The Doctor and the Ultimate Question

by fledgling otaku on October 3, 2011

Q. Doctor Who?
A. 42

And so Season 6 ended, not with a bang, but with a wedding…


The Silence is revealed to be a religious order, considering themselves the “Sentinels of History”, trying to destroy the Doctor because of a specific prophecy, which states:

“On the fields of Trenzalore, at the fall of the 11th, when no living creature can speak falsely or fail to answer, a Question will be asked. A question that must never, ever be answered”

The reason that the Silence is determined to keep the Doctor from reaching Trenzalore is because of the corollary prophecy that “Silence must fall when the Question is asked.”

The Question is revealed to be the “The First Question, the oldest question in the Universe, that must never be answered, hidden in plain sight.” Dorian Maldovar tells the Doctor what the question is – it’s simply, “Doctor Who?”

This all reminds me of the obvious bit from Hitchhiker’s Guide – specifically, the Ultimate Question to Life, the Universe, and Everything, to which the Answer is 42. But knowledge of one logically precludes knowledge of the other, so the Answer is all we are ever able to know. If this sounds like gibberish to you, you clearly haven’t read The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and instead are reading my blog. Which is a colossal failure of priorities for you, I must say.

The prophecy Dorian reveals also reminds me of Hitchhiker’s Guide, in which there’s God’s Final Message to His Creation:

It is written in thirty-foot-high letters of fire on top of the Quentulus Quazgar Mountains in the land of Sevorbeupstry on the planet Preliumtarn, third out from the sun Zarss in Galactic Sector QQ7 ActiveJ Gamma. it is guarded by the Lajestic Vantrashell of Lob.

(Somehow this seems a bit further than the Fields of Trenzalore.)

I am entirely positive that the writing team at DW has drawn some inspiration from H2G2 here, enough that it warrants passing comment. The idea of a Question of cosmic significance is a very appealing one, related to the religious idea of the Word itself. These are essentially substitute creation myths.

But the fact that the First Question pertains directly to the Doctor himself puts the Doctor in a position of significance to the Universe in a way that the Ultimate Question did not with Arthur Dent. As the last surviving Earth native, Arthur had a special relationship to the Ultimate Question, but it wasn’t actually about him. In the Doctor’s case the First Question is all about his identity and therefore connects him to the Universe in a way that is much more fundamental.

I’m not exactly sanguine about the possibility that The Grand Moff will ever read or address the point I am making above. But it’s something to think about. There is also a misdirection here that I think few reviewers of River SOng’s Wedding have pointed out yet – the fact that the Silence must fall is something the Silence wants to avoid, obviously. However, in Season 5 a mysterious voice intoned in the TARDIS that Silence will fall, as a warning. It’s not at all clear that the Silence was behind the TARDIS explosion (and the wierd silence that fell in the Vampires of Venice episode). Something deliberately destroyed the TARDIS with intent to destroy the Universe, a fate averted by the Doctor’s “rebooting” the Universe with a second Big Bang.

Why would the Silents and the Silence want to destroy the Universe, especially if they consider themselves “Sentinels of History”? It’s almost as if the Silence of Season 5 and the Silence of Season 6 are two separate things. Reconciling these might be a task that Moffat decides to avoid. After all, we still don’t have an answer to the who spoke in the TARDIS – that voice was gravelly and very old, nothing like the voice of the Silents.

The thing is, that Doctor Who is a blast to watch. However, the plot by this point is so contorted that it’s probably impossible to get it all sorted out. This is the same problem that LOST had, in that there was an incentive to add mysteries and questions but there was not really any clean way to resolve them. This is a characteristic of story-first storytelling, which puts the needs of the immediate story above that of the canon. Of course, being slaved to a tight story arc would be a straightjacket and that would impede the telling of the story, so there needs to be a balance. I think Battlestar Galactica is a good example of having some story arcs in place and others invented on the fly (like the identities of the Final Five) and there’s probably some pressure on the writers to just invent on the fly for the story now, and then later try to tie it all together with something inventive and which hasn’t been hashed to death by the fans of their forums, to maintain some level of surprise.

I am looking forward to Season 7, but I have no expectations that the big questions asked and answered in S7 will actually have relevance to Season 6 any more than the big questions and revelations of Season 6 had any real bearing on teh myseries of Season 5. It’s a blast nonetheless.

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