Doctor Who and the Atheist Years

It’s pretty amazing the things you’ll find when perusing the results on EBSCOhost or some other database of scientific literature. Sometimes people take research to very interesting areas. Pop culture being one that I don’t spend a lot of time on, surprisingly, one in particular popped out at me. First I should confess that I’m not a fan of Doctor Who. I’ve never watched a single episode, and my only knowledge of the franchise comes from a silly club mega hit from several years ago: The Timelords and the KLF – “Doctorin’ the Tardis.”

Despite my ignorance on the subject matter I gave the article a read.

In last summer’s The Journal of Religion and Popular Culture, Sarah Balstrup published an article titled “Doctor Who: Christianity, Atheism, and the Source of Sacredness in the Davies Years.” It’s a combination literature review/qualitative analysis, and it examines how Russell T. Davies, the atheist lead writer on the show from 2005 to 2009, approached religion as a thematic device while penning his episodes. Taken from the abstract, Balstrup states the following:

Symbolically, it is deeply concerned with Christianity and the function of the Christ figure, while ideologically the program is aligned with New Atheism. At a subtler level, romantic love and friendship then take on quasi-mystical qualities through their definition as ultimately important and through their association with the unexplained.

New Atheism

Balstrup begins her piece by explaining the relatively short history of the term “New Atheism,” and she shows us how Davies took cues from several heavy hitting “New Atheist” authors. To illustrate this point, she quotes Davies as claiming that religion is banned in the Doctor Who universe. “[R]eligion is banned on Platform One. Yes, I’m deeply atheist. If they haven’t reached that point by the Year Five Billion, then I give up!” (quoted on p. 146), writes Davies.

The Doctor as Christ

Balstrup then shows how Davies subtlety alludes to the Doctor as Christ. She writes, “Despite these views, Davies presents the Doctor as a saviour figure, in notably Christian terms” (p. 147). Examples exist throughout the episodes: He saves mankind from Satan. Church windows contain images of his Tardis. He entices people to Church with promises of (literal) salvation (from actual, imminent threats). He plays a church organ (or something like that; the article isn’t specific) to defeat a monster. He is also “raised up into the air by two triumphant (robot) angels to the sound of organs before saving the day” (p. 147). And finally, prayer brings about his resurrection.

While others warn, she writes, that reading a Christ figure into film and literature where there is none has the tendency to read Christ into “anywhere,” she notes that Davies’ aforementioned alignment with “New Atheism” and his previous writing on a miniseries titled The Second Coming all show his “[concern] with Christianity, despite his critical stance” (p. 148). How cool is that?!

Of course, the Doctor is also a scientist who values rational thought over superstitions. From my reading of Balstrup’s piece, it appears she’s trying to say that his Christ-like image is merely the product of a man with deep compassion for the human race and who uses logic and rationality to save humans from their ills. [Disclaimer: As a man unfamiliar with this show, some of what she says goes over my head, so I might be mistaken on some small but key points].

Love, Friendship, and Mysticism

I’ll let Balstrup summarize this one (p. 151):

In summary, the new series may demythologize many mystical experiences by explaining their scientific mechanics, yet it is within the Doctor’s relationships with his true love, Rose, and with his best friend, Donna, that mystical aspects are allowed to remain unexplained. Both of these figures put their lives on the line for the Doctor, and in extenuating circumstances have absorbed the space-time vortex and seen the world as the Doctor sees it. If the Doctor is to be imagined as a godly saviour figure of supernatural nature, then the transcendent experiences that Rose and Donna undergo reveal not only the potential for the mystical but the mystical power of love itself. In the Doctor Who universe, religious mythology may be described as “Chinese whispers. Getting more distorted as it’s passed on” (“The Doctor’s Daughter” 4.6), yet true love and true friendship possess a sacredness that is both real and of ultimate importance.

Love is a great mystery, and not even a space/time traveling genius who literally has every tool past, present, and future at his disposal can demystify the emotional bonds we share with friends, family, and lovers. On the other hand, love is not mystical; it’s merely unexplained.

Discussion

Wow. To be honest, after reading Balstrup’s analysis, I’m tempted to watch Doctor Who, if only to examine the Davies years myself. Anyway, back on topic.

Balstrup’s analysis is very interesting. Although the article is choppy and malformed (there are no headings or subheadings, and that always irks me), she picks apart several years’ worth of episodes to determine how Davies’ atheism impacted the show.

This analysis might strike some people, particularly Christians, as offensive, but Balstrup is quick to point out that, although religious ethics are missing from the show, even if religious themes are common, there’s a final saving grace to the godless Doctor Who universe. She sums it up nicely (p. 153-4):

Critiquing religion, however, does not engender a disenchanted view of the universe, and the program presents a strong alternative value system based on humanistic ideals and the quasi-mystical power of love.

About Rayan Zehn

I'm a political and social activist.
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