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The Doctor, the TARDIS, and the Trinity

20 December 2013

Is it fair to find Christian themes in Doctor Who? Madeleine Davies watched a number of programmes to find out

bbc

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 dreams".

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 below.

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 manipulated."

 

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" for debate.

 

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 backdrop."

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 nation.

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 planet below."

 

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 unreliable.

 

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 death.

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 Doctor.

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.

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