Before the 50-year anniversary of “Doctor Who” on Nov. 23, Christ and Pop Culture is exploring the sci-fi series in Doctor Who’s Doctrine.
Part 1: Mad Man with a Box
Part 2: Genre Roots
Part 3: Exterminating Evil
Part 4: The Trip of a Lifetime
Part 5: Music for a Mad Man
Part 6: Those Complicated Companions
Part 7: The Episode I Never Want to See Again
Could the Doctor be an intergalactic Jesus? Consider the following:
1. He is a timeless being;
2. He is known across the universe;
3. He “resurrects” (or, regenerates);
4. He has “disciples” (or, companions);
5. He has been prophesied about. (For instance, the Ood note his presence in the destruction/saving of the universe in “The End of Time.”)
Okay, this might be pushing it; the Doctor is no Jesus. But there’s no denying the place of religion in the world of Doctor Who. From the beginning of the show, the topic of religion has come up time and again. The Doctor has worked with and fought against both superstition and magical forces in order to defeat extraterrestrial threats towards humanity and the universe. But with over 60 writers working on the show for the last 50 years, it’s hard to pin down the Doctor’s exact opinion on religion.
The show started out in the 1960s, when writers like Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, and Phillip K. Dick were popular. There is a clear anti-religious aftertaste to many of the sci-fi stories of the time. Some of the best stories present religion as a primary enemy. One of my favorite stories of midcentury sci-fi, Isaac Asimov’s “Nightfall,” puts a large focus on the divide between the scientists and the cultists, who each interpret an eclipse in different ways. Most of the science fiction of that era evinces similar convictions about a division between religion and science. Doctor Who seems to fall into that category as well. Early episodes such as “The Aztecs” and “The Daemons” portray religion as a tool used by the evil masterminds and power mongers to cause trouble and commit atrocities.
However, while this trend may appear to be a classic case of sci-fi’s clear bias towards humanism, it might be only a bias against magic. In his book The Truth is Out There: Christian Faith and the Classics of TV Science Fiction, Thomas Bertonneau notes that the Doctor never makes any direct claims against religion. Instead, he simply fights against “crass superstition,” as Bertonneau puts it. All cases against religious activity turn out to be acts of resistance against the false gods of the day, used by others to control and manipulate the population.
But if the Doctor deals with false religions on a daily basis, then he must deal with Christianity as well. We see Christians in the show represented throughout history as pre-modern thinkers, assuming that they must explain the unknown with angels, demons, or God Himself.
However, the Church takes an interesting twist in the New Who’s fifth season episodes “The Time of Angels” and “Flesh and Stone.” The Doctor has to handle an extremely dangerous threat, and his friend River Song calls in her backup—and who could it be? The armor-clad 51st century church, of course! This squad of clergy is ready to fight the threat and defend the planet. In other words, a religious institution known today for worshiping God and helping the human community has by the 51st century become a defensive force with weapons, military ranks, and even a prison. (As it turns out, they’re holding River Song in prison.)
When did this happen? Why did it happen? Is this a Catholic church or a Protestant church? (My theory: Catholic.) Sadly, the show gives us no history of the church; it only tells us they are now a military institution. The only thing we’re given is a passing remark from the Doctor, who says “they would eventually have become militarized.” This seems to be a clear anti-religion claim on writer/show-runner Stephen Moffatt’s part.
If the Doctor has issues with the 51st Church, then he must support some alternate religion or philosophy. The problem is that the show never espouses the Doctor’s actual religious views, despite his constant conflict with the “pantheon of false gods.”
In two of the most religiously controversial episodes in the second season of the New Who, “The Impossible Planet” and “The Satan Pit,” the Doctor literally confronts Satan—described as a timeless being from “before time”—in his prison. But the being is mysterious. Are there others like him? Who imprisoned him? It’s not obvious from the story; the show leaves him wrapped up in mystery and magic. While some might see this as an opportunity to establish the “theology of Doctor Who,” the show never explains the being. The Doctor doesn’t seem to care either. When the Doctor is confronted by Rose about what he believes about Satan, he evades the question.
Doctor Who provides no consistent answer to the question of what the universe is made of, or whether there is a higher power above time and space. For the most part, the show adopts a clearly humanist mindset with regards to the matter around us. But then an episode like “The Satan Pit” comes around, throwing a wrench into our understanding of the universe. This is more likely an issue of the show production history rather than an internally-dissonant philosophy. Doctor Who originally started as an educational program in which the Doctor took people to witness historical events for learning purposes, almost like a British take on The Magic School Bus. However, production values and audience response caused the show to evolve into the sci-fi serial that we now know. The show is more pragmatically driven than ideologically driven, and this allows for a mixture of truths to exist within it. No one dominant philosophy of religion has encompassed the entire show. One episode will enthusiastically support classical humanism, another will imply the existence of higher powers above the universe, and still another will state that all that exists is matter.
But even if Doctor Who is unable to consistently present us with its view of God and reality, it is still a show with great ideas. It contains classical humanism, a higher morality, and many other fascinating threads of Biblical and moral truths. And that makes it a show well worth investigating.