That is not dead which can eternally hit the snooze button

Skip to content

Elizabeth Sandifer

Elizabeth Sandifer created Eruditorum Press. She’s not really sure why she did that, and she apologizes for the inconvenience. She currently writes Last War in Albion, a history of the magical war between Alan Moore and Grant Morrison. She used to write TARDIS Eruditorum, a history of Britain told through the lens of a ropey sci-fi series. She also wrote Neoreaction a Basilisk, writes comics these days, and has ADHD so will probably just randomly write some other shit sooner or later. Support Elizabeth on Patreon.


  1. Iain Coleman
    August 9, 2013 @ 3:12 am

    The whole "something is coming in the darkness" thing was the one real bum note in an otherwise fine episode. This small but crucial addition to the "oh my God, there's nothing" of the first episode is the beginning of a long decline that will eventually bottom out with Undead Owen Harper wrestling a poorly-rendered anthropomorphised Death.

    For some reason, SF shows seem unable to be or remain atheistic. However they start out, they always seem to end up with life after death, and gods or god-equivalents, and all that stuff. Contrast with detective drama, which is in effect entirely atheistic, even when written by writers as steeped in religion as Jimmy McGovern. Imagine a detective show in which the murder is revealed by the victim via a ouija board.

    What SF is really channeling here (to coin a phrase) is the inheritance of 19th century spiritualism. Modern SF developed at a time when psychical investigation had made a decisive move into the territory of the physical sciences, attempting to establish a spirit realm along similar principles to the fields and waves that were being formalised in physics, and SF naturally took on some of these ideas and exploited them.

    So embedded is this in SF that it takes, evidently, considerable deliberate effort to avoid being drawn along by that current. For a brief moment in Everything Changes, it looked as though Torchwood was going to strike out along a different creative path. It was refreshing and interesting. It didn't last.


  2. Chicanery
    August 9, 2013 @ 4:19 am

    A mystery partially solved by a ouija board/ghost? You mean like in Rashomon?


  3. Alex Antonijevic
    August 9, 2013 @ 4:55 am

    I don't find the whole "there's nothing" bit to be all that atheistic when it's a character like Suzie, who would be going straight to hell. That's if you follow the idea of hell as being endless nothing, which is how Doctor Who described the void.

    Writing about death and what's out there is so hard, there's so many different theories and no way of really knowing for sure. Terry Pratchett does it best in Discworld – their death plays out according to their beliefs. I really like that idea.


  4. Spacewarp
    August 9, 2013 @ 6:06 am

    At first sight it's absurd. I mean, presumably if Death is a creature then it's been around at least as long as life on Earth…so why would it look like a human skeleton? In the same way as why would The Beast (from Satan Pit etc) also look human…since it's been around since before time began and thus before humanity or even the Milky Way galaxy even came into existence?

    An often-used SF trope is that when we encounter something that is too far out of our experience (e.g. 4 dimensional creature) then what we see is the closest approximation to something that we can make sense of. A close example is the Vorlon Kosh from Babylon 5, who when seen in the flesh by several different alien races, appears to all of them as something different based on their individual culture.

    This is a great handwave, as it is both economical (it only takes a couple of lines of dialogue) and high-concept, and would have been perfect in this situation. Why does Death look like Death? Because we know it's Death and so that's what we see.

    Alternatively of course there's the "Daemon" explanation, where an alien that looks like a mythical creature because legends of that creature are based on memories of the alien. Which could also apply in this case – Death looks like traditional ideas of the Grim Reaper because that's actually what he looks like, and we've seen him before.


  5. Assad K
    August 9, 2013 @ 6:24 am

    Certainly the Master's most convoluted plots had nothing on Suzie's cunning plan to come back from the dead.


  6. landru
    August 9, 2013 @ 6:38 am

    That's an interesting point about Jack and Torchwood, in the show's narrative. Of course, the TV show Torchwood has to have a "stand alone" narrative, so they can't keep referencing things in Doctor Who. In this case, like the origins of Doctor Who, necessity creates the narrative. Captain Jack has to be mysterious.


  7. othemts
    August 9, 2013 @ 6:49 am

    "There is something to revive, even weeks or months after death, and that something is aware of having been dead. The nothing after death is where we go, but there’s still the very clear sense that there’s a “we” that gets to go somewhere. More to the point, the nothing is clearly a place in which it is possible for other things to exist."

    This is one of those concepts that melts my mind like the idea of an ever-expanding universe that is somehow expanding it into itself.

    I watched "Everything Changes" and then based on ratings/reviews of ensuing episodes skipped ahead to "They Keep Killing Suzie." From this episode I was hooked and watched every show to the end of series 3. It's good to be able to read Philip's analysis of shows I've actually seen again.


  8. coldwater1010
    August 9, 2013 @ 6:53 am

    "her casual killing of her father is a particularly artful moment of “oh dear, this character is completely and utterly unhinged, isn’t she?” "

    Suzie casually killing her father because of some unspecified slight on his part is probably the least insane thing she does. In episode one, after running into Gwen and realising she remembers nothing, Suzie proceeds to make sure Gwen remembers everything before killing herself so she can put into action this pretty convoluted, not to mention flawed plan to return from the dead because all she wants to do is live because she knows there's nothing else. I guess just walking away at the first sign that she hadn't yet been rumbled and hopping on the first plane to anywhere would have been too mundane for her. It also makes her killing all those people in the first episode more sport than scientific exploration because to be able to come up with this plan she'd have to have know the inner workings of the glove pretty darn well by that point.

    I thought this episode was not only suggesting that there was an afterlife, but that Suzie apparently spent it stalking Gwen otherwise how else is she so convinced that Gwen is better than her and everyone loves her better than her. Because it's Gwen and it's just so apparent?


  9. Adam Riggio
    August 9, 2013 @ 7:02 am

    It's a fascinating story, the evolution of sci-fi's relationship with religion. The genre developed in this period when the psychic sciences had just as much credibility as the physical sciences. The psychic sciences drifted into obscurity and Hollow Earth territory (great post on the science of the Daleks hollowing out the Earth, by the way, though I still think Phil's explanation of their reasoning is best) as they failed to find any of the entities they postulated.

    Periodically, we find otherwise atheist science-fiction, even in the hard sci-fi genres developed with fealty to what Phil has so eloquently called Big-Ass Science, engaging with spiritual matters. As if the failure of the psychic sciences left a hole in human identity that spirituality and religion previously served, so science-fiction sought ways to account for the spiritual in a hard science worldview.

    But I don't think we need that. I actually have a collaborative piece on this subject being published at at the end of August, which explains my own perspective. The yearning for spirituality is based on a premise that knowledge of the mechanics of how the world works somehow reduces its majesty: awe at the universe requires mystery and spirituality. So we find science-fiction periodically attempting to articulate a sense of awe and mystery for a secular world.

    Yet that's a false premise to me. The real source of awe in the universe is really the source of its awesomeness (in the current sense of the term). Oddly, for all the Davies era focussed on the spiritual dimensions of Doctor Who, the Moffat era gave me the best line to characterize where awe in a secular universe comes from (with a little extra influence from some lines of Alan Moore). You look around and examine in intense detail all the mechanisms of the universe and the incredible unlikelihood of any singular body being just as it is, and all that knowledge is inherently fascinating.

    The attitude of secular/atheist awe at the universe: "Look how cool this stuff is!"


  10. Ross
    August 9, 2013 @ 7:02 am

    Finally, of course, there is the image of something existing in the darkness. One of the things that is often tricky about Davies’s Doctor Who is its relationship with Davies’s own atheism. On the one hand, the prospect of there being nothing after death is profoundly atheistic. On the other hand, Torchwood clearly has a notion of the soul. There is something to revive, even weeks or months after death, and that something is aware of having been dead. The nothing after death is where we go, but there’s still the very clear sense that there’s a “we” that gets to go somewhere. More to the point, the nothing is clearly a place in which it is possible for other things to exist.

    The complexity of Davies's atheism is something that struck me on watching this handful of episodes. I know lots of Doctor Who fans watched Torchwood and crowed "See! See! Definitive proof! There is no afterlife in the Doctor Who universe! No soul! No God! Proven forever! Suck it!", on the basis of people who have died coming back and reporting to have experienced going to a vast empty place where there was something in the darkness. That's not the absence of an afterlife; that's fairly close to the afterlife in classical Greek mythology.

    (Of course, the possibility also exists that Davies is simply not a very introspective guy and hasn't thought deeply about his atheism, and therefore didn't realize that a positive experiential nothing that you go to is actually still an afterlife because he lacks the imagination to understand the difference. But that requires discarding the bulk of what is evidenced by the rest of his work in favor or "He's an idiot," which seems unlikely. But I guess you do get people like Hideo Kojima whose creative output alternates so quickly between brilliant insight and comical buffoonery that you could wrap a coil of wire around it and generate electricity)


  11. Spacewarp
    August 9, 2013 @ 7:48 am

    Personally I have no problem with there being a "we" that goes somewhere after death, as I don't believe in anything approaching a soul. I tend to view consciousness as a process of life that has evolved to a sufficient level of complexity as to erroneously believe that it is alive. "Man does not think. He only thinks he thinks."


  12. Seeing_I
    August 9, 2013 @ 8:42 am

    You guys have covered the "there's nothing" aspect pretty well, but I wonder why nobody thought to ask if maybe our embodied consciousness just isn't capable of recalling or understanding or containing true knowledge of what's out there.

    Likewise, I wonder if Phil has any plans to write about Davies' The Second Coming, which I found a fascinating if flawed piece of work (those tricksy lot resolutions again!) tackling very similar themes as Doctor Who and Torchwood.


  13. Iain Coleman
    August 9, 2013 @ 9:01 am

    Adam: "just as much credibility" is stretching it quite a bit.Psychic research was always regarded as disreputable by the scientific establishment, who generally thought that the few scientists who did pursue such studies were the victims of charlatanry and self-delusion. Which, to be fair, they were. The founding of the Society for Psychical Research was an attempt to put this field on the same level as the respectable scientific establishment, but it didn't work.


  14. Daibhid C
    August 9, 2013 @ 9:26 am

    He wrote a bit about The Second Coming in his "This is where the major players of the relaunch were just before it happened" Pop Between Realities.


  15. Alan
    August 9, 2013 @ 9:46 am

    Two points:

    1. "There's nothing!" in the context presented on Torchwood does nothing to disprove the existence of an afterlife in terms that a theist would find persuasive. If we accept (as theists do) that there is a "soul" and that it is the soul which goes on post mortem to experience the afterlife, then of course, the soulless husk left behind after the soul's departure would have no knowledge of the afterlife and would interpret the lack of sensory input as nothingness. Essentially, the glove raises zombies which have the memories of their former lives up until the point at which biological processes ceased. Why would we expect the body to remember what happened to the soul after its departure?

    2. For that matter, what's really so scary about the idea of "there's nothing"? Most atheists already accept that theory and it doesn't fill them with existential angst. Frankly, if there is no afterlife and death is the equivalent of taking a deep peaceful nap from which you never awaken, surely that's preferable to the Christian alternative: After death, a capricious and omnipotent deity assigns you an afterlife based on arbitrary criteria selected from two options — eternal pain in hell or eternal mind-numbing bliss spent groveling at the feet of the Creator. I have no idea what happens after we die, but it's been a long time since I've been naive enough to consider the Southern Baptist interpretation of heaven to be desirable. YMMV.


  16. Iain Coleman
    August 9, 2013 @ 10:09 am

    I've just had a thought. Does the casting of the 12th Doctor mean we can expect a Pop Between Realities on The Thick of It? I do hope so.

    (Of course, Capaldi has a long and distinguished acting career, but his casting was uniformly reported in terms of his most famous part to date, Malcolm Tucker.)


  17. Iain Coleman
    August 9, 2013 @ 10:14 am

    There are some Christians who think that hell is empty, such is the infinite mercy of God. I find that a much more attractive notion than the fire and brimstone that some other Christians invoke with such evident delight.


  18. Seeing_I
    August 9, 2013 @ 10:24 am

    What's scary is the idea if being eternally conscious of being lost in the void.


  19. Seeing_I
    August 9, 2013 @ 10:26 am

    Cheers, don't know how I missed that.


  20. BerserkRL
    August 9, 2013 @ 12:50 pm

    when Jack asks the first dead person what he saw, and gets the simple and chilling response: “Oh my God, there’s nothing.”

    Of course the conceptual problem with this becomes clear once we make it explicit: "During the period when I had ceased to exist, I experienced my condition and noticed that it was one of nonexistence." As Plato and Epicurus pointed out (albeit with opposite morals in mind), if death is nonexistence then nobody can possibly experience it. Which is why the Torchwood conception of the afterlife subsequently gets inevitably pulled from "nothingness" to "a vast, dark, mostly empty somethingness."


  21. BerserkRL
    August 9, 2013 @ 1:06 pm

    they always seem to end up with life after death, and gods or god-equivalents, and all that stuff. Contrast with detective drama

    It's instructive that Arthur Conan Doyle, who not only wrote lots of stories with supernatural elements, but himself believed in them rather thoroughly (including the famous fairy photos, in comparison with which the spiritualist stuff looks positively sober and scientific), and saddled us with his dullest novel, Land of Mist, by trying to shoehorn his obsession with spiritualism into the Prof. Challenger series, nevertheless had the good aesthetic sense not to introduce the supernatural into the Sherlock Holmes stories. It wasn't a commitment to realism on his part, since from Conan Doyle's point of view supernatural elements wouldn't have been unrealistic; the problem with the supernatural was clearly that it wouldn't work in Holmes's universe, however much it may pervade ours.

    He could have made Land of Mist be about Holmes; it would in a way have made more sense than his actual choice of Challenger, since to make the story work he had to make Challenger start out a skeptic, which he hadn't remotely been before that book. (In one of the previous books Challenger even explicitly affirmed his belief in an afterlife, which now in Land of Mist he suddenly has always denied.) Challenger is always a Mulder, not a Scully; and his Scullyisation in the third book (for purposes of subsequent Mulderisation) rings false. But ACD rightly sensed that having Holmes convert from skepticism to spiritualism would be even worse than having Challenger do it.


  22. Iain Coleman
    August 9, 2013 @ 1:11 pm

    On its own, in the context of its scene, that line could equally well mean "My death and ressurection were subjectively continuous: I had no experience of anything that might be termed an afterlife". It's only subsequent stories that go unambiguously into the version you describe.

    I'm reminded of a dream I had, when I was about 17 or so. I'd been on a bit of a Dostoyevsky kick, and had read the execution scene in The Idiot before going to sleep. I dreamt, very vividly, that I was being strung up from a lampost on Sauchiehall Street, Glasgow, by a mob. I died, and experienced utter, silent blackness. "If this is the afterlife," I remember thinking, "it's a bit disappointing." I floated for a while in the dark void, until I gradually realised that the floating sensation was me lying on my bed under a warm duvet, and the blackness was because my eyes were shut. A pleasant discovery.


  23. Spacewarp
    August 9, 2013 @ 1:37 pm

    Well I once wrote a story from the point of view of a woman, even though I'm not one. So I guess Davies the atheist can write a script with afterlife-ish elements in it, even though he doesn't believe in them.


  24. Ewa Woowa
    August 9, 2013 @ 1:40 pm

    Wow, when I was 17 all I dreamt about were breasts… Kudos to you, Sir!


  25. Spacewarp
    August 9, 2013 @ 1:45 pm

    As I understand it, hell still is empty, and heaven only has angels and God in it at present. Because nobody ends up in heaven or hell until the Day of Judgement. The Bishop of Durham addressed this in an interview a couple of years ago where he pointed out that your average Christian is wrong to think that Aunty Gladys has died and gone to heaven. She's not up there yet, and even the concept of "up there" isn't what we think it is.,8599,1710844,00.html


  26. Jesse
    August 9, 2013 @ 6:44 pm

    Doctor Who needs to do an episode titled "They Keep Sinking Atlantis."


  27. Mark Johnson
    August 9, 2013 @ 9:20 pm

    The "The real tragedy is, it's a better logo." was very Lawrence Miles (the blog years). Well played.


  28. Jack Graham
    August 10, 2013 @ 1:05 am

    "The real tragedy is, it's a better logo." I agree.


  29. Robert Lloyd
    August 13, 2013 @ 12:04 am

    Well, you can have an afterlife without God, or gods. You can have God or gods without an afterlife too.

    So Davies' atheism could still stand even as he posits a form of afterlife.

    He could also simply be writing an afterlife as fiction regardless of his personal atheism.


  30. Rodolfo Piskorski
    September 12, 2014 @ 5:40 am

    Actually, that was not Derrida's point. Writing is not so much a battle against death, as it is the intrusion of death in the moment of the embodiment of speech in the written sign. In other words, writing kills the writer/speaker/subject because it can do without him or her. It doesn't preserve.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.