Doctor Who: The Daemons (Conflicting Signals about Science and the Supernatural)

The session on religion and science fiction at AAR went well, and I will blog about that separately. But let me write my post now on one of the episodes I focused particular attention on in my own presentation on religion in Doctor Who: “The Daemons” from the Jon Pertwee era.

Two bits of dialogue illustrate the perspective on religion and the supernatural in this episode (and some of the tension inherent in that perspective):

JO: But it really is the dawning of the age of Aquarius.
DOCTOR: So?
JO: Well, that means the occult. Well, you know, the supernatural and all that magic bit.
DOCTOR: You know, really, Jo, I’m obviously wasting my time trying to turn you into a scientist.
JO: Well, how do you know there’s nothing in it?
DOCTOR: How? Well, I just know, that’s all. Everything that happens in life must have a scientific explanation. If you know where to look for it, that is. Excuse me.
JO: Yes, but suppose something was to happen and nobody knew the explanation. Well, nobody in the world, in the universe. Well, that would be magic, wouldn’t it?
DOCTOR: You know, Jo, for a reasonably intelligent young lady, you do have the most absurd ideas.

And here’s the second excerpt:

DOCTOR: Come on, Jo, stir your stumps. Now then. All right? Now then, tell me. Who’s that?
(A papyrus image of a ram’s head with the solar disc between its horns.)
JO: An Egyptian god, isn’t it?
DOCTOR: Top of the class, Jo, top of the class. That’s right, that’s the Egyptian god Khnum, with horns. There’s another one, a Hindu demon.
ALL: With horns.
DOCTOR: Oh. Thank you very much. And our old friend the Horned Beast.
YATES: I don’t get it.
DOCTOR: Probably because I haven’t finished, Captain Yates.
YATES: Oh sorry, Doctor.
HAWTHORNE: Oh, you could go on all day and all night showing us pretty pictures. I mean, horns have been a symbol of power ever since
DOCTOR: Ever since man began? Exactly. But why? All right, Captain Yates, the curtains. Now creatures like those have been seen over and over again throughout the history of man, and man has turned them into myths, gods or devils, but they’re neither. They are, in fact, creatures from another world.
BENTON: Do you mean like the Axons and the Cybermen?
DOCTOR: Precisely, only far, far older and immeasurably more dangerous.
JO: And they came here in spaceships like that tiny one up at the barrow?
DOCTOR: That’s right. They’re Daemons from the planet Daemos, which is?
JO: Sixty thousand light years away on the other side of the galaxy.
DOCTOR: And they first came to Earth nearly one hundred thousand years ago.

While this might seem to reflect a consistent view of religion and superstition as outmoded foolishness and science as its ideal enlightened replacement, in fact a closer look reveals a much greater ambiguity. After all, those who reported what they saw and recognized the danger in it were apparently absolutely right and truthfully ported their experiences. The warnings of a self-identified white witch and various superstitious people during the episode seem consistently to be right on target in crucial respects. And so the Doctor’s scientific dismissiveness rings somewhat hollow. He may have a superior amount of knowledge and understanding about the Daemons, but the religious and other such viewpoints do not seem to turn out to be far off the mark in their perception, at the end of the day.

And so this episode, while its rhetoric is that of science instead of magic, is in fact a great example of science fiction preserving key mythical concepts, plot elements, and characters, shifting them into a more modern, scientific framework, while keeping key elements intact. And when one reflects on this, whether in Doctor Who or Star Trek (e.g. “Who Mourns for Adonais?”) or any other sci-fi, the fact that so much science fiction intersects or overlaps with religious terrain should no longer seem surprising.

  • benjdm

    Julian Baggini has an article in the Guardian that I would love to know your reaction to:

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/belief/2011/nov/21/articles-of-21st-century-faith

    “Atheist critics of religion are often dismissed for dealing only with the simple, highly literal forms of belief, while ignoring more nuanced, intellectual understandings of religion…

    So I want to see just how many people really do embrace the kind of religious faith that explicitly rejects the kinds of things atheist critics think silly. To do this I’ve formulated four “articles of 21st-century faith”: beliefs that I think would make religion entirely intellectually respectable, even to the hardest-nosed atheists. They are neither so vague that anyone could put their name to them, nor so specific that people who are broadly sympathetic should feel unable to do so. They are brief and minimalist, stating clearly and concisely only as much as needs to be stated to establish the legitimacy of superstition-free belief. Here they are…”

  • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

    Wow, what a great article! Sorry I didn’t have time to read it when you first mentioned it here, but it was definitely worth coming back to, and so I’m glad I did!


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