Letting it get to you: Doctor Who and George Bailey

This guest blog post is by @CathAnnabel

Once there was a planet much like any other. And unimportant. This planet sent the universe a message. A bell, tolling among the stars, ringing out to all the dark corners of creation. And everybody came to see. Although no one understood the message, everyone who heard it found themselves afraid. Except one man. The man who stayed for Christmas.

So this is the story of a man who got stuck somewhere. ‘Everyone gets stuck somewhere eventually, Clara. Everything ends.’ He could have left, but no one else could have protected that small town as he did, from the forces that were besieging it, and from the war that could have burned it and all around it.

A town called Christmas, blanketed in snow. A town where truth prevails, and people greet each other warmly, and take care of each other, but constantly under threat, with enemies ready to take advantage of any weakness, and the citizens are all potential collateral damage.

If Moffatt wasn’t consciously evoking Bedford Falls in those snowy scenes, I’ll eat my fez. Bedford Falls – the town where another good man got stuck, protecting his family and his community. Where he grew older, his own life on hold whilst he saved other people. Where he kept his promises, and watched his chances slipping away. The enemy from whom he protected people was rampant capitalistic greed, rather than alien races bent on world domination, of course, but it nearly drove him to his death, nonetheless.

George Bailey was a man who dreamed of lassoing the moon, of travelling the world, and who ended up stuck in a small town. The Doctor of course had done more than dream. He had travelled the universe, and time itself, but to quote Arbutos, Matt Smith’s valedictory episode saw him ‘trying to do something small … spend the remainder of his life protecting the people of one town.’

With every victory, the town celebrated. In time, the Doctor seemed to forget he lived any other life. And the people of the town came to love the man who stayed for Christmas.

But the man who stayed did not do so without argument, without at least an internal struggle. We see George Bailey’s anger and frustration at so many moments in the narrative, even as he does what he knows is right, he rages against what it’s costing him. The Doctor too has that fight between the promise he must keep and the life he wants to live.

Clara: What about your life? Just for once, after all of this time, have you not earned the right to think about that? Sorry. Wrong thing to say. We shouldn’t be having an argument.
The Doctor: Clara, I’ve been having that argument for the last three hundred years. All by myself.
Clara: But you didn’t have your TARDIS.
The Doctor: Ah, yes, well that made it easier to stay. True.

The absence of the Tardis may have made it easier, but we can be pretty sure that he would have found a way to leave, if he’d made the decision to do so. I was reminded here not only of IAWL, but of Albert Camus’ doctor, Rieux, in plague ridden Oran (referencing Nazi-occupied Paris), knowing he must stay even when he is offered a chance to leave, because he has to save lives:

I have no idea what’s awaiting me, or what will happen when this all ends. For the moment I know this: there are sick people and they need curing. (The Plague)

Or as the Doctor said, ‘Every life I save is a victory. Every single one’.

Doctor Who is not ‘a kid’s show’ in any sense that reduces its value, its quality or its depth. But it is a fantasy, and one that is aimed at family audiences, in this case, gathered around a Christmas tree, replete with turkey and pud, and possibly still wearing, slightly askew, their paper hats. So we don’t expect the kind of ending that Camus was prepared to give us. We know that the Doctor will not be destroyed. The end that he speaks of is the end of THIS Doctor, not of THE Doctor – though he may not know this as he says it.

Emma: What’s wrong?
Clara: I just saw something I wish I hadn’t.
Emma: What did you see?
Clara: That everything ends.
Emma: No, not everything. Not love. Not always.

We’ve often been invited to contemplate what the world would be like without the Doctor. But that’s too terrible to do more than glance at and then look away. A world without the sound of the Tardis bringing hope, without the Doctor to bring protection and healing? No thanks. None of us would sleep at night if that was what we were confronted with, on a Saturday afternoon, let alone on Christmas Day.

But we are increasingly, in NuWho, asked to deal with some much more grown-up themes. Maybe this reflects the changing audience. When Who launched, it was clearly aimed at children, and adults watched with their offspring, to remind them afterwards that it was only a story (only a story? As if there could be anything more important than stories) and that they could sleep safe in their beds. As those children grew up they stayed with the Doctor, and watched with their own children. Some of those parents too, I suspect, stayed with it long after their children needed them there for reassurance, and so we now have several generations for whom it is precious and important.

Someone said to me the other day, who hadn’t seen Who since they were a kid (we reminisced about the terrifying Autons and the Cybermen and the Yeti…) that whilst they could remember being scared, they couldn’t imagine being moved to tears by it. And yet these days more often than not, I am moved to tears. This is not just because my tear ducts are on a hair trigger now – it’s because in Who since the reboot we’ve faced grief and loss, loneliness, ageing, choices made and chances missed, the possibility and threat of change. The recurring theme of memory has a poignancy now that it would not have had years ago, now that there’s so much more to remember, and the fear that those memories will start to be engulfed in fog. It gets harder to ‘remember all the people that you used to be’, whether you’re a Time Lord or not. The young me would not have been as devastated by ‘The Girl Who Waited’ as the middle-aged me was, nor as haunted by the question ‘Are you my mummy?’. And the young me would not have felt George Bailey’s despair, or the Doctor’s, as keenly. If  you’re old enough to have lost people, to have had to make hard choices, to have got some of them wrong, and to have missed chances that will not come round again – then you can feel for George Bailey, and you can feel for the Doctor too.

Who and IAWL also share a humanistic perspective. IAWL of course starts with prayers, ‘ringing out to all the dark corners of creation’, and an angel. George prays too, though he’s not a praying man, and Clarence (AS2) is the answer. But all that Clarence does is to give George a glimpse of how, and how much, he matters. The miracle is wrought by human action, by people moved to generosity to help the man who’s been so generous to them. Remember The Wedding of River Song?

The sky is full of a million million voices saying, “Yes, of course we’ll help.” You’ve touched so many lives, saved so many people, did you think when your time came you’d really have to do more than just ask? You’ve decided that the universe is better off without you. But the universe doesn’t agree.

It’s people, for good and bad, who make Bedford Falls, or Pottersville. In Who too, whilst our hero is more than human he is no superhero, nor yet a god. His judgement is often flawed, his personality too. He’s prone to grumpiness, to vanity, to arrogance. He does the right thing but often is prompted or inspired by his own guardian angel, the companion/associate who shows him a truth he’s not able to see, or who intervenes for him when he cannot or will not plead for himself.

As Liam Whitton recently wrote in Humanist Life (http://humanistlife.org.uk/2013/11/23/doctor-who-fifty-years-of-humanism/):

It’s one of the most humanist television shows of all time. In fact, at practically every turn up to now it has presented the philosophy of its title character, the Doctor, as an emphatically humanist one. If there’s one thing the Doctor values, it’s human life, and if there’s one thing he consistently stands in awe of, it’s human potential. He abhors superstition; he scorns pointless prejudices; he believes fervently in reason; he is sympathetic to the beliefs of others, but will not kowtow to them when a fundamental liberty is under threat.

Steven Spielberg once said that ‘ It’s a Wonderful Life shows that every human being on this Earth matters – and that’s a very powerful message.” It’s also a message reiterated over and over again by Who. Capra offers us hope based in human nature. ‘Goodness, simplicity, dis-interestedness: these in his hands become fighting qualities’ (Graham Greene, reviewing Mr Deeds Goes to Town, The Spectator, August 28 1936).

If you believe that humanity is all there is, that makes it so much more vital that we care for each other, because we’re all we’ve got, and these years we have on the planet is all we’ve got.  I believe in Dr Who. I believe in George Bailey. Call me idealistic, naive, if you like, but bear in mind that my academic research interests find me often mired in the history of the most appalling acts that humanity is capable of. So I do know that we don’t all live in a town called Christmas, or Bedford Falls, and that very often no one comes to save and to heal. But that humanistic vision is vitally important to me. Joss Whedon said it well, as he so often does, in Angel:

If there’s no great glorious end to all this, if … nothing we do matters … then all that matters is what we do. ‘Cause that’s all there is. What we do. Now. Today.  … All I want to do is help. I want to help because I don’t think people should suffer as they do, because if there’s no bigger meaning, then the smallest act of kindness is the greatest thing in the world.

But it’s only right and proper that I leave the last words to the Doctor:

Letting it get to you. You know what that’s called? Being alive. Best thing there is.


  1. @CathAnnabel

    Thanks for that. I really like the way you use Capra to capture the essential secular decency of the Doctor. When I watched the 50th, I was struck by the way The Moment reminded me of Clarence in IAWL, and I am with you in agreeing that Moffat is drawing on Capra in many ways.

    My biggest challenge now is to convince Mrs Blenkinsop (who was subjected to a childhood of being forced to watch IAWL every Christmas) to sit down with me and watch George Bailey again! But, inspired by your blog, I will do my best!

  2. @cathannabel

    Many thanks for this, and lots of points to pick up on. Addressing some really adult concerns in such a fantastical way is perhaps the best weapon in the AG arsenal, and some concepts do get lost I think, depending on your age and experience.

    I think Capra’s IAWL is one that many genre writers are drawn to, simply because it plays on a very sci-fi notion. The “might have been and never were” that the leaf in the episode Rings of Akhaten signified. As you grow older, and get perspective you tend to find that you’ve accumulated a fair few of those. The “what if I’d taken job B, instead of A”, “what if I’d actually studied for my A levels instead of going to see Judas Priest the night before my exams, and got into my first choice for University”. Whoops, that’s one of mine. 😀 But every show that dwells on a parallel universe or history takes that route to examine what makes certain characters or realities turn out the way they did.

    I think Rings, like Time of the Doctor, was one of those stories that people with a bit more water under the bridge may have appreciated, and its detractors may see its power in the future. Rings got a wave of negativity immediately after showing, but seems to be on its way to a fairly rapid re-evaluation by some. I can see Time, with some it’s themes, going the same way.

    I also think IAWL is one of those powerful stories that your actions define you. Those random acts of kindness you bestow on others, the time you take with them, those can have massive unforeseen consequences that ripple down the timelines. Live a good life, and you will have an impact, even though you may not be celebrated in verse and song. It’s a good message, especially for the secular humanist hero the Doctor is.

    I’ll just ask the question – Don’t know if you’re a fan of the sit-com Red Dwarf or not, but the first two spin off books “Infinity welcomes careful drivers” and “Better than Life” are substantially more dark and adult than the TV series. When they unknowingly get trapped in a virtual world aimed at fulfilling their deepest desires, David Lister adopts the name George Bailey, moves to Bedford Falls to live in obscurity while Arnold Rimmer takes a more obvious route to fame, fortune and obvious misery. It’s a great play on the notions of IAWL, and highly recommended. IAWL casts a very long shadow.

  3. Thanks for writing that @Cathannabel Really enjoyed reading it, and may start blubbing again!

    only a story? As if there could be anything more important than stories

    Too true. Stories are how we deal with the big things (and the small ones sometimes) and how we bond together as groups (just look at this forum as an example!)

    You mention some of the deeper, darker themes that Who now deals with, and again I agree, there’s a real resonance to some of them. I think it’s not just former companions that look at the AG Who with envy, but some of the former Doctors too.  The characterisation of the Doctor has been challenged and pushed so much further than ever – and yet stayed true to the original vision, despite the passage of nearly half a century. Without resorting to complicated back stories, our Doctor is now multifaceted, we feel we know him much better – but we still don’t know anything of his early life, so the mystery remains intact.

  4. @CathAnnabel  Great post.

    When love saves the day in Dr Who, many ‘fans’ are irked, because it can be such a corny cliche.

    Dr Who has managed to make it work well on many occasions though.

    And it doesn’t sound so cheesy if you say ‘Humanism saved the day’ …

  5. Thanks all for your kind comments!  @blenkinsopthebrave – hope you succeed in persuading Mrs B.  I think she’ll find a very different film to the one she endured as a child.  I managed to avoid ever seeing it as a kid, or even a young adult, and watched it for the first time in (I think) my 40s.  By which time, of course, I’d accumulated a whole stack of might have beens and never weres, and it resonated so powerfully with me, and overthrew my expectations of  ‘feelgood’ cosiness.   @Phase Shift – first, thanks for encouraging me to write this, it gave me a lot of pleasure.  Second, will have to rewatch Rings asap.  @ScaryB, sorry to make you cry… I must admit I choked up a few times whilst writing it.

  6. @CathAnnabel

    Keen to share the story of George Bailey with Mrs Blenkinsop, I was just on the Amazon site after I realised I did not have a copy of IAWL, and I came across this angry review with the following explanation of why the movie was, apparently, “lousy”:

    “This movie never won any awards.  It was so bad that the studio could hardly give it away when they first puit (sic) it on tape… It’s Communist propaganda…”

    For a moment, I thought I was on the comments page of the Doctor Who blog over on the Guardian…

  7. @CathAnnabel

    Re: IAWL as communistic propaganda: It is sobering to think that back in 1947 the mainstream media and public opinion were probably at odds with FBI views on IAWL. Now, when one looks at much mainstream media and a depressing amount of web comments to news stories, it starts to feel like the situation is reversed.

    Which is one of the many reasons for supporting this forum, as a beacon of sanity and reason, where words like “humanism”, “community”, and “tolerance” still retain a positive interpretation.

    Now, back to complete the purchase of IAWL to add to add to my DVD collection of…oh, crikey…communist propaganda!


  8. @CathAnnabel – Moffat does indeed mention ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ (as well as ‘A Christmas Carol) in his interview about the episode in the latest issue of Doctor Who Magazine. In response to the question, ‘Are there rules for Christmas day viewing? Do the television bosses worry about too much death and destruction?’

    ‘There are no rules, no, I think there are assumptions , and there are ambitions, and there are things you’d like to do; and you have your head full of things like ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ or ‘A Christmas Carol’, or whatever. You forget, ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ is mostly quite a dark film until the very end. If you look at the traditional Christmas tales, they can be quite heart rending. There’s the tradition of Christmas ghost stories, the Christmas tragedies – we love a disaster movie at Christmas and loads of people die in those…..’

  9. @wolfweed – excellent, I like what Moffat says about IAWL, and it does support my arguments!   @Jim The Fish, thanks, glad you liked the Angel quote ( I know there’s a fair few people on here who share my love for Buffy/Angel and see the links with Who).  @blenkinsopthebrave absolutely agree with your description of this forum.  It’s a haven and one I’m very glad I’ve found.

  10. @cathannabel

    Don’t thank me for encouragement – I’ll be bugging you for more until you’re sick of me. 😀

    I can’t remember if you had much time around the Rings episode but the tidal wave of vitriol was way over the top. I got called a moron on the Guardian for suggesting I’d enjoyed it (alas, a mod disappeared that comment which made my following rebuke look more than a little ill-tempered). These days you seem to see a bit more positively towards it when it’s mentioned. A lot of people mention Smiths speech but it’s the dialogue that surrounds it that takes in chaos theory and the impossible variety of “almosts” that makes it for me.

    Thanks to you and @blenkinsopthebrave for the communist links. It’s quite jaw-dropping and hilarious. They were obsessed at that time. I can’t help but wonder what they would have made of writers like Malcolm Hulke (a big writer in the Troughton and Pertwee years) who was a fully paid up members of the Communist Party of Great Britain.

    I don’t know if you saw the dialogue on the Sofa about a Watch club of other series, but I’m looking for suggestions from the Buffy and Angel series for episodes that could spark conversation about that link between themes between the two. If you have any ideas, I’d appreciate them.

  11. Excellent write-up, and seemingly steeped in fate. Which, of course, sounds better than coincidence ^_^ I came to to this site to make a post regarding something from The Doctor’s Wife. I chose to read this first as it had caught my eye, and just before I reached the eponymous line at the end I heard the Doctor say it over my headset! I had no recollection of it, no idea it was coming. As far as omens go? This one is getting to me 😉

    P.S. It’s always shocked me how many wonderful, intelligent, funny people I’ve befriended who have little else but disdain for Buffy or Angel, but love everything else Whedon has done, or any myriad other wit fueled wonders. Even the best of us seem to fall victim to bias, often unwittingly as seems to be the case. I’m constantly surprised, more than a decade later even, by the wealth of joys, appreciations, observations, philosophies, romanticism, imaginative dilly dallying and the rest of the hoarde of life changing/guiding treasures I’ve developed as a direct result of growing up a Buffy/Angel fan.

  12. @WarDoctor that is spooky.

    @WarDoctor and @PhaseShift – I have faced far more sneers for loving Buffy/Angel than I have for loving the Doctor, probably because even if people don’t ‘get’ Who, they often have some nostalgic childhood memories of it.  Of course, I have my blind spots too and have to admit Red Dwarf is one of them – I think I saw half an ep once and didn’t care for it, so didn’t try again.  My bad (as Buffy taught me to say) – happy to re-evaluate!  Oh, and will give some thought to Buffy/Angel eps that are particularly rich in Who-links.

  13. @CathAnnabel     How lovely is this? Thank you for this wonderful Christmas season blog, full of lessons for all year round.

    The fact that so many of us (probably most of us) dream in our youth of greatness, and end up settling for smallness, is what makes us empathize with George Bailey. It is also what draws us to the Doctor. Because, for most of his lives that we have shared, he was never small. We could dream of being great, heroic, bigger than life, traveling the cosmos with him and his friends. But for this one period of time, during the latter part of one incarnation (even more poignantly because he believed he would finish his life this way), the Doctor became George Bailey. He became small. And in doing so, like George, he actually became really, really big.

    As a young viewer of this film, I understood George’s despair well enough. What I understand better now is the value of the choices that he made. When I was young, still dreaming my own dreams of greatness, I didn’t really understand the moral of how important our lives can be when we simply make a difference to others around us every day. At least, I understood it in my mind, but my heart still raged against the unfairness of it all: He didn’t get to go to college! He didn’t get to see the Parthenon! It’s just so wrong! But now, older, as a wife and mother and friend, I understand how important it is to me to be those things, as George came to understand that his wife, children, and town meant more to him that bridges and cities and far away places.

    It’s people, for good and bad, who make Bedford Falls, or Pottersville.     It’s always been interesting to me that the people of Pottersville are the same people as the citizens of Bedford Falls. They have been twisted by their circumstances, much as the Doctor was twisted by the events of the Time War into someone apparently quite different, but not really. Even the War Doctor, the memory of whom Ten and Eleven feared so greatly, was still the same person in the end. He, like the people of Pottersville, struggled to keep his head above water in a sea of darkness.

    As if there could be anything more important than stories. Everyone on this forum clear understands this so very well!


  14. @PhaseShift     I think Rings, like Time of the Doctor, was one of those stories that people with a bit more water under the bridge may have appreciated.     I hadn’t thought of it that way, but I’m sure you’re right. I know that lots of people were not happy with this episode, but I quite liked it.

    @CathAnnabel     I think that the difficulty about Red Dwarf is that it has a particular tone that some people don’t care for. I myself enjoyed the episodes that I saw, but I knew plenty of people who didn’t take to it. I remember it as an oddball kind of show, but one that worked for me.

    @blenkinsopthebrave     Which is one of the many reasons for supporting this forum, as a beacon of sanity and reason, where words like “humanism”, “community”, and “tolerance” still retain a positive interpretation.     Don’t get me started on the issue of anti-humanism, and by extension, anti-science and anti-humanities, in North America these days. Large schools of thought seem to suggest that the only acceptable form of education is a business degree (and then people wonder how we end up with Enron or Bernie Madoff). And just the other day, I was among a group speculating on the possibility of the next American president being named Juanita Goldberg, and we sadly all agreed that the only religious bar to becoming president would be atheism. Rant ends.


  15. @Cath


    Thank you!!!


    I was reading, and watching, the links in the holiday portion of the TV thread, and wondering whether It’s A Wonderful Life had made it across the pond.  Your blog comparing Doctor Who with George Bailey is brilliant.   I loved how the Doctor slowed down and enjoyed a different sort of saving-the-world-one-single-life-at-a-time in his “old age.”  I, like George, had grandiose dreams of making my mark on the world when I was much younger.  Now, I see and experience the joy and satisfaction in touching someone and making change on a micro, not macro level.

    It’s A Wonderful Life was not a part of my childhood Christmas viewing experience;  I discovered it in college, with friends who’d grown up with it.  I thought it corny, at times, but it invoked the populist, anti-plutocracy views I and those whom I respected held, so I was tolerant of its corniness.

    Speaking of blogs, I followed the link to your own personal blog and took a quick look-see around.  Would love to meet you IRL, you’ve had such an interesting life.  I’m ashamed to say that my limited knowledge of French poets and poetry does not include the ones you’ve studied.  Not sure if my local library would have them, maybe I’ll check, though.


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