Companion Tropes Extra 8
Doctor Who tends to shy away from religion. It’s probably a subject that’s a bit too emotionally charged on a personal level for a family series, and whatever it did would upset somebody. But that’s not to say religion has no part to play in Doctor Who. In fact, it often takes the imagery and themes of religion as a source of inspiration and uses them to weave sci-fi stories. It wouldn’t be too difficult to mount an argument that regeneration is inspired by either reincarnation or resurrection. The Doctor changes not just in body but in personality, so what remains of him each time? There are his memories (although they go cloudy, especially to start with), and the Doctor does say a Time Lord “is the sum of his memories” even more than a human. Other than that, we have to assume some kind of essence of being, such as a soul. Last of the Time Lords is probably our strongest example of the Doctor becoming a Christ-like figure, when he is renewed by the power of faith and adopts a crucifixion pose. And of course Buddhism is enormously important to the Third Doctor era, thanks to the beliefs of Barry Letts.
Most of the time though, when Doctor Who treads on the toes of religion, it is in a far less specific and more new agey way, offering vague ideas of something beyond a mortal existence. A few characters get to ascend to another level of being by one means or another (always couched in pseudo-scientific terms), and this is a remarkably common idea in sci-fi, which is a genre that loves to play with the idea of an afterlife.
To be clear, what we are looking at here is a very different thing to a straightforward acknowledgement of heaven. That very rarely happens in sci-fi, with Buffy the Vampire Slayer a rare and brave exception. Having said that, ascension (i.e. somebody being lifted up to a higher plane of existence), is a feature of many religions, going right back to ancient times. Many of the gods of Greek myth were ascended humans lifted up to live among the gods. Interestingly, that includes Diomedes, a name Steven (almost) adopts in The Myth Makers. But things are not usually specified so clearly in sci-fi. More commonly we get vague ascensions such as Jason Ironheart in Babylon 5, Cordelia in Angel, or Sisko in Deep Space Nine. Key to an ascension in sci-fi tends to be the idea of shedding the mortal body and existing on some other level of pure consciousness, which is Rassilon’s plan for the Time Lords in The End of Time. A similar thing happens to Bill Potts, who becomes some kind of a space-wandering entity. Interestingly it is made clear that she can return if she wants to, and that is often a useful way for writers to leave options open. An ascension is a way to write out a character, but leave the door open for a return in future. They are as good as dead in human terms, so we’re not going to be seeing them travelling in the TARDIS, for example, but it’s not a final end.
Theoretically, that applies to our festive ascension (although Christmas is most definitely not about ascension – quite the opposite, in fact), Astrid Peth. The Doctor cannot restore her to life using the teleport system so he turns her into “stardust” instead. The door is left ajar for a return, yes, but I doubt anyone ever expected a return appearance from Kylie would be on the cards. Instead there is a more valid point to it all.
Astrid is strongly pitched as the Doctor’s new companion. Voyage of the Damned, at least in terms of Astrid, is structured as a companion-introduction episode and fulfils all the usual plot beats we expect from that kind of story. We are led by the hand down the usual path of a new girl joining the Doctor on her travels. And yet this is Kylie’s character, so that’s not going to happen. It was a miracle that enough time was found in her schedule to do one episode, let alone a full series. So we were teased, and then she had to be written out somehow. That’s a tricky thing to do, because if you build up a potential new companion and then have them say no to travelling with the Doctor then you’re into Grace territory, leaving the viewers with basically two interpretations: (a) in the eyes of the companion/reject the Doctor just isn’t exciting enough (this is a very bad message), or (b) the companion/reject is an idiot for saying no (so our time watching her has just been wasted).
What happens with Astrid is a perfect get-out-of-jail-free card. The obvious way to put up a barrier between Doctor and companion/reject is to kill off the potential companion, but that’s not something Doctor Who can do a lot of, because it’s too depressing. On Christmas Day in particular, it would just be cruel to kill off the companion/reject and say that’s that. So an ascension gives us a bittersweet ending instead, one with hope. It might be the end of the story for the Doctor and Astrid, but it’s not quite the end of Astrid’s story.
“You’re not falling, Astrid, you’re flying.”
It’s a nice euphemism for being dead… but not quite. She’s not dead, she’s stardust. RP