Doctor Who and faith: bigger on the inside

With series 8 referencing 'heaven', Nathan traces Doctor Who's varied relationships with atheism and faith...

I was a massive Simpsons fan as a child. And when I say ‘massive’, I really do mean – huge. It’s still one of the more memorable moments prior to my wedding day: emptying out my childhood bedroom with my (now) wife, only for her to discover notebooks filled with minute observations about the show. Obscure number plates, birthdays of secondary characters, dates of key events and much more besides. Having already paid for the reception venue she couldn’t exactly retract her commitment to marry me, although my mind contemplated that possibility when she hyperventilated laughing at ‘little Nathan’, circa 1999.

My point is this: I wasn’t just a fan, I was an über-fan.

You might be asking, “what’s this got to do with Doctor Who?” – trust me, I’m getting there. You see, I adored The Simpsons, and I wanted nothing more than to see my favourite thing in the world come to the big screen. I would track every rumour in every magazine and every comic – but alas, nothing. Not until 2007. By then it was too late. I was a crusty postgrad student and had enjoyed several other obsessions since the yellow heydays of the 90s. However, just two years earlier I had watched Rose, my first ever episode of DW, and I was hooked. A new obsession was born – and this time, I would finally get my chance to see one of my favourite things in the world come to the big screen.

Cut to November 2013. You might remember that DW was everywhere. There were 50th anniversary stamps, 50th anniversary bowties, 50th anniversary Dalek salt & pepper shakers – even One Direction wanted in on the action! (Though the less said of that the better.) Everyone seemed to be in love with my favourite show. We’d booked tickets to see The Day Of The Doctor at the cinema and I couldn’t be happier. It was like being a kid again… just, without the notebooks.

Ad – content continues below

Forever on loan?

It was around this time that I watched a video on YouTube, entitled 50 Years Of Humanism. As the title implies, its apparent purpose was to celebrate DW as a paragon of secular humanist identity. The video, which is well-structured and clearly comes from a place of love for the show, arranges various clips and audio soundbites each designed to illustrate DW’s supposed atheistic leanings.

Obviously, there are as many opinions about DW as there episodes (i.e. a lot), but what unsettled me was the subtle insinuation that because I’m a person of faith, the show doesn’t really ‘belong’ to me; it’s forever ‘on loan’. Sure, I can watch it. I might even greatly enjoy it. But as long as I hold onto my theological convictions it will always be intrinsically opposed to that most constitutive feature of my life, i.e. my belief that this Jesus fella was actually kind of a big deal. There must be countless other DW fans who just so happen to have a faith, too. The video just felt ‘off’ to me, not because I need everyone to respect my beliefs (because I don’t), but because it seems so contrary to the very essence of Doctor Who at its core. After all, DW embraces a cosmic panoply of differences, even those that seem silly to us “stupid apes”. To paraphrase lyrical genius: that’s what it makes it beautiful.

This is why I’d never say DW is a ‘religious show’ – because that would just be silly. But I’m also convinced we can’t say it’s an ‘atheist show’, either.

My suggestion here is this: Doctor Who’s relationship to issues of religion and faith is not just that of antipathy and opposition. Indeed, there also exist numerous other voices within its canon that are positively sympathetic towards such issues. These voices co-exist – not neatly but always simultaneously – and this ‘pluri-vocality’ contributes to the fabric of the show as well as to its brilliance.

“Between you and me, what really happened was…”

In all fairness, many fans may be of the opinion that DW is a secular show. This is totally understandable. After all, its worldview has almost always been left-of-centre, as distinct (or so it would seem) from religious dogma. Malcolm Hulke, script writer for Doctors 2 and 3, was well-known for his socialist convictions and these regularly influenced his work. This much is obvious in The War Games (1969) as well as Doctor Who And The Siliurians (1970). Russell T. Davies has described how it’s always been his intention to present gay characters in a sympathetic light. (Indeed, Jenny’s defence of her marriage to Vastra demonstrates that this remains a priority.) This, coupled with sympathetic cameos from Richard Dawkins certainly explains why some intuitively regard DW as a secular project.

In its 51 years numerous writers have submitted scripts for the show, and, naturally, some of these voices have been less than friendly towards matters of faith.

Ad – content continues below

Terrance Dicks script-edited The Daemons, for example, which begins with a denial of the supernatural in favour of a naturalistic worldview. “Everything that happens in life”, the Third Doctor tells Jo Grant, “must have a scientific explanation”. Chris Boucher’s The Face Of Evil (1977) is explicitly concerned with matters of religious prejudice and tribal belief. In it, new companion Leela confesses to the Doctor, “I don’t know what to believe anymore”. To which he replies, “Well that sounds healthy, Leela. Never be certain of anything. It’s a sign of weakness”.

After the show was revived in 2005 these sceptical voices could still be heard, but in a rather different way. Some old themes returned. Gareth Roberts’ The Shakespeare Code – like Letts and Sloman’s The Daemons before it – attributed to alien (Carrionite) science what folk superstition regarded as supernatural. However, under RTD, the show generally approached religion with a kind of benign cheekiness rather than actual hostility. For example, the Tenth Doctor occasionally recalls being involved in the key events of Jesus’ life, such as the nativity (“I got the last room” – Voyage Of The Damned) and the drama of Easter (“Between you and me, what really happened was – oh, sorry!” – Planet Of The Dead).

From Series 5 the sceptical voices became more obvious and substantial. Religious beliefs weren’t touched upon as such. Rather, Moffat often focused on the social function of faith. We first see this in the The Time Of Angels. No longer is there the ‘Church militant’ – now there’s only a militant Church. In the words of the Doctor: “It’s the 51st Century; the Church has moved on”. Moffat presents a Church reduced entirely to a social service, as opposed to a body of believers actually interested in believing stuff. When the subject of faith is addressed – such as in Toby Whitehouse’s The God Complex – it’s still presented in terms of function. Brought to a place of danger, the Nimon Minotaur feeds on the weakness of the hotel’s inhabitants: “Every time someone was confronted with their most primal fear they fell back on their most fundamental faith”. Once again, the function of faith, not its content, is what’s important here – it’s said to keep us brave in times of danger.

Just recently we heard the Twelfth Doctor dismiss hopes of paradise as a vestige of human “superstition”. It’s no wonder, given all these voices spoken over 51 years, that some perceive the show as a bastion of secular humanism. But DW is not really that simple.

“Is this world protected?”

Doctor Who has never spoken with a single voice. It’s always lived with variety. There are definitely central ideas and characters and there’s even an overarching narrative. But all of this has been passed down, writer to writer, each ‘speaking’ Doctor Who in a slightly different way. Some of them have done so in a way that’s ambivalent towards faith, but there are plenty of others who haven’t.

Believe it or not, the Doctor was originally based on the Apostle Paul. Honest to God. Swear on the Bible. Cross my heart. (You get the idea.) Anthony Coburn wrote the first ever Doctor Who story, An Unearthly Child. His subsequent relationship with the show was a tad tempestuous but his influence was significant. It was Coburn who insisted on the TARDIS being a police box (and possibly even invented the acronym), and it was Coburn who made Susan the Doctor’s granddaughter. Coburn was also a committed Roman Catholic. He was even a street preacher. His faith shaped the naming of certain characters (Ian Chesterton after the famous Catholic author, G.K. Chesterton), as well as the character of the Doctor himself. In DWM #467, his son Stef writes: “The character of the Doctor was based on [Anthony’s] cultural hero, (Christian missionary) St. Paul. Like the Doctor, St. Paul was supposedly a learned man. … Paul is a Roman citizen, in the same way the Doctor is a citizen of some other society”.

Ad – content continues below

This might have been the first time the character of the Doctor was styled on religious precedent, but it definitely wasn’t the last. The notion of ’the Doctor as Messiah’ seems relatively obvious now: a mysterious and ancient stranger, not of this world, proves himself the Saviour and Helper of humanity. Although this took a little while to develop, eventually (by The Caves Of Androzani for example) it became very evident indeed. The Doctor’s heroism has often been written through this prism, borrowing greatly from Christ imagery. The New Series is particularly keen on this. Consider the following:

– The Parting Of The Ways: the Doctor locks Rose in his TARDIS, taking her to a place of safety, as he prepares to face death in her place.

– The Poison Sky: the Doctor teleports to a Sontaran ship, ready to destroy himself so that the world might be saved.

– The End Of Time: the Doctor shoots the White Point star, saving the world from the Time Lords, in the process dooming himself to die at the hands of Rassilon. Then, later in the same episode, the Doctor sacrifices his own life for the sake of Wilfred’s.

– The Big Bang: the Doctor attaches himself to the Pandorica so as to launch himself into an exploding TARDIS, saving all of reality from annihilation.

– The Time Of The Doctor: the Doctor sends Clara away in the TARDIS to save a whole world from certain death, eventually offering up his own life as a final sacrifice.

Ad – content continues below

I’m not saying that this turns the Doctor into Jesus, but simply pointing out that as the Doctor’s character developed, his heroism was very quickly interpreted through a ‘Messianic lens’, one specifically influenced by the Sacrificial Saviour trope. Indeed, this is significantly underlined by the show’s love of Christian iconography. Sometimes this is less explicit, such as when Clara cradles the Twelfth Doctor in a manner reminiscent of the Pietà:

At other times it couldn’t be more obvious. Take The Voyage Of The Damned, in which the Doctor is seen to rise with Angels Ascending, accompanied by choral singing.

There are also moments in the show’s history when sympathy is extended towards a position of faith. Take Matt Jones’ two-part story, The Impossible Planet and The Satan Pit, as an example. The central conceit in these episodes is that the Doctor is faced with an enemy he cannot possibly comprehend, an enemy purporting to be Satan himself. Eventually the one describing itself as “the beast” makes contact, revealing impossible knowledge about all involved, stating that it came from ‘before’ the universe itself. The Doctor then makes a candid confession: “It’s funny the things you make up – the ‘rules’. If that thing had said it had come from beyond the universe I’d believe it. But before the universe… impossible. Doesn’t fit ‘my rule’. Still, that’s why I keep travelling. To be proved wrong.”

This is a remarkably different spirit than that seen in The Daemons. This is a Doctor confronted with something he has never seen the likes of before; something probably transcendent in origin. His response isn’t to force a naturalistic explanation. Instead, he remains open to the possibility that this is, to one extent or another, what it claims to be. This is a Doctor who has learned humility. Perhaps this explains why the Ninth Doctor challenges the Victorian empiricism of Charles Dickens in The Unquiet Dead: because for him the beauty of the universe now goes beyond mere physical perception.

“Welcome to Paradise”

With Series 8 currently more than a quarter of the way through its run, we’re being teased with allusions to heaven itself. All roads lead to the “promised land”. This is another example of the show utilising religious imagery to fuel its plot, but we’re yet to see where this takes us. Will we see a genuine engagement with the reality of death and a possible afterlife? Only time will tell. In any case, it’s very unlikely that it will decide Doctor Who’s relationship with religion and faith, one way or another. Like the Doctor himself, this show can feel completely alien at times. It resists any attempt to pin it down to any one tribe or politic. No one has a monopoly on it.

One can’t possibly say that Doctor Who is a religious franchise. As we’ve seen, there are several voices that appear to speak against matters of faith. Neither, however, can one say that we’ve enjoyed “50 years of humanism”. Under the stewardship of certain writers, producers and directors, Doctor Who has enjoyed numerous religious influences, from its iconography and central themes, as well as various episodes dedicated to the nature of belief. In this regard, Doctor Who points towards a better, more beautiful vision of the universe. It actually has something to say to our fractious society. It doesn’t choose the simple path. It doesn’t just eradicate faith altogether. Instead, its diverse voices speak to one another and inform the whole, contributing to a canon that spans over half a century.

Ad – content continues below

This isn’t about ‘holding hands’ and ‘forgetting our differences’. Quite the opposite: Doctor Who hosts a frank and open discussion about the things that matter most to us as human beings: love, death, forgiveness, safety, adventure, and yes – belief. At times, it reminds us that religion can do great harm. At other times, the Doctor hints at something better. Something beautiful. He points our eyes to the stars and asks us simply to wonder.

This is why Doctor Who is one of my favourite things in the world – it’s bigger on the inside. Certainly big enough, and that’s what counts.

Follow our Twitter feed for faster news and bad jokes right here. And be our Facebook chum here.