Indiana University Bloomington

Religion in Dr. Who

Abby Matt, psychology

Written for REL-R389: Religion and Fantasy

Instructor: Prof. Heather Blair


The television show Doctor Who explores time travel and plays with what it means to be human and therefore have morality. Because many moral decisions are based on religious ideologies, morality and religion are intertwined. Although Doctor Who has been compared to many religions like Hinduism and Christianity, I would like to focus on Christianity and later, New Atheism. I argue that the Doctor, the protagonist in Doctor Who, can be compared to a savior, like Jesus Christ or God. Just as Christ has disciplines who trust him, the Doctor has companions who accompany him through space and time in his ship that can travel through relative dimensions in space (TARDIS). Similarly, Christ died for everyone’s sins, and whereas the Doctor does not cease to exist, he does often suffer the consequences for wrong doings in the world and feels the need to fix them. Moreover, people trust the Doctor, his abilities, and most importantly, his judgement. The Doctor has to deal with morality and religion throughout space and time and because of that, becomes a savior to many people.

There is a large fantasy component to Doctor Who in that time travel and other species outside of Earth are not real to us. Because of the invented world, the viewers of Doctor Who are able to escape to what could be: a space with different rules than our own. Doctor Who allows its viewers to engage in a religious, fantasy world to deal with morality.  Religion and fantasy often intersect because the Doctor goes on adventures that transcend our idea of reality to deal with moral issues. He has to make objective decisions about saving civilizations or letting them die, which puts him in a very god-like position.

In the following pages, I will be discussing the Doctor as a Christ-like figure. A Doctor Who writer, Russell T Davies, portrays the Doctor as a savior through plot and language, while still critiquing religion giving the series a New Atheist perspective. In addition, I will argue that Davies creates a tension or ambivalence between reinventing and mocking religion simultaneously. In this paper, I demonstrate that the Doctor becomes a new, religious symbol as the series parodies and reinvents religion.

Doctor as Savior based on Plot

In the episode entitled “Father’s Day,” the Doctor and his companion, Rose, learn that it is impossible to cheat death. If you try, the devils will come. Initially, Rose wants to go back in time to the day her father died. Despite knowing that it is wrong to save her father because doing so would create a paradox that would change the timeline, Rose decides to save him and therefore cheats death. The devils who look like large, black, flying insects are disturbed and come to Earth to restore their death count. The Doctor, Rose, and people around them go into a church for safety. When the devils start to break the church’s protection, the Doctor sacrifices himself in the church. After, Rose’s father realizes that he was the one who supposed to die and goes to sacrifice himself to the devils to bring the Doctor back. Sacrifice vanquishes the devils away.

Before the sacrifice, the Doctor acts like a god. The Doctor allows Rose to relive her father’s death multiple times so she can properly comfort him as he dies. Rose is frozen the first time and the Doctor has the ability to go back in time and let her try again.  The Doctor is facilitating the moment, over and over, which shows his power and superiority. He knows that going back in time can be dangerous because time could be disrupted, but he is letting Rose redeem her actions. However, when Rose rescues her father instead of just comforting him while he dies, the Doctor is disappointed in her. Because the Doctor is older and more knowledgeable, he is better informed to judge her for her actions. When the devils start to appear because of the timeline change, the Doctor’s instructions to move into the church are trusted immediately; he is, from there on out, expected to understand and fix the situation. Christ had trust from disciplines, just how Rose and people in the church trust the Doctor. The Doctor is Christ/god-like because he has knowledge, experience, and power, which makes Rose and others trust his judgement.

The most prominent Christian theme in this episode is how the Doctor sacrifices himself in the church. When the devils first come, everyone is still outside the church. The first person the devils take is the priest. This does not seem like a coincidence, but rather a comment on religion. The priest is not there to help anyone and is no longer an authority figure. The Doctor reinvents religion by taking on the role of the traditional priest.  To save everyone, the Doctor sacrifices himself; the devils swallow him and disappear. Rose’s father realizes that he was supposed to die and ends up sacrificing himself to right Rose’s wrong and bring the Doctor back. Both men sacrifice themselves in order to save others. The Doctor sacrifices himself to save Rose for her sins; her father sacrifices himself for Rose’s sins, to bring the Doctor back, and to restore time.

In this episode, we can discern a traditional Christian theme: the father, the son, and the Holy Spirit. The most obvious is Rose’s father as the father. Just how Christ is the only person to understand God, the Doctor is the only one to fully understand Rose and her father’s perspectives. Finally, Rose is the Holy Spirit. “Father’s Day” is overtly religious for this theme. Whereas Christ sacrificed himself, the Doctor sacrifices himself.

The church serves as protection from the devil. Why else would the writers choose to have a church in this episode, if not for the religious symbolism? It could be any building. Although the church is a safe protected space at the beginning, the devils eventually break the sacred barrier. This is disrupting the schema of Christianity because the church should be able to withstand evil. It is not explained why the church breaks down, but this is a religious criticism. Christianity no longer serves as a practical religion. Churches will no longer hold humanity, physically and emotionally as a religion. The physical breaking of the church barrier represents how religion is old and needs to be reinvented. Additionally when the priest dies, the Doctor becomes a stand in for the priest. There is a new type of religion being created that is not Christianity; the religion is being reinvented. Whereas the church is an obvious religious setting, a hospital can be as well.

In the episode “New Earth,” the plot demonstrates the Doctor’s omniscience. He and Rose travel to future Earth. The Doctor informs Rose about the progression of humanity since her time on Earth. When the Doctor and Rose visit the hospital on future Earth, a patient already knows of the Doctor’s presence and wants to visit with him. The Doctor is well-known through space and time. He is superior above other people in the hospital, almost elevated to God-like popularity. In the end of the episode, he creates a cure to a disease to save all of the patients in the hospital. His knowledge of what actions to take is omniscient.

Hospital doctors challenge what type of doctor the Doctor is. When the Doctor and Rose arrive, the Doctor says that hospitals give him the creeps. He is not a medical doctor, but still helps people and civilizations. The Doctor does have a real given name, but he chooses to be called the Doctor because his goal is to help people. He saves the world from bad people, but does not do much saving on the medical side. When he does, he usually ends up harming people more than helping. However, in this episode, the Doctor creates a medical concoction to save everyone; he is both a religious and medical savior.

During the cure scene, the religious elements clearly portray the Doctor as Christ. The Doctor is standing with the cure in his hands and is literally the savior of all of these people; the patients would have died without his help. People physically pass the medicine around and cure each other. Just how Jesus cured lepers, the Doctor is curing the patients. In spreading medicine, these people are spreading the gospel of the Doctor’s good work. By being able to survive the disease, they can tell others of this magical mystery savior.

In this same episode, the Doctor determines someone’s fate, which puts him in a god/Christ-like position. Cassandra, a recurring character, has far lived her existence; she is the last human and is only skin at this point. At the end of the episode, the Doctor convinces her that it is time to die. It is hard to accept that the Doctor can so easily convince her because she has wanted to continue living for so long and has gone to extreme lengths to do so. She had multiple plastic surgeries to extend her life, has to be frequently moisturized as to not dry out, and even tries take control of Rose and the Doctor’s bodies in this episode in order to keep surviving. Where does the Doctor’s inexplicable authority come from? Cassandra knows the Doctor’s legacy through time and space of doing the right thing and trusts his judgment. Trust in the Doctor is a religious faith in his ability to make the right decisions throughout time and space.

The plot in Doctor Who is religious enough to construct the Doctor as a savior, but now I will discuss how religious language in the series continues this image.

Religious Language in the Series

Religious language in Doctor Who is characterized by phrases that allude to prayers, God, or Christianity. To a casual Doctor Who fan, it may not seem obvious that there is religious language. I would like to call attention to the overt language to show that it only further demonstrates the Doctor as a savior figure.

In “Father’s Day,” one man says that he is “cursed” and proceeds to run into the church when the devils descend. The word “cursed” connotes religion more than simply an explicative or screaming. Why would this man think he was cursed? This line could allude to the religion that Doctor Who is trying to mock – Christianity – a cursed religion that needs to be reinvented. If these people are cursed, who is there to save them? Certainly not the priest who is killed, but the Doctor. Religious language eases the Doctor into his savior-like role.

As the Doctor starts to take authority to save everyone, someone asks the Doctor, “Can you save us?” The Doctor is assuming responsibilities; everyone involved thinks that he has a plan because of his authoritative actions. It is perfectly religious to ask the Doctor for salvation and the Doctor ends up sacrificing himself in the church. He tries to save Rose from her sins, just how Jesus died for other’s sins. Granting it may be normal to have religious language in a church, it is usually not appropriate in a hospital.

In “New Earth,” the loudspeakers at the hospital are repeating the phrase “hope, harmony, and health.” This language is religious because hope and harmony are both feelings that people pray for. You cannot scientifically measure hope or harmony, while health can be measured. Hospitals are supposed to be secular, but the hospital is subjecting everyone to this. How can religion be in this hospital and why is it so overtly religious? Religion is interjected with this phrase and furthermore with the fact that the hospital nurses are depicted as cat nuns.

The story reveals that the cat nun nurses infect patients in order to pursue medical discovery. However, their experiments are abusive and take away the patients’ humanity. The nurses say, “mankind needed us.” This phrase reminds me how fundamental religious believers view their actions. Mankind needed the change that they are about to procure. To people outside of these views, their ideals can sound monstrous. The nurses truly thought that their actions were worthwhile and helpful, when it was harmful. Just how the nurses are playing god, the Doctor does as well.

The person aware of the Doctor’s visitation says that he was supposed to speak to the wanderer or “the lonely god.” Companions come and go, but the Doctor is always there making great decisions. The Doctor’s omniscient, always-present persona puts him in a god-like position. Like god, the Doctor may not physically be present, but he is watching and acting when necessary.

The Doctor and Rose observe the Ood, an alien species in Doctor Who, who act religious in an episode called “Welcome to Hell.” Given the Ood are a usually quiet species, it is atypical for them to talk aloud, especially at the climax when a group of the Ood says: “He is awake and you will worship him.” This phrase is religious for the word “worship.” Because of the Ood’s disposition, the writers of Doctor Who portray that the lack of religion is normal, while religion is abnormal.  The Doctor watches the Ood to understand their abnormal religious behavior in order to convert them back to the absence of religion. Here, the writers are mocking the species’ religious behavior and trying to reinvent or correct it.

Tension between Reinventing and Mocking Religion

Russell T Davies, a recent Doctor Who writer, has started to critique religion through the show’s allusions to religion in setting, plot, and language. Davies sees religion as a weakness (Balstrup, 2014). In his view, it blurs individual thinking and we must rid ourselves of religion. With religion, we are blind. Without religion, we can be moral and this transition to a new religion must be initiated by the Doctor. Davies creates an ambivalence between reinventing religion and mocking it to alleviate its existence.

In his work “Totem and Taboo,” Sigmund Freud discusses the concept of ambivalence as two strong conscious emotions about a given object. The person may repress the feeling or project it onto someone else. If the latter occurs, the person will feel both emotions simultaneously. It appears that Davies is experiencing Freud’s type of ambivalence. Because of his belief in New Atheism, he projects the reinvention duty onto the Doctor. Davies writes the Doctor to be a rational being in order to make fun of religion. Davies (and the Doctor) are trying to get rid of religion because it leads to the absence of original and individual thought. To deal with the ambivalence, Davies is trying to reinvent religion by first mocking it.

Not only does Davies want to reinvent religion, but he also sees the current religion as inadequate. Davies’ ideas parallel with philosophers like Richard Dawkins to support New Atheism. Balstrup argues that, “mirroring the distinction between Atheism and New Atheism, the Davies years take the generalized secular-humanist philosophy of the program and converts it into a pronounced and urgent appeal to viewers to scrutinize and reflect on the ethical validity of a religion” (Balstrup, 2014, p. 147). First, a distinction must be made between Atheism and New Atheism. Atheism is the belief in no god. New Atheism is the belief in no god and the belief that other religions are wrong. This distinction is important because New Atheism actively mocks religion, whereas Atheism is a private belief. Davies wants to say that in no world can religion and ethics be intertwined. Ethics can only be moral when religion is absent. With religion, “the integrity of human nature is often placed under threat, and this threat is used to reveal what it means to be human” (Balstrup, 2014, p. 148). To Davies, religion means the absence of ethics and human nature. For Davies, the integrity of thinking is under threat when religion is involved; our humanity can only be discovered when thinking is open-minded and rational.

For Davies, religion is blind. Rational thinking is an individual action that needs to be done without the blur of religion. Balstrup says, “Davies demonstrates that humans stray from the path of progress when they blindly follow a higher power, and the Doctor is the agent of guidance who can awaken humanity from their ideological stupor” (Balstrup, 2014, p. 149). The Doctor is an authority figure that can save humanity from their foolish religion by giving them a new one: New Atheism. To illustrate why New Atheism is necessary, Davies treats religion as something that is a distraction to thinking. Karl Marx also discusses religion this way in Raines’ introduction of Marx’s work. Balstrup mentions Marx’s term “opiate of the masses” to describe how Davies thinks of religion. The similarity between Davies and Marx is that they both view religion as blind because it clouds judgement and perception. Marx argues that religion does not help contribute to public consciousness because it does not allow humanity to move on to a secular and therefore better future. Religion is a coping mechanism and helps us deal with our current problems (Raines, 2002). Through these observations, I argue that for Davies human nature is the ability to think individually, rationally, and make well informed decisions. To both Marx and Davies, religion needs to be dissolved because it does not allow for individual rational thinking or creative thought. The Doctor must help dissolve religion.

Are we helpless with religion? Balstrup argues that for Davies, “religion created hope, which rendered humanity passive and helpless” (Balstrup, p. 152). However, I disagree with Balstrup because it does not seem that Davies thinks of religious people as helpless. Davies writes the Doctor as someone who can help religious people. If they can be helped, then they cannot be helpless. Marx and Davies seem to agree on an important aspect: religion creates hope. For Marx, religion creates an escape, which could be hope in terms of not having to face one’s problems. Because it is an escape, it makes the hardship that the religious person is going through seem hopeful. Hope is created when problems seem less severe. For Davies, religion creates hope by not finding a rational solution to problems. For Marx, hope is more of an unconscious process while for Davies, it is a conscious process. Whether hope is unconscious or conscious, religion must be eradicated in order for society to be rational thinkers.

Whereas Davies is arguing against religion, Doctor Who appears to be a religion itself which is the heart of the paradox. Davies replaces immoral religion with the Doctor’s rational thinking, which appears to be a type of religious philosophy. The Doctor is the coping mechanism that Marx describes because he is creating hope. If he is serving as the coping mechanism, then this means that the Doctor is a savior and Doctor Who is a religion.

Although some episodes of Doctor Who can be seen as Christian, Davies challenges this view by “liken[ing] religion to a cultural virus that the Doctor must fight in order to save humankind” (Balstrup, 2014, p. 145). Religion is a disease and the Doctor must rid get of it to save humanity. Here, there is tension and ambivalence. In getting rid of the current religion, the Doctor is becoming a savior of the people by saving them from religion – how ironic! If the Doctor is supposed to fight and save humanity from religion, he must be taking on a non-Christian, implicit religious role.

Implicit religion is the idea that an object takes on religious elements without being called religion, just like the Doctor does. Implicit religion is defined as “when secular culture does religious work,” according to Geraci (2014, p. 417). Doctor Who, a supposedly secular television show, is doing religious work. Religion is implicit in the series because plot and language are obviously religious, but it is not discussed among fans. Additionally, science fiction is supposed to be purely secular. Doctor Who and its fans pretend the show is secular and therefore the religion is implicit. Despite the fact that fans assume Doctor Who is not religious, the show could be seen as transhuman.

Geraci discusses the idea of transhumanism as, “the belief that human beings will overcome their own finitude through technology” (Geraci, 2014, p. 424). The Doctor could be seen as a piece of technology himself by assisting humans with problems far beyond their capability. Although the Doctor does have technology from a different time and place, he also has knowledge to overcome situations. Isn’t this what technology was created for? To overcome hard problems, for ease. The Doctor’s experience through time and space could be a different kind of technology, but it is still appropriate to see him as a savior. Transhumanism could be the religion that the writers of Doctor Who are trying to offer.

Religion and Fantasy

Although I have been showing the tension between reinventing and mocking religion, Doctor Who does not have to be completely Christian or New Atheism; it can be a combination. Many sci-fi television shows can have co-existing science and religion; “the recent theory of ‘multiple modernities’ helps us to understand that there are different views of what a modernist project can be… includ[ing] a perspective that sees science and religion as being in co-existence” (Aupers and Houtman, 2010, p. 215). Doctor Who is not completely rational and scientific or solely religious; rather, the television show can have a combination of the two. “There is a place for both religion and atheism in these recent episodes… science and religion are not depicted as mutually exclusive” (Aupers and Houtman, 2010, p. 211). Even though science is equated to be the absence of religion, both science and religion are depicted. Although there is Freudian ambivalence, it does not have to problematic; both religion and science can simultaneously exist.

Where do science and religion intersect? Do they compete with belief systems or can they overlap? If science and religion happen together, is it a paradox? According to Kimberly Rae Connor, we tend to move away from fantasy to science or vice versa (Connor, 2014). Science fiction or fantasy can “explore the unknowable” (Connor, 2014, p. 370). Connors is playing with the idea that science and religion can coexist. She discusses how, “science fiction writers understand the paradoxical nature of religious cultural production” (Connor, 2014, p. 372). Science fiction writers may write the plot knowing that it is paradoxical. Whereas Connor discusses that science fiction and religion co-exist, she does not discuss how they are able to coexist. She talks of religion and science fiction’s ability to transport people. I argue that religion and science fiction cover different domains and therefore allow fans to be transported to a fantasy place. Like Connor suggests, maybe Davies wrote Doctor Who as inherently paradoxical as there is a fantasy component to both religion and science fiction.

Conclusion

While there is an ambivalence between mocking and reinventing religion in Doctor Who, I argue that this ambivalence could co-exist. Davies is trying to change the way we think of religion by showing is it as inadequate, irrational, and unintelligent; however, the implicit religion establishes Doctor Who as a religion of its own. Simultaneously, he is advocating for New Atheism or possibly transhumanism like Geraci suggests to be the replacement religion. In this paper, I have discussed religious plot and language using three different episodes, showed the Freudian ambivalence between reinventing and mocking religion, and how science and religion could co-exist. The Doctor is a new, religious symbol through the parody and reinvention of religion.

 

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