THE SPIRITUALITY OF DOCTOR WHO
(DELIVERED AT ‘BETWEEN THE LINES’ at 1PM on MONDAY 29 AUGUST 2005)
NB: This transcript is taken from a cassette recording of the event. I’ve omitted the preamble to the talk, where I introduced myself, plugged my books as usual, and explained that the talk would be concentrating on the 2005 revival of Doctor Who with Christopher Eccleston and Billie Piper, not because the older series lacked material, but because there simply wasn’t time to cover both in a single session.
On this occasion the first part of the question-and-answer session at the end of the talk was also recorded, and since the questions asked were interesting and perceptive ones, I have also documented this exchange, at least until the tape ran out of space.
Hyperlinks from Doctor Who episode titles will take you to the relevant entry at Wikipedia. Superscript numbers connect to the footnotes. Also appended are some suggestions for further reading and viewing.
THE DOCTOR: KILLER, COWARD OR SAVIOUR?
Jesus v Rambo
The Doctor Redeemed
REBIRTH, REGENERATION AND RESURRECTION
Resurrection, Revival, Revivification
Sacrifice and Rebirth in Father’s Day
GODS IN AND OUT OF MACHINES
God-Emperor of the Daleks
The Second Coming, Again
CONCLUSION AND CODA
FURTHER READING AND VIEWING
THE SPIRITUALITY OF DOCTOR WHO
To some extent, I’m following up from my talks last year, on ‘The Bible as Science Fiction’ and ‘Science Fiction as the Bible’. There are two central ideas coming from those talks, which I would like you to bear in mind during the following.
The first is that the images and ideas of science fiction in modern popular culture are an equivalent language to that used in the ancient creation myths. They’re a non-realistic way of looking at the world which allows writers, writers of all religious persuasions, to relate their own ideas and their experiences about God. I can justify that at length, but it would be boring for me to do so when I’m supposed to be talking about Doctor Who, so I won’t1.
The second point I want to make is that science fiction, like any text, can be read in ways which the authors didn’t intend the readers to read it. This sounds contentious, but it’s actually a fairly standard thing in modern cultural theory (which you’ll have to take my word for) that divergent or subversive readings of a text are perfectly legitimate2. It’s entirely reasonable for a reader to understand by a text something different from what the author intended to put into it. We all bring our own cultural assumptions to anything we read, and they differ slightly from person to person, so nobody’s going to have exactly the same assumptions as the [author]. And that’s just as true of us, with the Christian cultural assumptions we bring to things we read or watch, as it is of anybody else. So Christian readings of non-Christian texts, I’m saying, are essentially absolutely fine.
So... I say I’ve got no time to go into detail about the original series of Doctor Who, and I haven’t, but there are two things I want to say about the way it dealt with faith issues.
The first point is that the Doctor has generally been a rationalist. Although he’s not actually a human, he’s a humanist. He always seeks to understand the environments and the events which he explores through science, through rational enquiry. He believes in the individual as the decider of their own fate. He values tolerance and pluralism, although he does also have a clear idea of good versus evil, and there’s a bit of a contradiction there – which, again, I haven’t got time to go into at the moment.
The other point is the idea of ‘regeneration’: the idea that, every so often, the Doctor apparently dies as the person he now is, and comes back as a new man3. This was originally introduced for entirely pragmatic reasons; it allows the show to carry on when the leading man wants to quit, which of course is what’s happened with Christopher Eccleston in the new series: he didn’t want to do more than one year of it, but they were able to bring in David Tennant. So that idea, that every so often the Doctor would be apparently mortally wounded but could come back as, cunningly, a different actor, enabled the original series to carry on for a very long time, and – you probably know all this, but it ran for 26 years, the current revival is the second of two attempts at reviving it, and David Tennant is the tenth actor to have played the Doctor on television. So it’s a very long-lived programme, and a very lasting idea.
The 2005 series revisits both of these ideas, of the Doctor’s humanism and of, obviously, the regeneration motif.
For the three, or however many of you it was, that didn’t watch the new series, I will be going into details about the plot, so if you have any intention of watching the new series, you might want to leave before I spoil it for you. But if you didn’t watch the new series you’re a philistine anyway.
The key figure in bringing back Doctor Who was Russell Davies, who’s the TV screenwriter responsible for, most famously, Queer as Folk, but who also more interestingly from our point of view wrote the ITV mini-drama The Second Coming, which is about an ordinary working-class man called Steve Baxter, who discovers one day that he’s actually the Son of God, he’s the second coming of Christ. And rather cleverly, there’s a personal drama which is given much more foreground than this apocalyptic idea of the Second Coming and the Last Judgement which Steve is supposedly ushering in4.
Russell Davies, who wrote this, is an avowed atheist, but someone who clearly has a strong interest in faith issues, and he was certainly the guiding force behind bringing back Doctor Who. He persuaded the BBC essentially to bring it back; he’s one of the co-producers of the series; he plotted out the shape of the series beforehand; script-edited all thirteen episodes; wrote eight of the thirteen episodes; so he really is the guiding creative figure. And his atheist agenda is in view at times in the new series.
For instance, when the Daleks quite unexpectedly acquire religion in the last episode, the Doctor’s reaction to discovering this is to say ‘They’re insane’. And he adds, interestingly, ‘Driven mad by your own humanity. You hate your own existence’, which is something that you hear atheists say about Christians: ‘You’re driven mad by your own sexuality, you can’t bear the fact that you’re flawed’ – whatever. It’s arguably an atheist’s view of Christians.
Davies’ agenda is a lot more complex than this, but it’s clear that faith issues are issues that the new series of Doctor Who cares about, which is better than being indifferent to them. And Davies, as I say, isn’t the only writer who’s worked on the new series. The Christian science fiction author Paul Cornell, who spoke on Saturday at Greenbelt, wrote the episode Father’s Day, which was shown last night in Between the Lines, which you may well have seen, a lot of you, here last night. And I will be talking more about that later.
The topics I want to cover, if I get time to, I’ve put under the headings of ‘The Doctor: Killer, Coward or Saviour?’, which is looking at the Doctor’s moral character in the new series, how it’s developed and how far it’s reasonable to consider the Doctor a Christ figure; ‘Rebirth, Regeneration and Resurrection’, which is the idea of rebirth and return from the dead, and again that ties into the idea of the Doctor as a parallel to Christ; and ‘Gods In and Out of Machines’, which I will be explaining when I get to it, but which deals largely with the last episode with its final showdown between what’s explicitly called a ‘false God’ and what may just possibly be a real God.
It’s pretty easy to read the first episode, Rose, from a Christian perspective. The Doctor is an outsider who comes into Rose’s ordinary, mundane life and tells her:
I mean you lot – all you do is eat chips, go to bed and watch telly. While underneath you there’s a war going on.
It’s stated that the world revolves around the Doctor, and it’s never quite clear to what extent that’s metaphorical5. The Doctor calls Rose to leave her mundane life – her dull job, her mercenary mum, her indifferent boyfriend – and to follow him.
And Rose does that. She makes a choice to go with the Doctor in the TARDIS, an unexpected journey which she can’t predict. And this choice is constantly returned to as the TARDIS revisits 21st-century Earth. On one of these occasions she tells her by now ex-boyfriend:
He’s not my boyfriend, Mickey, he’s better than that. He’s much more important.’
There are obvious parallels here to the way Christians conceive of their relationship with Christ. And it’s notable in the early episodes that the Doctor inspires action in others more often than he directly intervenes. Again at the end of Rose, in the Nestene Consciousness’s lair when the Doctor is helpless, being held by the Autons – which sounds quite painful – it’s Rose who intervenes and saves the day. And that pattern is repeated over and over again: the Doctor inspires others to act, but doesn’t directly act himself.
So we can see the Doctor as a Christ figure, and it seems not unlikely that Russell Davies also has this parallel in his mind, given that the same actor plays the Ninth Doctor, Christopher Eccleston, as played Steve Baxter in The Second Coming. Russell Davies had already cast Christopher Eccleston as the Son of God when he cast him as the Doctor.
But the early Christopher Eccleston Doctor, in the early episodes of the new series, is at best a very ambiguous Christ figure. He’s always blowing things up. In the first half of the season he blows up the Nestene, the Gelth, the Slitheen, the Jagrafess... it seems like he’s being reimagined as an action hero, a kind of Stallone figure or Schwarzenegger, rather than the Doctor we know of old, the man who would be humane to his enemies, who would be more willing to create a peaceful solution to a situation than to blow things up.
This is especially clear in the episode Dalek where, as you recall, the Doctor and Rose find a Dalek being held prisoner in an eccentric billionaire’s collection.
[There was a brief interruption at this point, as it was pointed out that a Dalek wearing a ‘Make Poverty History’ banner had arrived in the venue.]
I’m going to be quite sympathetic to the Dalek.
The Doctor’s reaction to the Dalek is one of hate. He loathes its very existence, and he’s willing to torture it and to try to kill it while it’s being held unarmed in chains. And the backstory to this is explored: there’s been a Time War between the Doctor’s people, the Time Lords, and the Daleks, and the only way the Doctor was able to stop this devastating war and its effects on the universe was, implicitly, to destroy both sides. (It’s only explicitly stated that he destroyed the Daleks, but we know that the Time Lords ‘burned with them’: it seems quite clear that the Doctor has committed a double genocide in trying to save the universe.)
And the Dalek’s response to this is to say ‘And the coward survived,’ which goads the Doctor into a killing rage. And over the episode Dalek, the Dalek keeps emphasising the parallels between itself and the Doctor. It says, ‘I am alone in the universe. So are you. We are the same,’ and later, ‘You would make a good Dalek’. And at the end of the episode, when the Dalek is once again helpless, it’s only Rose who prevents the Doctor from gunning it down with a great big gun, which is his most Ramboish moment of the whole series.
The Doctor, early on in the series, is a very flawed character. He’s in denial of his own past; he has this survivor guilt; the cheeriness and enthusiasm for danger which he keeps displaying is a front for the fact that inside he’s cold and indifferent. But he doesn’t stay that way.
There is in fact a clear moral development of the Doctor’s character throughout the series, which is unprecedented for Doctor Who: the series has never been as much about the Doctor as it has been about the places and the people he explores and meets. So this early action-hero figure later becomes something much more similar to the more humane and non-violent Doctor of old.
This is probably clearest in the episode Boom Town, the third episode from the end of the series, which sees the return of Margaret the Slitheen. (I’ll be referring to her as Margaret, because it’s altogether too complicated to try to pronounce Blon Fel Fotch Passameer-Day Slitheen, from the planet Raxacoricofallapatorius.)
So, Margaret is a cold-blooded killer, basically, she’s a criminal, and the Doctor has been quite happy earlier to blow her entire family up including, as he thought at the time, her. But when he encounters her again, the Doctor is much more thoughtful about his approach to her: he considers carefully the ethics of taking her back to her own people for what would be a judicial execution.
And Margaret has an interesting accusation that she makes to the Doctor. After he accuses her of letting the occasional victim live so that she can live with her own conscience, she says:
Only a killer would know that. Is that right? From what I’ve seen your funny little happy-go-lucky life leaves devastation in its wake. Always moving on because you dare not look back. Playing with so many people’s lives, you might as well be a god.
So Margaret thinks that the Doctor is a parallel to God, but more importantly she accuses him of being a killer, and she’s right, up to a point. The Doctor is familiar with how killers think because he used to be one. And I think the turning point where he stops being a killer is probably Father’s Day, Paul Cornell’s episode, which I will be talking about more a little later on. But this accusation from Margaret, that the Doctor is a killer, contrasts with the lone Dalek’s earlier accusation that he is a coward.
This idea that the Doctor faces this dilemma between these two ways of being comes to a head in the final episode The Parting of the Ways, where the Doctor has the choice to repeat his earlier double genocide to stop the Daleks again, by killing them but also by destroying the population of the Earth along with them, or alternatively not to do this. And the choice is described by the Dalek Emperor in these terms: ‘Then prove yourself, Doctor! What are you – coward or killer?’
And the Doctor has to think about this for a moment, but he eventually says, ‘Coward.’ In these terms, which are defined by his enemies, the Doctor chooses to be a coward: he chooses the way of peace, the way of self-sacrifice, over being a killer – the way of war and retribution.
So I think the Doctor clearly grows during the series, into fulfilling the early promise he presents to Rose of being a Christ figure. He recovers his old heroism, his saviourhood if you like. And that ties in with this idea of rebirth, regeneration and resurrection.
There’s a recurrent image in the new series of resurrection, revival, revivification, which turns up in numerous forms. There’s the obvious negative form it takes, where various aliens reanimate corpses and turn them into vehicles for themselves. But it crops up in a lot of different ways, and in the last two-parter, Bad Wolf and The Parting of the Ways, all the series regulars plus the entire Dalek species return from the dead.
It’s implied that time-travel itself is a form of resurrection. When the Doctor and Rose visit 1869 and meet Charles Dickens, the Doctor says to Rose of Dickens, ‘in your time he was already dead. We’ve brought him back to life.’ Dickens is one of the characters who experiences what we might recognise as a spiritual rebirth6. The Dalek comes close to this, by taking on some of Rose’s humanity almost by accident. It loses the will to kill; it feels that it’s been infected by a ‘sickness’, and in the end it actually chooses to die rather than facing its humanity, but this is perhaps as close as a Dalek can come to redemption.
Margaret the Slitheen comes closer. At the rather odd end of Boom Town, where the heart of the TARDIS opens up and she stares into this semi-divine light which pours out of it, she’s restored to infancy, which in her case means turning into an egg. She’s literally born again, thanks to the Doctor: she has a second chance at being a moral person, brought up by a family who won’t bring her up as a killer.
These are obvious parallels to the Doctor’s own moral growth, which I’ve suggested progresses over the season and pivots around Paul Cornell’s episode Father’s Day, which I will be talking about more now.
Clearly everyone doesn’t remember the plot of Father’s Day, because not everyone’s seen it. But a lot of you saw it last night, so I will try and summarise it briefly.
In Father’s Day, the Doctor and Rose go back in time to the point when Rose’s father, Pete Tyler, was killed in a hit-and-run accident, and (predictably enough, although the Doctor doesn’t seem to spot this) Rose intervenes and saves her father, and thus changes history. And the result of this is rather odd: it causes an aberrant timeline, and this has to be sterilised by these monsters, which in the script are called ‘Reapers’, which arrive and start eating people and gradually killing off the population of the Earth. And in Father’s Day, the Doctor himself is actually killed protecting the other characters.
What happens at the end, though, is that Rose’s father Pete realises that he’s the anomaly – his survival is what’s making this hellish world they’re now occupying – and he also realises that the car which should have killed him has been following him, and that if he just goes out and dies underneath the car as he was meant to, it will restore history, bring everyone who’s been killed by the Reapers back to life, and save the world.
So there are very obvious Christian parallels here. The Doctor and the other characters actually shelter in a church, which means that on a superficial visual level there’s a lot of Christian symbolism around in the form of crosses: the Reapers are demonic-shaped things with giant bat-wings attacking the church; it’s all very symbolic. And apparently, cut from the finished episode but in the original shooting script, there was actually a scene where the Doctor, Rose and Pete share a bottle of communion wine together.
The story has two Christ figures, two people who sacrifice themselves for others: the Doctor and Pete Tyler. Both of them save others at the expense of their own lives, and the word ‘save’ is used an awful lot in the script, more so than in the other episodes of the season.
The Doctor says of Pete:
Rose, there’s a man alive in the world who wasn’t alive before. An ordinary man – that’s the most important thing in creation. The whole world’s different because he’s alive.
Initially Father’s Day seems to be another story about bringing someone back from the dead: the Doctor as Christ, perhaps, to Pete’s Lazarus. But it becomes the story of the Doctor’s moral turning-point.
He could always have resolved the situation by sacrificing Pete: by pointing out to Pete that he was meant to be dead, and sending him out to die, as in fact eventually happens on Pete’s own initiative. But the Doctor refuses to do this – he’d rather protect Pete, he’d rather try and save everybody – and he dies in Pete’s place. It’s the most blatantly substitutionary self-sacrifice the Doctor’s ever had, and the most blatantly Christlike behaviour he’s displayed. But it’s Pete who eventually saves the world by sacrificing himself. The Doctor comes back – he has his death and resurrection at this point – but he’s only one of many people who Pete restores to life by saving the whole world.
And in all of this, there’s almost incidentally a figure, an image of redemption: the driver of the car which ran Pete over, originally a hit-and-run accident. At the end of the episode when events replay themselves, he stays with Pete, he faces his responsibility for killing Pete, and Paul Cornell has said that this is the point, if anywhere, where God is at work in his episode7.
Another interesting thing about Father’s Day is the way Rose’s view of Pete changes during the course of it. She initially idealises him: she idolises him as her ideal father, which he clearly isn’t, and she’s disillusioned when she sees the reality of what he’s like. He argues with his wife; he’s a bit of a loser, rather than the gifted entrepreneur she imagined; but at the end of the episode it turns out that this ordinary man, this loser almost, is capable of heroic self-sacrifice: he’s a hero after all.
And this of course parallels our view of the Doctor’s moral development. We start off assuming he’s a hero, because he is after all the person the series is named after, and we’re perhaps disillusioned by the way he behaves in the early episodes, this action-hero Doctor. We think the writers have sold out, but by the end of the series he is again heroic, self-sacrificing, Christlike. So as I say, he recovers his saviourhood.
So this is one of the ways in which rebirth in various forms crops up during the series. And this brings us on to the final episode.
‘Gods in and out of Machines’ is a slightly obscure phrase. The phrase ‘god out of the machine’ refers to the phrase ‘deus ex machina’, which in theatrical parlance is a character who comes on at the end of a play and just resolves the plot by authorial fiat. It’s a cheat for the author: they don’t bother resolving things properly, they just bring on a character who’s all-powerful and is capable of sorting things out. And often that was a pagan god who would emerge literally from a piece of stage machinery, hence the phrase ‘god out of the machine’.
And the phrase ‘god in the machine’ refers to the soul, especially in the context of artificial intelligence, when you’re talking about whether a thinking machine, whether it’s made from circuits or from flesh, can actually have a spirit occupying it. So this obviously ties into the image of the ‘soul of the TARDIS’, which apparently is what Margaret the Slitheen opens when she’s reborn: it’s the divine essence that she encounters which seems to cause her rebirth. The Doctor in fact says, ‘This ship’s alive. You’ve opened its soul.’
But in the last episode, The Parting of the Ways, there are two ‘gods from the machine’. There’s the god in the TARDIS, which exits the TARDIS by entering the person of Rose at the end of the story; and there’s also the Dalek Emperor, who lives in a machine and believes that he’s become a God.
It’s interesting that, during the 2005 series of Doctor Who, almost all the villains have in some manner blended flesh and technology. This is most obviously true of the Daleks; but it’s also true of the Slitheen, who use technology to take over the corpses of human beings, they blend their own flesh with technology and with human flesh to take on these human identities; it’s true of the character of the Jagrafess – the Mighty Jagrafess of the Holy Hadrojassic Maxarodenfoe – who has to be plumbed into a space station in order to survive8.
But the Dalek Emperor in particular uses technology to remake human flesh as a new species of Dalek. He remakes the Daleks in his own image. And this described in terms which are clearly intended to recall Genesis. The Emperor says: ‘I reached into the dirt and made new life. I am the God of all Daleks!’, to which the Daleks respond ‘Worship him! Worship him! Worship him!’, and the Doctor not unreasonably concludes that they’re insane.
These half-human Daleks are all completely unhinged. They’ve developed a religion based around the Emperor Dalek’s own god complex. The Emperor Dalek is certainly a very unflattering picture of God. He uses terms like ‘infidel’ and ‘abomination’; he suggests that because the Doctor is his archenemy the Doctor must be Satan, implicitly9. This could be seen as a satire on current politics, on the entry of religious fundamentalism into the political arena and what it does. It could also of course be seen as a satire on faith as such, since it’s written by an atheist.
But this becomes more ambiguous when Rose arrives on the space station and seems to be channelling this godlike essence. Earlier in the episode The Parting of the Ways, the Doctor has deceived Rose into entering the TARDIS on a false errand and sent her back to 21st-century London, to her home. He’s done this to protect her from the forthcoming Dalek apocalypse which is going to take over the space station he’s on: he’s done it to save her. And the only way Rose can return and save him (which of course she wants to, being the feisty type of companion) is by merging with the light in the TARDIS and taking on its renewing, redemptive essence which has previously saved Margaret.
So she arrives on the space station in the TARDIS. And she turns up and basically usurps the Dalek Emperor’s role as God. And she’s a much more sympathetic god than the Dalek Emperor. She’s concerned with the Doctor’s safety: she says, ‘I want you safe, my Doctor. Protected from the false god’ – and the fact that she says that implies that she’s thinking of the Dalek Emperor as a false god, and herself as a real god. She destroys the Daleks and starts bringing people back to life. She’s quite unlike the intolerant, fundamentalist picture of God which the Dalek Emperor seems to represent.
And the series seems at this point to be on the verge of replacing this warped picture of God with a much more sympathetic one, which we as Christians would probably recognise. But at this point the Doctor responds to Rose by saying, ‘This is wrong. You can’t control life and death.’ And indeed, it turns out that Rose’s power is destroying her. She may be, at this point, a real god, but the episode and the series ultimately rejects gods altogether.
If we backtrack slightly at this point, various episodes of the series have considered the idea of playing God, and they’ve almost always considered it in terms of the villains. The eccentric billionaire Van Statten who collects the Dalek is referred to as ‘the king of his own little world,’ and is a tyrant. The Jagrafess is this all-seeing presence on the top floor which you get sent to if you’re very very good, directing humanity’s development. Both of them are in different ways a picture of the traditional God.
And these early episodes sometimes relate the Doctor to the God of Genesis. This is most obviously true in the plotline of the temporary companion Adam Mitchell, who the Doctor and Rose take on in the episode Dalek and eventually ditch at the end of the next episode, The Long Game.
Adam fails as a companion. He tries to steal information from the future for his own use in the present, and he does this by hybridising his own flesh with technology: he has a computer implant put into his forehead, which marks the fact that at this point he’s become a villain. And he does this at the instigation of a character called the Nurse. She’s referred to only as ‘the Nurse’, she’s not given a name onscreen, and this suggests that she’s being set up in opposition to the Doctor.
But what’s basically happening is that a character significantly named ‘Adam’ is falling from the Doctor’s grace after he gives in to temptation, by a woman, to partake of forbidden knowledge. Which may sound like a familiar story to some of us.
And in fact, almost the last thing Adam says to the Doctor is very reminiscent of some fictionalised versions of Genesis, and what fictional Adams say to God in those: he says:
It all worked out for the best, didn’t it? You know, it’s not actually my fault. Because you were in charge.
The last three episodes have particularly applied the ‘playing God’ motif to the Doctor. We’ve already heard Margaret’s opinion that the Doctor ‘might as well be a god’ because he plays with people’s lives, but earlier in Boom Town when she first enters the TARDIS, she says, ‘This is the technology of the gods,’ and the Doctor has replied ‘Don’t worship me, I’d make a very bad god. You wouldn’t get a day off, for starters.’
In the penultimate episode, Bad Wolf, it’s revealed that the Doctor’s actions in The Long Game have led to the collapse of this future human society, what the Doctor’s new friend Lynda calls ‘One hundred years of hell,’ and the Doctor realises this and says, ‘I made this world.’ And in The Parting of the Ways, when Rose herself has become this Godlike figure (or Goddesslike figure perhaps), she says, ‘I can see everything. All there is. All that was. All that ever could be.’ And the Doctor says, ‘That’s what I see, all the time. Doesn’t it drive you mad?’
This suggest that the Doctor has already tried being God and has failed: and if the Doctor has failed, what hope is there for human beings? The episode seems to conclude that godhead is too dangerous for human beings.
Now, I said at the beginning that science fiction images and ideas provide a language for writers of all religious persuasions to relate their ideas and experiences of God to us. And this idea of godhood as a dangerous thing which must be rejected clearly ties back to Russell Davies’ own atheism. What he’s saying is that religion is a dangerous thing which must be rejected. The Parting of the Ways is an allegory, a science fiction allegory, for Russell Davies’ rejection of religion.
There’s a parallel here to The Second Coming, the ITV miniseries I mentioned about the second coming of Christ. In that, Christopher Eccleston’s character Steve Baxter invites humanity to create a ‘Third Testament’. Steve brings his own variant of the Gospel; it’s a liberal Christianity, it involves tolerance of gays, working with other faiths; Steve puts environmental issues at the heart of his sermon on the mount. And part of his agenda is evidently to empower humanity to take our own decisions.
But the decision which humanity takes in The Second Coming turns out to be, again, a rejection of God. Steve’s friend Jude, who’s the Judas character in his Gospel story, betrays and murders him, and in doing so she supposedly saves the world from the tyranny of religion. The last few minutes of The Second Coming see a world without faith, where everybody’s been cured of their tendencies to religious faith by the death of God. And this world is seen as working towards a humanist utopia where people are nice to each other for its own sake, rather than because God tells them to. It’s not a very convincing picture of an atheist utopia, but it’s a very heartfelt one.
And here, similarly, in the last episode of Doctor Who, there is Judas imagery, imagery taken from the Gospel story about Judas. The Doctor has already betrayed Rose once in order to save her, sending her back to Earth in the TARDIS. Later on he betrays her as a God, but saves her as a human, with a kiss: he kisses her and takes into himself the divine essence which is destroying her.
This clearly inverts the traditional imagery. The Doctor at this point is Judas as saviour. Rose is an incarnate God who’s in need of saving by a human – well, not a human because it’s the Doctor, but by a figure who isn’t, at this point, a god. The Doctor redeems himself, and concludes his moral development, by sacrificing this life of his for her. It’s clear from Christopher Eccleston’s farewell speech at the end of The Parting of the Ways that he sees this as a death for his current persona.
The Doctor’s death and resurrection cements his identity as a Christ figure in this series, concludes his moral growth, and it’s also the series’ clearest statement about faith.
So, to recap: Eccleston’s Doctor is an ambivalent Christ figure, who early on promises to be Christlike, doesn’t display Christlike behaviour, but slowly recovers the saviourhood that we would expect from him through the course of the stories. Rebirth in various forms becomes a major theme of the series at various levels, and comes to a head at the end when the Doctor regenerates. And the final episode is a showdown between Gods, between a good and true God and a false God; and, while the good and true God wins, it must still be overturned.
So this last point sounds like a depressing message for Christians. But I’m not so sure, and I’d like to explain why.
I’ve already said that The Second Coming shows Steve Baxter the Son of God overturning old forms of faith in favour of a revolutionary new Christianity: a tolerant, pluralist, liberal Christianity; in fact, a left-wing, Guardian-reader style of Christianity which probably most of us at Greenbelt, me included, would be very keen on. And Russell Davies is sympathetic to these principles, but the controversial thing from our point of view is that he sees them as something that needs to be freed from religion. Even Steve’s form of Christianity must be rejected, because religion itself is a harmful thing.
And this same dynamic is what we see at work in Doctor Who, in The Parting of the Ways. Rose is a benevolent God compared with the Emperor Dalek: she behaves in a much more sympathetic way; she even resurrects the sympathetic bisexual character, Captain Jack, which is probably a dead giveaway. But she must still be rejected as a god, or in her case saved from being a god. This is obviously intended as an atheist message: basically, humanity is better off without its gods.
But I would return at this point to the thought I gave you at the beginning: science fiction texts, like any texts, may be read in ways which the authors don’t intend. We can apply our divergent, subversive readings to them, including Christian readings.
I talked a bit last year, in my talks about Science Fiction and the Bible, about how science fiction texts perennially reject God. It’s not a new thing in Doctor Who, it turns up over and over again: gods – especially gods in machines, interestingly enough – are always shown to be limited and to need replacing10. And my reading of this is as follows.
God is infinite, huge and complex, and our minds are finite and limited. God basically cannot fit inside a human mind. We can’t completely know God, but as Christians we need always to seek to do so, and I believe that Christianity is a constant search for truths about God. We’ll never have all the answers about God, but we can work towards having more of the answers.
And in this sense, all the Gods which we believe in are false gods. They’re limited, inaccurate, incomplete pictures of God; incomplete truths about God which we must overthrow and replace with new pictures of God, new revelations about God. And this is the sequence where we see the Emperor Dalek, a very bad idea about what God might be like, replaced by the much more sympathetic God that Rose represents; but Rose herself needing to be overturned and replaced with – we don’t know what. Possibly the Doctor himself, although he probably wouldn’t be happy about that, given the things he’s said earlier in the series.
This suggest to me that we must free ourselves from our limited, comfortable worlds and perceptions of God – perhaps even our Greenbelt-stroke-Guardian-reader liberal Christianities – in openness to new revelations about what God might be like.
I think that there are few better role models for Christians than the Doctor. The Doctor is kind, brave, selfless; he consorts with people from all walks of life; and – when he’s in his right mind, at least – he strives to solve situations peacefully, inventively, without recourse to violence: all things a Christian should strive towards. Above all, though, and this is perhaps the central thing about the Doctor’s character, he’s an explorer; he’s a seeker after truth; he’s always prepared to question and to learn, to take on new truths and discover new things about his universe.
As Christians we are called, of course, to be followers of Christ. But it seems to me that, on that Christian journey which Christ calls us to make, we could do worse than also seeing ourselves as companions of the Doctor.
Q1: You said at the start that a deus ex machina ending was a weakness in a playwright, that was something that was evoked if you couldn’t resolve the drama in a more tidy fashion, and I’ve heard it said of the series of Doctor Who that that ending for the series was possibly the only flaw in the whole writing of the thing: that it wasn’t a tidy ending, that it was a deus ex machina ending. Do you think that it’s significant that what you’ve described in terms of Russell T Davies’ manifesto that religion is a bad thing, the thing that he expresses through that deus ex machina ending is something that people in a sense rebel against, in that part of the success of the series is that these themes that are running under the actual text of the scripts and these heavy issues are something that makes the series great?
PPH: It certainly has been said of the new series that it finishes with a deus ex machina, which I don’t think is quite true. I think it’s true of Boom Town, because as I say the thing with a classic deus ex machina is that it’s not expected, it is something that comes completely out of nowhere and resolves the plot lazily, and that to an extent is true of Boom Town, which is the episode where Margaret the Slitheen is reverted to egghood at the end. It’s not been suggested previously that the TARDIS is capable of doing this, and the fact that it suddenly is is extremely convenient for resolving the Doctor’s moral dilemma without him actually having to make a decision.
But I think that Boom Town itself functions as foreshadowing for Rose’s eventual elevation to godhood: we know now that that capability is there in the TARDIS and that it can transform people, so... Boom Town I think has a deus ex machina ending, I don’t think the series as a whole does, because it has that foreshadowing.
It’s an interesting point that you make about that as a flaw in drama, and that Davies might be trying to relate that to what he would see perhaps as religion’s flawed view of the world, the idea that, if you’re religious, you perhaps expect God to intervene and sort things out, or have that to fall back on as a possibility. It might be something he’d say, yes – I don’t know, it’s difficult to know how much to read into it, and I’m aware that what I’m reading into it at the end, and saying that as Christians we can read into it, is a resistant reading. It’s pulling against the grain of what, clearly, Davies intends us to have there.
Yes, I think the answer to your question is ‘I’m not sure.’
Q2: The episode with the children with the gas-masks – what does that have to do with the Bible?
PPH: OK, there aren’t children with gas-masks in the Bible, I agree with you.
That episode – the two-parter The Empty Child / The Doctor Dances, which is the World War II episode where people are being brought back to life and have these gas-masks growing from their flesh, which all has a very rational explanation when you actually come to it, although it’s very bizarre at the time... That, in the scheme I’ve been talking about counts as one of the negative pictures of rebirth, it’s a parody rebirth.
Given that all the zombie characters have the same wounds, which include a wound in their hands, you could even see it as a parallel to stigmata, whereby Christian mystics have taken on the wounds of Christ, allegedly. That might be reading too much into it, possibly...
It’s an example where there are a large number of parody rebirths, but at the end this is resolved with a much more meaningful rebirth, and I think that episode The Doctor Dances, where the Doctor is clearly delighted because everybody lives – he says, ‘Just this once, Rose, everybody lives!’ and is absolutely overjoyed that everyone can be restored to full health at the end – that shows the distance he’s come from when he was prepared to blow people up earlier in the series, when the solution to everything was a big explosion. It shows his non-violent approach, it shows the joy he now takes in life.
It would be difficult to relate that directly to the Bible, but I think it ties in with Christian ethics and Christian spirituality in some ways.
Q3: I just wanted to reflect on that, in the way that his relationship with Rose really develops in that episode, and it’s through his love for Rose that part of his rebirth comes about.
PPH: I think that’s very true. Yes, I think it’s quite clear that he doesn’t want Rose to join him at first: he’s very suspicious of her involvement in his life and there’s distrust between them at the start. And it’s very visible that they’re growing closer together, and I think perhaps again the point at which that becomes most obvious is Paul Cornell’s Father’s Day, where he initially thinks that she’s betrayed him when she saves her father, but at the end they’re reconciled again. From that point on, it doesn’t seem like there’s distrust between them, and certainly she trusts him absolutely by the last episode, which is how he’s able to deceive her in order to save her.
I think the growth and development of that relationship is clearly an innovation in the new series, because there’s never been – or very rarely been – any suggestion that the relationship between the Doctor and the companion previously was an emotional one, rather than them just hanging around together. And that I think makes the new series a lot more profound and textured as a drama.
But yes, I think it’s true that Rose humanises the Doctor, that he comes to care about her, and that is an essential part of the process whereby he comes to care about individuals, and values individuals so highly at the end. She’s a tool of his healing, essentially.
2. This point, on the other hand, is dealt with in more detail in that talk’s partner, ‘Science Fiction as the Bible’, starting at ‘Three Science Fiction Myths’ and continuing into the ‘Conclusion and Coda’.
3. I intended to add at this point, but got sidetracked, that this image of a hero dying and returning to life is not necessarily an inherently Christian one, arising as it does in many other faiths including Buddhism and paganism. It is, however, an idea which seems closely bound up with religious faith in general, and was used as such more than once in the original series of Doctor Who.
7. OK, so that’s not quite what he says:
And my theological content: one man’s sacrifice runs like a thread through the entire shape of all space and time, turning one universe into another, and saving everything. And, incidentally, doing a big favour for the driver of the car, who this time round, through grace or just a random decision, goes the other way with his life. [Paul Cornell, post to the Ship of Fools bulletin boards, 16 May 2005.]
8. Consider also the Nestene (‘living plastic’ which can mimic living human beings); Lady Cassandra (once-human flesh sustained only by a life-support machine) and, perhaps most obviously, the hideously hybridised victims of the Empty Child. The only 2005 ‘monsters’ who fail to match this pattern are the Gelth (who, as living gas with an affinity to gaslamps, might be seen as a Victorian version of the same idea) and the Reapers.
All links are either to books and DVDs at Amazon.co.uk, or directly to material on websites.
- Doctor Who: The Complete First Series DVD box set (2005). That’s ‘first’ in the sense of ‘first for a few years’, presumably.
- Doctor Who: The Shooting Scripts by Russell T Davies et al (2005).
- Doctor Who Annual 2006 ed Clayton Hickman (2005).
- Back to the Vortex by J Shaun Lyon (2005). Exhaustive production handbook to the 2005 series, plus episode guide.
- The Second Coming (2003). Russell T Davies’ theological fantasy on DVD.
- Queer as Folk (1999, 2000). Russell T Davies classic Channel 4 drama.
- Doctor Who: Human Nature by Paul Cornell (2004 e-book at the BBC website, based on the out-of-print 1995 novel). The Doctor gives up his Time Lord powers and lives on Earth as an ordinary man.
- Something More (2001) and British Summertime (2002) by Paul Cornell. Two science fiction novels with religious themes.
- Interview with Paul Cornell at the YMCA website.
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