Saturday, January 28, 2017

John Hurt dies, farewell to The War Doctor

As you know, I'll occasionally take pause to remember a significant celebrity who's died.  I don't do obituaries for every celebrity, but occasionally there is a passing which touches me.  Some figure who I want to talk about.

With Carrie Fisher and her battle with mental health, there was never any doubt.  Today though hearing about John Hurt's death, I was torn about whether to write about him or not.

I've seen interviews of him, he was quite charming and funny, I followed a page dedicated to him, I've seen videos of him at fan events.  But I know very little about him, which is a shame.  And in talking about him I find myself wanting to talk about his roles and his acting over the man himself.  Somehow that seems unfair ... but we'll get to that later!

Wow - and how many roles there have been!  I don't think I've ever not liked him in a film.  He was in a BBC production I, Claudius as the evil Caligula.  This is a must see, as you get to see a lot of very young actors who'd go on to be greats, such as Brian Blessed (BRIAN BLESSED!), Patrick Stewart, Derick Jacobi, John Rhys-Davis.

Although not his, who can forget this amazingly inspirational speech ...  [Try it at your next retrospective]

He had an amazing career, in and out of science fiction.  As a fan though I'm going to remember him for some spellbinding roles.  He's the man who painfully gave birth to an alien.  He helped Harry Potter choose his wand.  He went adventuring with Indiana Jones.  He was a loving father to Hellboy.

He played Winston Smith in the film adaptation of 1984, a book which feels an increasingly terrifying reality as we've developed a 24/7 surveillance culture.  Indeed only yesterday 1984 was revealed to be climbing the bestsellers on the back of Trump's terrifying first week in office.

In 1984, he plays a young man who tries to rebel against an oppressive system, falls in love, but in the end is broken by an unbeatable and brutal system.  His career spanned long enough that he'd later portray the oppressor as the tyrant in the dystopian future of V For Vendetta.

But it's one role particularly that I want to talk about, one he'll be forever in our hearts for, that of The War Doctor in the 50th Anniversary of Doctor Who.

Doctor Who @ 50

The 50th Anniversary story was an incredibly emotional experience for me.  This was a show I'd grown up with, and for a long time hadn't been on the television.  They'd stopped making it in 1989, then finally after an age we started getting new stories in 2005!

Over here in New Zealand they live broadcast it in the morning (about 9am).  I was up since about 6am, with butterflies in my stomach.  I of course was excited, but also emotive.  Here was a show I'd watched as a child, frightened behind the sofa with my parents telling me the Dalek's wouldn't get me.  It'd been a show my mother had similar experiences with as a girl, and one I'd got to share with my son.

That morning I felt tense, and a little sad. As soon as it was over I'd be able to share thoughts and impressions with friends on Facebook who were back in the UK.  But there were two of my friends I'd not be able to do that with - Violet, and a friend named Stewart who'd died just a few months ago.

Somehow the 50th Anniversary made me aware of all the friendships that had sprouted because of the show, the passing of the torch from my mother to me to my son.

And here was an actor I'd always loved, and he was going to play a version of the Doctor we'd never seen before.  One from the war between the Timelord and the Daleks ...

It was a strange story.  John Hurt plays The War Doctor, it looks like the Timelords are about to be exterminated by the Daleks.  If they fall, the galaxy won't be long falling to the terror of the Daleks.

He steals a doomsday device from The Timelords, it's the last one, and one everyone fears using.  He takes it to a barn, and tries to summon "the courage" to use it.

The whole show revolves around that one choice.  Death by the Daleks, or unleashing doomsday.

What marks the Doctor as such an important character in science fiction is - ironically for an alien - his humanity.  We're used to dramatic resolution to always be that "all the bad guys die".  Star Trek and Doctor Who have been unusual for this.  A foe can do bad things, and even kill others, but in the end there'll be an attempt to create a peace.

A lot of times there is peace even in these shows because "all the bad guys are dead".  But not always, in Star Trek Into Darkness, Khan does terrible things, murders a lot of people.  But in the end  Kirk doesn't kill him, he has him put into suspended animation.

There was a famous Doctor Who story involving the Zygons last season, which touched upon themes of terrorism and radicalisation.  The Zygons end up killing a lot of humans, but the Doctor has an odd trap for them - two buttons, one will help their cause, one will annihilate them.  You're free to press any you want.  In the end the Zygons choose it's too terrifying to even consider pressing any button.  The Doctor calls it a scale model of war, you might get everything you want, but on the way you risk everything as well.

What's uncomfortable about the ending, the Zygons don't get punished.  They end up restoring a peace, and realising they can't get what they want without considerable risk.  An uneasy peace is restored.  One of their ranks sees the error of their ways, and returns as peacekeeper, to try and keep the balance.

In the way we're fed media and stories, it's unnerving.  But it reflects reality.  Wars happen, but sooner or later when someone calls peace, no matter who has died, and how much it hurt, the fighting has to stop.  Otherwise every conflict becomes an unending blood feud of genocide.

When Doctor Who hits hardest, it reminds us of that.  It's one of the reasons of the appeal of the character.  He doesn't use a weapon - typically he represents a kind of trickster god who manages to use an enemies strength against itself.  He always asks them to stop, gives them a chance.  But ultimately he's like a force of karma, with an enemy's destruction coming from themselves.

In the 50th Anniversary, John Hurt's War Doctor feels weary and beaten.  He feels there's no other way, and he knows he need to activate this final doomsday weapon, "the bad wolf".  But he feels absolutely defeated in needing to.

It's a dark moment as having recruited his future selves, he's about to activate, but in the end finds another way.

As a later version of the Doctor would so eloquently put,

Tick-tock doomsday

It's an emotional scene, and all the more poignant being reminded of it after a week of Donald Trump as President.

President Trump is quite the reverse of the War Doctor, a man who is already issuing a lot of orders, and showing in continual outbursts over how well attended his inauguration was, how very unstable he is.  He's already taken action to silence any government scientists who might dare disagree with his statements using facts.

Everyone is nervous as he's a man who is very keen to use America's military might or the threat of it against anyone internal or international who he feels opposes his decision making.  And this is the man who's commands a stockpile of nuclear weapons ...

This is a man who's responsible for scientists moving the Doomsday clock - a threat barometer of how close we are to an extinction level disaster - to two and a half minutes to twelve.  We're very frighteningly close to major catastrophe.

Whether or not Trump presses the actual red button for nukes, he's pressed another red button which whilst not as immediate, is just as deadly.  All government sites have suddenly had all talk of climate changed removed.  Any laws trying to keep back pollution are in the process of being revoked.  America, one of the world's largest economies, is going to join China in going full pelt as if climate change is a myth.  We'll enjoy a boom time ... for a while, but someone else will be picking up the tab.

My Patronus is a Timelord

The Doctor, then is a character who right now we'd love to appear, to help us fight this evil, win back our planet from a menace.  Yay, evil defeated!

Film and TV gives us characters we can't help bonding to emotionally.  They become in our heads champions, a protective spirit - what the Harry Potter books called a Patronus - imaginary friends who inspire and guide us.  I wrote when Leonard Nimoy died about a similar bond I had with Spoke, that character onscreen who echoed my awkward teenage life.

The love we feel for characters can often spill over to the actors themselves.  There are moments on screen which capture, enchant and touch us, and they forever become associated with the actor associated.  The Alan Rickman died last year, the Snape scene "always" was referred to and replayed time and again, a perfect moment that gripped us,

We'd love a real life Doctor to appeal, and help fight all our tyrannies.  But the message of the Doctor is to stand up.

We might not have a real-life Doctor, but we have something even better, we have each other - the rallies against Trump have shown that people don't want to just sit back for four years and hope for the best, I hope they'll continue.  They're a reminder to me that as much as I thought my protest days were behind me, they probably lie ahead of me as well.  I emailed my friend Lisa Crispin to tell her how proud I was of her joining a march last week.

Every man woman or "none of your business" who marched, who is active over the next few years will do so with their own Patronus, one who might be fictional, real or religious ...

Whether that Patronus is a religious character who promotes understanding in the world.  Christians please note that Jesus when pressed said that taking care of your fellow man was the most important commandment along with loving your God.
Also note, there is no Muhammad here, not through lack of merit, but because it'd be offensive to show him.

Or Martin Luthor King Jr, who fought and died for civil rights.

Or Princess Leia / Carrie Fisher - leader of the rebels

Or perhaps Josephine Baker - the exotic dancer who fought in the French Resistance against Nazis, then came to America to fight for civil rights.

Or even the original troublemaker and "nasty woman" Rosa Parks.  Pioneer of the civil rights fight.  Here she is being booked by police for not giving up her seat to white folks.

For me, my Patronus is a Timelord from the planet Gallifrey, somewhere in the Kasterborous constellation.  John Hurt, thank you for being a part of my imaginary guide ...


  1. As an American citizen I am worried for my country. The vitriol and division have come to a point of causing a break in our society. And not just American society, but the one across the world. I don't know what else to say because it would mean writing a small novel with what I am feeling right now. I too am a fan of Science Fiction, and particularly of Star Trek. What I see going on today makes me think of a particular story in Star Trek: The Next Generation called "The Drumhead". I makes me think of the scene where Picard reminds us all of the consequences of Fascism. These words are so true. "... "With the first link, the chain is forged. The first speech censured, the first thought forbidden, the first freedom denied, chains us all irrevocably." Those words were uttered by Judge Aaron Satie, as wisdom and warning. The first time any man's freedom is trodden on, we're all damaged."

    I see within a weeks time the complete pendulum swing of hope and change from the previous administration to one that is causing fear and disarray. I have to remember and embrace the words of FDR "The only thing we have to fear is Fear itself".

    Thanks for being an outside observer and providing another perspective of what is going on, and how it can have an effect on all of us.


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