Doctor Who Cuttings Archive

Time Lord or messiah?

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Doctor Who returns to BBC1 this month, firmly rooted in the world of science fiction. Nevertheless, Steve Couch detects a Christian world-view

DOCTOR WHO is a phenomenon again. Despite a 16-year absence from our screens, the 2005 series and an audience-puller special on Christmas Day firmly regained the TV audience that drifted away between Tom Baker's glory years and the painful decline of the late 1980s. It is television's longest-running science-fiction drama.

Apart from the vastly improved budgets and production values (no more wobbly sets or baking-foil spacesuits), the actor Simon Pegg describes the new show as having "grown up". Crucially, it has won over many viewers left cold by previous incarnations of Doctor Who, and has introduced serious themes like death, tolerance, sacrifice, good and evil, and how an individual makes his or her way in the world.

So what of religion in this grownup Doctor Who? In a previous era, the Doctor would dismiss any spiritual belief as "superstitious mumbo-jumbo". People should rely on science instead, because "science is better." Early on in the 2005 series, with Christopher Eccleston as the ninth regeneration of the Doctor, it seemed to be business as usual: in the second episode, an announcement on a space station some five billion years in our future intoned: "Guests are reminded that Platform One forbids the use of weapons, teleportation, and religion."

The most obvious anti-religious moment, however, involved the Doctor's greatest foes, the Daleks. The Daleks have always been used to reflect common fears of the day. They first arrived in 1963 — one year after the Cuban missile crisis — as the mutated survivors of a nuclear war. The rise of the far Right in the 1970s brought Daleks remodelled as cyber-Nazis: the self-proclaimed master race of the universe, determined to enslave or exterminate anything that wasn't another Dalek.

Seen in this sociological context, it is significant that the current Daleks have been explicitly associated with religious fundamentalism, which many today consider the greatest danger facing the modern world.

None of this should have been a surprise. The executive producer and chief writer is Russell T. Davies, whose atheism is well recorded. His 2002 drama The Second Coming (also starring Christopher Eccleston) concludes after Eccleston's Messiah figure agrees to commit suicide and "close down the family business" in order to free humanity from the oppressive burden of religion. It was never likely that either the Doctor or Davies was going to embrace organised religion or spiritual belief.

But the revised Doctor Who is not so predictable. In one episode, the Doctor chastises Charles Dickens for dismissing the possibility that a seance might be more than cheap chicanery. The show's explanation for the success of the seance might have involved non-corporeal aliens rather than spirits, but the Doctor still criticises a committed

rationalist for not keeping an open mind to the possibility that there might be more to the world than he can easily explain.

The Doctor also recognises two sides to humanity. At our best, he sees us as resourceful, inquisitive, and indomitable. He sees our potential to bring about great things, and cheerfully accepts the role of Earth's champion, asking would-be invading aliens to show mercy to a puny race taking their first steps in the universe, but capable of so much more. He recognises the admirable elements of human nature — such as Britain's standing up to Germany in the Second World War, even when the task looked hopeless — and finds his faith in humanity often vindicated. Several episodes featured human characters willing to lay down their lives for the sake of others.

At the same time, the Doctor sees the dark side of the human condition. He bemoans closed minds, rebukes selfishness and greed, and is quick to dismiss anyone who falls short of his high standards.

Nowhere is his acknowledgement of the darker side of humanity better summed up than in The Christmas Invasion, where Earth is under attack by alien Sycorax invaders. The Doctor challenges the Sycorax leader to single combat, and wins. As the defeated aliens fly away, under instructions never to return, Harriet Jones, the British Prime Minister, in full knowledge that the danger has now passed, orders the Sycorax space ship blasted from the sky. As the ship explodes, the Doctor (now played by David Tennant as the Tenth Doctor) turns on his old friend and calls her a murderer. He reflects on his earlier words to the aliens: "I gave them the wrong warning. I should have told them to run, as fast as they can. Run and hide because the monsters are coming: the human race."

The Doctor recognises both the monstrous sinfulness at the heart of the human condition, and the potential for us to become so much more than we are. We might disagree whether the solution lies in our own hands or in God's, but the diagnosis itself is not so different.

Then there is the question of evil. Davies has said that his Doctor Who has no stereotypical mad evil geniuses, because they are not believable. Instead, he wants his villains to have "motivation, and background, and depth, and good dialogue, and a sense of humour". In carrying this through, he displaces the caricature of evil with an attempt to portray complex beings whose subtle motivations and attitudes can lead to evil actions.

Evil has always played an important part in Doctor Who, and that provides another parallel between the spirituality of the show and the Christian faith: both can be considered as "dramas of reassurance". Just as the Christian story tells first of humanity's fall and then our redemption, so Doctor Who takes us on a journey of horror, fear, and successful resolution.

With fall and redemption in mind, the most uplifting moment of the 2005 series came towards the end of arguably the most frightening adventure: the two-part story set in London at the height of the Blitz. After almost an hour and a half of seeing people turned into soulless, gas-masked zombies, the Doctor manages to reverse the process with a triumphant cry: "Oh, come on, give me a day like this. Give me this one. Everybody lives, Rose. Just this once, everybody lives!"

The fact that a single episode combines both the most terrifying and the most euphoric scenes helps to reinforce the link between the fear of the journey and the joy of the rescue. Critics who condemn the show for being too frightening miss one important fact: the Doctor always wins.

The universe of Doctor Who, where evil exists, but where good ultimately triumphs, alludes to a world-view Christians would have no difficulty in embracing. Paradoxically, a scientific rationalist like the Doctor would be unable to offer any such guarantee.

Religion might be banned on Platform One, but it seems that some reflection of a Christian world-view cannot help but find its way into Doctor Who, whether that is what the programme-makers intended or not.

Starring David Tennant as the Doctor's tenth regeneration and Billie Piper as his intrepid assistant, Doctor Who returns to BBC1 in mid-April.

Steve Couch is managing editor of RE Lessons Online and of Damaris Books. He is the co-author of Back in Time: A thinking fan's guide to Doctor Who, with Tony Watkins and Peter S. Williams (Authentic and Damaris Books, £6.99 (CT Bookshop £6.30); 1-904753-09-4).

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  • APA 6th ed.: Couch, Steve (2006-04-07). Time Lord or messiah?. Church Times p. 17.
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  • Chicago 15th ed.: Couch, Steve. "Time Lord or messiah?." Church Times, edition, sec., 2006-04-07
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