IF THERE is one thing that
you can guarantee about a Doctor Who Christmas special, it
is that it will feature chaos, destruction, and the loss of life.
Christmas is the time when evil is in the ascendant; a time of "bad
In the 2006 Christmas
episode of Doctor Who, "The Runaway Bride", a star appears
in the night sky. "I shall descend upon the Earth this night, and
shine," the star intones. Children gaze up at it in wonder.
Unfortunately, it transpires that it is the ship of the Empress of
the Racnoss, a satanic figure, who begins firing on the people
The following Christmas,
"Voyage of the Damned" featured angels called Heavenly Hosts, hands
clasped as if in prayer. Usurped by evil forces, they begin to
wield their halos as deadly frisbees, barking out: "Information:
you're going to die." In the 2008 Christmas special, "The Next
Doctor", a king is born. But it is a cyber king, who asks: "My
people - why do they not rejoice?" before beginning a mission to
lay waste the city.
Given the frequency with
which the show subverts the Christmas story, it is perhaps
surprising that it has proved so popular with Christian viewers.
The producer and screenwriter Russell T. Davies, who resurrected
the show in 2005 after a nine-year absence from our screens, is a
vocal atheist. He has described religion, along with superstition,
mysticism, and legends as "all bollocks".
Those who attended the
"Religion and Doctor Who Day" organised last month by Dr Andrew
Crome, a lecturer in the History of Modern Christianity at the
University of Manchester, were well aware of the hostility to
organised religion evident in the show.
This is, after all, a
programme in which clerics, when they appear, are likely to be
conducting covert ceremonies in a cavern beneath the vestry to
summon up evil from the planet Dæmos ("The Daemons", 1971).
A final-year theology
student training to be a Methodist minister, Michael Spence,
observed: "Religion is portrayed as primitive and superstitious,
and religious people caricatured as naive, infantile and easily
NONE of this has stopped
Christians from co-opting the programme in missional endeavours,
as Dr Crome notes in his introduction to a new book of essays,
Time and Relative Dimensions in Faith (Darton, Longman
and Todd, 2013). In 2008, the Church Army organised a "Doctor
Who and Spirituality Day", in which fans were encouraged to
explore religion through the series.
In 2007, Mr Davies was
awarded the Epiphany Prize, an award for television programmes that
are "wholesome, uplifting and inspirational and which result in a
great increase in either man's love of God, or man's
understanding of God".
Several of the speakers at
the conference in Manchester were Christians, including the lead
pastor at the Well United Methodist Church in Ponchatoula,
Louisiana, the Revd Matt Rawle.
Earlier this year, Mr Rawle
took members of the congregation of Broadmoor United Methodist
Church, Shreveport, Louisiana, into the TARDIS. He painted the
doors of the assembly hall police-box blue. Over the course of four
Sundays, he used episodes of the show to teach about the Trinity,
identity, and time.
"The Trinity and the
TARDIS are both 'bigger on the inside', in the sense that
even the Church's picture of Father, Son, and Spirit does not
exhaust God's essence; rather, it is God's identity expressed,
though not the whole of God," he said.
He found that the
congregation - "right-wing, conservative" - seemed to be
"liberated" by the sermons series. For those "living underground,
who were afraid to ask questions", it gave them a "new language"
THE mistrust and hostility
towards organised religion evident in the programme, particuarly in
those episodes written by Mr Davies, are, of course, only one
part of the story.
As suggested in both the
conference and the book, Doctor Who is saturated with
Christian images and themes. This is a show about a man/god who
rescues humanity, dies, and comes back to life. Mr Davies has
acknowledged that the Doctor lends himself to religious
iconography as a "proper saviour".
Barry Letts, a producer
during the 1970s, said: "It is inevitable, because of Britain's
cultural heritage, that a long-running programme about the fight
between good and evil will have some Christian themes as a
The Christmas episodes of
the series have consistently explored the idea of the Doctor
as saviour. There is even a conscious mythologisation of him. The
two-part special "The End of Time" (25 December 2009 and 1 January
2010) begins with a church scene, and a stained-glass window
featuring the TARDIS.
"It's said a demon fell from
the sky," explains a mysterious woman in white. "Then a man
appeared. A man in a blue box. They called him the sainted
physician. He smote the demon and then disappeared. . . Who knows?
Perhaps he's coming back."
"Doctor, if you are out
there, we need you," the Prime Minister pleads in the 2005 special,
"Christmas Invasion". "I don't know what to do. If you can hear
me, Doctor. . . The situation has never been more desperate. Help
us. Please, Doctor, help us." It is a prayer, broadcast to the
The episode is an
exploration of faith. Rose, the Doctor's assistant, is losing hers,
and is struggling to believe that the Doctor (who has been
regenerated in a different form) is who he says he is.
This uncertainty about the
Doctor's identity is a recurring one, and echoes the question asked
of Jesus by Pontius Pilate.
"I'm the Doctor," is his
response to the question "who are you?" in "Voyage of the Damned"
(2007). "I'm a Time Lord. . . I'm 930 years old, and I am the man
who is going to save your lives and all six billion lives on the
NEVERTHELESS, as several
contributors to Dr Crome's book argue, the Doctor is fallible. He
needs his companions to restrain him, not only from misuse of his
power, but from loneliness and depression. Some have argued that
the show is essentially humanist.
"The Doctor is close to
being divine, but he falls short, demonstrating monstrous
tendencies," the American editor of Fantasy Matters,
Jennifer Miller, writes. "It is his human companions who . . . pull
the Doctor back from the brink."
The Doctor loves human
beings. He speaks often about their "potential". In "The Runaway
Bride", after showing his companion Donna the creation of the
earth, and forcing her to conclude "We're tiny," the Doctor
replies: "That's what you do, the human race, make sense of chaos;
marking it out with weddings and Christmases and calendars. This
whole process is beautiful, but only if it is observed."
In addition to affirming the
great potential of humans, who partner the Doctor in securing their
own salvation, Doctor Who conveys a deep suspicion of
omnipotence. In "Voyage of the Damned", the Doctor is warned: "If
you could decide who lives and who dies, that would make you a
monster." Grasping after immortality is similarly portrayed as a
sign of wickedness.
In "The Snowmen" (Christmas
Day, 2012), Madame Vastra explains to the Doctor's assistant,
Clara, that the Doctor has changed: "He suffered losses which hurt
him," she says. "The Doctor isn't kind. The Doctor doesn't help
people. Not anyone. Not ever. He stands above his world. And
doesn't interfere in the affairs of its inhabitants. He is not
your salvation, nor your protector."
Like Christ, the Doctor is
capable of weeping. Unlike Christ, he is fallible, and
AN INTERESTING aspect of the
show is that it does not shy away from the fact that, for many
people, Christmas is a difficult time of year. Several seasonal
episodes conclude with humans' having to cajole the lonely Doctor
into having Christmas dinner with them. He is condemned to losing
his companions, and has frequently been shown in mourning.
"They leave because they
should, or they find someone else; and some of them forget me," he
explains in "The Next Doctor" (2008). "I suppose, in the end, they
break my heart."
This is a saviour who gets
depressed at Christmas. This may actually be a source of comfort
to viewers who feel alienated by the celebratory atmosphere around
them. Eccentricity is celebrated, as are those who are, in some
way, outside. Tragedy is not hidden away in embarrassment, but is
acknowledged. "A Christmas Carol", the 2010 special, ends with a
redeemed man who has wasted much of his life in bitterness enjoying
his lover's final day of life.
In the exploration of
darkness, waiting, and the hope of resurrection, the Christmas
specials are arguably much more informed by the story of Holy Week
and Easter than by that of Christ's birth.
The story of the tenth
Doctor, played by David Tennant, cogniscent of his own, imminent
death, brings to mind the Garden of Gethsemane. As with the
crucifixion, the act of dying, of sacrifice, is portrayed as
painful and tortuous. "It's not fair," he rages, shortly before his
regeneration. "I don't want to go."
In a show that readily
explores sadness and loss, in which Christmas is defined as
"halfway out of the dark", the Doctor embodies sorrow, but
also light, life, and, through regeneration, triumph over
The 50th anniversary of the
show this year has been widely celebrated. Dr Crome notes in the
introduction to his book that 1963 was identified by Callum Brown,
author of The Death of Christian Britain (Routledge,
2009), as the year in which full-scale secularisation set in.
Many of the ten million
viewers who are expected to tune in to meet the next Doctor in "The
Time of the Doctor" on Christmas Day this year may not hear echoes
of Christianity in its story, nor see something of Jesus in the
Nevertheless, if previous episodes are anything to go by, such
resonances will be there, pointing to a bigger story. And, as an
Ood points out in "The End of Time", this story never ends.