To Live In Dreams, Doctor Who: Last Christmas, 27/12/2014

My girlfriend’s dad died almost three years ago, and she misses him. Even though I never met him, I miss him too, because of all the things she’s told me about him that make me think we really would have gotten along smashingly. Like everyone we miss, she sometimes dreams that he’s still around, and that they meet up for coffee and she tells him about how life is going.

The existence of Santa Claus is completely sensible and
believable, given everything else that can happen in
Doctor Who, and it's why I love this show.

are necessary, because I thought of her dreams of her father when I saw Danny Pink in Last Christmas, when he makes Clara promise him that she’ll stay alive, even though it means leaving the dream that’s been created for her to live out the rest of her life in happiness with him. “Miss me for five minutes, five solid minutes, every day.”

There are many strange miracles in this year’s Doctor Who Xmas special, the most obvious of which being the constant appearances of Nick Frost as Santa Claus to rescue the characters from their dream-states in which face-hugging aliens* sedate their victims while feeding on their brains. This is a story about dreams, the most overused symbol, image, and concept in the history of Western philosophy. 

* Yes, they make the Alien reference explicitly, and I love how the Doctor calls out the title for how offensive it is to perfectly ordinary extra-terrestrials like him.

Perhaps I say it is overused because to analyze the dream philosophically seems so run-down by now. It’s a common cliché of philosophy, a piece of shoddy rhetoric used to dismiss the discipline more than a genuine engagement with it. “Philosophy, isn’t that the class where you pay thousands in university tuition to wonder whether or not you're dreaming?” 

The design of the alien crab is brilliant, a hand when on
its own, but with a mouth when wrapped around a face.
And yes, it is incredibly suggestive of the same freaky
sexuality of H. R. Giger's facehugger. But Doctor Who
doesn't dwell on it. Just not its style.
And university philosophy often confirms the hostility. One of the best texts to introduce students to philosophical reflection and thinking is Descartes’ Meditations on First Philosophy, and one of the first questions he considers is that, considering how the experience of a dream is indistinguishable from the experience of real life, we are left doubting whether we are in a physical world or dreaming at any given moment.

The less said about the twisting corridors of sexual dysfunctions and obsessiveness in the Freudian canon the better, but if anyone is going to make use of the Freudian canon, you’d best put on a condom.**

** My girlfriend and I also watched a Marx Brothers movie after throwing on Last Christmas, because Netflix is dropping Duck Soup from its listings on the first day of 2015.

But the dream is a place for strange occurrences and parallelisms in Doctor Who. Tegan Jovanka found haunting images of her friends and companions when in the Mara’s dreamspace as it assaulted her mind. The Land of Fiction blended an entire cultural imaginary with the logic of Lewis Carroll and a dream. The trace of Amy’s Choice played through the entire character arc of Amy Pond in her first season. Last Christmas finds the plane of dreaming serving as a strange kind of afterlife. Danny Pink in this episode is no mere construct of a carnivorous crab, no facsimile. He is clearly there, still caring for Clara, urging her to fight the creatures that would kill her. 

Yearning for some kind of life after death is one of the most universal reasons why people turn to religion. Although I’m coming to join a religious tradition myself, my reasons don’t have to do with this assurance. I think I’ll always doubt whether there is any kind of afterlife for a human subjectivity as we experience it. 

Danny's calling Clara's extra time with him a bonus
reminded me of Pete Tyler's happiness over "all these
extra hours" with his wife, baby, and grown daughter
from the future.
Yet Last Christmas suggests a charming and fascinating idea. A pure speculation of course. To call it idle would give it too much credit. 

Science-fiction used to be about Hard Science. Not the disciplines of physics, chemistry, and the like, which are often called the hard sciences. I mean a view of the world that reduces all phenomena to the easily explicable. A world where all myths exist to be explained away. 

I remember this idea underlying the early Asimov, early Clarke, and the Larry Niven books that I used to read as a teenager. It’s the reductive sort of materialism that I find so intolerably pig-headed in its most popular current expression, the rantings of the New Atheists. That stupidity is why I’m always so happy to find a writer or sci-fi approach where the material and mundane become mythic, like Clarice Lispector, or Doctor Who.

Dreams in Last Christmas are a shared psychic space, still linked to the physical body, but where echoes of what and who we've lost exist, not only as images but as agencies. It’s the afterlife as the continuation of a life that’s passed on in memory. 

I have no idea what next season's storyline for Clara will
be, as this past year has given her brilliant work. But she's
right to stay on the show for at least one more year. It's not
just that she's a wonderful actor and companion, and not
just that I didn't want her character to leave on such a sad
note, but because Doctor Who is seriously an artistic
pinnacle for any actor who appears on it. They may never
get such good work regularly as they did on Doctor Who.
Henri Bergson theorized that each person’s past was a part of them, and memory just a sorting tool to select elements of that past which were relevant to a present situation to understand it and act. Because the durations of each individual life and body interacted, they combined to form a kind of universal duration. Existence itself can be considered a single life, and its past is searchable. The presence of the past is memory.

Last Christmas offers an image of the past, and past durations like Danny Pink, that retain their agency even as they only exist as the past of those who knew and interacted with them. Because all of the past is retained in the present, although it is rarely accessible, the agencies of the past are preserved as well. Dreams are here the archaeology of a past that still lives as long as we do. The afterlife is the retention of agency in the echo of a life.

Perhaps in a few years, I'll have tea (and probably still too many cigarettes) with my mother in a dream some nights, just as my girlfriend still meets with her dad. There are worse visions of the afterlife.

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