As an RD reader you now have an assignment.
On the western side of the pond, Doctor Who has always been a bit of a cult thing. Outside of its appearances on PBS in the late ’70s and early ’80s, the BBC’s longest-running science fiction show in history has rarely been seen in the U.S. It always carried more than a bit of mystique, serving as a sort of secret handshake among the most discerning and dedicated geeks. When BBC Wales resurrected the show after a 16-year hiatus in 2005, word began to spread that the new Who was something incredible. Under the guidance of producer Russell T. Davies (creator of Queer as Folk), Doctor Who quickly transformed from “acquired taste” into “essential viewing.”
The new show is sophisticated, witty, and (most importantly) fun. It’s been showered with accolades in its native Britain, winning a slew of BAFTAs and turning into a proper cultural phenomenon. Its success brought it back to televisions in the U.S. for the first time in nearly 30 years, airing first on Syfy and now on BBC America. So viewers on both sides of the Atlantic are finally able to see a remarkable science fiction show that doesn’t shy away from issues of philosophy, ethics, politics, and theology. For instance, there’s the first season episode “Dalek,” in which the Doctor’s face-off with a representative of his most hated enemy turns into a meditation on the notions of hatred and endless war.
Then there’s second season’s “Gridlock,” where the Doctor rescues the oppressed masses trapped in a planet-wide traffic jam, wrapping a bleak political metaphor up with a spectacular re-conception of Plato’s cave. And don’t get us started on the Biblical imagery of the season three finale “Last of the Time Lords.”
In short, Doctor Who is just about the best thing on television, and for the duration of the current season, we’ll be providing some insight into the themes into which the show delves. The assignment referred to above: watch Doctor Who (you can stream all of this season’s episodes for free) and join the conversation in the comments section. There’s no better time to jump in—the producers intend this season as an entry point for new viewers.
Doctor Who airs in the U.S. on BBC America on Saturdays at 9PM/8C (and though it’s by no means necessary, those interested in watching the first four seasons can find them streaming on Netflix).
*Gabriel McKee: RD contributor and author of The Gospel According to Science Fiction: From the Twilight Zone to the Final Frontier. He blogs at SF Gospel;
*James F. McGrath: Associate professor of religion at Butler University. He blogs at Exploring Our Matrix;
*Thomas Bertonneau: Received his Ph.D in comparative literature from UCLA and co-author of The Truth is Out There: Christian Faith and the Classics of TV Science Fiction;
*Joseph Laycock: RD contributor and a doctoral candidate studying religion and society at Boston University. He is the author of Vampires Today: The Truth About Modern Vampires.
And now, without further ado, James McGrath and I reflect on the first three episodes.
— Gabriel McKee
After over a year wandering in the wilderness of a semi-hiatus, Doctor Who fans have at last reached the promised land: a new season, with a new actor in the lead role (Matt Smith) and a new executive producer, Steven Moffat. The last few years have been a great time for the longest-running science fiction show in television history. Though older episodes in the continuing saga of the time-traveling Doctor have generally been relegated to “cult” status—at least in the U.S.—the 2005 revival, under the guiding hand of Queer as Folk creator Russell T. Davies, brought fast pacing, sharp wit, and thematic depth, vastly expanding the show’s audience. The first few episodes of the new season are a proving ground for Moffat—could he sustain the momentum of Davies’ four seasons?
Some background: The Doctor (his name does not seem to actually be “Who”) is a 917-year-old Time Lord, an alien time traveler. His time machine is the Tardis, which looks like a police box—think phone booth—but it’s bigger on the inside than the outside, can fly, and may actually be a living creature. He adventures through time and space, usually accompanied by one or more human companions who assist him in righting wrongs, liberating the oppressed, fighting alien menaces, and averting unspeakable disasters. His alien origins give him a sharp mind and extraordinary longevity, but his main superpower—and the concept with which the show’s longevity can largely be credited—is his ability to “regenerate” into a new body whenever he dies. He’s met his demise ten times now, each time emerging with a new face and new personality.
The first three episodes of the current season use that regeneration as the jumping-off point for a sort of trilogy exploring the show’s interlocking themes of identity, morality, and integrity. As years pass and more actors step into the role, it becomes increasingly important for each performer to distinguish their version of the Doctor from those that have gone before. It’s not just the Doctor’s body that changes with each new incarnation; his personality is altered as well, sometimes quite drastically. Thus every new regeneration requires a story that considers, at least to some degree, the question of identity: what makes me me? In the Doctor’s case, virtually everything about him has changed since his debut in 1963, from his age and appearance to his mannerisms and behavior. The one thing that has remained constant is his morality, his deeply-felt need to protect the weak from the strong.
In the case of the first episode of the current season (“The Eleventh Hour”), the “strong” are some extradimensional jailers named the Atraxi, who are trying to track down a shape-shifting convict who has escaped to Earth. The “weak,” then, are us—the human race. At the story’s climax, the Doctor positions himself as the planet’s protector, which confuses the Atarxi avatar (a giant floating eyeball): “You are not of this world,” it states. “No,” replies the Doctor, “but I’ve put a lot of work into it.” Perhaps more telling is the episode’s opening scenes, in which the new regeneration’s first appearance is prefaced by a short scene of a child praying. When the Tardis crash-lands in her garden moments later, it suggests the Doctor is… what? An angel? A messiah?
Some clues to that puzzle become clear in the second episode (“The Beast Below”). The Doctor and Amy—the first episode’s praying girl, now an adult—materialize in an enormous city floating through space. This, they learn, is London, thousands of years in Earth’s future and removed from the Earth to space in order to protect its populace from some nasty solar flares. There’s something strange afoot on Starship UK—a strangeness perhaps best illustrated by its “voting booths,” which show the ship’s citizens a video and then gives them two options—to protest what they have seen, or to forget the video’s contents, having their memories selectively erased. The voting booth won’t show the Doctor the video—it can tell he’s not human, and thus not entitled to vote—but he chooses the “protest” button, sight unseen. “This is what I do,” he explains, “every time, every day, every second.” This sums up the Doctor brilliantly—a being who will always, always push the “protest” button. And his action frees the people of Starship UK from their mysterious bondage, their self-imposed amnesia. The Doctor is an anarchist messiah, a man capable of transforming simple protest into liberation.
There’s something else at play in this episode that digs a bit deeper into the question of moral identity. The Doctor learns the mysterious fact that the city-ship’s populace has repeatedly voted to forget, which is—spoiler warning!—that their city is built on the back of an enormous space whale, the last of its kind, and they are torturing it to keep their city moving through space. This puts the Doctor in a difficult situation—he can’t let the beast go, because it would cause the city to crumble and its inhabitants to perish. But neither can he let it go on in agony. He decides that his only option is to lobotomize the creature, allowing the city to carry on but essentially murdering the last representative of an ancient species. But this is not a decision he makes lightly: he declares that once the task is done he must “find a new name, because I won’t be the Doctor anymore.” Fortunately a last-minute solution is found, but it’s interesting that the Doctor puts his dilemma in these terms: to compromise on an issue of fundamental morality is not simply a question of action, but of identity. To cross a moral line, in this case the exigent use of violence, is to give up one’s true self.
But no sooner is this type of moral dichotomy presented than the show complicates it. The following episode, “Victory of the Daleks,” brings the Doctor and Amy to London at the height of the Blitz. There, they find the Doctor’s oldest and most hated enemies, the Daleks—robotic alien killing machines that, in the past, have sought to exterminate all “inferior” life forms throughout the universe. But they’re not on Earth on a campaign of domination—they’re helping Britain fight off the Luftwaffe. The Daleks have always been evil, and the Doctor cannot comprehend why they might be pretending to be good. “You hate me,” he tells one of them (while beating it with a wrench), “you want to kill me… You are my enemy, and I am yours. You are everything I despise, the worst thing in all creation.”
The Daleks’ response to his tirade is sinister: “Testimony accepted.” The Daleks on Earth—spoiler alert again!—are the scattered remnants of a once-great invasion fleet, but they lack the ability to rebuild their forces. They have a “progenitor”—basically a Dalek factory—but it won’t recognize them as Daleks. They require the Doctor’s statement of their identity to rebuild their fleet. In a sense, the Doctor’s insistence on a sharp moral dichotomy between himself and the Daleks, his absolute statement that he is good and they are evil, is the cause of their evil. His hatred of his enemy becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy—a lesson that the proponents of many an ancient conflict would do well to consider. Here is a case where something that could be considered a “moral compromise”—the forgiveness of a hated enemy—could have averted a potential disaster.
Two things are clear from the opening “trilogy” of Doctor Who’s new season: first, that issues of ethics are central to the show’s themes, and second, the program is in excellent hands following Davies’ departure. It’s going to be an exciting series, and I am definitely looking forward to what conundrums unfold in the weeks to come. Once more into the interdimensional breach!
James F. McGrath_____________
Article 142, Section 24 of the Shadow Proclamation:
A time traveler shall not, under penalty of confiscation of his time-travelling equipment, utilize time travel so as to make an impression upon a child, and then travel to the future and enter into a romantic relationship with said individual as an adult, benefitting from a formative influence on the aforementioned person in childhood which must under such circumstances be considered unduly manipulative.
OK, this is not really part of the Shadow Proclamation. But should it be? Since Doctor Who returned to television in 2005, we have seen the Doctor break this rule at least twice: in his interactions with Reinette (Madame de Pompadour) in the episode “The Girl in the Fireplace” and more recently in the case of Amelia (Amy) Pond.
Should this sort of thing be illegal in intergalactic law? Not that anyone would likely be able to track the Doctor down and bring charges against him. But science fiction regularly provides an excellent venue for reflecting on issues like cultural relativity and morality, and this is one example.
If we imagine a race of time travelers like the Time Lords, for instance, it might well be customary and be culturally acceptable to utilize time travel in selecting or seeking a romantic partner. If so, should the moral sensibilities of humans be imposed upon them? And should humans be protected if the last of the Time Lords decides he has no alternative but to look beyond his own species for a companion of this sort?
In the second episode of the new season, we are presented a morality tale. As the earth was dying, Britain escaped into space – on the back of a space whale, the last of its kind. The latter is kept imprisoned and tortured to keep the ship moving through space. The population is asked at regular intervals to vote on whether to continue this course of action – and, at the same time, erase their memory of it. This is a parable, and hardly a subtle one, for the ways civilizations are built less literally on the backs of the enslaved, the exploited, and the oppressed, and the choice that is regularly made to move into the future benefitting from past exploitation, and yet choosing to forget it to whatever extent we can. The message of the episode seems to be that remembering is better, whatever the risks involved, and that we can hope that if we choose not to exploit others, kindness and concern can lead to willing help being offered, for the mutual benefit of all.
In addition to topics of morality and ethics, sci-fi also provides an opportunity to think about religious topics. One of the dilemmas the Doctor regularly faces is not so much whether to intervene, as how to do so, and to what extent he can get involved without completely transforming history. But apart from the potential confusion it might cause viewers, why not change history? When we think about the problem of evil, if we envisage God as in any sense transcending not only space but time, then there is no obvious reason why God could not intervene in a way the Doctor is unable to, to make the universe the “best of all possible worlds.” And from the perspective of those who view God as in some sense the universe itself, with all that is and all the laws and characteristics of the universe being intrinsic to God, God would still be relevant – and in either case would be the one that ties the Doctor’s hands.
But to the extent that the Doctor himself seems to be able to bend (if not always break) whatever rules determine how history has to play out, while in some instances recognizing that a historical moment must be preserved, a key religious theme that is central to other popular science fiction shows like Lost and FlashForward is brought to the fore – namely destiny. And to the extent that history has to play out a certain way at key moments in the universe the Doctor inhabits, doesn’t this in and of itself invite reflection on the nature of the universe and the source and meaning of existence?