It started with Pinterest..as I find deep thoughts sometimes do. I don't know what it is; perhaps it's the open ended visual cues or perhaps the studiedly casual interaction that allows free space for the mind to work. Whatever it is, I found myself mentally returning over and over again to a Doctor Who image I had re-pinned along the way. I had retained it because it touched me; its message was one of love, of River's love for the Doctor being great enough to set aside her own feelings to allow him to have his. And somewhere, right in the middle of thinking about that, I realized something. I realized why I loved Matt Smith's iteration of the Doctor and why I judge the writing of the character so harshly.
It's because I empathize.
The Doctor is a silly, weird soul. We all know that. There's a childishness, a joyous naievete about him that makes us, as viewers, fall in love with him. We love his joy in the small things, his vivacious confidence and willingness to find wonder and hope anywhere. But that joy is balanced by the knowledge that the Doctor is a madman with a box, the last of his kind, a being with darker secrets and moral ambiguities than most of us will ever dream. That's the character, and that's the pull on us as viewers. We know, every last fan, that the Doctor's unflinching optimism, his determination to win, to save the people and the race he loves, is a conscious, unrelenting choice flavored with more than a little desperation.
Back on Pinterest, staring at that picture of the Doctor weeping over the loss of his friends, falling apart as the woman who loved him held strong to allow that moment of weakness, my chest tightened up. I understood. The doctor was devastated because he couldn't save the people he loves. He knows what he is capable of, and knowing that, he holds himself to an impossible standard of perfection. He has to win; he has to protect his friends because that is how he defines himself. That is who he is. Every loss of someone he loves, someone he is sworn to protect, is a direct attack on who he is. It is a failure that echoes across his identity, an irreconcilable wrong. The Doctor does not make mistakes; he has to believe with every fiber of his being that he can succeed. If he admits anything else, he admits it only in the dark shadows of solitude. He cannot fail...it's not who he is, who he needs to be.
I understand that on a deep, visceral level. For the entirety of my formative years, I was told that I was special, that I needed to adhere to a higher standard, that my parents' expectations of me were high because that was reasonable...for me. At the same time, I failed over and over, the small failures that come with life and particularly with childhood. Yet each one was a blow for me because I had failed the people I loved; I had fallen short of the expectations that had been instilled in me. I had to be the one to be responsible because that's who I was; who I was expected to be. It wasn't about doing things or accomplishing things for me...it was about maintaining the expectations of the people I loved, the people I was responsible to and protecting them and their image of who I was.
I understand the Doctor's drive; his need to be "the Doctor." I resonate with his determination to save the world...every time...his borderline desperation that drives him to take any risk to do what needs to be done, and the agony and self-loathing that overwhelm him when he fails. That's why the silly picture touched me so deeply. River knew that too...and she loves the Doctor enough to let him collapse, to let him be overwhelmed and to defend him when he cannot defend himself. And she doesn't condemn him.
I know from my own experience that when you are the strong one, the responsible one, the one who always handles things, falling apart is unacceptable. When you crumble, when you lash out, at yourself or someone else, people's feelings swing from love to loathing far too easily. Instead of sympathy, instead of being willing to let that moment pass, that moment becomes another ghost, something that haunts you as a weakness, another unforgivable imperfection, something you'll never live down. It takes a true friend, someone who loves you for who you really are, to get past that and to accept that the intensity of the cracks are an indication of the strength holding the vessel together.
River was that person. She loves the Doctor, not for what he does or how he does it. She loves him for himself...failures, triumphs and all. Even when he is overwhelmed, even when he lashes out unfairly, even when he falls, she loves him. I have only one person in my life like that, and I am married to him. Seeing that image of River strong enough to let the Doctor fall apart...it made me grateful. It reminded me of something important about who I am, and it reminded me of the difference between a so called "friend" and someone who loves you.