This blog post takes a new direction – the crone as a media character. We’ll see how the media borrows from traditional folklore and how the archetype of the crone is expressed in popular culture. This time we’ll explore a character from “Doctor Who.”
I must admit I come a bit late to the world of “Doctor Who.” This long running, British fantasy concerns the travels of an alien (Doctor Who) and his companion(s). Doctor Who is a “Time Lord,” a species that can travel through time and space, in an old Police box called a TARDIS. Doctor Who is practically immortal – for instead of dying, the Doctor regenerates into a new body and personality – and sometimes gender. There are thirteen doctors (twelves male and one female) who move throughout the universe, saving species from catastrophic events and villains. Mostly the Doctor protects planet earth. He is an eccentric, wise, tortured, and quirky figure. And most importantly, the Doctor loves humans and is the protector of planet earth. He embodies the archetypes of the Sage, Seeker and Fool.
Even though I now consider myself a Whovian (or is it Whoie, Whoer, or Whoite?), I still haven’t seen many of the early episodes found in the “Classic Doctor Who” series (1963-1989). Like many fantasy programs, Doctor Who is filled with fan fiction. This fiction sometimes enters the world of the film character. Imagine the most complex soap opera with characters leaving and returning, and a back story that can haunt the audience for decades. That is actually part of the fun.
Hopefully I haven’t lost any readers here. Describing Doctor Who’s story in a paragraph is like telling the story of “Star Wars” in a few sentences. Nevertheless, while watching a recent episode, I was reminded of a reoccurring crone figure found in the series. I thought it might be fun to explore the storyline of this character as she appears in different episodes and meets up with three different Doctor Whos. In doing so, we’ll be exploring these questions. How do these episodes portray the crone? What can we learn about her in this “who-niverse”? Does this character derive from the archetypal crone found in folklore? I’ll try to make it as simple as I can although the twists, turns and interconnections make these stories a bit difficult to share simply. Nevertheless, here we go!
It all begins with the “Sisterhood of Karn,” an all-female society or religious cult residing on the planet Karn. The women are thought to be from the planet Gallifrey (the home of all the Time Lords). The purpose of this group is to protect the “Sacred Flame,” but the flame is dying. With the flame, they are able to create the “Elixir of Life,” a potion that makes them immortal. It is also shared with the Time Lords. The Sisterhood first appears in the episode, “The Brain of Morbius” (1976). The leader of the cult (I’ll call her a “priestess”) is the crone, Maren. She seems to have prophetic powers. Her cult can crash any aircraft in their vicinity with their minds. The Fourth Doctor makes an unexpected and unplanned visit to the planet. As the story begins, Maren mistakenly believes that he has come to the planet to steal the elixir. But, in reality, he is focused on solving the problem of the “Brain of Morbius” (an evil Time Lord thought to be vanquished). The Sisters plan to capture and kill the Doctor by burning him at the stake. They dress in flowing red garments with high headdresses. Their ceremonies entail a great deal of dancing and waving of red scarfs as they chant. But before they can harm him, he determines that the flame’s underground fissure feeding the Sacred Flame is filled with soot and ash. When he opens the fissure, the flow starts again, saving the flame. This act reconciles the Doctor with the Sisterhood. The Doctor then confronts Morbius to save the planet. When he collapses, Maren gives the last of the elixir to the Doctor. With the elixir gone (at least for another 100 years), Maren will no longer be immortal. She finally accepts that the Doctor was right. There should be an end to her life for there is no growth with immortality. She steps into the flame and disappears.
Her next appearance is in “The Night of the Doctor” (2013). This mini episode is with the Eighth Doctor. It seems that the Sisters have continued to work on the formula for their elixir. We discover the elixir can now be used to initiate a regeneration for a Time Lord or to modify his or her newly regenerated body. Here the Doctor meets with Ohila (another priestess of the Sisterhood). After crash landing on Karn, the Sisters keep him alive with their elixir. The Doctor has been avoiding the “Last Great Time War,” a conflict between the Time Lords and another warrior race, the Darleks. The Sisters convince the Doctor to regenerate this time into a warrior. In doing so, he becomes the “Warrior Doctor” who fights in a brutal and unwinnable war. Ultimately, the Warrior Doctor is able to protect Gallifrey by hiding the planet in a particular moment in time. Becoming the War Doctor, both lost and saved his world.
In another story, the Doctor must face his arch enemy, Davros, a Darlek. To postpone the inevitable, Ohila and the Sisterhood kept the Doctor hidden for a while – safe from the meeting. They also gave the Doctor’s last will and testament (a “Time Lord Confession Dial”) to his childhood friend (and later foe) Missy.
Finally, in “Hell Bent” (2015), the Twelfth Doctor seeks to rescue his deceased companion by extracting her from her timeline only moments before her death. The Doctor blames the Time Lords for this and also for his torture and imprisonment for over four billion years! In anger and desperation, he steps away from the mantle of “Doctor” and back into the warrior role. In doing so he broke many of his own moral codes. When he arrives back at Gallifrey seeking vengeance, Ohlia and the Sisterhood appears unannounced at a High Council meeting. She states that at the end of time, one should expect the presence of “immortals.” This statement proves to be prophetic once again. It seems they have continued to make and use the elixir. She appears to have a long relationship with the Doctor, calling him “Boy!” at one point. An odd comment considering the Doctor is thought to be over 900 years old. As the Doctor’s behavior becomes more dangerous and erratic, Ohila confronts him. She calls to the Doctor, telling him to leave the TARDIS and face her. He steps out and Ohlia accuses him of breaking every moral code that he ever held. The Doctor insists that the universe owes him, but Ohlia asks instead if he is becoming “cruel or cowardly.” She uses the words of his own code against him. Her warnings are well taken for his actions may unlease one of the worst of Time Lord prophecies and fracture time itself. One wonders if one of those prophecies was given by the Sisters in an earlier time. The Doctor goes back inside, and the TARDIS departs. A General who stood by, wonders where the Doctor is running to. Ohlia tells her that he’s just running away (something he did at his journey’s start).
So, what does all that mean for the character of the crone? Certainly, in the Sisterhood we see mythic implications. There are remnants of the Greek Fates and perhaps the Oracles of Delphi. But does the priestess align to the crone archetype as found in folklore? As we have seen in the folktales discussed in this blog, the old woman character tends to be depicted traditionally as either a witch, a grandmother, or the crone. Throughout each of these stories, the “leader” of the Sisterhood of Karn is an old woman. It’s a matriarchal society after all. There is little that is warm and comforting about this character, so the grandmother role does not apply.
First, we see Maren and then some time after her death, Ohlia, become the priestess. Three things remain true to the archetype of the crone. First, she has the gift of prophecy. In each episode we see a focus on the priestess’ ability to prophesize. Although Maren’s predictions are incorrect in “The Brain of Morbius,” Ohlia’s are “spot-on” in later episodes. She saves the Doctor, so he can become the warrior hero of his people. Much later when he is struggling with the anger of injustice, she magically appears just in time to give him a tongue lashing. Some might argue that the Sisterhoods’ gift of divination is a sign of witchcraft. The fact their ceremonies invoke the mental ability to manipulate matter, is an additional sign. But the Grimm Brothers saw it a bit differently. In “The Goose Girl at the Well,” the old woman orchestrated the events in the story. Things unfolded in a way that appeared magical or foretold. At the end of the story, the narrator proclaimed that the old woman was not a witch as thought but merely a wise old woman. Such could be said of Ohlia.
The second element is determining the worth of the one in need. This is the key motif in all the wise crone folktales. We see it in the story of “The Three Spinning Women,” “Frau Holle,” and “Vasilisa the Beautiful.” The same is true in each of these episodes. The Doctor’s worth is initially found wanting for in the first episode Maren is convinced that the Doctor plans thievery. When she discovers her error, she saves his life rather than her own. In “The Night of the Doctor,” Ohlia finds the Doctor worthy of his heroic future. Again, she saves his life for what is destined to come. In “Hellbent,” the Doctor is at his worst. He ignores the entries of the officials but meets with her when she chastises him. At first it appears he is ignoring her, but later in the episode we see him attempt to rectify his reckless behavior and save time and the universe!
The third motif is that of the “unlikely hero.” In each of these episodes the priestess acts. She isn’t waiting for things to resolve. She sets things in motion; she appears at just the right time. She saves the day again and again. In folktales, the crone rarely is the hero. Instead, we see her waiting at the side of the road to give advice to the hero in “East of the Sun, West of the Moon.” Or perhaps she is tending the fire in “Frau Holle,” before the young girl arrives at her cottage in the woods. We don’t see her standing outside a TARDIS yelling to a 900-year-old Time Lord, “Come out here and talk to me, boy!” The audience doesn’t particularly like Ohlia. She’s stern, critical, and disappointed in her friend. She’s outspoken and not afraid to tell the Doctor that his actions are wrong. When he turns to leave, the General asks where the Doctor is going. She practically spits out her reply, “He’s running away again.”
Clearly, she is more crone than witch in the series’ portrayal. What does she have to tell us wannabe crones in waiting? Use your inner knowing. Embrace your intuition but be wise enough to understand that sometimes you’re going to be wrong. Give help to those who are worthy. Be selfless and self-sacrificing when it’s required. Be fearless in living out your destiny. Stand tall in moments of danger. Grow, learn, and experiment! Speak out to those who act rashly. Hold others accountable to their own credo. Especially if it’s the Doctor’s credo. Always, always hold the Doctor accountable!
And just in case you don’t know the Doctor’s credo, it goes a bit like this, “Never be cruel, never be cowardly. And never ever eat pears! Remember – hate is always foolish…and love, is always wise. Always try, to be nice and never fail to be kind. …Laugh hard. Run fast. Be kind.”