Religion in Doctor Who 5 November 2013
Doctor Who is the longest running TV series in history, and a cultural treasure for the UK. Ishmael Cohen examines the show and its religious themes.
Millions around the country have a weekly ritual. Every Saturday they will gather together. They will be told stories of a man an immortal man, of his good deeds and those that followed him. Some will devote themselves to studying this man, understanding him. Such is the power of the Doctor.
With the 50th anniversary of Doctor Who this year, it seemed appropriate to consider the way religion is discussed and portrayed in the iconic series. This might seem odd. There isn’t a clear religious undercurrent in Doctor Who (unlike for example Star Wars, with the Jedi now an officially recognised religion) but the new series of Doctor Who has been increasingly brazen about tackling issues around faith and religion, particularly in a way that challenges the conventions of science fiction. Religion is woven into the fabric of the Doctor’s adventures, in not to so obvious ways. In this article, I hope to touch on them briefly.
The Mysterium Tremendum
The religious studies scholar Rudolf Otto popularised the term ‘numinous’ to describe encounters with divinity that have both elements of mystery and otherness, of terror and fear and of wonder and fascination. This experience of a mysterium tremendum is considered by Otto to be the heart of all religious experience, described throughout the religious traditions of the globe. However, this experience is not the preserve of the religious alone. The Doctor on his travels went in search of this terrifying mystery; however, it was never a divine or spiritual journey – it was always wonder and awe at the universe itself.
It seems appropriate that the experience of mysterium tremendum has been secularised in Doctor Who, as New Atheism has also challenged the claim that wonder and awe at the universe is necessarily a religious experience. Rather, they have argued that engaging with the world, especially the sheer vastness of the universe, allows atheists and agnostics to experience similar emotions. The Doctor would certainly agree.
The three words that best describe the mysterium tremendum – namely fear, mystery and fascination – are probably also the three words that best describe the Doctor Who series, especially the modern incarnation. And what three words could describe best describe the Doctor himself? I would argue saviour, saint and god are not unreasonable choices.
Who is the Doctor?
The Doctor’s species being ‘Time Lord’, and his own designation as ‘Last of the Time Lords’ already convey a sense of power that secure his identity as a god-like figure. Clearly this isn’t the Abrahamic monotheist deity, rather the Doctor certainly has similarities to Greco-Roman notions of a playful, dangerous and powerful god who enjoys indulging in human affairs. The demi-god status of Greco-Roman mythology (half-god and half-man, an attribute of many mythical heroes ranging from Achilles to Perseus) is also enjoyed by his wife, River Song.
The Doctor as a saviour however is much more Christian in its overtones. He is a Messiah-like figure who sometimes literally descends from the heavens to save those in need. It’s also possible to pray to him (variably explained as psychic messages sent through time and space). And much like a Messiah, he is constantly self-sacrificing. The Time War mythos that accompanied the new Doctor Who made it clear he had made an ‘ultimate sacrifice’ of sorts – condemning his own people to non-existence to save the universe. Repeatedly, he has also given his own life to save others (a useful advantage of multiple regenerations). David Tennant’s final moments however are perhaps the most telling – the Doctor does not happily die to allow others to live, but does so grudgingly, full of self-doubt and regret. The tenth Doctor’s final words “I don’t want to go” echo Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. Let’s also not forget the Doctor’s companions, who are almost disciples who accompany him and learn from him. The notion of a god incarnate is also echoed by Doctor Who producer Stephen Moffat, who said in an interview comparing the Doctor and Sherlock:
“the Doctor is like an angel aspiring to be human, and Sherlock is a man aspiring to be a god. Neither of them come close to succeeding in that aim, or ever could. It’d be impossible for them.”
The Doctor as a saint is a more subtle analogy; however comparing the Doctor’s travels and stories with hagiographic stories of Celtic Christian saints, or the Muslim derwishes, presents a striking similarity. The archetype is the same; an essentially good moral character, journeying from town to town, performing miraculous feats, defeating venomous foes and teaching moral values through their own actions. Just as Saint George defeated the dragon, the Doctor defeats a variety of aliens and monsters, leaving the people he saved with the beginning of a legend. In fact, the cult-like hero worship of the Doctor is the theme of a number of episodes. The Doctor’s engagement with religion is not just through the themes discussed above, but also in the way in poses important questions about the world and the nature of truth.
Whereas the series began in 1963 as a low-budget educational children’s show, it grew into a much more significant cultural phenomenon. The series ended in 1989, and bar a mildly successful movie in 1996, the show was off air until 2005. In those intervening 16 years, Britain had changed dramatically, and the show seemed to subtly acknowledge and reflect those changes.
Religion versus Science
Perhaps the biggest shift in public perception was a loss of confidence of the infallibility of science. There was a time when technological progress was often seen as being akin to moral progress (perhaps best exemplified in the Star Trek franchise). The Doctor was always a scientist: smart, intelligent and most importantly – rational. This theme is still present, so the vampires terrorising Venice turn out to be, as you might expect, aliens rather than actual members of the undead. But a two-part episode in the second season of the new Doctor Who challenged the supremacy of a Cartesian world.
In The Impossible Planet and The Satan Pit, the Doctor comes up against an adversary unlike any other, a beast that claims to predate the universe itself and the source of inspiration behind the demonic figures in religions across the universe. This is new territory for the Doctor, something he has never heard of before, something that transcends his own significant power, and that challenges his perception of the universe. The Doctor ultimately concedes he does not know what the Beast was, and it may in fact have been the Devil himself, whatever that might mean within the show.
The next episode in which religion is a key theme is The God Complex. Not only is faith important here, but we are introduced to a Muslim character – a first for Doctor Who and still generally a rare occurrence on British television. The episode features an alien that feeds on faith and belief. Rita, as a Muslim, falls victim to the monster due to her belief in God. The moral of the story is clear – faith can get you killed.
This somewhat sceptical view of religion is consistently found elsewhere in the show too. The epitome of evil, the Daleks, develop a religion in the second series, with the Dalek Emperor as a semi-divine figure. Religion here is used as a plot device to even further highlight the irrationality and violence of the Daleks. Time of Angels featured a militaristic clergy, a direct nod to the politically violent forms that faith can sometimes manifest in. The headless monks featured in A Good Man Goes to War are a key antagonist of the episode (and potentially later on as the story develops). Their extreme religious conformity, blind obedience to the ‘Papal Mainframe’ and disembodied heads are a striking metaphor of religion as an anti-intellectual tradition. The series writers are certainly not afraid to highlight the potential pitfalls of religious belief.
A Contradictory Picture
Perhaps some of this emerges out of Russell T Davies’ stewardship of the early modern series. Davies’ previous television work includes The Second Coming – a TV serial that follows the ‘Son of God’ in modern times (played by none other than Christopher Eccleston) as he tries to prevent the Apocalypse by finding the Third Testament. The final twist (do I need to mention spoiler alert?) is that the Son of God, and indeed God himself, must cease to be, leaving humanity to lead their own lives in their own way. The provocative series clearly argued in favour of a post-religious world, shedding the burden of religious tradition.
However, just like The Satan Pit, there are signs of a different approach. In Series 7 in an episode titled The Rings of Akhaten, the Doctor and companion Clara visit a star integral to the creation story of a number of alien species. Clara asks the Doctor if the story is true. The Doctor responds:
“It’s what they believe. It’s a nice story.”
A somewhat paternalistic attitude to religion is still present here, but importantly religion isn’t painted as a fatal flaw in a person’s character; it can be a ‘nice story’, harmless and even worthy of merit.
It is worth remembering also the challenge of discussing religion within the precept of a show like Doctor Who. It’s a children’s TV show, aimed at families, and clearly not intended to be controversial or offer to deep a commentary on contemporary issues. Ultimately the Doctor could travel and meet the religious founders of a variety of traditions on earth, but the show’s writers must resist the temptation lest they alienate (excuse the pun) believing audiences – although it’s clear that they sometimes fail to (in the Christmas special ‘The Voyage’ the Doctor is asked about Christmas, he responds ‘Long story, I should know, I was there. I got the last room’).
The popular writer on religion, Karen Armstrong, argues in ‘The Case for God’ that myths and stories allow greater religious truths to be discussed, understood and passed on through the generations. I would argue that the Doctor Who series is a modern myth. Through the themes of mystery and wonder, and the messianic God-like saviour, and the questions it poses, the show acts as an important vehicle for understanding the role of religion in the public life, and in the end, no one can deny that it is most significantly, a ‘nice story’.
A recent conference at the University of Manchester explored the topic of Time, Space and Faith: Religion and Doctor Who – read our interview with conference organiser Dr Andrew Chrome here.
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