Thursday, April 13, 2006


My father-in-law sent me a copy of last week’s Church Times, with Droo on the cover in his jim-jams and a two-page feature on how the Doctor’s just like Jesus. The feature, “Time Lord or Messiah?”, is written by Steve Couch, one of the authors of Back in time: a thinking fan’s guide to Doctor Who, and I have one or two objections.

As my friend Phil did in his (very interesting) Greenbelt lecture, “The Spirituality of Doctor Who” last year, Couch tries to reconcile Christianity with the avowedly atheist credentials of New Show’s chief writer, and what I’d call the humanist bent to the actual episodes.

Of course, as Phil says, “science fiction, like any text, can be read in ways which the authors didn’t intend the readers to read it.” I certainly don’t object to anyone finding something in New Show just for them.You Jonny-come-latelys are most welcome to join in the fun…

What rather bothers me is the idea that the show sports specifically Christian virtues, as if the argument boils down to something like:
"Because Dr Who is not an arsehole, therefore he must be a sort of Christian."
The church doesn’t have a monopoly on what’s right and wrong, those are just virtues.

Couch’s argument rests on Dr Who being a “drama of reassurance”, and our being taken on “a journey of horror, fear and successful resolution”.
“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 would be unable to offer any such guarantee…”

Steve Couch, “Time Lord or Messiah?”, Church Times #7465 (7 April 2006), p. 18.

Of course, there are many who’d argue that a belief in God is not necessarily incompatible with a belief in rational science. I also don’t agree that the Doctor always wins - and he certainly never wins easily.

People die around him all the time, which you could put rather brutally as the terrible cost of his doing what’s right. Rose is constantly in danger, and the Doctor’s adventures are littered with the corpses of surrogate Roses – Jabe, Gwyneth and Lynda-with-a-Y. That’s not reassuring, that’s actually a bit twisted for a kids’ show.

We see Rose’s relationships suffer – with her mum, with her boyfriend – because she even travels with the Doctor, and that makes ideas about “good” and “evil” complicated. Is how she treats Mickey “good”?

Dr Who, by confronting the strange and the scary, lets us take nothing for granted. It’s precisely the opposite of reassuring. Ethical values – in the case of the “good” Dalek, or the companion, Adam, who was “bad” – are complex and need thinking about.

The Doctor’s at his most angry when people act blindly from fear or from selfishness, not seeing (or caring about) the consequences of their actions. That’s not just true of the villains, it’s true of Rose saving her dad’s life, or Harriet Jones blowing up the aliens who killed people in front of her. We can understand why both women acted as they did, but it’s still not right.

As Couch says, the Doctor sees the good and the bad in humanity – snapping at Harriet that he should have warned the rest of the galaxy about “the monsters”, yet taking delight in a Christmas dinner with crackers.

But I’d argue that it’s not about “sin” – temptation to do witting wrong – but about knowledge and empathy. The Doctor encourages people to face facts, to confront difficult, brutal truths. There’s the teenage mother in 1941 having to face up to her son, and the journalist who comes to realise that her own news organisation needs investigating… In both cases, he's challenging the social norms of the time.

It’s been said that there’s a spiritualist slant when he meets Dickens, whose closed, scientific mind can’t see the ghosts right in front of him. But the Doctor’s beef is that Dickens won’t believe the evidence of his own eyes. By the end of the story, and with the Doctor’s help, Dickens’s rational science – an understanding of the properties of gas – defeats the lying spirits.

The Doctor, then, is an essentially humanist hero. He wants humanity to achieve its best, and celebrates the achievements that survive mortal men. Dickens’s books will live on forever, though the man himself has less than a year. And when the Earth explodes, the Doctor’s there to see it, dancing to (the surviving) Soft Cell and Britney.

I agree that the stories act as an ethical framework, challenging us to think about what we believe and how we act. That’s nothing new – in his very first story back in 63, the Dr has to learn to help a wounded enemy rather than just run away. His new human travelling companions teach him what’s right, and when his own people catch up with him six years later, he argues in the Time Lord courtroom that it’s wrong not to help. And they begrudgingly concede the point.

So was it right that the Doctor destroyed his own people?

It’s important that he’s now the last of the Time Lords. It undoes the determinism of time, the reassuring safeguards that prevent damage being done even to history. The Doctor makes his stand against the monsters, and encourages those he meets to help him, because no one else will. Like the killing of God at the end of Second Coming (written and performed by the same men, of course), it means we mere mortals must now fend for ourselves.

There is no higher authority out there to save us. It’s a bleak and brutal fact, but it needs to be confronted.


Andrew Tibbs said...

And don't forgert the whole bisexual thing and the attitude of certain branches of Christianity...

Or even the Nazi-esque nature of Genesis of the Daleks andthe collusion of Pope Leo the something with Hitler!

0tralala said...

True, though I think that both sexuality and nazism have been bedfellows of the church and the scientific rationalists.

"Homosexuality" as a term was coined by Victorian psychologists, and it was still being treated as a mental disorder in the 1950s.

The pope did sign a pact with Hitler, while the greatest scientist of the century, Einstein, fled to America. But that's missing that the Nazi's themselves - through a twisted reading of Nietzsche and racial theory - thought of themselves as rational scientists. After the war, many Nazi scientists were pardoned so they could go work for the Allies...

Anti-semitism and homophobia are neither Christian values, nor rational ones. But they've been claimed to be.

Philip said...

Very little argument from me about most of that (apart from your conclusion, natch). I haven't read Couch's Church Times piece, but I did think much of Back in Time was wrongheaded.

I acknowledge that Doctor Who in general, and Davies' Doctor Who in particular, is essentially a humanist, and at times an explicitly atheist, text.

Of course, there's nothing about humanism that's intrinsically incompatible with christianity -- the earliest types of humanism were specifically christian ones.

The atheism some christians will find more problematic, obviously... but no belief-system can progress if it persists in isolation, rather than entering into dialogue with other systems. My Greenbelt talk was arguing that "we" need to engage with such texts and learn from them, and suggesting how we might go about doing that.

Clearly being honest about their atheism is an essential, and early, stage in that process. In Back in Time, Couch and his co-authors never seemed quite to manage that.