The Girl in the Fireplace
In you I saw someone I recognized.
Had no idea what was in your mind.
I met your eyes and I was hypnotized.
I let our lives become entwined.
So I’m a Who freak, right. Not just of the Doctor variety, but more so of the The variety, as in the greatest rock band in the world. The words above are from Pete Townshend’s ‘Now & Then,’ off his 1993 album Psychoderelict.
You see someone in passing and your eyes lock. It’s so romantic. An instant and silent communication shared by two meandering humans, each on different paths that magically intersect long enough to miss them. Remember that scene in West Side Story, when the room fades into impressions and Maria and Tony first meet? It’s like that. We like stories where the two end up together and we like stories where the two just keep walking. We especially like the latter in TV commercials and when we’re on vacation.
I met the girl that would become my wife in one of those now and then interactions. Come to think of it…my parents met that way too! There are a ton of songs and movies covering that sort of thing. What we love about it as a culture, I don’t know. Maybe it’s the thought that love is bigger than our own plans that makes stories like this so appealing. There’s a security in knowing that the greatest emotion is mysterious. We can’t manage love. Or plan for it exactly. It just happens to us. I don’t totally believe that, but there is something exciting about the idea that love is beyond our understanding. And it’s true that love can grip us in surprising moments.
The success of this episode is sourced in our love of those now and then stories. Of course, it’s given that wonderful Doctor Who twist. He’s a time traveler, so the encounters he has with the girl are especially tragic. He stays the same age and she gets older, pushing him further and further out of her reach. We know how this one ends. No hand-in-hand stroll toward the sunset. No issuing of the TARDIS key to this girl who waited. This is a string of shared glances that do not lead to true love. “Now and then you see a face, and you fall in love, and you can’t do a thing about it.”
Why is it so sad though? They weren’t really invested in each other. Not in any way that a couple that actually marries is. So why is the loss so acutely felt? And why does it impact the viewer so effectively? Their interactions were so few and brief, so the loss can’t have been all that bad. But we’re made to believe that it really was that bad. And our reaction to it is to be sad. So we’re either being manipulated emotionally or the story is legitimately sad. It is sad. So why? Where is the emotional investment? The Doctor never fully engages with the girl. He hovers over her life, patiently knocking on her door. While there was no long-term investment, as in a marriage, there was the will for that. He was willing to give up his power and be stranded on her dull plane of existence. The sadness comes from the potential for their love.
Without getting too far into the predestination debate, I think we can all agree that Scripture does indeed admit that “He is willing that none should perish.” (II Peter 3:9) Whether Christ’s sacrifice is totally sufficient or whether it requires our faith to activate is an ancient debate that is better left to the likes of Calvin and Zwingli than this geek blogger. And since we know the Creator’s desire for all to come to repentance, we can attach that concept to the imagery of this Doctor Who story for a nice metaphor for God’s love without stepping on any theological toes.
The Doctor, though he doesn’t save Madame de Pompadour, does exile himself on her world, similar to Christ’s self-imposed thirty-year exile when He was in pursuit of His Bride. The Doctor was willing to be de-powered, at least for a time, maybe indefinitely, to save her. The Doctor’s hovering is similar to the Holy Spirit’s. I can look back over the years before I admitted Christ was lord and see the working of the Holy Spirit in my life. Meetings with people, interactions with media, obsessions with certain stories all contributed to that moment I surrendered to Christ. And it was all orchestrated and carried out by the Holy Spirit. When I was a kid reading Superman stories, I was being prepared for my own Strange Visitor who would descend from the sky, save the world through His death, and pursue His cruel and unlikely Bride. The Holy Spirit was visiting me as I obsessed over The Who. Initially fixated by their sonic supremacy, I quickly graduated to obsession over their questions of identity, never answering them until becoming a Christian. Madame de Pompadour’s visits from the Doctor were profound interactions with a being greater than herself, who wanted to know her, to save her, and to be with her.
One last thing. The Doctor crashing through the mirror on horseback – that worked for me. Christ the hero did the exact same thing for me. He told me who He was at various points in my life and then, finally, He crashed through the last barrier to get to me. Shattering my own perceptions of myself, He said, “The new creation has come. The old is gone and the new is here!”