Monday, July 09, 2007

Messianic Materials in Doctor Who

Warning: post contains spoilers, and links to posts with spoilers

The fabulous third season of the new Doctor Who finished last week, while we were still in England, just as it gets underway here in the States on SciFi Channel every Friday (after which it will probably go to BBC America, and then to PBS channels, if the first season is anything to go by; but America has not yet woken up to new Doctor Who, which is consistently at the top of the ratings in the UK). I'll be watching the whole series again in the US, all the time waiting for the Christmas special guest-starring Kylie in a few months time. I sympathise with Caitlin Moran in The Times who gets it exactly right in her review Doctor Who is Simply Masterful, "I know that, in many respects, I am lucky that the ending of Doctor Who is the most traumatic occurrence in my life, in any given year . . ." Me too. What has brought the recent season of Doctor Who onto this blog for the first time, though, has been the rather striking Christian imagery, first in Human Nature, adapted by Paul Cornell from his earlier novel of the same name, which provided a brilliant imaginative analogy to kenotic theories of the incarnation (Doctor Who, Human Nature and Kenosis). The following episode, Family of Blood, the second in the two parter and also penned by Cornell, had an unmissable parallel with The Last Temptation of Christ, as John Smith imagines the future that he could have with Joan including marriage, children and domestic bliss, before giving up that life to become the Doctor, just as Jesus in Last Temptation sees the domestic bliss of a future he must sacrifice.

The subtlety of that imagery from those episodes did not prepare me for the remarkably blatant Christian imagery of the final episode, The Last of the Time Lords, a classic good versus evil, super-hero / super-villain match-up between the Doctor and the Master with a clustering of themes that have raised a few eyebrows, defeating evil through "faith and hope", "prayer" (the Master's terms), Martha travelling the world to tell the good news of how the doctor has often saved people without their realizing it, and the Doctor rising from humiliation to defeat evil, and forgive its perpetrator. In her Times Online Blog, Dr Who?, Ruth Gledhill asks "Is there some subversive Christian working behind the scenes at Dr Who?" It is remarkable to think that the writer of the episode, Russell T. Davies, the guru of the re-invented Doctor Who, is an atheist. Some fans hated this last episode (e.g. Behind the Sofa); others loved it (e.g. He's not the Messiah, he's the doctor . . .). I was with the latter. Of course there is an extent to which the themes are just good old fashioned good vs. evil, divine hero coming to save the world, along with a typical deus ex machina ending, but the particular cluster of Christian themes -- gospel, salvation, faith, hope, prayer, forgiveness -- make the link with the New Testament here pretty striking. I suppose it says something of the power of the story that an atheist can borrow from it so unashamedly.


simon said...

I agree with everything you say about the last season of Dr Who - absolutely stunning and brimful of sermon illustrations.
I'm remdinded of something Joss wheedon of Buffy fame said. I haven't got the exact quote but it was along the lines that it's impossible to write a good and convincing story that doesn't have redemption and the triumph of good over evil at its heart. Apparently, he tried several times with Buffy and failed.
C S Lewis would, of course, have agreed, arguing that all stories are pale reflections of the one story that really matters.

Tony Bellows said...

There was also an almost blatant borrowing from Peter Pan where everyone at once believing in the Doctor brings him (like Tinkebell) back from the brink of death! I loved the way it was given a SF twist (Telepathic fields of the Archangel network - another religious connotation!)

eklektekuria said...

There are other Christian-like touches (***spoilers***). In "Gridlock," the denizens of the motorway sing Christian hymns at different times of the day. The seemingly immortal Face of Boe gives his life to save them from their (infernal) fate in the undercity motorway, circling around in Sisyphusian fashion, while their entrapment there represented an earlier saving act on the part of Boe.

In "Family of Blood," the Doctor administers eternal punishment to the Family in a way that evokes the dispatching of the Dragon and the False Prophet in the Lake of Fire in Revelation (or the chaining of the fallen angels under the earth in 1 Enoch). The narrator (one of the Family) also makes the point that the Doctor became human to hide from the Family not because he was in any real danger, but because he was "being kind" -- that is, we have here a view of mercy that is extended to the Doctor's enemies, but whom receive eternal punishment when they fail to accept his mercy.

I was not too happy with the resolution of the terrific cliffhanger of "Sound of Drums" in the finale, particularly in the pat reset button approach and various other (contrived) aspects of the story that seemed to fall flat. Some of the writing this season (e.g. "Evolution of the Daleks," "42") was also not up to the level of the last series imho. But even when the show is performing poorly, it is still more watchable than most other pap on television.

James F. McGrath said...

Not surprising, given that he encountered (and defeated) Satan in season 2! The theological overtones have been with the show for a long time, I believe, with the Doctor being referred to by someone who knew him in school as 'Theta Sigma', and of course his role in the creation of our universe and the starting of life on our planet!

I can hardly wait for the third season to make it to the U.S. Thanks for commenting on this!

Mark Goodacre said...

Thanks, James. Good points.

You are aware that the third season has already started in the US, right? (Christmas Special + Ep. 1 were on SciFi last Friday).

Mark Goodacre said...

Simon, Tony and eklektekuria: all great points. I agree about Evolution of the Daleks and 42 -- weaker points in the series. But eps. 8-10, the Paul Cornell and Stephen Moffatt scripts were pure gold.

James Diggs said...

The title of your post caught my attention, but the spoiler alert kept me from reading it. lol

I haven’t seen these episodes yet, so I book marked your post so I can read it in a few months. I am a follower of Christ and a Doctor Who fan so I am interested in the parallels you are referring to- I can’t wait.