Doctor Who and the Persistence of Connection
“900 years of time and space and I’ve never met anyone who wasn’t important.” — The Doctor, A Christmas Carol (2010)
Loneliness. That crushing, isolated, detached state of being. We all know that feeling. Paired with a sense of longing. But you’re not sure for what…something real. Something to fill the void.
So if a blue box magically appeared in your life with a strange being promising the entirety of the universe to run away to, wouldn’t you jump at the chance?
What’s interesting is that most of the modern companions don’t run away with the Doctor because they’re necessarily lonely. They all either have partners or families or careers that keep them busy.
But that same void and longing exists. They all feel a bit out of place with the world they’re in. Or can’t seem to find the fulfillment they so desire in their lives. Or they feel stuck and are itching to leave to somewhere new…anywhere.
They’re unfulfilled, but I wouldn’t call them lonely. That belongs to The Doctor.
He’s the one in charge of the blue box, the one who has already been to the entirety of the universe and back. The one who promises these wonders to others.
And he’s the lonely one. The lonely “god”.
As humans, we constantly chase happiness. A lot of people just want to be happy, to live a happy life. With no regrets.
But is happiness really a constant state of being? Most times it feels unattainable. Such that when you do get close to it, you wonder if you’re actually supposed to get it, if you truly deserve it.
Perhaps it’s more about living a meaningful life, which doesn’t necessarily require happiness.
What does that look like?
The freedom to live the way you want to, feeling like you’re contributing to society, being good at what you do, feeling connected to each other.
These are all likely part of what makes life feel meaningful.
When they travel with The Doctor, the companions fill their void in these ways.
Especially when they’re saving worlds and helping people, there’s a sense that they’re positively contributing to the universe. Like they’re a part of something greater than themselves, something important.
And when they’re not saving lives, they’re traveling and living as they please with unlimited freedom.
But these alone aren’t enough.
The Doctor does all of this on a regular basis yet he’s still lonely.
If you asked him what makes his life worth living, I think he’d bring it down to one thing: the people around him. His friends, family, companions, partners. I can’t imagine any of the other things giving him the same kind of drive and motivation that he gets from having someone to travel with.
Even with the companions, their emotional connections with someone often trumps all of time and space.
Amy chooses to be stuck in time with Rory than live out her life and continue traveling with The Doctor. Rose is satisfied living with the human clone of the Tenth Doctor and her family. Martha chose her emotional health over the universe by leaving the TARDIS.
The Doctor makes them all feel important and special and seen. In return, he finds connection. Sometimes, they’re able to see him too.
This must be why The Doctor cares about the human race as a whole. How could he not when his best friends happen to be human? And not just human, but also the best of humanity with their courage and compassion and open mind.
It’s way easier for us to care about a war in a foreign country or a deadly disease when someone we know has been through it. The abstract becomes concrete.
“Amongst 7 billion people on this planet, there’s one like you. That’s why I put up with the rest of them.” — The Doctor, The Lie of the Land (2017)
According to Doctor Who and Philosophy, The Doctor employs an ethics of caring. In other words, his moral responses to situations are often based on his emotions. He prioritizes his personal connections over everyone else.
It’s not just his long-term friends, it’s even the one-off companions he meets just for an episode. Whenever he makes such a personal connection with someone, he employs an I-Thou stance.
What this means is that he takes in everything about them as a person. He appreciates and understands them on a deep and profound level. He empathizes with them.
This doesn’t mean he knows their life history or their favorite things or their darkest secrets. That comes over time. But in the short time he has with them, he understands their uniqueness and individuality.
He sees them.
For us, we don’t often get to share adventures with people in life-or-death situations. We don’t get to see people in these scary or vulnerable scenarios. The Doctor does and so he’s able to understand them. He opens up to them by opening up the doors to the stars. His relationships are of a cosmic nature.
We don’t get that luxury. We have to actually talk and try a lot harder to be able to see someone properly. We have to let time pass and have stars align and go through the difficult process of opening up ourselves.
A lot of times we waste those chances with small talk.
It’s slower and different, but when it goes right, we reach that similar kind of cosmic nature to our relationships too.
His I-Thou stance towards people has a strong relationship with his sense of wonder. They both inform each other.
His sense of wonder is not just limited to the universe, but also people. He wants to know them and is able to see them because they fill him with a sense of awe.
Moreover, in seeing the world through their eyes, his own wonder at the universe gets renewed, which also gives some meaning to his life and travels.
The depths with which he approaches connecting with people is so deep that once the bonds with them are forged and solidified, it veers towards unconditional love from him. He appreciates them on such a level that he can see past their flaws and shortcomings.
For us humans, this only usually happens with family or romantic partners.
“Do you think I care for you so little that betraying me would make a difference?” — The Doctor, Dark Water (2014)
The question really is, how does he do it?
How does he allow someone into his life, open to them in the most profound ways, get attached to them, lose them and then do it all over again?
It’s soul crushing when we humans go through that even once. When our supposed soul-mates and kindred spirits transform into strangers. Or when our best friend turns into somebody we used to know. When extending our heart gets taken advantage of. Or when someone simply moves away, or worse, dies.
When this happens we prefer isolation to the possibility of pain’s return. Or we swear to never get close with anyone else again. To never let anyone in again. So that we may never get hurt again.
This is precisely what The Doctor does after losing Amy and Rory. He chooses to live alone on top of a cloud away from everyone and everything. No more saving worlds. No more heroics. No more friends, no more pain, right?
Then there’s the other scenario.
Where the companion gets hurt or loses or even dies. And it’s The Doctor’s fault. Simply from existing in and being a part of their life.
“If the Doctor had never visited us, if he’d never chosen this place on a whim, would anybody here have died?” — Joan Redfern, The Family of Blood (2007)
This is also part of why The Doctor hides after Amy and Rory, because he knows it was his fault. Similarly after losing Donna, he refuses to have someone travel with him again.
His ego, his clinginess, his overconfidence, his insecurities: one of them always gets someone hurt in some way.
It happens to us too. And we must hide. Like The Doctor, we’re way too terrible to every let anyone in ever again, right?
So going back to the question: how does he do it?
Well, he doesn’t. He doesn’t choose to at least.
But after too much time traveling alone after Donna, the promise of a new friendship with Amy: new eyes, new questions, new shared experiences; they’re way too tempting to stick to his stubborn decisions.
Every time The Doctor tries to hide, the prospect of a whole new connection is too intoxicating. A new, complex being to understand and be open to and empathize with.
Even with Clara, it’s common to assume The Doctor came out of his funk because he felt alive and renewed by the prospect of solving a new mystery. But The Doctor offers her a key to the TARDIS before he even realizes there’s a whole mystery surrounding her existence.
It’s The Doctor’s real superpower: to remain uncynical and jaded about people after all this time.
If we approach people with the sense of wonder and awe that The Doctor does, we may find ourselves equally tempted by the potential of a new friendship or relationship. New stories, new inside jokes, new vulnerabilities and strengths, new mistakes.
“I never know why. I only know who.” — The Doctor, The Snowmen (2012)
Because in the end, what else is there?
He can be as free as he wants, but what use is it with no one to be free with?
The Doctor finds meaning in people. In sharing experiences with them, in seeing and living through them. In connecting with them.
He can be stubborn and shut himself up. Or he could do it all over again and try to do better next time.
He doesn’t seek out new connections, but he doesn’t stop himself from finding them either.
He knows he’ll get hurt again, lose again, outlive them again. But that’s what makes the time with them more special and valuable.
He doesn’t live a happy life, but he has so many moments of happiness. Those moments may not last that long, it may be fewer than the other moments of grief and pain and loneliness. But those little moments are what he lives for, what he keeps going for.
“Because what’s the point in them being happy now if they’re going to be sad later. The answer is, of course, because they are going to be sad later.” — The Doctor, The Doctor, The Widow and the Wardrobe (2011)
Isolating himself isn’t self-preservation. It’s an illusion of safety. What use is living if all he does is hide from life?
By not opening up, by not having such a deep connection with someone again, is that really an escape from pain?
Grieving the lost relationship is necessary, yes. Sometimes grief comes in the form of spending 4 billion years breaking out a diamond glass wall. But he does break free. He refuses to be trapped by it.
And in that second scenario where isolation is a form of punishment rather than self-preservation — he’s often reminded that this is not how his companions would want him to live.
Punishing himself might seem like an act of selflessness, but is it?
None of his companions would ever take back their experiences with The Doctor, even if they got hurt in the end. The adventures and wonders were worth it. The Doctor might have hurt them. But the bad does not define his relationship with them, it usually comes with a lot of good too.
Yes, people die or get hurt because he exists in their life, but they arguably live a more meaningful life than most people because he did.
Eventually he comes around. He recognizes his flaws and mistakes, and approaches the next time a little more carefully, a little more humbly. Sometimes he falls into the same traps and flaws. Sometimes he didn’t really get more careful. But he tries.
It’s easy to hide. To forgive oneself, change and be better, that’s the harder path.
Bill: What changed your mind?
The Doctor: Time.
The Doctor: And Relative Dimension In Space. It means, “What the hell?”
- The Pilot (2017)
In punishing himself, The Doctor is also taking away the chance for someone else to feel important, to be taken away, to be seen.
Even in the most cosmic and epic scenarios, that’s what it comes down to.
Sure, that’s not his job. But anyone who has been lonely and out of sync with the rest of the world knows what a gift it is to be seen.
To truly see someone, that itself is enough to feel like you’ve done something meaningful. To share something real.
This is why we find Donna’s story to be one of the most tragic ones. She was someone who desperately wanted to be seen and appreciated and to feel special. And through traveling with The Doctor, she found all of that. She discovered that she was indeed special. The most special and important person in the universe at one point.
And she lost all of that. She lost those memories and she may never know what it feels like to be seen in that way. Even though she didn’t die or nothing terrible happened to her and she was returned to her normal life perfectly healthy, her story is one of the saddest ones. Because the meaning she ultimately found in her life was stripped from her.
Each relationship is different. The Doctor may never love someone like he loved Rose or River. He may never feel familial toward someone the way he felt toward Susan or Amy. He may never feel attached to someone like he was with Clara. He may never adore someone like he did Bill.
But they all matter. They all meant something.
And the only way he can honor the spirit of those relationships is to keep going, to try again, to extend himself to someone else. Someone new.
We may never be able to take someone to the Rings of Akhaten or the Singing Towers of Darillium. But we can try to see them and maybe even let them see us.
It might be the only thing that really matters in the end.