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Doctor Who – An Alternative Messiah?

17 October 2013

It’s a good time to be a Dr Who fan, of whatever age. There are 50 years of stories to enjoy, 9 missing episodes found last week in Nigeria not seen since 1968/1969 (complete stories Web of Fear and Enemy of the World for any Whovians out there) and Matt Smith’s regeneration into Peter Capaldi on Christmas Day to look forward to. Not forgetting the 50th anniversary on Saturday 23rd November 2013, screened simultaneously around the world (inc. MBC where there will be a family party inc. food and fancy dress – more later…)

Many in our church will remember the early days of William Hartnell and Patrick Troughton in the 60’s as children or even young parents. Your first Doctor is like your first car and always remembered; for me Jon Pertwee as the dashing gentleman. Dr Who is part of the British consciousness, a quintessentially English hero loved by many (not to mention the commonwealth and wider world where it has been sold by BBC worldwide- e.g. Nigeria).What many may not have spotted is the spiritual references in Dr Who and what they say about our society. As part of my “Contemporary Spirituality” module at Northern Baptist Learning Community (the old Northern Baptist College) we have looked at art, music and film and how they can express different spiritualities.

What is fascinating about much science fiction is the way that it addresses the issues of the day from completely unpredictable angles; allowing issues to be explored with imagination and inventiveness. Good science fiction can broaden understanding of human approaches to human problems and questions. Star Trek’s Klingon and Romulan empires grew from cold war fears and a desire for a future multicultural society. 2001 A Space Odyssey and 2010 grew from a desire to understand where human beings came from (and more recently Prometheus). Bladerunner and Gattacca explore questions of equality and what it means to be human. TV science fiction can also address similar themes e.g. Blake’s 7 in the early eighties looking at totalitarian regimes (and making some pointed comments about Margaret Thatcher in Servalan’s presidency of the Federation).

At first glance the Doctor is a scientist who dismisses “faith” or “belief” as superstitious poppycock, in favour of a scientific and rational answer to issues and problems. Dr Who is a child of modernism after all and originally intended to be a children’s education programme. It’s only when all the parents started to enjoy it that it very quickly became a family show and “matured.” Dr Who came to reflect its time and in the 70’s spent many episodes warning of pollution and impact of environmental degradation (1973’s “The Green Death” being a classic example)and exploring women’s lib. But it is in spiritual matters that Dr Who is also fascinating. The Doctor himself has always been a man who appreciates and values all of creation, sees the good in all, has wisdom, wit and knowledge and always seeks a peaceful solution to problems. A man who will sacrifice his life for his friends, the world and yes, to top it all, when he sacrifices his life, is resurrected…. I mean regenerated. Sound familiar?

Back in 2008 a seminar was held by an vicar in Sheffield looking at the spirituality of Dr Who, attended by a number of Ministers including Baptists. One guest was Barry Letts, script editor and producer for Dr Who in the Pertwee and Baker years. Letts was a self-professed Buddhist who entered many themes of spiritual, if not Christian interest. Morality, respect for others, peace, the damage of selfish cravings and desires and the importance of the Doctor as a role model were all important to Letts. Despite having tremendous respect for Lett’s approach and the deeper messages he brought to Dr Who; it is Christian imagery that interests me most, in particular since the shows return in 2005.

2005 saw Russell T. Davies as producer (and writer) for the show up to a Matt Smith’s reign and the show took some interesting turns. In sympathy with our culture, the show became anti-institutional and anti-church, but upholding of faith. The Dalek story “The Parting of the Ways” (Series 1 Ecclestone) shows how even the Daleks have a sense of creation, making light out of darkness, blasphemy and worshipping their Emperor. A distasteful picture of a “worshipping community.” In the weeping angels story “The Time of Angels/Flesh and Stone” (Series 5 Smith)the church has become an army. In the story “A Good Man goes to War” (Series 6 Smith) the church has becomes the “army of God” including two characters known as the “thin and fat gay Anglican marines.”At best religion is seen as an interesting cultural phenomena, but with no basis e.g. “The Rings of Ackhatan” (Series 7 Matt Smith) where the world worships a sleeping God, who surprise, surprise turns out to be an alien and not a God at all. As to the devil, “The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit” (Series 4 Tennant) finds “the beast” imprisoned in a pit and awaking to “wage war with the armies of God,” possessing souls and yes, he has horns. Maybe not a biblical picture, but Rose asks the Doctor “is that really the devil?” The Doctor says that he is known by many names in different worlds, but doesn’t deny ultimate evil.

Russell T. Davies is a talented writer, interested in spiritual themes e.g. BBC1’s “The Second Coming” starring Christopher Eccleston (yes that’s right the 9th Doctor) as a very human Messiah. On being interviewed on why he includes religious iconography in Dr who he noted that despite being an atheist “I think religion is a very primal instinct within humans, a very good one, part of our imagination.” Under Russell T. Davies reign personal faith is seen positively. In “Last of the Timelords” (Series 3 Tennant) the Doctor is aged 900 years by the Master and becomes powerless to help a world being invaded by the Toclafane. His companion Martha escapes and goes round the world, acting out her faith (in the Doctor) spreading the good news of a man who can save the world. Her journey eclipses Paul’s first , second and third missionary journeys! By collective faith “calling on the name of the Doctor” that power is able to rejuvenate David Tenant who rises off the ground, reducing in age and growing in strength. The interesting thing is that he is in a golden glow with arms outstretched. A Messianic image if ever there was one. Even under Stephen Moffat’s reign as producer there are interesting stories such as “The God Complex” (Series 7 Matt Smith) where a Minotaur monster feeds on faith. The Doctor is respectful to and compliments a young Muslim nurse, whose faith keeps her strong till the end. It is the companion’s faith in the Doctor and his faith in them that usually saves the day.

The Doctor is a great character. He is a good role model as role models go in our society, but I’m not suggesting we worship him. He is no Jesus and the history of the Timelords is no bible; but Doctor Who is interesting in reflecting our culture and its attitudes to religion and faith. It can provide a language for dialogue and connecting with those who do not follow Jesus. Doctor Who a great hero? Yes. Alternative Messiah? No.

Pete Jorysz
Minister in Training

PS: Date for your diaries: MBC Dr Who party, Sat 23rd November (time TBC). Food, Fun, Fancy dress for all the Family and the 50th episode live!! Tickets out soon.
PPS: If you are thinking I’m stretching it looking at the spirituality of Dr Who, have a look at a book called “Back in Time” written by three Christians authors Steve Crouch, Tony Watkins and Peter Williams.

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