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Angelic Doctor?

13 June 2014

Chris Oldfield reads contributions to the Doctor Who debate


Terrible angels . . . but not so terrible that they can't be a Doctor Who sand-sculpture attraction at Sandworld, Weymouth, this summer

Terrible angels . . . but not so terrible that they can't be a Doctor Who sand-sculpture attraction at Sandworld, Weymouth, this summer

Time and Relative Dimensions in Faith: Religion and "Doctor Who"
Andrew Crome and James McGrath, editors
DLT £14.99
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RECENT years have witnessed a surprising return to the social imagination of a story once considered laughably outdated and obsolete. Andrew Crome presents the return of Doctor Who as paralleling recent trends in the sociology of religion. James McGrath summarises: "One can readily discuss very serious topics related to religion using Doctor Who as a jumping-off point, and also find thought-provoking treatments of such topics in its episodes themselves." You've heard of fan-fiction: TARDIF is fan-philosophy/fan-sociology/fan-theology.

TARDIF engages the ethical imagination throughout (What Would the Doctor Do?), although episodes arguably achieve this more effectively than essays can. Non-specialists may find some chapters inaccessibly lofty, with knowing nods to post-metaphysical theology and Homo eucharisticus in Jason Wardley's chapter on mimesis and kenosis, for example.

Specialists will find other chapters inexplicably sloppy, with a frankly unrecognisable account of personal immortality, a fundamental misreading of Nietzsche, and a bizarre generalisation that "individualism is a key characteristic and emphasis of Islam" in Courtland Lewis's opening chapter. Thankfully, these are exceptions.

Laura Brekke's chapter "Humany-Wumany" is the most accessible in the volume on finding "humanity" in the alien. Other highlights include Brigid Cherry's reading of Martha's story in apostolic terms, Jennifer Miller's chapter on Freud's notion of the uncanny (seeing the Doctor as less a god and more a monster), and Russell Sandberg's superbly argued piece on whether Doctor Who could itself be understood as a religion in UK law.

Non-Whovians will struggle with impenetrable references to story-arcs from the 1960s to '80s, let alone the "intertestamental period" of Big Finish radio broadcasts and related fan fiction. The question of "canonicity" rumbles through this volume, but is treated with sensitivity throughout. Joel Dark even suggests that the "unfolding text" of Doctor Who could be seen as a "midrashic adventure" in its own right. This may be one of the more helpful outcomes of TARDIF, among whose stated aims is to provide resources for teachers of religious studies: Doctor Who could provide an excellent teaching aid for discussing what constitutes "canonical" faithfulness in telling the story of a character who is true to his name.

Although most essays reflect a pick-and-mix approach to the "canon", the majority of references are to the revitalised Doctor Who of 2005-13. Comparing the treatment of organised religion in the Davies/Moffatt eras, Marcus Hames offers a superb intertextual reading of Iris Murdoch's The Time of the Angels. Where Davies's simple secularism is evident, Moffatt's writing displays a more nuanced idea of the secular as being in some sense haunted: "The death of God has set the angels free, and they are terrible."

In Moffatt's future, the Church of England remains to meet needs, in a way faithful to some of its tradition at least, although clearly at the expense of theological faithfulness. "Onward, Christian soldiers" certainly takes on a whole new meaning in the 51st century.

Among regular references to "Clarke's Third Law", that advanced technology would be seen as indistinguishable from magic, Doctor Who suggests that the "reverse is also true". While many false gods are unmasked in Doctor Who, it is an open question what would constitute a true "God" in his world. The fact that the Doctor himself remains wonderfully open-ended on such topics may reflect genuine openness toward a "third way", or belie a policy-led authorial restraint. As a product of British cultural history, the Doctor, like his authors, is both "searching for something and fleeing from something". Like another story "whose main character is a personified question mark", whose "designation is itself a pledge", it seems that Doctor Who is here to stay.

Chris Oldfield is a visiting lecturer in Science and Religion at the University of Roehampton.

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