Doctor Who Goes Boom!

Doctor Who Goes Boom! May 19, 2024

“Boom,” the latest episode of Doctor Who, stands in a long tradition that stretches back to the era of the classic series of Doctor Who. Episodes like “The Sun Makers” and “Paradise Towers” are just a couple of examples.

I have mixed feelings about this latest episode of Doctor Who. I like very much when Doctor Who offers social commentary in its satirical way. In many respects I like what this one does. I think my qualms are about the way Ruby’s death manages to be undone while other lives have been lost in a much more heartbreaking way. The caricature of religious faith also grated even though there is no question that there certainly is faith of the sort the episode critiques and it definitely deserves to be critiqued.

 

Return of the Anglican Soldiers

Let’s back up. This episode features the return of the militarized Anglican soldiers that we’ve encountered before. That this might be the future of the church is not entirely implausible. The Doctor says, when Ruby asks about this, that she is the one who experienced something exceptional, an expression of the state church not aligned directly and explicitly with militarism.

Villengard the weapons manufacturer has likewise appeared before on Doctor Who. Here, however, we are given a view of their automated systems. The Doctor also mentions the Villengard algorithm: life is cheap, patients are expensive. We see firsthand in a way that angers and frustrates how the autonomous weapons kill but then also how autonomous ambulances also kill, deciding whether someone’s chances of recovery are adequate to justify keeping them alive. If not, they are not simply left to die, they are eliminated as a likely drain on resources.

As the Doctor puts it, “War is business and business is booming.”

I won’t recap all the details. Ncuti Gutwa shows just what an impressive actor and an impressive Doctor he is by spending almost the entire episode stuck in one place standing on one foot. I’m reminded of the famous challenge given to Shammai and Hillel to summarize the Torah while standing on one foot. They weren’t standing on a landmine, of course, but I still think that I’m probably not the only person whose mind will have turned there. The constraint of time and impending doom make you focus on what matters and push aside other things. What this leads the Doctor to talk about in a surprisingly candid way we’ll come back to in a moment.

 

We Have Met The Enemy and They Are Us

First, the big reveal (spoilers): there is in fact no enemy on the planet. The military arrived, they sent forth their automated systems, and now they find themselves coming back wounded or not at all. The only threat is their own aggrandized military with decision making placed in the hands not of humans (who admittedly can do all kinds of terrible things and make bad decisions) but in the hands of an automated algorithm that does an appalling job when evaluated from any perspective other than that of the profit margin of the arms-making corporation.

I think my qualms about the episode are as much a response to what it gets right as what I think it gets wrong. For instance, when a girl whose father is a soldier, blinded and then killed over the course of the episode, says “My mommy got gathered up…by God, he needed her so much,” I feel saddened and angry. I’m glad that in this case the poor theological explanation seems to have brought comfort to this child, but at some point she’ll think further about it. “If I had needed her more, would God have let her stay with me?” “What kind of God needs someone so much that the deity will leave a child an orphan?” These pseudo-explanations for human death are the straws that people grasp at when they cannot stay silent and grieve but feel they must offer false comfort to the bereaved.

 

Mundy Flynn and Paul Tillich

As one Ordained Anglican Marine and then another is killed, we eventually get to meet Mundy Flynn who becomes a lynchpin of the drama. The Doctor tries to persuade her to surrender, to give in, and thus end the conflict and the automated systems and weapons that are threatening them. “You are fighting your own hardware,” he says. It is Flynn who says of the mobile hospital/killing machine that “It’s not programmed to assist unbelievers.” The Doctor has harsh words for her, before she begins to question what they are doing there. “Faith: the magic word that keeps you never having to think for yourself.” The fact that I have spent so much time emphasizing that this is not what faith should be (typically with reference to Paul Tillich) that such comments always make me instinctively object “but, but…” However, Tillich’s discussion in Dynamics of Faith was written precisely because faith is all too often that which the Doctor criticizes in “Boom.” There are also poignantly biting references to “Thoughts and prayers.”

The treatment of religious faith is not entirely negative. The Doctor makes an appeal to the deceased father as a father himself, something that he has rarely if ever mentioned even though we knew from the very beginning he had a granddaughter. “Dad to dad: you never let them down.” For the Doctor to be this candid (even if from our perspective also allusive and elusive) about his earlier life, his losses and his hopes, pretty much makes up for anything else I might be critical of in the episode. This lends it the gravitas, the sense that the Doctor is forced to be open, honest, fully transparent because the alternative really is not just his own death but that of those around him.

 

Heavenly, Earthly, and Digitizes Fathers

The Doctor survives and so does Ruby, as we knew they must yet as still seems unfair over against the suffering and loss of those around them. Nevertheless this leads to some frank discussion of death. The Doctor refers to Splice’s deceased father as “Your father – who art in heaven.” It would be easy to take this as a cheap jab at religious language, yet it feels like much more. It is fathers making efforts to save their children, people making efforts to value the lives of others, that ultimately saves the day. This would be true with or without a divine figure looking over it all.

We hear from Splice about her father in the language of her religious tradition: “Silly. He’s not gone. He’s just dead.” It’s a view that many share, and many wrestle with even if they are not sure they can share it. The Doctor offers a surprising reply to her: “That’s right. Keep the faith, Splice.” This leads Mandy to say, “I thought you didn’t like faith, Doctor.” He in turn replies, “Just because I don’t like it doesn’t mean I don’t need it.” Ultimately the Doctor has, as is true consistently throughout Doctor Who, a sort of faith. It isn’t any human religion and it often critiques our systems that try to encapsulate the divine. Yet it is still a deep worldview that leaves room for faith, mystery, and transcendence. As the Doctor says in the episode:

  • Everything is possible. Everywhere is a beach eventually.
  • We’re all dead eventually.
  • Dying defines us. Snow isn’t snow until it falls…We all melt away in the end, but something stays, maybe the best part.
  • A sad old man once told me, what survives of us is love.

 

For Further Discussion

What did you think of “Boom” and in particular its treatment of religion? Although that’s obviously a major interest of mine, I am also very interested (professionally as well as personally) in autonomous weapons and the potential of AI to cause great harm if it is placed in charge of things that it isn’t capable of managing. What’s scary in this episode is that the AI isn’t malfunctioning and isn’t necessarily inadequate for the task it has been assigned. It has been created to keep conflict alive and maximize profit, and it does that. Sometimes the biggest challenge is recognizing that the things that trouble us in the societies we live in are a feature and not a bug. That requires deeper analysis and critique. To offer that requires the kind of faith that the Doctor embodies and that Tillich advocates for, one that has enough trust and a wide enough scope to dare to ask penetrating questions that challenge and may potentially end the status quo.

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