Humanity is just one tiny little speck in a vast and uncaring universe.
Humans are also awesome and capable of amazing things.
This is the message of Doctor Who distilled into its purest form.
With the release of the series nine trailer, now seemed as good a time as any to finally write up this idea I’ve had, knocking around for a while, that Doctor Who is as good as any religion.
First things first, let’s make no bones about it, I’m a geek – can’t help it, in my blood. I’m drawn to geeky things. I love Star Wars, I love superhero movies, I enjoy fantasy…you get the picture!
But there’s something special about my love for Doctor Who that transcends my simple enjoyment. It feels deeper, stronger and more important. In fact the closest thing I can describe it to is the relationship I’ve had with Christianity. It’s almost like a religion.
Wait, wait, don’t click off just yet… I know it sounds mad. It’s a Saturday evening kid’s TV show. Yes, I know that! And look, I’m not about to argue that I really think there’s a 900+ year old alien flying around saving our lives or suggest that we set up the sacred church of the TARDIS.
I want to deal with exactly what religion is and exactly why I think Doctor Who fits that mould.
To get to that point though, we’ll need to take the slow path (if you get that reference then I love you) – we must first begin by identifying two fundamental aspects of the show.
The morality of Doctor Who
Most of us are pretty familiar with the Doctor – he’s an ancient alien who travels around in a blue box and often ends up saving the day. If you need a refresh, this is as good as any:
At first The Doctor might appear just like any other generic superhero – a powerful being that shows up, beats the bad guys and moves on. And, in a way, that is kind of what happens…but the Doctor is so much more than that.
We often hear talk about how there are very few good role models for women, which is absolutely true. But, thinking about it, many of the role models for men aren’t that great. Take the Marvel movies, for example. These are kind hearted movies with moral characters at their centre. Each and everyone of those heroes, however, are in some way defined by their strength and each are quick to use violence.
The Doctor is different. He isn’t physically strong or agile, he’s a pacifist who abhors violence and almost always looks for the peaceful option. His super power, if he really has one, is his intelligence. To my eyes that’s one hell of a role model for young boys! In fact it’s a hell of a role model for us all.
What further defines The Doctor is his motivation. Unlike most superheroes he doesn’t appear motivated by duty or obligation (although, being an ancient alien who we know very little about, his motivation is not always clear), he does it because he cares deeply about humanity. The Doctor loves humans, although he can’t always show it. Importantly his love is never portrayed as weakness, it’s the thing that makes him great.
With the companion, time after time we see The Doctor fall in love (largely not in a romantic sense) and face heartache after heartache, but he can’t help himself – The Doctor loves human beings. Not only that, he loves life. The Doctor doesn’t travel because he wants to be a hero, he largely shuns the title, he travels because he loves exploring and discovering.
To The Doctor all life is precious and he delights in it. Just look at his joyful reaction in The Doctor Dances when he realises he can (on this rare occasion) save everybody.
In essence, The Doctor is probably the most upstanding hero you can imagine – on the surface, at least, he makes Captain America look like The Punisher.
But the genius of the show is it never gives The Doctor an easy pass. We are often shown that The Doctor is wrong, that his power can be dangerous and that he is always fallible.
In fact even when doing good for the most right of reasons, the show still calls him out on how dangerous he can be. Just take a look at this scene where River (his wife, sort of…long story) scolds him for becoming such a force to be reckoned with in the universe. Villains are so terrified of him that to some the word ‘Doctor’ comes to mean warrior.
The Doctor is kept on the good path because his morality is ALWAYS in question and he’s only ever one slip away from making a terrible choice. Unlike with questioning the morality of Batman, where you’re thinking ‘yeah, no shit he’s morally dubious. He beats up poor people at night’, questioning The Doctor’s morality resonates more because he really does always try and do the right thing.
It’s a reminder to us all that we should always be questioning our morality and never feel satisfied we have all the answers.
So The Doctor is a good man, undeniably, but he is flawed, fallible and dangerous.
The universe of Doctor Who
What I love about Doctor Who is it’s a gleefully optimistic programme. It believes in the good of humanity and in our power to do the right thing, it believes in love and it believes in morality. Good almost always wins out in the Doctor Who universe.
But the genius of Doctor Who is that it doesn’t take place in a Disney like universe where everything is quite nice anyway. In fact the universe of Doctor Who is quite brutal – there are whole races of aliens who seek just to exterminate and destroy other living beings.
It’s a common complaint of the Moffat era (not entirely unfounded) that people don’t die. In actual fact, of course, people die all the time in Doctor Who. Most episodes feature entirely innocent people dying and their death attributed no meaning.
The power of this is Doctor Who’s optimism isn’t contrived or manipulative. All the good happens against the backdrop of a universe very much like our own – cold and indifferent.
You can see this clearly in the way the show treats humanity. We’re shown, time and time again, to be mere specks in a greater universe. The show sticks to a secular understanding of life in which our existence is an accident and our lives ultimately, perhaps, pointless.
But then, in perfect juxtaposition, humanity is shown to have great value. We’re immensely important to The Doctor and the way we live our lives truly does matter. The fact that we ascribe significance to things where there is none is not treated as misguided, it’s positively celebrated. Watch this scene as The Doctor celebrates our demarking of birthdays and Christmas. The universe, he reminds us, is beautiful…but only if there’s someone there to see it.
When you take a step back, Doctor Who is actually something of a love letter to humanity – albeit one that recognises our insignificance and our flaws. And think about how rare that is – an awful lot of film and TV focuses on humanity as corrupted beings, on our weaknesses and our potential for immorality. To have a show that sees the good in humanity is, in my view, to be celebrated.
So how is Doctor Who possibly a religion?
You may have followed me so far but have no idea how I’m going to make a leap that Doctor Who is as good as a religion.
Firstly, I would argue that the main driving force behind a beneficial religion is not a focus on truth claims but on narrative. This is something I think mainstream Christianity has certainly began to recognise.
The significance of the Gospel really isn’t in how it correlates to actual historical events but instead in how the story allows us to understand ourselves and our relationship with God.
This may sound slightly wishy-washy but an honest assessment of history would need us to relegate at least some of the Gospel accounts to story. For example, does anyone truly believe that the bodies of the saints were raised as stated in Matthew 27:52-53? Did the temple curtain really rip? Isn’t this instead better understood as eschatology, soteriology and beautiful, powerful imagery?
I remember one of my friends once didn’t like it when I described the Genesis account of creation as a myth. Isn’t the term ‘myth’ a bit derisive? In my mind, however, myth is in no sense meant as an insult. The Hebrew Scriptures are full of powerful and long-lasting stories that to a certain extent help us understand what it means to be human.
To say the Genesis account is myth is to allow it to explore the deep questions of what it means to be tempted, what it means to live in a world unblemished by evil etc. To insist it be read as history simply makes it a false account – we know that the world was not formed in six days. Ironically, it is in insisting that it be read as a literal account which takes away the power of the scripture.
And what of the resurrection? Did Jesus really rise from the dead? Does it even really matter? Don’t get me wrong, IF one can rationally argue for a miracle taking place then the resurrection is probably the one with the strongest defence (read something like NT Wright’s ‘The Resurrection of the Son of God’) but, ultimately, the deeper meaning of the resurrection transcends the actual truth claim. The resurrection showed that Jesus’ message did not die with him, that it could not be beaten by death and it lives on through the disciples and the Church.
So coming back to Doctor Who, what do we have? Stories. Narratives. Something with which we can use to question our humanity and our morality.
What Doctor Who really offers us is humanism, but it provides us with a tangible way to latch on to those ideas. Stories are, when push comes to shove, often more powerful and affecting than rational arguments.
We have The Doctor, perhaps the closest thing most of us could imagine to a God – he isn’t perfect but he loves, cares and stands up for what is right. He recognises humanity’s flaws but never gives up on us and still believes we all have value and meaning regardless. That is a worldview we can emulate.
This kind of use of popular stories needn’t be limited to Doctor Who (some have argued, for example, that superheroes are like the Greek myths of our time) but Doctor Who is the most powerful example for me.
In fact, could these kind of stories not be better than old Bible tales? The Bible is littered with ideas that don’t work in our time – for example, isn’t God’s massacre of the Egyptian children a war crime? Isn’t the notion of blood sacrifice horrific? Even Jesus said we should hate our families and compared a Syrophoenician Woman to a dog worthy of scraps. Note, I’m not saying these are what they seem on face value, in fact Jesus’ life besides these points is certainly one worthy of emulation, but it does prove how difficult it can be to use ancient texts as narratives for modern life.
Back to Doctor Who, the scene in The Rings of Akhaten (an unfairly maligned episode) where the doctor confronts a sun God is much more powerful if you imagine he is talking to the Abrahamic God (I can’t say for certain, but it looks likely this was the writer’s intention.) It’s a humanist facing off against the Abrahamic God mano e mano and the language is powerful.
“You think you’re a God, but you’re not a God. You’re just a parasite eaten out with jealously, and envy and longing for the lives of others.”
It certainly brings to mind that famous and controversial sentence from Richard Dawkin’s ‘The God Delusion’ where he describes God as the most unpleasant character in all of fiction.
You can watch the full scene here:
I wrote this because, as sad as it may sound, Doctor Who really did help shape me as a person – at least in some small way. In my move from a fundamentalist background I saw the heart and soul of Doctor Who’s functional and inspiring humanism and as time went by it rang true with me more and more.
If religious power is in narrative, and if that narrative is to help us live as better human beings, then I suppose anything can form the basis of a religious movement – we just need to choose wisely.
Doctor Who seems as good as any religion to me!
Do you agree? Do you think I’ve lost my mind? Let me know in the comments below!