Following the stoically mute Karkus, Felix and the Doctor found themselves in a seemingly endless grey corridor. It felt like miles of the same tiny patch of space, extruded into infinity.
“Why do we spend so much of our time in corridors?” asked Felix.
“Because we spend so much of our time fighting institutionalised hierarchies,” said the Doctor, “and institutionalised hierarchies depend upon armed force and bureaucracy. Both of which require staff, and therefore also functional premises in which staff can operate.”
“Oh,” said Felix, “yes, I see.”
He didn’t pursue it. Things had gotten quite socratic enough today already.
At the Doctor’s command, the Karkus had demanded admittance to the castle. The great door had swung open for him, a grudging note in the creaking of its iron hinges. The Doctor had wanted to have a few words with whatever jobsworth owned the voice from behind the door, but there was nobody there when she looked.
“Obviously such a minor character he never even got a physical description,” she said, “which explains the insecurity.”
Then she had turned to the Karkus and demanded that he tell her about the prison. He had tried to deny knowledge, but so half-heartedly and guiltily that it was almost funny. It took little more than a sigh of irritation from his new Mistress to make him crack.
“Lead us there,” the Doctor had commanded.
So the strange little band had made their way into the dark corridors of the castle. They passed through a lazily-planned labyrinth, past cells in which razor sharp pendula depended menacingly over tables with shackles at each corner, past a courtyard in which a pair of feet stuck out from beneath a gigantic plumed helmet…
“How did you know he was involved in the prison?” Felix asked the Doctor.
“Just the sort of thing he’d be involved in… until the heroine turns up and makes him come over to the goodies.”
“Do these fictional people not have free will?” asked Felix.
“Well, that’s a tricky one,” said the Doctor. “It could be argued we only have free will because all possible choices come true in some world or another. Brigadiers and Brigade-Leaders, you know.” (Felix didn’t, but he let it pass.) “The people of the Land of Fiction have their variant iterations, just as we have ours. But they also have creators.”
“So do we have a Creator,” said Felix.
“That’s debateable,” said the Doctor, “but I think a nice Catholic boy like you would want to say that our notional Creator gives us free will, yes?”
“That’s what the Church tells us,” said Felix.
“Is that an appeal to authority?” asked the Doctor.
“No,” said Felix, slightly stung, “I’m simply citing wisdom with which I happen to agree.”
“Well, in any case, the creators of fictional people definitely don’t allow them free will. They make them do as they’re told. They leave them no choice. But then there are those variant iterations. Re-interpreptations. Reboots. And then there’s fan-fic, of course. Endless numbers of people expropriating characters from their creators and letting them run wild. But is that freedom, or just a new master? And are you yourself free if it’s actually a separate version of you getting to enjoy all the other options? Maybe we are the freed characters of a benevolent tyrant while they, the fictional, are the unfree characters of a huge democratic committee. Which is worse?”
“But is this place not where the fictional come so that they might enjoy free will?” asked Felix, “after all, when they are here they are no longer trapped inside novels and motion pictures and fairytales. They are here instead.”
“You make it sound like this is the world beyond the garden,” said the Doctor, “like they’ve fallen and been expelled.”
“Could it work that way?”
The Doctor looked at him thoughtfully.
“I’ve seen evidence that could go either way,” she said, “I’ve seen characters here who seem to do whatever they like. I’ve also seen characters who can’t do or say anything their creators didn’t write.”
“But that sounds exactly like our world to me,” said Felix. “I’ve known people who never obeyed an order in their lives, who seemed constitutionally incapable of obeying orders. I’ve also known people who complied with every request made of them as a matter of course, and never questioned it.”
“Good point,” said the Doctor, “so have I. There was even a time… long ago… when I was like that myself.”
“You?” asked Felix, almost spluttering.
“Oh yes,” said the Doctor, making a face of distate, “I was such a good boy for so long.”
“But these people… the people here… Can they choose one path or the other? Are they choosing whether to be free or not?”
“Can one choose to not be free?”
“Choosing to not be free is just choosing to do nothing,” said Felix, “choosing to be acted upon rather than act. Freedom is action.”
“What about negative capability?”
“That’s a different thing.”
“I suppose that might be true here,” said the Doctor, “for the fictional people.”
“It might be true everywhere.”
“But does that mean that slaves choose slavery through apathy? Because I’ve always thought slavery had more to do with chains and whips.”
“What about the Karkus?”
“Oh there’s all sorts of implied consent going on with him,” said the Doctor good-humouredly, “It’s part of the character. Truth is, he wants to play the game he plays. It’s part of why we love him despite the fact that technically he’s a villain. His heart’s visibly not in it. He’s always dying to be conquered.”
“Or is he just a character who obeys rules written by someone else?”
“He’s written with the choice built in.”
“Like us,” said Felix, with a flourish in his voice to show that he felt he had won the argument.
“Maybe,” said the Doctor again, “but that still implies that when real people become slaves, it’s somehow their choice.”
“There’s a sense in which every slave has the choice to not be one,” countered Felix, “They just have to choose the whips instead. Maybe the noose. Not easy. But possible.”
“Easy for us to say. We’re not facing that choice.”
“It’s still a choice though. Just as we have the choice, the freedom, to hurl ourselves off cliffs if we want to.”
“Monstrous freedom, as Sartre might put it…”
“Ahead of my time again?”
The Doctor ignored him this time.
“…like the monstrous freedom exercised by a soldier clambering over the top of a trench,” she continued, “counterposed with the choice of a soldier to not obey orders. To desert. And risk everything you risked.”
“Yes…” said Felix slowly, feeling that it was rather unfaire of the Doctor make make this personal to him, “though I knew I was coming with you. I knew I’d be safely away from anyone who wanted to punish me.”
“Coming with me could be seen as volunteering for more danger than just staying in the war and following orders. We don’t exactly shy away from danger, do we? You chose all sorts of possible consequences. You signed up for my war instead of theirs.”
“Yes, I suppose so,”said Felix glumly, sounding unconvinced.
“But you can’t expect those sorts of choices of people.”
“No, that’s why we praise them as special when people do make them.”
“That’s also why they never solve anything, at least in the long run. Because the circumstances are exceptional and isolated.”
“Except when lots of people make them at once.”
The Doctor had stopped and stared at him, a smile spreading across her face.
“Maybe we should get you back for the end of the war,” she said.
Felix said nothing.
“I think what you really want to know,” continued the Doctor, “is whether these people have souls.”
“Why ask me? I don’t know. I think we are what we do.”
“No, there’s more to it than that.”
“But aren’t souls judged on actions? Your actions are your soul.”
“So Cybermen have souls? They do things.”
“Yes, if you like. You believe souls can be damned or saved, yes? Then souls are not good or bad in themselves. They are what we make them.”
“Then these people have souls too, even if they’re just working to the instructions of an author, like machines.”
“The Church wouldn’t agree with you.”
“That’s not what I think. I’m following your logic.”
“Aquinas would be on my side,” said the Doctor.
“Is that an appeal to authority?” Felix countered, which both irritated the Doctor and made her beam at him proudly again.
“This way Mistress,” said the Karkus, before leading them down a right turn that had been invisible to Felix until the big man stomped into it.
“This is like having K9 back,” said the Doctor to herself.
“Are you sure we can trust him?” asked Felix in a whisper.
“We can trust his formula,” said the Doctor outloud and unabashed.
And it seemed that they could, because after bringing them only a short way down this new corridor, the Karkus stopped outside a large steel door and barked: “Here, Mistress.”
“So this place,” said Felix, looking up and around to indicate that he meant the entire realm of the Land of Fiction, “isn’t really a democracy now after all?”
“Democracies have their prisons, Felix,” said the Doctor, “and their bureaucracies and armed forces and institutionalised hierarchies. Depressing, but true. There are better ways, of course. I thought they might be practicing something better here, in their way, but…”
She stared at the Karkus. He looked grim, and slightly shamefaced.
“Let me in then,” she said.
“I do not have the key, Mistress,” he said, with truculent innocence.
The Doctor just raised an eyebrow at him again. He deflated instantly. He turned to the door and ripped it out of the wall with an air of harassed resignation.
“That’s better,” said the Doctor sternly, and walked through the gaping hole where the door had been.
Felix followed the Doctor, leaving the Karkus holding the massive steel door like someone unsure of where to set down their shopping.
“Come on,” said Felix.
The Karkus did not move.
“Come on,” called the Doctor.
This time he instantly obeyed.
They found themselves on a gantry which seemed to be raised above a huge black pit. But the space below them was more than just emptiness. It felt somehow full and alive.
“Lead the way,” said the Doctor.
Felix rolled his eyes.
“Aren’t you getting bored with that ‘Mistress’ stuff?” he asked the Doctor as they followed the Karkus, who was now striding purposefully along the gantry.
“I have to keep playing by the rules if I want him to keep playing by them,” said the Doctor, “and I need him to keep obeying until he takes us to this prison.”
Felix thought about the military prison where he would be put if he ever returned home, a deserter.
At least it wouldn’t be like this. A dark, echoing pit.