Theology and Doctor Who

One of the most epic scenes in the entire Whoniverse. Credit: BBC.

One of the most epic scenes in the entire Whoniverse. Credit: BBC.

“How many seconds in eternity?”

So this post is a little bit TV review, a little bit analysis, a little bit religious commentary, and a little bit blog recommendation. It’s complicated…or wibbly-wobby-timey-whimey, you might say. But Doctor Who tends to do that to you.

Doctor Who’s Series 9 (Season 9 to Americans) concluded a week ago, and I have to say that it was great. The previous two series were so-so, in my opinion, but this one had Peter Capaldi in top form, on par with Matt Smith’s best, and there was a lot going on.

In the very first episode of Series 9, which I reviewed before, the Doctor was effectively given the choice to kill baby Hitler a month before the NYT Magazine proposed it. In the second two-part episode, he explored the philosophy of the bootstrap paradox. (“Google it.”) In “The Girl Who Died”, he reaffirmed his call to save people, even in the face of dangerous and unpredictable consequences. With the Zygons, he tackled war, peace, and terrorism. And in the epic finale, well, let’s just say the last two episodes are called “Heaven Sent” and “Hell Bent”, and they earn those titles. The newest series takes on social, philosophical, and ethical commentary that really makes you think more than ever, and it entertains the whole way.

It’s odd the way the Doctor changes with every regeneration, and sometimes even in between, and this series was no exception. In what I considered a surprising move, they gave him sonic sunglasses and an electric guitar for a sort of Mick Jagger-esque old-rock-star look. It was about the last thing I expected of the Doctor in general or Peter Capaldi in particular, but bizarrely, it worked. Even the old rock star is completely believable as the Doctor.

My rating for Series 9: a solid 5 out of 5.

But what I really noticed in this series (and starting at the end of the last series) were the theological references. The Doctor has become a Christ archetype, and once again, it works surprisingly well.

Now, there have been previous incidents where the Doctor has appeared as a Christ archetype: his victory in “Last of the Time Lords”, the imagery in “Voyage of the Damned”, and his death in “The End of Time”, to name a few. But this series has really made him own the role through his words and actions, and not just in beating the bad guys.

Now, people have been talking about religious overtones in Doctor Who for a while. For example, Cracked.com ran an article in 2011 entitled “How Doctor Who Became My Religion” (warning for language). Briefly, the article said the Doctor is a savior who regularly defeats evil that we couldn’t hope to overcome ourselves. He is a personal savior who desires a relationship with us. And he solves the problem of evil by being fallible.

Mind you, this was in the middle of Matt Smith’s tenure, and I thought it was silly and more of a parody at the time, but this changed when Peter Capaldi took the reigns. The writers are serious about it now.

The first big WHOA line for me came in last series’s “Dark Water”.

Do you think I care for you so little that betraying me would make a difference?

WHOA.

I don’t think much more needs to be said at that point. That line alone is enough to make the Doctor one of the best Christ analogues I’ve seen in fiction, even though he doesn’t sacrifice himself for anyone…well, not in that particular story. Still, in our modern, secular world, and especially in the even more secular Britain, I wasn’t really sure that it was deliberate. I thought it might be intentional, but I also thought it might have been some writer being clever on his own. But it wasn’t. I’m sure now that it wasn’t. This, in the penultimate episode of the current series, “Heaven Sent”–this was the moment when I knew.

“How many seconds in eternity?” The Shepard’s Boy says. “There’s this mountain of pure diamond. It takes an hour to climb it, and an hour to go around it. Every hundred years, a little bird comes and sharpens its beak on the diamond mountain. And when the entire mountain is chiseled away, the first second of eternity will have passed!”

You might think that’s a helluva long time. Personally? I think that’s a helluva bird!

The final ten minutes of “Heaven Sent” are probably the best ten minutes of Peter Capaldi’s entire tenure so far, right up there with Matt Smith’s “I AM TALKING!” and David Tennant’s “Don’t blink.” That little story was adapted from Grimms’ Fairy Tales (the Doctor even mentions them by name), but most people will probably be familiar with it from Sunday school, as a parable to convey the magnitude of eternity. And given the title of the episode, there is no way the writers weren’t thinking about the religious references, and what’s more, I think they used them both respectfully and effectively, which is not a given in this day and age. So I feel they enrich the story all the more.

Now, I could go on all day about this, but I’m already at 900 words, and frankly, there’s someone else who is already doing it better than I could. So I’d like to recommend you check out the blog Whovian Theology, which analyzes not just the religious, but also the social, political, and ethical issues raised in Doctor Who. I don’t agree with them on everything, but it’s well worth the read.

Allons-y! Geronimo! And who needs a catchphrase?

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About Alex R. Howe

I'm a full-time astrophysicist and a part-time science fiction writer.
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