[Note: This post contains spoilers for the Doctor Who episodes “The Time of Angels/Flesh and Stone” and “The Pandorica Opens.” And a few Superman storylines. You have been warned.]
Lillian, you might say, you’re just trying to tie Doctor Who into Hercules, because you want to put in a plug for Alcestis. And you’re partly right. So myths yadda yadda come see my show in New York that is influenced by Neil Gaiman, Batman, and Gladiator, written by Euripides. That’s a plug for Alcestis. Buy tickets now!
But let’s talk for a second about why the villains imprisoned the Doctor rather than killing him in “The Pandorica Opens.” The Doctor is not exactly as invulnerable as Superman (though they share several other similarities), but his regenerations give him a kind of immortality. This flawed invincibility connects him to a much more ancient hero, Hercules/Heracles.
Now Hercules’ list of adventures is about as long as the Doctor’s. (One of those adventures includes the myth that Euripides’ Alcestis is based on.) Heracles is the son of Zeus so he’s supernaturally strong and he can solve most problems by hugging them to death. But he’s also immortal, so the whole dying thing was never an issue for him.
….until his wife Deianira accidentally poisoned his robe with the blood of a Hydra he’d killed, and he couldn’t wash the acidic blood off, and he was in such huge amounts of pain that he wished he could die.
Heracles is usually referred to as a demi-god because he is extremely hard to kill, kind of like Wolverine. Fire and explosions in general tend to be the best way to take out any demigod, including The Doctor, Heracles, Wolverine, Superman (remember how Batman fires ballistic missiles at him in Dark Knight Returns to see if he’s at full strength? Superman has a force field around his body that can withstand the force of 40 nuclear bombs. But, says Darkseid, what about 41?)
The thing about killing a demi-god is that you need to do it quickly, without giving zhim time to heal/regenerate/find some Kryptonite-X, or other new positive variation the DC writers make up for the Superfamily. Explosions are good for this, because they leave behind no body to heal or change.
Remember how Hercules, a demigod, wanted to be euthanized? He got his best friend (and maybe lover) Iolaus to build up a funeral pyre, and he threw himself on it until he was burned to ashes and ceased to be.
(And then Zeus made him a constellation and a god, but that’s not exactly relevant to the story.)
The inner logic of this story makes sense but it begs some interesting questions about immortality. When does living forever become a burden rather than a blessing?
It is at this point that I should bring up Tithonus, the boyfriend of Eos of the Dawn, a minor goddess in the Greek pantheon. Eos was a Titan, so she was older than Zeus, and she wasn’t used to asking for help, so when she asked Zeus to make Tithonus immortal, she forgot to ask Zeus to keep him from aging. So the years went by and Tithonus aged and aged and aged until he was so shriveled and wrinkled that he couldn’t move and he wished for death. But Zeus cannot take back his blessing, so he turned the poor (once young) man into a cicada.
Both the Hercules and Tithonus myths remind us of a sad, but painful truth. Most, if not all of us, will at some point wish for death. Immortality only amplifies this desire because death is even less attainable. That definitely applies to the Doctor, who mourns his previous regeneration as well as his previous companions, many of which have died or left, even forgotten him. I’m taking this out of context but it really does apply. (And it’s Ten(nant) doing Shakespeare so it always counts for something.)
For meta-narrative’s sake we have to remember that like Superman, Wolverine, and even Hercules, the Doctor has his own show (or movie or cult) and to kill him off is to disappoint (and lose) a lot of fans and a lot of money. Hercules’ adventures don’t stop after his death in Greek mythology and Superman stayed dead for about four issues. All the fans can do is say “I’m not trying to be rude, but you died,” shrug their shoulders, and go back to following their heroes’ adventures.
It makes sense that a man who has experienced as much pain and guilt as the Doctor would at some point want to end it all, and longtime fans of the show will remember the Valeyard, a villainous version of the Doctor who is believed to be born somewhere between his twelfth and final regenerations. In order to avoid creating the Valeyard, it is possible that the Doctor would destroy himself, were the threat from his evil self great enough.
Remember when it was mentioned in the Weeping Angels double episode that River Song killed a “great man”? Is it possible that River will be the Doctor’s Iolaus? In the future, could the Doctor be driven to a point where he’d rather die than regenerate? And doesn’t it make sense that he would ask his wife to euthanize him, especially if it’s to save someone else?
In many ways this is pointless speculation because the BBC will not be killing off its cash-Gallifreyan any time soon, but it’s interesting to wonder. Why don’t we let our heroes stay dead, even when it would put an end to their suffering?
Just think of Buffy after she was raised from the dead:
I was happy. Wherever I was … I was happy. At peace. I knew that everyone I cared about was all right. I knew it. Time didn’t mean anything, nothing had form… but I was still me, you know? And I was warm, and I was loved, and I was finished. Complete. I don’t understand about theology or dimensions, or … any of it, really, but I think I was in heaven. And now I’m not. I was torn out of there. Pulled out by my friends. Everything here is hard, and bright, and violent. Everything I feel, everything I touch – this is hell. Just getting through the next moment, and the one after that – knowing what I’ve lost… They can never know. Never.
But heroes are more than people. They are bastions of our culture. They are symbols. They are ideas. And ideas are very, very hard to kill.