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 grown-up 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
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,
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).
Fundamentalists? below: the Daleks, Doctor Who's greatest foes.
Above: the Doctor and Rose outside the time- and space-travelling