The activity of ideas and ‘The Time of Angels’

The British TV show Doctor Who has gone through many mutations in its fast-paced run since its 2005 reboot. One of the most interesting variants of the show was presented in 2010, that year of intriguing contrasts and magnificent extravagance, in a double episode entitled ‘The Time of Angels’. The show revolves around the concept of the ‘weeping angel’, a creature which can only move when you turn your back — or even, as per the title of the first episode in which the creatures were introduced by writer Steven Moffat, Blink.

Matt Smith’s Eleventh Doctor in ‘Time of Angels’ by Steven Moffat.

The ‘Time of Angels’ narrative integrates this strand of Moffatlore with the elaborate romance between the Doctor and River Song, who always meet ‘in the wrong order’ (a Nolan-esque spin on The Time Traveller’s Wife). Matt Smith’s Eleventh Doctor and Alex Kingston’s River Song meet as the latter is escaping a space ship which carries a singular angel in its underbelly. Upon safely landing the Doctor’s time machine and meeting with some military ‘clerics’ (as the Doctor humorously said: It’s the far future — the Church has moved on), Song finds a book by a survivor of the angels’ brutality (which included, in Blink, sending their victims backwards and forwards in time to feast on their ‘time energy’ in a never-ending, cyclical purgatory). The book reads:

What if our ideas could think for themselves? What if our thoughts no longer needed us? When these things occur and are held to be true, the time will be upon us: The time of angels.

— The Time of Angels by Steven Moffat

One practical implication of this is that ‘what holds the image of an angel becomes itself an angel’. Furthermore, ‘the eyes are not the window to the soul — they are the doors; beware what may enter there’. Karen Gillan’s Amelia Pond (future relation of River Song and the Doctor … it’s complicated) presently finds herself looking into the eyes of an image of an angel, which creeps inside her mind and nearly consumes her entirely. The way out of this predicament (in a reversal of the old counter-angelic narrative of ‘don’t blink’) is simple: ‘close your eyes’. Though then, the enemy within is contained, but the angels outside still lurk, in the dark.

The plot gets increasingly interesting over the course of these two episodes. But the idea is what I’d like to grapple with. The angels are ‘quantum locked’; they can only move when unobserved. This reverses the narrative of Newton’s near-contemporary Bishop George Berkeley, for whom ‘to be is to be perceived — or to perceive’. Angels hide their eyes to avoid ‘locking’ each other (hence the ‘weeping’ epithet) and move when not perceived. This reversal of metaphysics reflects the reversal of physics from Newton to Einstein: once time and space were constant markers of a stable, ‘flat’ reality. Now they are in flux, and space-time as we know it is ‘curved’, looping back on itself.

But in some ways, Berkeley is the beginning of this quantum world. For Newton, perception does not make a difference to the physical behaviour of matter. For Berkeley, it makes all the difference. For weeping angels and quantum physics, perception affects matter in all kinds of strange ways. There is a deep entanglement between perceiving mind and perceived body, in contrast to the separation drawn by Descartes between soul and body. Reality, for early-modern thinkers like Hobbes, is material. But for postmodern ideas like weeping angels, reality is fundamentally mental. It is just asleep most of the time. Ideas are objects ‘waking up’.

But this is to be clumsy. For Berkeley, even, ideas have no activity without minds to behold then. But in Doctor Who, ideas acquire an agency independent of their perceiving minds. This echoes Leibniz’s idea in the Monadology that reality comprises an infinity of minds or ‘monads’, existing in pre-established harmony with one another, or interdependent independence. But in ‘Time of Angels’, it is not the quantum mind that is being awoken, but the quantum idea. This idea is qualitative, too: it can take the form of image, or physical instantiation of an idea. But this physicality is merely metaphorical: fundamentally, an image is just an idea — just as, fundamentally, physics is just philosophy on stilts. We cannot know what the physical world is really like, because what is physical is fantastical — and what is conceptual is real.

Thus, the whole distinction between reality and imagination is shown to be correct, but upside-down. In Inception and the Matrix (echoed expertly by Moffat in River Song’s debut in Silence in the Library), characters realise their dream is not real, and they must wake up. But to what? What distinguishes reality from dreams? People have all sorts of silly tests for determining this — like Inception where characters have an item of personal belonging to ‘spin’ and test the evenness of gravity in the dream. But this is the equivalent to approaching a trickster and asking them if they are tricking you. What answer do you expect?

There is a difference between waking and sleeping, but it is a matter of degree. As Inception suggests, there are layers of dreams — like as Plato argued that there are degrees of reality (or as rapper NF boasts on the track ‘LAYERS’ from the mixtape CLOUDS, ‘my layers have got layers’). In Inception, the idea is what deceives. But for Plato, the idea is what frees us from the deception of the ‘material’ world. The material world certainly feels real, just as poetry and art feel more real than the dull prose of philosophy. But imagistic fantasy is a mere shadow of ideal reality. Our physical sight is a shadow of our conceptual insight. Our five senses are insignificant in comparison with the incisive power of reason.

And yet, just we need sleep to make the most of our waking hours, we need deception to accompany truth. The problem is when the deception takes over. At that point, we see any attempt to regain truth, in its pure form of thought, as a deranged temper tantrum by beings spoilt with the material realm, and desiring an escaping to an illusory mental paradise. But the fact is, we cannot escape. This dream, the dream of physical imprisonment of our divine consciousness, is real. It is the dream by which all other dreams are possible, and it is the trap of all traps.

The truth of all truths lies beyond this realm, and can only be glimpsed on our physical plain in shards and samples, but never in its glorious wholeness. Indeed, we are afraid to learn the truth, for fear of losing our illusions. But the only thing to fear is fear itself. Truth is what lies beyond. Do not be afraid. Open your eyes, and blink when you will. There is nothing in our way but our own illusory fantasies. When we let go of these dreams of another reality, we can face this reality, and what lies beyond. The time is upon us — the time of angels. We live through our ideas, of which we are their angelic animators. Now we see that we are free, we can apply reality to imagination, and dream another dream of time yet to come. It is time. The hour is late. But it is not yet midnight.

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