Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Doctor Who, Human Nature and Kenosis

Regular readers will know that it is rare for me to blog on items of outside interest, all the many non-academic interests that make life so enjoyable, British TV and radio, cinema, music, cricket, football, politics and so on. But I do make exceptions where items of personal interest intersect with the theme of the blog. The most recent episode of Doctor Who, broadcast on BBC1 last Saturday (Series 3, Episode 8), was called Human Nature, the first of a two parter with Family of Blood to follow this Saturday. It was written by Paul Cornell, who wrote the superb "Father's Day" in the first of the new Doctor Whos in 2005.

American readers will be less familiar with Doctor Who than British readers. Very briefly, it is the longest running science fiction TV series of all time, from 1963 to the present; it is produced by the BBC and is about a time-travelling alien from the planet Gallifrey called The Doctor. He travels in a blue 1960s police box called the TARDIS and has a companion, usually female. He is able to change his appearance when he regenerates, and has done this nine times. The series was cancelled by the BBC in 1989; it re-emerged briefly in 1996 for a TVM; it returned triumphantly in 2005 when it had been transformed almost out of recognition from what we were brought up with, under Russell T. Davies. The current series is the third of these new Doctor Whos, with David Tennant playing the tenth doctor.

This week's episode (30 second trailer here) saw the Doctor pursued by "the family of blood", and his only hope of escaping from them was to hide. Thus, for the first time ever, he uses the chameleon arch, in the TARDIS, to change his entire make up and transform him into a human being, his Doctor's essence now contained in an old fob watch which was not to be opened. His new life is as John Smith, a teacher in a British public school in 1913. His current companion Martha (Freema Agyeman) acts as his maid, and watches and waits until it is safe for John Smith to become the Doctor again.

The reason the episode appealed to me was not just that it was a cracking retelling of the age-old story of the alien taking on human nature and living in a particular time and a particular place, doing extraordinary things, but it was one of the best fictional attempts I have seen to work out the "emptying" of the alien's powers, to achieve kenosis before embarking on the new adventure on earth.

I recall clearly when I first heard about kenotic Christology, when reading Charles Gore when I was a student in Oxford; I remember being quite thrilled by this idea, which I had never heard in Church, and which seemed to make complete sense to me, with Scriptural precedent (Phil. 2.6-11) and intellectual coherence. I asked my Church History tutor, Geoffrey Rowell at Keble College, why more people did not see this as a solution to the profound difficulties with understanding and expressing the doctrine of the incarnation, and he agreed that it had had something of a bad press.

One of the difficulties with a kenotic Christology, I am told, is that it is extraodinarily difficult to explain what it might mean to speak of an "emptying" of what pertains to being God. In what sense is Jesus of Nazareth "God" if that character is emptied of that nature? Since I am neither a philosopher nor a theologian, I like stories that will help me to imagine my way into interesting theological ideas, and this episode of Doctor Who, for the first time that I have seen in fiction, grappled with the idea of an alien emptying himself, being transformed into a human being, and asking the question whether this is indeed the same man. Is John Smith of "Human Nature" the same person as the Doctor? He looks the same; he has many of the Doctor's traits; at night he dreams of that other life and those other adventures; but he has only residual awareness of his other identity, expressed in his Journal of Impossible Things. This short YouTube clip comes about half-way through the episode, as Martha returns to the TARDIS and has flashbacks to the key moments of the Doctor's kenosis.


Paul Cornell said...

It's wonderful when people unpack all the things I've shoved into my Doctor Who stories. I'm actually married to a theologian, so I have an expert on hand. Thank you.

Peter M. Head said...

Thanks Mark,

Great fun, can't wait for Saturday night's second installment. A couple of points:
a) Kenotic Christology is connected (at least as I have argued) with the history of the synoptic problem (so there is a link).
b) Also given the Doctor's status as unique (surviving) Time Lord the parallels are even close than for generic 'alien'.
c) There are still some problems relating Gore's kenotic christology to the whole NT evidence of course.

Loren Rosson III said...

Great post, Mark. I still need to see more of these new Doctor Who stories.

Incidentally, Tom Baker's last two episodes -- Keeper of Traken, Logopolis -- are being released on DVD next week. I have them on order, naturally. (See amazon's list of Tom Baker stories available on DVD.)

Simon Gathercole said...

Yes, fantastic episode!

Jesus, though, has a strong sense of divine mission - not the same kind of forgetting as John Smith.

I will not even mention pre-existence.

Mark Goodacre said...

Thanks for these comments. To get a comment from Paul Cornell himself made my day; great kudos for Dad as I told my kids when I walked them to school this morning!

Peter: good points all round.

Loren: you really need to take a leap into the twenty first century and see what the doctor's doing now; you can get box sets of the first two series in America already, and PBS are now showing the first series fairly regularly.

Simon: well of course Jesus had longer than John Smith, 30+ years to get his sense of divine mission. Imagine what his "Journal of impossible things" looked like after all that time :)

James Crossley said...

I thought this was possibly the best episode of the new (2005-) Doctor Who (the last of the last series was pretty impressive too) but shamefully never picked up on the theology.

Now, Peter, I don't want to sound pedantic and geeky but... on point b) in one of the earlier episodes wasn't the Doctor told that he was not alone in the universe and there was another time lord? Can't quite remember but I think so. And to speculate a wee bit, might that young lad and the clips shown from the forthcoming episode have anything to do with it?

I'll get my hat and coat.

Jon said...

I'm absolutely devouring the theological themes in Dr Who at the moment... Fantastic! Thanks Mark for proving to me that I don't have an over-active theological imagination!

Kevin P. Edgecomb said...

Kenosis is alive and well in Eastern Orthodox theology.

I'm surprised it isn't better known.

Anonymous said...

Wow - a comment from the writer. I am realy, really impressed!

Was a really fantastic episode. Can't wait for next episode - except am leading a parish weekend away - wracking my brain to think how I can sneak away and watch the tele.

Was the first episode after which my children said they were really scared.


Pastor Burt said...

I've been following this blog for some time now, and find it quite enjoyable and thought provoking. Imagine my surprise to check my bloglines account and discover you including Doctor Who, one of my favorite guilty pleasures. I thought the similarities you presented were quite striking. And I had no idea Paul Cornell was married to a theologian.

Today's a good day!

Anonymous said...

Technically speaking, the show hasn't run from 1964 to the present. Since (as you note) the original show ended somewhere in 1989, this is now a new show. It was still the longest-running scifi show, but its run was just 1964-1989.

Anonymous said...

gosh - since Mark qualified the longest running sci-fi, "technically speaking" is a little pedantic. Just a little. Doesn't really matter. Just like this. Just waiting for the rain to stop...

Doug said...

Now I've watched the second half, I'd have to say it's kenotic christology owing more to Kazatzakis' "Lasr Temptation" than to Gore's work.
But definitley one of the better storylines.

Mark Goodacre said...

Hi Doug; yes, Kazantzakis came to my mind too, and others' . I hope to blog on that too in a day or two. What a fantastic episode.