Doctor Who and its relationship with religion (or lack thereof) has been a topic of discussion since the British sci-fi series was revived in 2005. The modern series has had two self-proclaimed atheists (Russell T. Davies and current show-runner Steven Moffat) at the helm of the show and boasts plot lines which often dismiss religious dogma as flawed thinking and a way to opiate the masses.
For example, the Series 3 episode “Gridlock” depicted thousands of people who participated in singing hymns to comfort them while they were in a continuous flow of traffic. They were unusually content with a stagnant society until The Doctor arrived and began to plant seeds of alternative thoughts. Of course, a slight aversion to anything “religious” is the norm for most science fiction, but even with Doctor Who’s freethinking concepts, many of the overarching themes of the show are closely associated (but not necessarily exclusive) to theism. And, these elements are a huge part of the success of the show.
Here are 5 theist-associated themes in Doctor Who that make the show incredible:
“You’ve got your faith. You’ve got your songs and your hymns. And I’ve got The Doctor.” –Martha Jones, “Gridlock”
Faith is not just the hallmark of most organized religions; it is also a very prominent theme in Doctor Who. The Doctor’s companions (who operate like disciples/witnesses) display a fervent faith in his ability to bring order in the midst of chaos while protecting their lives. They trust that when he says he will return… he will indeed return. Their faith in The Doctor is so fervent, it has caused them to launch missiles (like Mickey Smith in “World War Three”) and walk the entire Earth to spread knowledge about him (Martha Jones). Random people who need either his intercession in a conflict or have witnessed his incredible power believe he will arrive right on time. The same overall theme of faith is seen in many religious movements. The difference? The Doctor shows up in the flesh.
“Planet Earth. This is where I was born. And this is where I died. For the first nineteen years of my life, nothing happened. Nothing at all. Not ever. And then I met a man called The Doctor. A man who could change his face. And he took me away from home in his magical machine. He showed me the whole of time and space….” –Rose Tyler, “Army of Ghosts”
The first Modern Who companion, Rose Tyler, is a prime example of how a relationship with The Doctor can lead to a renewed thought process. Before her chance encounter with the Lord of Time, Rose was a naïve and jaded sales associate with “no future.” She didn’t think there was anything special about her nor did she believe in her ability to make a difference in the world. But, after meeting The Doctor, Rose transformed into a hero in her own right. She found a purpose, strength, and a passion for life. Not only did Rose change, she also encouraged a positive shift in the people around her based on her relationship with the Gallifreyan hero. This is reminiscent of the “I once was lost, but now I’m found… was blind but now I see” lyric in the well-known Christian hymn “Amazing Grace.”
The Doctor: You betrayed me. You betrayed my trust, you betrayed my friendship, you betrayed everything I ever stood for. You let me down!
Clara: Then why are you helping me?
The Doctor: Why? Do you think I care for you so little that betraying me would make a difference?
When a believer speaks about their Higher Power(s), the subject of unconditional love often arises. Generally speaking, The Creator loves both believers and non-believers despite their imperfections. In a similar fashion, The Doctor loves people and aliens across time and space despite their social status, gender, skin color, or perceived level of intelligence. His love even extends out to an enemy: The Master. Despite The Master (now Missy) and his attempts to destroy both The Doctor and everything around him, our favorite Time Lord famously wept when his old friend “died” in his arms. Sometimes, his fellow travelers make mistakes and disappoint him. He will often chastise them on their shortcomings, but rarely casts them out of his circle because of his unfailing love (as seen in the above exchange between 12 and Clara). His firm belief that he has never met anyone who wasn’t important is the one of the driving forces that causes him to continue to save countless lives. And, his huge hearts are reciprocated with fierce devotion from his friends as they try to prove they are indeed worthy of his love. In the same token, people in religious sects often strive to be the best version of themselves and are able to move past failures because of unconditional love from God.
Rose: Harriet Jones. She gave her life to get you here.
Davros: How many more? Just think! How many have died in your name?
Death is a constant companion of The Doctor. In virtually every episode, lives are lost due to some forces of evil that have to be reconciled by Gallifrey’s brightest star. Throughout the course of the show (particularly noted during the Tenth Doctor’s tenure) countless individuals who never reached companion status have sacrificed their lives in the name of The Doctor. But why?
These individuals believed their death would not be in vain because they would keep the man alive who could save millions. And, there are countless examples of believers who have stood firmly for their faith and given their lives. But, sacrifice is not necessarily tied to death in Doctor Who. Most of The Doctor’s companions had to sacrifice the life of oblivion they once knew after becoming a part of his insane world. Whovians would be hard pressed to find one companion who didn’t have to give up something (for better or worse) to travel with The Doctor. In a similar fashion, theists often leave old friends, family, and habits behind to walk on a new spiritual path.
The Doctor, The Messiah
“He’s like fire and ice and rage. He’s like the night and the storm in the heart of the sun…He’s ancient and forever. He burns at the center of time and can see the turn of the universe. And…he’s wonderful.” –Tim Latimer, “The Family of Blood”
As the centerpiece of the show, The Doctor operates like a monotheistic deity (i.e. Jesus Christ) who possesses incredible power, knowledge, and an uncanny ability to resurrect himself in the face of death. He often travels many miles to spread truth and illuminate the minds of those who are lost. Sometimes, he has to go on his journeys alone, but other times, he needs his faithful companions to spread the word about his goodness and encourage others to trust in his actions (even when they don’t fully understand his ways). He goes where he is needed, calls people who are considered “lesser” to become greater, and displays near-constant compassion toward many characters who don’t deserve his protection. But, although he is loving, he can be filled with a searing rage and will not hesitate to either allow or incite certain events to teach someone a lesson. His legacy is known across the universe, his stories have been told from generation to generation, and there are shrines dedicated to worship his greatness. And, with a name like Time Lord, the messiah-like personality of The Doctor is obvious.
Doctor Who wouldn’t have the longevity and success it has experienced without faith, love, sacrifice, knowledge, and a powerful leading figure. Science may be the key element in the show, but these common themes in theism are just as important to every exciting episode!
Tai Gooden is a freelance writer, part-time blogger, and full-time Whovian. She has written for several online publications including The Guardian, HuffPost Parents, HelloGiggles, xojane, BlogHer, Paste Magazine, Kasteborous, and BlackGirlNerds. When Tai is not waiting for the TARDIS, she’s either on Twitter or her blog,taigooden.com.
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