Once again we have the appearance of the rubedo in a nefarious context, and once again we see the conflation of a crystal with someone’s face. Here it’s Captain Wrack, whose focus seems to multiply when the crystal she gave to Tegan is shattered.
Wrack’s “vacuum chamber” is particularly interesting in terms of its symbolism. The vacuum chamber (a place of emptiness) has two significant figures. One is the Eye, which is often called the window to the soul, and is certainly one of our most important sensory organs. When we talk of Enlightenment, we talk of the Third Eye opening up, the one that’s in your forehead, which points to the seat of consciousness. For Wrack, the Eye is combined with the Circle in the Square, which as pointed out previously represents the union of the Divine Spirit and the Embodied World, the latter pointing to the importance of material social progress in our alchemical readings. But the show at this point is treating esoteric concepts with a certain amount of, I don’t want to say contempt or disdain, or even skepticism, but as sources of fear and horror. Fair enough. The loss of ego is very much akin to an experience of death, one of the most horrifying concepts available to us.
Most significant for our purposes, however, is the ascension motif from Arc of Infinity that’s reiterated in this episode. Specifically, Turlough’s launching himself into space. It’s certainly reminiscent of the Doctor’s OBE in the Matrix. Here it’s couched in terms of going “aloft” as the sailors put it—a nod towards the upward sensation of ascension. Turlough’s choice here is equally if not moreso telling: he claims that he will never serve the Black Guardian again—he’d rather die than do this “work.” I must point out at this point the delicious etymology of Turlough’s name. It’s an Irish word that refers to a body of water, a lake, but in particular a lake that can disappear. A lake that habitually dries up. A lake that’s a dry place. Once more, a union of opposites.
Anyways, Turlough ends up floating in the heavens, his ascension well under way as he makes his choice to abandon his guardian angel. But here he’s dressed in a black wetsuit. It harkens to the nigredo stage of alchemy, which represents putrefaction and letting go, which are necessary before the albedo and rubedo stages of alchemy may commence. Turlough is picked up by pirates (this is the second story in a row to feature pirates; everything, it seems, is mirrored) and he must work through his issues one last time before shedding his obligations to the Black Guardian.
That that last three stories feature the Black Guardian, and this one the White, bears some mentioning. They were originally a part of the Key to Time arc of Season 16, the second season to feature a thematic arc running through it (the first being Season 8, which featured the Master). As initially presented in The Ribos Operation, the very notion of their duality was actually subverted by Robert Holmes, and here we get just a taste of that at the end, as the White Guardian suggests there will be a time when they “are no longer needed”—and which suggests that they too are ephemeral, yet with access to (and indeed power over) eternity. Just the invocation of duality in a season where the union of opposites is actually a concern is enough to make my heart flutter, but for one of the Guardians to suggest ego death at the end of the so-called Black Guardian Trilogy is music to my soul. For of course we must move beyond the strictures of dualistic structure if we are to partake of enlightenment ourselves.
The King’s Demons
There really isn’t much to say here, as this is sort of a filler episode before the season’s almost-grand finale. In this one we have the Doctor and the Master (who reverts from rubedo—he’s pretending to be ginger—to nigredo before our very eyes) fighting over the consciousness of a most alchemical character: Kamelion.
Kamelion is a Silver Man who represents the albedo stage of the Great Work. The albedo stage of an alchemical working is all about purification, washing away the impurities of the soul, in order to leave behind a reflectivity (the “albedo” of something measures how much light it reflects) that divides you into those opposite polarities which will then be fused together in the final rubedo stage. (Interestingly, there’s a reference to the Eye of Orion in this story. Within the constellation of Orion, the star that represents the head is Meissa, which is “The Shining One,” and which is actually a double star.)
Anyways, all of this is to say that Kamelion is a mirror, reflecting the will (ego) of the people around him, for good or ill. And beside him we get the “demons” of the Doctor and Master, who functionally represent the duality of the White and Black guardians, both in attire and temperament. The “Lord Doctor” is called “Lucifer”—he is the light-bringer. The Master is going by the name Gilles, which means “young goat.” They are both demons (as opposed to the previous “guardian angels”) who battle it out over Kamelion’s mirror.
This reflectivity is also expressed in other ways throughout the story. Lord Ranulf says that King John is “not himself.” Geoffrey de Lacey reports the bilocation of King John, that he is in two places at the same time; he’s been duplicated, one a dark reflection of the other. And the act of purification that is inherent to the albedo stage of the Great Work is even alluded to by the Doctor and Tegan, through an exchange regarding the “future” historical event where King John loses the Crown Jewels in “the Wash.” Hmm, another “crystal” reference, too. Neat! And of course, Kamelion ends up portraying both the Doctor and the Master in their final confrontation.
The standoff ends when the TARDIS appears. Kamelion ends up taking the form of Tegan, a great surprise… but actually rather apt. Tegan’s the one whose banging on the TARDIS console in just the right place got the blue box going. Moreso, however, Tegan represents the difference between the King’s demons—she is neither black nor white, but in full color. More importantly, however, she is a companion to the Doctor, something the Master lacks. Perhaps taking on this aspect is what leads Kamelion to make this choice as well. It certainly leads well into the season’s conclusion…
Resurrection of the Daleks
It’s an interesting title, to be sure. Interesting, because there isn’t actually a resurrection of Daleks in this story. A resurrection of Davros, perhaps, but that’s something entirely different. So what, exactly, is the resurrection here?
It might help to remember the context of resurrection back on Terminus—invoked through the “Lazars’ Disease” nomenclature. So we’re talking near-death experiences again. But we don’t have a near-death experience for the Daleks either. We do, however, have something like that being provided by the Daleks. It is provided through their process of “duplication,” which is a sort of mirror-twinning. All the Dalek agents are duplicates—they died only to be resurrected in “new” bodies. And this is what they want to do with the Doctor. They want to steal his Identity. (Naturally, there’s yet another repetition of the “Who are you?” question in this episode.)
It’s the sequence in the Duplication Chamber that’s most worth examining here. The Doctor’s memories are being recorded so that his duplicate will actually be able to “pass” as the real him. And so his life flashes before his eyes. Most interesting, I think, is that the memories we see are those of his Companions as well as his prior incarnations. So what is the Doctor’s essence? Or rather, given the mighty Question of “Who are you?” we get an answer that’s not just rooted in who he’s been, but also in the relationships he formed with the people he traveled with. That is his essence.
From the perspective of reported Near Death Experiences, it’s rather clever—this is a Life Review, of sorts, an unearthing of all the Doctor’s truly important memories. Or perhaps it’s a past lift regression. Regardless, the idea that this is the end of the “time corridor” positions that particular bit of technobabble as a metaphor for this very process, the process of Remembering.
And it’s the duplicate Stien [sic] who makes it just as clear that remembering is crucial to understanding “the real you,” as the Doctor puts it. Stien complains that he doesn’t have a “choice” in what he’s doing to the Doctor, then taunts him about constitutional amendments and school. So Stien is remembering too, in unison with the Doctor. The Doctor implores him to remember his past, and in so doing helps to bring the “real” Stien back to life. Stien is resurrected, in other words.
This resurrection is also concurrent with the Doctor’s pain. A pain which resonates in Stien. We might call this compassion, or empathy. It’s interesting, because the very process of compassion requires a temporary vacating of the ego itself, so one can empathize with another. That it’s Stien who ends up activating the Self Destruct sequence at the space station is therefore thematically apropos: once again, we have a metaphor for ego death.
The ironic thing about the dismantling of the ego is that it takes a great deal of self-awareness to accomplish. Which is also something the show provides. Tegan’s rebuke of the Doctor at the end, that all the violence isn’t fun any more, is certainly a sucker-punch ending, but it can only be a sucker punch if the text itself is “self-aware” enough to understand what it’s doing. And so it provides its own critique, from the one character whose outfit combines all three alchemical stages of nigredo, albedo, and rubedo into a unified whole. Tegan, therefore, provides the way out of taking metaphor literally, as the show seems to do here: the destruction of the Ego is a psychological process; it isn’t actually accomplished by destroying the material body.
But all material bodies will perish in the end. Not that there isn’t a way out from that, either—for indeed, when Turlough is faced with the “ego death” of the Self Destruct Chamber, he wisely suggests a means of escape—through the Time Corridor, which we’ve already established is a metaphor for going back through one’s memories (much like the show has done in its 20th anniversary year) and which is likely the only thing we can do upon our material deaths. The best of those memories, I say, and as the show seems to suggest, will be rooted in our loving relationships.
So this, then, is the justification for such thematic resonance in Season Twenty. It’s more than an exploration of nostalgia, though it certainly draws heavily from that kind of remembrance. It is, I’d argue, a way of playing with not just certain esoteric mystical experiences, but with death itself, in a way that’s more than just the lurid depiction of such loss. Yes, there’s value in the spectacle of OBE and NDE experiences, and that should surely be enough for a show like Doctor Who, which has as one of its missions an intersection with the weird, the strange, the unusual.
But in terms of alchemy, and the implicit contract of social material progress, there’s something key here to note. For social material progress to occur, we must be prepared to give up our own ego-driven wants. We must be prepared to put aside ego to exercise compassion for those among us who are less fortunate, who are in need of justice, who cry out, “Help me.” But you probably already know that, some thirty-plus years after this season aired. For “self” and “other” are also “opposite” polarities on the axis of identity. So it is a union, once again, that can only bring us together.
In other words, we have work to do.


Matt M 1 year, 5 months ago

Resurrection of the Daleks instead of Five Doctors? It took a while to click as Resurrection was originally going to be 'Warhead' and the final episode of season 20, though I believe the Warhead script got changed quite a lot for Resurrection.

Will you be covering Five Doctors too? I find it interesting in many ways, not least that for an anniversary show it's actually about how awful immortality would be and that finite life is more preferable. When taking this to reflect on Doctor Who as a whole, is it saying that the show should die? That immortality for the show would lead into the Timelashes and Cybermen of season 22?

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Jane 1 year, 5 months ago

Hi Matt!

The Five Doctors really does fit in quite nicely as a coda for this bit of alchemy, doesn't it?

But we needn't worry about (let alone plan for) the show's immortality, given that we as a species most certainly have an expiration date of our own. As does our solar system, and indeed the Universe, what with entropy and all.

What's equally interesting about Five Doctors is that it also points the way to the aftermath of ego-death. In any kind of spiritual practice we can theoretically kill off the ego, but it always seems to come back. I think it's kind of hard-wired into our biology. But the ego that returns may not be the same one. You can be an entirely different person as a result.

But if we do this over and over again, such that we start cycling through many different personalities, doesn't this start to sound like the cycle of death and rebirth that Buddhism seeks to escape?

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John G Wood 1 year, 5 months ago

I've nothing really to add, but wanted to say I have read and enjoyed. Thanks, Jane - keep up the good work!

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UrsulaL 1 year, 5 months ago

Hi Jane!

I'm glad I found you here! Are you going to be covering the new episodes? And will you be doing mirror-thread type stuff?

You might want to post a "mirror" titled thread at GB, in the new episode section, to help those who like these discussions to find you here.


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