[An essay I wrote for a contest on Reddit.]
Introduction: Doctor Who?
“Reverse the polarity of the neutron flow!” is not a theological statement. Nor is much else in a television series about a time-traveling alien who changes his face every few years. Nonetheless, in its 56 year history, Doctor Who has from sometimes touched on deep questions. These have not usually been well-executed or profound (it is a sci-fi show). There have been, however, many threads which carry less explicit theological import. Perhaps no one meant to create these (sometimes they obviously did), but these subtle pieces are often the most thought-provoking elements in the show. Noteworthy among these is the characterization of the Doctor himself.
Throughout the show’s long history, it has characterized the Doctor in various ways. He has been a mystery, a silly grandfather, a madman with a box, a noble warrior, an antihero, a messiah, and a lonely god, among other things. These last two roles, however, are of most interest here. In portraying the Doctor in divine terms, the show assumes certain notions about the divine. These, this essay shall argue, to some extent resonate with Reformed views of God’s character and activity. Specifically, when the Doctor is planted firmly on the side of the good, he is also clearly not safe, not exactly what is expected of the “good guy,” and prone to deeds that befuddle or even shock the viewers, all without ceasing to be a worthy protagonist. In order to give these themes due consideration, it will first be necessary to zoom in on how and when the Doctor has been characterized this way.
The Lonely God
While the motif the Doctor wearing God’s shoes has been explored numerous times in Doctor Who, it is not equally associated with every incarnation of the character. As a Time Lord, the Doctor regenerates a new body and personality at death, up to twelve times (normally). Today the Doctor has had 14 incarnations. Some, like the frivolous Second Doctor or the nearly amoral Sixth Doctor, hardly express such themes at all. Others show this more clearly, probably none moreso than the Tenth Doctor, played by David Tennant. He is one of the few to be directly described with divine imagery. A prophecy named him “the lonely god,” and a Roman family worshiped him as the “god of time” after he rescued them from Pompeii’s destruction. To understand this motif, it will be best to focus on this incarnation and his most godlike moment.
The Tenth Doctor is a proper good guy. This is obviously an overstatement for someone like him, but the story general portrays him in positive terms. He is one of the most sacrificial, bears the most regret for the conclusion of the Time War (in which he destroyed the entirety of his own fallen race and the genocidal Daleks), and even plays with pacifism (though quite inconsistently). Yet he has also been a harsh judge, law-giver, and final authority wherever he goes. Sometimes the show portrays these things as mistakes, but only at times. Even when they are mistakes, the error is often one of confusion or well-meaning but finite judgment. Ultimately, the show usually stoically accepts that even his harsh judgments are righteous.
The Family of Blood
This dynamic is probably never more clear than the two-part story “Human Nature/The Family of Blood.” In these, the Doctor opposes the “Family of Blood,” creatures that steal people’s bodies in order to live forever. They caused death, destruction, and heartbreak for the Doctor and the citizens of a small village while trying to steal the Doctor’s regeneration ability. Given the extreme pains caused by their pursuit of eternity, one can only nod at the Doctor’s final decree, which was described by one of the Family as follows:
He never raised his voice. That was the worst thing. The fury of the Time Lord. And then we discovered why. Why this Doctor, who had fought with gods and demons, why he’d run away from us and hidden. He was being kind.
He wrapped my father in unbreakable chains, forged in the heart of a dwarf star. He tricked my mother into the event horizon of a collapsing galaxy to be imprisoned there forever.
He still visits my little sister once a year every year. I wonder if one day he might forgive her…He trapped her inside a mirror, every mirror…As for me, I was suspended in time. And the Doctor put me to work standing over the fields of England, as their protector.
We wanted to live forever, so the Doctor made sure that we did.
Here more than anywhere one can see “the kindness and the severity” of the Doctor. Indeed, “The Family of Blood” includes one bit that sums this perfectly. A young boy, Tim Latimer, saw directly into the Doctor’s essence, and he came away with the following description when asked why he was, for a time, afraid of him:
Because I’ve seen him. He’s like fire and ice and rage. He’s like the night and the storm in the heart of the sun. He’s ancient and forever. He burns at the centre of time and he can see the turn of the universe. And he’s wonderful.
The picture here is as much like Yahweh as the Doctor ever comes. It calls to mind Mr. Beaver’s description that Aslan is good but not safe. Certain biblical passages also come to mind, such as Exodus 34:6-7:
Yahweh…a compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger and abounding in faithful love…forgiving iniquity…But he will not leave the guilty unpunished, bringing the fathers’ iniquity on the children and grandchildren to the third and fourth generation.
Another biblical description that seems similar is Isaiah 45:7, “I form light and I create darkness; I make peace and I create evil; I am Yahweh; I do all these things.” The latter chapters of Job and a number of psalms also leap to mind. With faith in God the one who made, sustains, governs, judges the world, Christians see that God is wonderful and terrible, kind and severe, working in the dew from heaven and the slime from below. Some of this is often hard to accept, but the Doctor provides a puny, quite imperfect model for the Christian imagination to see in God the union of true goodness and dreadful decrees.
Not Quite All Things
While “The Family of Blood” is probably one of the clearest instances of the Doctor taking on characteristics which in some sense point toward the God of Scripture (not even counting its quasi-incarnation), other instances demand notice. The childlike Eleventh Doctor sometimes delivered the harshest punishments. Most incarnations of the Doctor took it upon themselves to be defenders of goodness and justice throughout the universe and often acted as though they were the highest authority to do so. The Seventh and Twelfth Doctors were prone to constructing elaborate, behind-the-scenes plans with much risk and even loss, only to wrap up in a sweeping victory. No one should make this too close an analogy to divine providence, but even so, what the Doctor accomplishes with his great but finite power does seem to palely reflect, in a way the imagination can digest, what John Calvin said of God’s power in providence:
Faith is comforted…in relation to God’s power. First, because it knows that he has ample ability to do good. Thus, in order to further the salvation of believers he puts forth his hand to rule and govern all things; heaven and earth are his possession and domain, and every creature depends on his goodwill. Faith is comforted in the second place because it finds ample assurance in his protection, since whatever might do harm is subject to his will, and the devil and his devices are restrained as by a curb. Everything, in short, which might impede our salvation is subject to his control.
Of course, Doctor Who does make it clear that the Doctor, for all his godlike qualities, is truly a mortal man. He may be a Time Lord from Gallifrey who can live millennia longer than a human and cheat limits of time and space, but he cannot know everything. He cannot save everyone, even those he wants to save. His judgment is fallible, and there are forces beyond him. He is vulnerable and has more than a few vices.
For all these qualifications on the Doctor’s goodness, he is usually presented as genuinely good. His righteous wrath and painful plans are never divorced from this goodness, even if he sometimes goes the wrong way. In principle, the Doctor is good and not safe, kind and severe, strong in weakness. That he does often does this impurely, mixed with different errors and sins, must only point up to the world’s need. The world needs a Greater Doctor, Healer and Warrior, Father and Judge, free from limitation and error, worthy of perfect fear and love, God blessed forever.