Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Doctor Who: A Celebration at Evensong

Doctor Who at 50.  A celebration at Evensong.

“It all started out as a mild curiosity in the junkyard, and now it’s turned out to be quite a spirit of adventure.”[1]  Such was the verdict of the First Doctor on his travels.  And the Doctor has travelled a long way since then.  On Saturday 23rd November, 1963 a new television programme began.  The first regular programming after the disruptions to schedules caused by the assassination of President John F Kennedy.  Designed to fill the space between the football results and the evening’s entertainment it tried to engage the whole family.  As such, although it has always been written with children in mind, it has always been produced by the BBC’s adult drama department.  That show is of course Doctor Who, and this week it marks its Golden anniversary with a feature length story, simulcast around the world. The best place to watch it in Derby will be at the cinema in 3D.

In celebrating Doctor Who from the pulpit, I want to be clear that I am not claiming the Doctor for Christianity.  Doctor Who has been written by some fairly staunch atheists.  Russell T Davies, who brought the series back to television in 2005, has said that “I was born atheist, me”.  Richard Dawkins, the high-priest of atheism (and married to an actress who played the second incarnation of Romana, a companion of the Fourth Doctor), has featured as himself, commenting on the Earth being hijacked to another part of the universe.[2]  Yet, as with much atheist story-telling, and perhaps especially atheist science-fiction, religion keeps bleeding through. So in the recent series alone, we find the Master mocking the 10th Doctor and Martha’s plan to defeat him “is that your weapon, prayer?”[3] In the mini-episode currently available on the red-button and BBC i-Player as a prelude to the 50th Anniversary episode, the Eighth Doctor even quotes scripture “Physician, heal thyself”[4] before regenerating into the non-Doctor that we will find out all about on Saturday.  Even the Church of England gets a look in, although it has changed a little.  The army gathered to face the Eleventh Doctor at Demon’s Run in the 52nd Century includes “the thin fat gay married Anglican marines”.[5] The Church of England has always had an element of time-lord in it, at least in the service of BCP Evensong.  If you don’t know where to find it, I’ll tell you at the end of this sermon.

So for the next few minutes, I would like to offer you three themes from Doctor Who that resonate with what it means to be a Christian.  Three sets of ideas, drawn from that 50 year history, that have something which Christians can learn from and to which they can contribute.  Those themes are: monsters, the Doctor and his companions.

The right place from which to watch Doctor Who is, of course, from behind the sofa.  The series has become famed for its monsters.  This nearly didn’t happen.  One of the creators of Doctor Who, Sydney Newman, was clear that ‘no bug-eyed monsters’ were to appear in the show, and was furious when the Daleks appeared in the second ever story.  We’ll come back to the Daleks.  But from behind the sofa, one of the first things we learn about monsters is that they are not always monstrous.  There is a long standing rule in Doctor Who that those who appear to be strange and odd, different to our human form, can be helpful, good and wise.  The First Doctor encountered the beautiful human Drahvins and the very alien Rills.  Yet it is the Rills who are peaceable and the human Drahvins who are ruthless and seek the destruction of the Rills.[6]  When a race of pre-historic reptiles, with superior technology are discovered in the Derbyshire countryside, the Third Doctor argues with both reptile and human that the other is worthy of respect and life.[7]  The so-called ‘monsters’ are often simply a foil to demonstrate the monstrous side of humanity.  The Second Doctor neatly encapsulates the worst of human nature.  “They’re human beings, if that’s what you mean. Indulging their favourite pastime of trying to destroy each other.”[8]  The fear that takes us to watch from behind the sofa must not be allowed to determine our response to that which is not like us.  Sometimes the real monsters are human beings.

But sometimes monsters are really monsters.  In Doctor Who, no monster is more monstrous than the Daleks.  Deliberately designed to look utterly different to human beings, with their chilling cry of ‘Exterminate!’ they have been one of the roots of the success of the series.  But if we look carefully at the Daleks, they have much to teach us about what our, very human, fears are at different times.  When they were first introduced in 1963, they were the last survivors of a nuclear war.[9]  Screened one year after the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Daleks tap into the very human horror in the face of nuclear war.  By their next appearance, the Daleks have taken on their more familiar role of Nazi’s in space. The Dalek Invasion of Earth is a kind of re-enactment of the much feared but never realised Nazi invasion of Britain.[10]  The Nazi theme is reinforced by the story of the Daleks’ origins, but there is also a theme of genetic engineering that runs through the story.[11]  By the time of the series’ revival, the Daleks have taken on the role of religious terrorists, with the Emperor proclaiming himself a god and accusing the Doctor and Rose of blasphemy.[12]  At each step, the Daleks act as a cipher for our fears.  The monstrous turns out to be very human indeed.

If there is a single theme to Doctor Who that continues to appear throughout its history, then it is about how to be human.  The monsters show up the monstrous in us, directly or indirectly.  “Your species,” the Seventh Doctor tells his companion, “has the most amazing capacity for self-deception, matched only by its ingenuity when trying to destroy itself.”[13]  But it is the (very alien) character of the Doctor himself that has the most to tell us about being human.  There has often been something of a Christ-figure about the Doctor, and the newly-regenerated Eighth Doctor is mistake for the second coming of Jesus by a hospital porter.[14]  The Doctor, an unearthly figure, turns up to sort things out at just the right moment.  Always seeking a peaceful solution, he will sacrifice himself to save others, especially his friends.  When he dies, as well as those he has saved, he is given new life as he is resurrected (or regenerated) into a new body.  There are some clear comparisons.  But there is a darker side to the Doctor.  In the first stories, the Doctor is portrayed as a grumpy and selfish anti-hero.  He deliberately sabotages the TARDIS so that he can explore a new planet, thereby bringing his companions into danger of radiation poisoning and facing the Daleks.[15]  And in the very first story, the Doctor has to be restrained by his companions from killing a caveman who is holding them back from returning to the TARDIS.  Of course, he quickly changes into the heroic figure that is better known to us today.  But this dark side does return, not least in the damaged Ninth Doctor who is told “You would make a good Dalek”[16].

But when the Eighth Doctor says that he is “Half-human, on my mothers side”[17] (a claim that has been wisely ignored by subsequent writers of the series), he is perhaps letting us into the secret that the Doctor, when not operating from his darker side, is the best of humanity. In this way, he functions just as Jesus does in some forms of theology.  That is not enough to account for the full significance of Jesus, but it is a good way of accounting for the Doctor.  The Doctor is an exemplar for us, demonstrating what we could be like.  The very choice of the name ‘Doctor’, recent episodes emphasise, is an indication of the Doctor’s intent to be a healer, a good man.  The Doctor is the one person the monsters fear, he can solve problems with the contents of his pockets and anything else that comes to hand.  He refuses to carry weapons, choosing a sonic screwdriver over a gun, but nor will he stand by in the face of injustice.  This has placed him in difficult situations, the Fourth Doctor held the life and death of the whole Dalek race in his hands; the Tenth Doctor would offer his opponents one chance to change their minds before he defeated them, even if that meant destroying them.  Like the wisdom of God, and the pleas of the Psalmist, the Doctor uses the power and hubris of his opponents against them.  The Fourth Doctor once said that “The very powerful and the very stupid have one thing in common: they don’t alter their views to fit the facts, they alter the facts to fit their views.”[18]  In the gaps left by the failure to appreciate the value of life and the truth of the underdog, the Doctor has fashioned many a plan to defeat those who would wield power over others.  But the Doctor is not always successful.  At the end of one battle, standing amidst the corpses which litter the room, the Fifth Doctor looks at the carnage and says “there should have been a better way.”[19]  That is what the Doctor stands for, a better way.  He and we don’t always find it, but he always looks for it.

If the monsters show us the worst of human nature, and the Doctor shows us the best we can be, then the Companions are like ourselves.  They struggle to keep up and are learning to be better.  The Ninth Doctor may have insisted that “I only take the best”,[20] but that hasn’t stopped the Doctor picking companions who grow as they travel with him.  This has been a big theme in the series since its return, but was there too in the classic series.  Leela, a companion of the Fourth Doctor, was a sort of Eliza Doolittle figure.  A savage warrior brought under the Doctor’s tutelage and civilized.  In very similar fashion, the Tenth Doctor travels with Donna Noble, a brash and shallow person who matures and grows as she travels with the Doctor.  Donna’s tragedy is that to save her life, he has to remove all knowledge of himself.  Donna reverts to her old self, it is a death of sorts.  “She was better with you”[21] is the sad verdict of her grandfather.  The Doctor needs his companions.  From the start they are the ones who have helped him to deal with his darker side.  Whether it is Ian Chesterton preventing the First Doctor from killing a caveman, or Rose Tyler bringing the Ninth Doctor through the trauma he has experienced in the Time War.  “My friends have always been the best of me”[22] is the Eleventh Doctor’s verdict.

Travelling with the Doctor is a sort of discipleship, learning to follow and to become a force for good in the universe.  This is not a distant study.  Rather, as the Ninth Doctor tells a short-lived companion who will ultimately fail the test, “time travel is like visiting Paris. You can't just read the guidebook, you've got to throw yourself in! Eat the food, use the wrong verbs, get charged double and end up kissing complete strangers! Or is that just me?”[23] This is a training in virtue, learning to take ways that do not simply turn to violence, and facing up to the fear that monsters, human and alien, provoke.  “Courage,” the Third Doctor tells his companion, “isn't just a matter of not being frightened, you know. It's being afraid and doing what you have to do anyway.”[24] 

There is also a childlike quality to the Doctor, which he is keen to transmit to his companions.  When Amy Pond hesitates before joining the Eleventh Doctor on the TARDIS, he asks her what has changed since her seven year old self was so keen to come.  “I grew up,” she tells him.  “Don’t worry, we’ll soon change that”[25] is the Doctor’s instant response.  To travel with the Doctor is to learn to follow his values, it is to grow as a human being.

To travel with the Doctor is to be changed.  In fact, to be the Doctor is to be changed as the eleven, soon to be twelve, actors that have played the role demonstrate. In the words of the Sixth Doctor, “Planets come and go. Stars perish. Matter disperses, coalesces, forms into other patterns, other worlds. Nothing can be eternal.”[26]  Yet through it all there is a thread of humanity, always striving against the odds for a better way.  Doctor Who has been part of British culture for 50 years this coming Saturday.  It is worth celebrating, worth thanking God, for the Doctor and his travels.  The Doctor teaches us much about what it is to be human, and that for Christians, is a great gift indeed. 

I promised that I would tell you of the reference to Time Lords in the service of evensong.  In the second collect, we pray that “both our hearts may be set to obey thy commandments”.  Clearly a prayer for a Time Lord, with two hearts beating in their chest.  But let the final words be those of one of the Doctor’s longest serving companions, who came across six of the first seven of the Doctor’s incarnations, Brigadier Alastair Lethbridge-Stewart: “Splendid Fellow, all of you!”[27]

[1] The Sensorites (1964).
[2] Stolen Earth (2007).
[3] Last of the Time Lords (2007).
[4] The Night of the Doctor (2013), quoting Luke 4.23.
[5] A Good Man Goes to War (2011).
[6] Galaxy 4 (1965).
[7] Doctor Who and the Silurians (1970).
[8] The Enemy of the World (1967-1968).
[9] The Daleks (a.k.a. The Mutants) 1963-1964.
[10] The Dalek Invasion of Earth (1964).
[11] Genesis of the Daleks (1975).
[12] The Parting of the Ways (2005).
[13] Remembrance of the Daleks (1988).
[14] Doctor Who (1996).
[15] The Daleks (1963-1964).
[16] Dalek (2005).
[17] Doctor Who (1996).
[18] The Face of Evil (1977).
[19] Warriors of the Deep (1984).
[20] The Long Game (2005).
[21] Journey’s End (2008).
[22] The Wedding of River Song (2011).
[23] The Long Game (2005).
[24] Planet of the Daleks (1973).
[25] The Eleventh Hour (2010).
[26] The Trial of a Time Lord: The Mysterious Planet (1986).
[27] The Five Doctors (1983).

Given at Derby Cathedral.  17.11.13.


Anonymous said...

Simon - you might be interested in this - it is the playlist for Daniel's Dr Who films, including a 13 part William Hartnell series, set before the first episode aired - it shows how the Dr stole the tardis, and ended up in the junkyard...I'd recommend episode 3 and the last episode! Anyway, thought you might enjoy. Hope all well with you. Claire

Simon said...

fantastic. Enjoying the episodes! Tell Daniel I think he's cast the action figures perfectly!!