British sci-fi show Doctor Who hit the headlines this week when it was announced that Jodie Whittaker would be the 13th incarnation of the two-hearted, super-human alien known as the Doctor. After 12 male Doctors, this move might seem audacious. But for a show that already features a female, prehistoric lizard-like warrior, married to a nineteenth-century, human chambermaid, the regeneration of the thus-far male Doctor into a woman’s body is all but tame.
At the heart of the series, however, lies a truly controversial relationship. The show’s master script-writers, Stephen Moffat and Russell T. Davis, are explicitly atheist, and the treatment of religion in Doctor Who is almost always negative – witness the murderous headless monks, the life-sucking weeping angels, and the portrayal of the 51st century church as a purely military operation. But the parallels between the Doctor himself and the hero of Christianity are unmistakable.
The Doctor is a Time Lord, who can navigate effortlessly from the beginning of the universe to its end. He sees the whole of time in every conscious moment. And yet he is deeply present and engaged with individuals. “When you love the Doctor,” the enigmatic River Song explains, “it’s like loving the stars themselves. You don’t expect a sunset to admire you back.” But she knows and we know that this is not true: the Doctor does love people back, in all their finitude.
The Doctor is stubbornly non-violent. He carries a screwdriver instead of a weapon and fights evil with love and wit. And yet he inspires fear in his enemies. In The Pandorica Opens, he faces down legions of his most powerful enemies, arrayed in spaceships around Stonehenge, with nothing more than his words and reputation to defend him. He is “the man who can turn an army around at the mention of his name.”
The Doctor is routinely called upon to save the world, a feat often requiring a sacrificial death. His followers are willing to die for him, but the Doctor always offers his own life for the lives of his friends – or even his enemies. Indeed, in Forest of the Dead, River Song has to knock him out and handcuff him to a pipe to make him let her make that sacrifice.
The Doctor gravitates toward the marginalized. He despises status and dignifies the weak. In A Christmas Carol, when a powerful man dismisses a woman frozen in a box as “nobody important” the Doctor retorts, “Blimey, that’s amazing. Do you know, in 900 years of time and space, I’ve never met anyone who wasn’t important.”
The Doctor calls evil-doers to repent, and is willing to risk his life to give even the most apparently irredeemable a chance to turn back. In The Poison Sky, he teleports himself into the spaceship of the warrior Sontarans, who have just attempted genocide, to give them a chance to withdraw – even though it’s a suicide mission. And when people do turn back, he gives them new lives. The lizard-woman, Madame Vastra, recalls the Doctor finding her when she was killing innocent tunnel-diggers on the London Underground, and turning her into a Scotland Yard detective, protecting the vulnerable.
And of course, when faced with death, the Doctor resurrects. His periodic “regeneration” into a new body is convenient for a show that has been running on-and-off since the 1960s. But it also gives the series a sense of resilience in the face of death, a hopefulness that death might be cheated – for the time being at least.
But there is a fundamental difference between the hero of Doctor Who and the hero of Christianity. The Doctor fights death with every ounce of his being. As River Song puts it, “Everybody knows that everybody dies and nobody knows it like the Doctor, but I do think that all the skies of all the worlds might just turn dark if he ever, for one moment, accepts it.” But the Doctor cannot ultimately overcome death. He may be the “hoper of far-flung hopes and the dreamer of improbable dreams.” But those dreams and those hopes have an end: ultimately, everybody dies.
The Doctor’s unacknowledged role-model invites us into a greater hope, a hope in which our deepest dreams don’t die. Indeed, the Doctor draws much of his hold on our imagination from the ways he resembles the man whose story lurks behind so much of who the Doctor is: the true hero who sees all of time and yet loves individuals, who embraces the marginalized and resists the proud, who repudiates violence, gives his life for ours, and conquers death.
The appointment of a female Doctor will certainly reframe the host of complex relationships within which this two-hearted hero(ine) exists. As a die-hard fan of the series, I’m curious to see how the writers will use this move in ways that are genuinely creative. But for a show that actively resists traditional Christian beliefs, the Doctor’s deep connection to Jesus will remain its most truly controversial relationship.
Rebecca McLaughlin holds a Ph.D. in English Literature from Cambridge University. She serves as Vice President of Content for The Veritas Forum. This article is copyrighted to The Veritas Forum and may not be reposted without prior written consent from The Veritas Forum. Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org with any questions.
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