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Posts Tagged ‘Christianity’

I am occasionally accused of treating Doctor Who as if it were a religion. I tend to get rather annoyed when this happens, mainly because my show has never caused any wars, perpetuated any major social problems or injustices, or been responsible for much of anything beyond mild boredom and occasionally substandard storytelling.

 

The Doctor strikes a familiar pose in front of some Romans...

 

However, simply because it is something of a phenomenon and because there is an awful lot of it to select from, you can put virtually any interpretation on it you like and find something to support whatever it is you’re trying to say. Nevertheless, there was something of a world-wide jaw-droppy-open moment a few years ago when the Christian Right organisation Movieguide nominated the episode Gridlock for one of their Epiphany Awards. This was not just because the episode features married lesbians, inter-species reproduction and a cat wearing a nun’s wimple (none of which are things you would expect the Christian Right to be big fans of), but because the series – in its revived form anyway – has never really minced its words.

In addition to some quite scathing swipes at British foreign and domestic policy (presenting Tony Blair as a psychopathic maniac being about the mildest of these), Russell T Davies never really pulled any punches in putting his own atheist beliefs into the show. At one point the Doctor visits a place where religion is, like weaponry, banned, while on another occasion he is quietly amused by the ability of human beings to ignore evidence for the existence of aliens, even after countless attempted invasions, while continuing to believe in things which are invisible and intangible (the implication being that he’s talking about… oh, surely you can work it out).

Despite all this, I’m fully aware of a number of committed Christians who are regular viewers of the show, and at least one of the writers of the new series is a Christian himself. (I also know one Christian who refuses to watch it at all on the grounds that it’s apparently ‘occult’, but that’s a separate issue.) Because the show is the show it is, some Christians have picked up on what they perceive to be strong Christian themes and imagery in the show and are writing about it as though this were the only such interpretation.

Well, I’m always vaguely suspicious of people trying to use fantasy and SF fiction to promote religious ideas that weren’t necessarily the creators’ intention. My own parents, who are believers, were keen to see a Christian subtext to things like E.T. (a personal project of Steven Spielberg’s, who is – not to put too fine a point on it – Jewish), and the original Star Wars (if there is a real-world spiritual basis to the Jedi religion then it’s either Taoism or Shinto). Even Alan Moore has gone on record as interpreting the Superman mythos in explicitly Christian terms – the perfect man with extraordinary powers who was sent from the sky by his father to save people and inspire others (the creators of Superman were also Jewish).

Having said all that, there are quite a few rather good genre Christian allegories, with the best, and best-known, being the original The Day The Earth Stood Still, which does lay it on with a trowel somewhat (although, given this, the denouement – with the message ‘Behave or we’ll kill you’ – is startlingly authoritarian). Personally I have a great admiration for the Babylon 5 episode Passing Through Gethsemane, which deals with themes of responsibility, guilt, and forgiveness in a Christian context with great sensitivity. Other shows, comics and movies are a bit less full-on in terms of doing a full-scale allegory but quite happy to use some Christian iconography and imagery.

For example:

Must try harder to be subtle, guys.

 

Charlton Heston saves the world in The Omega Man.

From Smallville. This scene references Clark Kent's 'crucifixion' waaay back, but I couldn't find a picture of that (sorry).

 I suppose if you’re intent on playing with these kinds of themes and imagery you’re as well to sneak them into a SF or fantasy film, as they tend to get overlooked, these kinds of films being generally dismissed and disparaged. No-one, rather to my surprise, made much of a fuss about Darth Vader being the product of an immaculate conception, while the similar material in The Matrix (Neo rises from the dead to assume his full power, while his real name translates as Son of Man) was carefully buried.

And, returning at long last to our original topic, it’s not unknown for people to stick Christian iconography into Doctor Who. Probably the worst offenders here are the makers of the McGann TV movie, which features a newly-resurrected, white-robed Doctor vacating his ‘tomb’ early on, and climaxes with him being fitted with a high-tech crown of thorns. More recently, even some of the Davies episodes start to creep into this territory despite Davies’ professed agenda. The climax of David Tennant’s second series essentially has the Doctor revitalised by the power of prayer, in an incredibly Messianic sequence. The very next episode seems him ascending, flanked by angelic Hosts.

So I suppose one can meaningfully ask the question of whether the Doctor is, on any level, a truly Christian or even Christ-like protagonist. He does score heavily over most fantasy heroes (with the possible exception of Tolkien’s Hobbits) in that he is largely non-violent and almost always non-sexual. (Although, interestingly, the recent episodes which have seen him at his most Messianic have also defined his relationships with his travelling companions in the most explicitly romantic terms.) He also makes a habit of sacrificing his life to save others and then coming back in a somewhat altered form.

I think you’d be stretching a point to argue that any of these things were done intentionally, though. The non-violent and non-sexual elements of the character are basically hand-me-downs from the original conception of the Doctor as an ancient wizard, while his periodic renewals are the result of the original leading man being too ill to carry on performing in a series which continued to be popular.

One enters rather dangerous territory when comparing anyone, fictional or otherwise, to Jesus, as this sort of entails one coming up with a set of ideas as to what Jesus was actually like and really stood for. Some people, normally Christians, tend to get rather touchy on Jesus’ behalf if you attempt this sort of thing as it’s something which they have strong feelings about themselves.

However, it’s probably safe to say that Jesus could be described as a man on a mission, and an authority figure. For the vast majority of the time, the Doctor is neither – he just wanders around rather irresponsibly, just doing things he enjoys. He doesn’t seek out evil in order to confront it, but if he comes across it he feels morally obliged to intervene. On numerous occasions he turns down or evades positions of responsibility in order to resume his carefree lifestyle.

What’s particularly interesting in this context is a run of stories, originally on TV in the late 1980s but then continuing in comics and novels, in which the Doctor’s character goes through a fairly radical change. The Doctor begins to deliberately target his old enemies and other forces of evil, enmeshing them in machiavellian schemes that lead to their own destruction. He has assumed the (rather nebulously defined) role of Time’s Champion, which leads him to become increasingly callous, and estranged from his companion. He is more explicitly the mythic figure alluded to in some recent episodes (‘he is ice and fire and rage… he stands at the centre of time…’) than ever before – yet at the same time, he is less identifiable and likeable.

This isn’t to say that there’s no overlap between Christian ethics and the Doctor’s, but you could say the same about virtually any action-adventure hero. The fact remains that all these characters – the Doctor, Captain Kirk, Judge Dredd, James Bond – have emerged from a Christian cultural background and are inevitably defined in response to that to some extent. As fantasy figures they inevitably depart from accepted cultural standards to some degree – though the Doctor does this less than most. And, on rare occasions, he does show signs of moral uncertainty when placed in a particularly tough situation: most famously when ordered to commit genocide, of course, but he actually cracks under the pressure and makes a serious moral mistake towards the end of The Waters of Mars.

I suppose in the end one could argue that the Doctor is an inspirational figure, but not in the sense that he embodies or encourages a particular set of moral codes (except in the most general terms). He himself doesn’t intentionally set out to show people how to live their lives, let alone tell them as much. I think he’d be quite shocked if people did set out to unquestioningly follow his example. He doesn’t blindly accept authority of any kind – he asks awkward questions and uses his wit and intelligence and conscience to work out what to do for himself. I leave it to you to decide for yourself whether these characteristics of the Doctor are truly recognisable amongst the very real virtues of Christianity and its adherents.

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