Before “Doctor Who” officially turns 50 this November, Christ and Pop Culture will spend 12 weeks delving deep into the science-fiction series phenomenon. You can find part 1 in our series here.
by Royce Hunt
The British sci-fi series Doctor Who returned to television in 2005, finding thousands of new fans. But my love for the Doctor’s stories goes further back in time.
In the 1970s I enjoyed a host of new and syndicated science-fiction programs, cheering on the feats of The Six Million Dollar Man and The Incredible Hulk. I marveled at the voyages of the U.S.S. Enterprise and the S.S.R.N. Seaview and sat spellbound as the Cylon Empire chased the last remnants of humanity. Yet I outgrew every show but Doctor Who.
I discovered the Doctor when my parents left on the local PBS station, and on the screen appeared a flying saucer (with an eye in its center) chasing a strange man who wore an extremely long scarf. He carried no blaster or phaser, neither lightsaber nor laser grapnel. He didn’t even have bionic parts! Instead this hero, the Fourth Doctor, wielded only his mind and a handy tool known as the sonic screwdriver.
An instant fan, I watched the classic Doctor Who series until PBS stopped running the show in 1992. To me, only that series has lasted through time, sparking the imaginations of children and adults on account of great story writing—but also thanks to some creative plagiarism.
Yes, classic Who fans who also know science fiction novels will find that Doctor Who stories aren’t that original. Some are even blatant rip-offs. How does that affect the show’s stories?
Doctoring other stories
The popular classic Doctor Who episode The War Games borrows from the battle between Fritz Leiber’s time-traveling Spiders and Snakes in the Hugo Award-winning The Big Time. The Who world recasts this as the struggles between the Daleks and the Time Lords.
Bits of Nigel Kneale’s Quatermass series appear in the classic Who serials Web of Fear, The Invasion, Spearhead from Space, Ambassadors of Death, Inferno, Seeds of Doom, Image of the Fendahl, and even in the first post-2005 Christmas special, The Christmas Invasion. Yet the Doctor’s writers were wise to borrow from Quatermass’s best bits—Kneale’s invasion plots were unlike most “alien ship lands and vaporizes Chicago” plotlines.
The Doctor also goes beyond sci-fi. The Mind Robber references Gulliver’s Travels, Heroides, Rapunzel, and other classic children’s stories. The Brain of Morbius references Mary Shelley. The plant “thing” from John W. Campbell’s Who Goes There? has a cameo in The Seeds of Doom. The Deadly Assassin borrows from Richard Condon’s The Manchurian Candidate. And of course, H.G. Wells’s 1895 novel The Time Machine made all time-traveling sci-fi possible.
Doctoring historyClassic Who stories were also inspired by British history. When Doctor Who began, Brits recalled bombings threats, V2 rockets, and potential German invasion—memories clearly given tribute in many Doctor Who invasion stories. Genesis of the Daleks especially reflects Nazi Germany, with themes of racial superiority, cleansing, and extermination of inferiors.
British cultural memory also included the majesty of church and state, reflected in the ceremonies, society, and governance of Gallifrey—home planet of the Time Lords, a very old and high society filled with corruption. Yet the Doctor fled this society, and—before Gallifrey’s in-canon destruction in 2005—often viewed his homeworld with self-righteous moral superiority, becoming a hero for 1960s anti-establishment advocates.
The Doctor becomes even more “hippie”-like in The War Games, when the Time Lords put him on trial for time-meddling. The Doctor defiantly condemns them: “All these evils I have fought, while you have done nothing but observe! True, I am guilty of interference, just as you are guilty of failing to use your great powers to help those in need!”
However, the Time Lords do react to galactic threats. In The Three Doctors, Gallifrey calls upon the Doctor’s first three incarnations to keep an anti-matter entity from destroying the universe. And in Genesis of the Daleks, the Time Lords enlist the fourth Doctor to prevent or alter the evolution of the Daleks. So the Second Doctor’s defiant words are only half-true. Yes, like Parliament, the Gallifreyan State is often corrupt, yet also able to do good.
Like some activists, the Doctor also doesn’t favor weapons, yet may invent convenient exceptions. In The Robots of Death, the Fourth Doctor explains to his oft-violent friend Leela, “I never carry weapons. If people see you mean them no harm, they never hurt you. Nine times out of ten. All right, seven times out of ten. Five times out of ten. Never mind.”
Thus Doctor Who’s writers wove the fabric of the Doctor’s universe using threads from great science-fiction, cultural memory, and the biblical gospel. So why praise the storytelling of the classic and new series? I suggest this: While episodes may have elements from eight different science-fiction tales, their writers sought to improve those original stories while also “Doctoring” them for the Who-niverse into an enjoyable and fresh-feeling story.
But out of all those stories, there is one Story the writers were wise to incorporate, though they can’t improve upon it.
In the worst of battles, the Doctor must surrender his life for his friends, for the salvation of Earth, or even for the salvation of the universe. Each time, the Doctor returns with a new body; as of this writing, the Doctor has used eleven of his twelve “regenerations.” This concept of salvation through sacrifice comes not from Wells, Leiber, or Kneale, but from God. Yet in God’s storyline, the wrath-bearer died once—not eleven or twelve times. Jesus died once for all, the just for the unjust, and then rose from the dead with an imperishable body. The Doctor can eliminate evils only for a time. Jesus Christ will make all His enemies His footstool.
Although I’m now in my forties, I still thoroughly enjoy watching this conglomeration of great stories in classic Doctor Who. I am indeed a vintage nerd. And as a follower of Jesus Christ, I appreciate seeing His image even dimly reflecting in the Doctor.
Royce Hunt is an aspiring writer of fantasy, history, philosophy, and theology. He earned his BS in History from Cedarville College, and his MDiv from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He currently works for the Kentucky State Police Criminal Records and Technology branch.