doctor who, commencement, and what happens in between
This article contains spoilers for the “Doctor Who” episodes “Face the Raven,” “Heaven Sent,” and “Hell Bent” (Series 9, episodes 10-12).
This is an article about endings. Ironically, I’m not sure how to start it; beginnings have never been my forte. I want to write about the end of Series 9 of “Doctor Who,” a three-episode sequence that gutted me when I watched it over winter break and hit every note just right when I rewatched it last night. I want to write about commencement and how much I feel whenever I think about it and how it still doesn’t feel like it’s coming, even now that it’s just a month away. I want to write about loving things and leaving things. I want to write about this.
The Series 9 finale of “Doctor Who” understands memory. Callbacks are my favorite narrative tool—the right words (or staging, or musical cue) can bring us right back to an earlier moment through the lens of now, using hindsight to bring us pain or peace. At the end of Series 4 of “Doctor Who,” the Doctor, a time-traveling hero, has lost everyone. Furious and burning with grief, he goes too far trying to bend the universe to save people, too far trying to become a god, and loses himself. Ultimately, it’s four knocks on a door that brings him back—four knocks that, within the context the show has set up, mean that in the end he’s just as subject to the laws of the universe as everyone else. It’s a hard-won moment, the emotional pinnacle of the season. When the Doctor loses someone again in Series 9, it comes back. Once again driven by grief, he tries to outwit the laws of time and space. As he’s teetering on the brink of that same edge, someone knocks on the door. It hasn’t been mentioned for five seasons, but we’re back, and this time, the Doctor knows what it means. “It’s always four knocks.”
The line plays on exactly the right memories, exactly the right moments. It shows us the Doctor’s now in the context of his then. Callbacks done right (like this one) are, for me, what make stories feel the most like life. They’re about what stays the same and what changes and what happens in all the spaces in between.
This piece is, in some ways, a callback. The first article I ever wrote for Post- was about endings. It ran on October 1, 2014, in the fall of my junior year. I wrote about how endings are important: how in some ways, meaning comes from things ending, and ending imperfectly, with both emotional resolution and loose ends. About how nothing can last forever, and how TV shows shouldn’t. I mentioned “Doctor Who,” which ends over and over with every major character’s departure (which happens every couple of seasons) but will never really conclude. I revise that criticism in the wake of Series 9, which I think finally understands endings. They’re sad, the show tells us, and they’re beautiful. They’re sad because they’re an end to something beautiful, and they’re beautiful because there’s poignancy in the fact that they make us feel so much at all.
Commencement will be, in some ways, a callback as well. I’m bad at endings, too; I like middles, the part when everything is familiar. As a homesick freshman those first weeks at Brown, missing my family and my high school friends and above all anything familiar, I looked ahead. If I’m this sad about missing what’s familiar now, I comforted myself, sitting on the Quiet Green and looking at the Van Wickle Gates, imagine how sad I’ll be four years from now to leave this place. It’ll be familiar, someday. It’ll be everything I know and love, and god, I’m going to miss it.
Callbacks are about what stay the same, and they’re about what has changed, and most of all they’re about everything that happens in the space between the two. Faces that are barely familiar become the faces of best friends. Routes and roads that are unfamiliar become the landscape of home. The gates open, and they shut, and they open again, and then you walk through.
In the Series 9 finale, the Doctor loses someone: Clara, his best friend. It’s this loss that drives him to that four-knock moment, and it’s with that loss that the show, for the first time in seasons, gets endings right. I don’t want it to sound like I’m comparing graduation to death, so it’s important that I tell you that although Clara dies, she doesn’t, really. It’s the kind of thing only “Doctor Who” can pull off. She dies, and it’s sad, desperately sad, and it’s beautiful too, because she dies exactly as she lives—bold and a little flippant and warm and clever and strong and always all her own. She dies because she’s so similar to the Doctor in all ways but two, her name and her humanity (with her warmth and the fact that she is, in the end, breakable), and instead of punishing her, the show rewards her in the end. The Doctor, railing against the laws we mortals all obey in the end, pulls her out of time, keeping her alive in the space between one heartbeat and the last. They steal a TARDIS. She keeps it. And she takes off, on her own, through space and time.
It’s a death, but it’s not, not really: Mostly, it’s just an ending. And it’s sad. And it’s beautiful.
“These have been the best years of my life,” Clara says, “and they are mine.”
A number of years ago, my dad, a Brown alum, was back on campus for a conference over one sunny Spring Weekend. I must’ve been in middle school, or maybe younger, but it stuck with me. He walked past Wriston during the Dave Binder concert, and I remember him reporting back: “There was this guy with an acoustic guitar, and I stood there near the fence and heard him say, ‘someday you’re going to look back on this and think, the sun was shining, I was with my friends, and I was having the time of my life.’ And I stood there,” my dad continued, “and thought, it’s true. It’s true.”
May 29 is almost here, and I’m arriving at a place where I’m actually a little excited for what comes after. I’ve got a whole life ahead of me. I get to find a career I value, explore new cities, visit museums, go for hikes. Fall in love, maybe. Fall in love with all of it in the little ways that feel like sitting in the sun. I don’t know that I’ll ever be ready to walk through those gates, but if there’s one more thing that Clara’s final episodes of “Doctor Who” get right, it’s that endings are beginnings too.
About a month from now—how is it still so far off, and still so soon?—I’ll put on a cap and gown, and I’ll walk through a gate I once watched from the Quiet Green, and then I’ll pack my boxes and leave Brown’s campus. It won’t be the last time I’m here, because I have the whole rest of my life ahead of me. But it will be the last time it’s home. The last time before it’s my past.
It will be an ending. It’s going to be sad. And it’s going to be beautiful.