Doctor Who has never fit comfortably in any one genre. Is it science fiction or fantasy? Let’s accept for the sake of dialog that it is speculative fiction. Now what’s important about that is that if we’re open minded, we can question things from a purely speculative point of view. What that means is that we’re just talking about ideas. We’re exchanging “what if scenarios”, not asking anyone to buy into them. Just be open to a different way of looking at things!
“It is different, yeah. It’s a different morality. Get used to it or go home.” – The Doctor, The Unquiet Dead.
In 1989, Doctor Who went off the air. When it came back in 2005, the people responsible for it now were the fans from back then. They were the people who found joy in this quirky character who traveled around the universe in a blue box. Chances are, they found a lot of comfort and meaning in this show as many of us have and they were hoping to share that with a new generation. And there are a number of ways to share inspiration.
In Christopher Eccleston’s The Doctor Dances, the Doctor hints at being Father Christmas. By David Tennant’s time, during Voyage of the Damned, he hints at being present at the birth of Jesus. And in Planet of the Dead, he reminisces over the first Easter. During the two-part The Satan Pit, the Doctor talks about his beliefs. And by Peter Capaldi’s time, he has truly learned his mission.
“I’m the Doctor, and I save people!” – The Doctor, The Girl Who Died
Recently, for the Christmas holidays, I looked at the link between the Doctor and Santa Claus. Today might be a little more contentious but no less important as we prepare to celebrate Christmas, because more than Santa, this day belongs to another historical figure. But does the Doctor have what it takes to share any of the focus of this most special of religious holidays?
Don’t worry, I’m not saying that I think Doctor Who is a religious experience. But some might. I don’t claim to know Russell T. Davies or Stephen Moffat’s religious disposition, however on many occasions the Doctor does take on the role of religious figure. In one of the most controversially religious episodes, Gridlock, writer Russell T. Davies creates a world where people are trapped going round and round on a motorway and sing spiritual songs like “The Old Rugged Cross”. Martha actually states outright that while the inhabitants of New Earth have their songs and their hymns, “…I’ve got the Doctor.” And it’s not until the Doctor saves everyone by opening the motorway above and ordering people towards the light. “What in Jehovah was that,” says Brannigan.
“Drive up. Drive up. Drive UP!” – The Doctor, Gridlock
If Gridlock doesn’t make the point, later that same year, Marth Jones has to travel the Earth building salvation to the masses, turning the world into converts who believe in a miracle-man called The Doctor and in Last of the Time Lords, we see the outcome of that as the entire population of earth looks to the heavens and chants “Doctor… Doctor…”. The Doctor, meanwhile, literally glows, is reborn, hovers to the Master and hugs him with the words, “I forgive you”.
Still later that year, Voyage of the Damned saw the Doctor on board the Titanic where robotic angels, the Heavenly Host, literally lift the Doctor and fly him up, soaring to the heavens while choral music and what sounds like a pipe organ plays.
And one year later, Davros asks the Doctor, “How many people have died in your name, Doctor” during Journey’s End.
Roger did a great job talking about Narnia and the influence on Doctor Who in The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe. Those influences go beyond that magical land. The Chronicles of Narnia uses a great deal of religious symbolism throughout, not the least of which is Aslan as Jesus. Lions have often been used as a symbol for Jesus in Christian stories. And the Doctor is the Aslan figure for this story.
While each of these stories may have been the work of one man, Russell T. Davies, it was during Peter Capaldi’s era in the episode Death in Heaven written by Stephen Moffat that Clara betrays the Doctor horribly. He offers to help her anyway by going to hell with her regardless of what she did. Confused, she asks why…
“Do you think I care for you so little that betraying me would make a difference?” -The Doctor, Death in Heaven
Ok, so let’s get real. Religion is defined as “the service and worship of God or the supernatural. Commitment or devotion to religious faith and observance.” (I love when they use the word in the definition.) But looking up religious: relating to or manifesting faithful devotion to an acknowledged ultimate reality or deity. And I accept, Doctor Who is not a religion. But it is ironic that when the show is on, we sit for an hour and watch intently. When conventions come up, many gather in the shows name! We quote the character and the lessons. There are posters and blurbs saying “everything I needed to know I learned from Doctor Who”. People dress up as the character and pretend to be him. Odd that, when you think about it!
So what’s the point? Well that’s exactly the question for religion. What is the point? Primarily, it’s to give us a sense of peace, some guiding principles to live better, happier lives and to be decent to one another. It offers us a better way. It enriches our lives. Religion is there to bring hope, love, and community. It’s a magnificent thing that should not be taken lightly.
Marshal: We must have the weapon that will wipe the Zeons clear of our skies once and for all. Can you provide it?
Doctor: Yes, I think so.
Marshal: What is it?
(The Armageddon Factor)
“… He showed me a better way of living your life…” – Rose Tyler, The Parting of the Ways.
When I was in High School, I had a teacher named Father Whalen. He was a thin, red-headed religion teacher and a former missionary. He was a great guy. When talking about his missionary work, he said something I will never forget: Speak in the language of the people. His point was that, in order to spread the word of God, you had to speak in a way the recipient understood. For him and the priests he worked with, he found ways to do that in real life. I think throughout our lives we are told things, but sometimes they stick better than others because sometimes, it’s said in our language. Why do sports fans like sports metaphors? Because they’re more likely to get a home run when they understand the point. And maybe that is the point.
So while I truly don’t think Doctor Who is a religion, or even should be, I do think it’s a positive show that is aspirational; it gives us something to aspire towards. It shows us a better way. It just speaks in a language we fans can understand. And maybe that’s why we look so forward to that final Christmas gift at the end of a day of celebration, relaxing for one more lesson with the Doctor while never forgetting what the day is really for. (And I’ll be honest, I think it’s something any deity would approve of.) ML
(PS – the intent of this article is not to offend. At best, it makes us feel good and opens up some discussion. At worst, it annoys people but hopefully even then it opens up some more discussion. Merry Christmas!)