Contains spoilers for certain episodes of both the new and old Doctor Who, and for the drama The Second Coming.
My earliest encounter with science fiction was hiding behind the sofa as the Daleks exterminated an entire race with effortless brutality. I was three years old. That serial was Genesis of the Daleks, and the year was 1975.
Doctor Who is the longest running science fiction show in the world, having aired continuously from 1963 to 1989, as well as being successfully revived in 2005. It's also the most successful children's science fiction show ever made, not to mention the most successful British science fiction series of all time. The show concerns the adventures of a time traveller known only as the Doctor who flits around in time and space with various companions in a small blue box known as the TARDIS, which outwardly appears like a police box (an emergency call box common in the 1950's) owing to a permanent malfunction in its chameleon circuit. A man of science, he eschews violence, preferring to use his wits to overcome any problem – he is that rarest of things, an action hero who prefers intellect to weaponry.
First played by William Hartnell from 1963 to 1966, the Doctor was originally portrayed as an enigmatic yet charming old man, a scientist from an unknown other world with an irascible temper who travelled from one time period to another, alternating between historical stories (which bordered on educational) and far future adventures. When Hartnell left the show in 1966 the writing team came up with a novel way to keep the show going: the Doctor belongs to an alien race which is capable of regenerating in the face of death. So at the end of the fourth episode of “The Tenth Planet”, Hartnell's Doctor transformed into Patrick Troughton's Doctor, and the show went on. To date, the Doctor has regenerated nine times, having been played by ten different actors, with an eleventh on the way. During Troughton's time as the Doctor the character's backstory was significantly expanded, and the name of his race was used for the first time: Time Lords.
The Daleks (pictured above) are almost as old as the Doctor himself, having first appeared in the second of the show's serials. The genocidal alien pepperpots were created by writer Terry Nation, who also penned the aforementioned “Genesis of the Daleks” (widely considered one of the greatest Doctor Who serials) and was to go on to make the cult series Blake's 7. As iconic as the Doctor's TARDIS, the Daleks are mutant creatures whose metlalic exterior is merely a housing for the beings inside, who feel little but hate and are bent on universal conquest. That which they cannot control, they “exterminate!” I was far from the only kid hiding behind the sofa from these monsters – The Economist suggested it was a British cultural institution as firmly engrained as tea-time. During the 1960s the Daleks were so popular that the phrase Dalekmania! was coined, and two Dalek feature films (starring Peter Cushing as the Doctor) in 1965 and 1966 were made, both adapting Terry Nation-penned serials to the big screen.
“Genesis of the Daleks” was near the beginning of Philip Hinchcliffe's run as the show's producer, and also near the start of Tom Baker's stint as the Doctor – the actor who portrayed the character the longest, over nine years and 173 episodes. Hinchcliffe's era was a highpoint for the show. Not since the peak of Dalekmania! had Doctor Who enjoyed such ratings, pulling in 12 to 16 million viewers every week. The secret of the shows of the late 1970's was a shift towards a darker, more adult-feeling tone, influenced by the low budget ‘Hammer horror’ movies of the 1960's and early 1970's and the work of Nigel Kneale (the creator of Quatermass). However, despite ratings success these episodes attracted considerable criticism from self-appointed guardian of British morality, Mary Whitehouse, who famously called Doctor Who “teatime brutality for tots”. After Hinchcliffe stepped down, the show was to return to a somewhat more family-friendly tone, but its popularity went into decline over the next three Doctors, and the show was eventually cancelled in 1989 having suffered through ever-declining budget and increasingly ropey special effects, not to mention the certain doom of being scheduled opposite the hugely popular British soap opera Coronation Street.
But that wasn't the end of the Doctor's story. One of the many people influenced by the Hinchcliffe/Baker era of Doctor Who was writer Russell T. Davies, and in his scripts for the controversial drama series Queer as Folk about the lives of three young, gay men in Manchester's ‘gay village’, Russell includes numerous references to the classic sci fi show. Footage from “The Pyramids of Mars” is shown on TV in one scene, the prop for the Doctor's robot dog, K-9, is used as a plot device, and in one episode a leading character brings home a man for sex who, upon discovering a copy of “Genesis of the Daleks” on video, begs to watch that instead. In September 2003, the BBC's Head of Drama, Jane Tranter, invited Davies to revive Doctor Who, and although nervous in the face of such a daunting task, he couldn't refuse such an opportunity.
With Davies at the helm, the show returned to TV in 2005 with an updated look and feel, a special effects budget that “matched the imagination of the writing”, and it has since enjoyed both critical and popular success, returning Doctor Who to its rightful place as the premier British science fiction show. The Davies-era (2005-present) also marked a radical change in the show's attitude towards religion.
In Doctor Who's original run, religion most commonly occurred in the context of a pulp-novel cult – a group of faceless minions under the thrall of a charismatic but power-mad leader who is striving to summon great evil, aid an alien menace, or bring about the end of the world, as in “The Daemons”, “The Masque of Mandragora”, “Image of the Fendahl” and “The Stones of Blood”. Alternatively, religion was seen as a primitive tribal impulse as in “The Power of Kroll”. Very occasionally, a religious group was shown respect, as in the case of the Sisterhood of Karn in “The Brain of Morbius”, but even then the Doctor's rational, scientific mind is contrasted – he sees their Sacred Flame as nothing more than natural gas. There is even a ‘religion versus science’ thread in“Meglos”, in which the Deons seek to control the populace through religion and are pitted against the Savants, who use the Deon's sacred artefact as a power source.
There is some positive portrayal of religion during Jon Pertwee's run as the third Doctor. The producer in charge of the show prior to Philip Hinchcliffe, Barry Letts, is a Buddhist and brought a little of this influence into the Pertwee serials. In the serial “The Time Monster”, Letts influenced writer and colleague Robert Sloman to show the Doctor as “semi-enlightened” – able to see the universe more clearly than most, but still possessing personal flaws, an idea delivered by a revealed backstory concerning a hermit back on the Doctor's home planet of Gallifrey, who was something of a mentor to the Doctor. In the final Pertwee episode, “Planet of the Spiders”, a Buddhist meditation retreat forms a major location for the story, and the aforementioned hermit Time Lord appears as a central character, telling the Doctor shortly before his regeneration: “The old man must die, and the new man will discover to his inexpressible joy that he has never existed.”
Under Davies' influence, however, Doctor Who developed a rather blatant anti-religious stance. Before coming to the show, Davies had written another controversial drama called The Second Coming, in which Steve Baxter, played by Christopher Eccleston, discovers he is the Son of God and has only a few days to find the Third Testament and prevent Armageddon. The story concludes with Steve's friend and lover Judy (the Judas character of the piece) lacing a meal with rat poison, and telling Steve that the Third testament is “the closing of the family business”, contending that arguments over God has led humanity to evil, and that the absence of an afterlife may scare people into living properly. Steve thus commits suicide, destroys heaven and hell, and everyone lives happily ever after. The story is blatant ‘atheist scripture’. Davies was to bring Eccleston with him to Doctor Who, casting the talented actor as the ninth Doctor.
The digs begin small. In the second episode, “The End of the World”, a tannoy announcement states “Guests are reminded that Platform One forbids the use of weapons, teleportation and religion.” By the end of the first of the new seasons, however, Davies goes for the ecumenical jugular: the Daleks, which had previously been revealed as destroyed, are resurrected through the re-engineering of human DNA. In a weird misunderstanding of genetics, this somehow gives the Daleks twisted religious leanings, and they embody the Emperor Dalek as a god, using phrases such as “worship him!” and “do not blaspheme!” The Doctor comments: “Driven mad by your own humanity. You hate your own existence” – a criticism atheists sometimes level against Christians, in the vein of Nietzsche's arguments against Christian morality. It's a callow critique of religion, and something of an insult to the Daleks: having originally been envisioned by Terry Nation as “Cosmic Nazi's” they were already fanatical, fundamentalist and genocidal: the adding of religion to this mix is wholly unnecessary.
One screenplay in particular warrants critical scrutiny: the 2007, Davies-penned episode “Gridlock”. In this episode, the Doctor (now played by David Tennant) and his companion visit a city billions of years in the future. The populace are trapped on a sealed motorway caught in a perpetual hovercar traffic jam, where it takes years to travel a mile or so. The travellers are trying to get to their idyllic destinations, but all of the exits are closed – there's nothing but gridlock. At the bottom of the motorway, degenerate crab monsters known as Macra prey on any car that strays too close. The travellers ease their frustrations with “mood patches” (drugs) and by singing religious hymns, like “The Old Rugged Cross”. Outside the motorway, the city is deserted – all the people long since wiped out by a ‘Bliss’ drug. An ancient entity, the Face of Boe, is keeping the motorway running, and ultimately gives his life energy in sacrifice to open the motorway, letting the hovercars escape into the blue sky to the tune of the hymn “Abide with Me”. Everyone lives happily ever after in the city above.
Although this story allows for many different readings, I believe that Davies has constructed this tale as another piece of ‘atheist scripture’. When I first watched the episode, I was surprised by the scene where Martha sheds a tear upon hearing the motorists sing the hymn. Davies sympathising for practitioners of religion? Yes, sympathising, but not empathising. The motorway, I contend, is intended to symbolise the trials of life, and the people trapped in it turn to ‘false hopes’ (in Davies judgement) like drugs or religion – the promise of an afterlife represented by the idyllic destinations (such as Brooklyn, “where the air is clean and pure”). Like Steve Baxter in The Second Coming, the Face of Boe sacrifices himself to free everyone from their prison, allowing everyone into the techno-utopia above.
Not many critics share my reading of this episode, and most dismiss the idea of the episode as a religious allegory for various reasons. Jack Graham's account is particularly lucid, and I agree that it doesn't work as a religious allegory – perhaps because Davies wrote this as a nonreligious allegory. For me, this is emphasised by the inclusion of the Macra, who first appeared in the 1967 serial “The Macra Terror”, starring the inestimable Patrick Troughton as the Doctor. In this story, a colony is overtly happy and ordered, but is secretly controlled by the crab-like Macra, who use the humans to mine the gas they need to live, and demonise anyone who claims to have seen a Macra. This is a 1960's-flavoured dystopian fantasy about totalitarian control (compare George Orwell's Ninteteen Eighty Four). The ‘devolved’ Macra in “Gridlock”, I am claiming, symbolise the ‘devolved’ (in Davies view) Christian church, which he presumably sees as once having exerted the same kind of totalitarian control over humanity as was seen in “The Macra Terror”. The story is about escaping that ‘horror’. Davies has said that “Gridlock” is one of his favourite episodes – given his beliefs, I can see why!
But despite Davies repeated desire to punch religion in the figurative groin, the new Doctor Who's relationship with religion ends up being far more complicated and nuanced. Consider that “Gridlock” is an episode that Christians have almost universally adored (one US church gave it an award). How can this be? Because a Christian facing this episode doesn't see the same symbols that (I believe) Davies placed here to form an atheist parable. Instead, they see the story working as a religious allegory and, provided one doesn't take Davies own beliefs into consideration, it actually works quite well in this role. And to add to the irony, many militant atheists dislike the episode for showing Christianity surviving billions of years into the future. Here we have an intended atheistic fantasy that Christians love and (some) atheists hate!
The same kind of metaphysical ambiguity benefits the two part story “The Impossible Planet” and “The Satan Pit”, written by Matt Jones. In this story, the Doctor faces a creature which claims to be the Beast – the entity behind all myths of Satan or the Devil. It causes the Doctor to question his own beliefs in a marvellous scene by Tennant, and also produces a brilliantly eerie atmosphere throughout. These episodes far surpass the classic Doctor Who stories which cross supernatural horror with science fiction, one of which (“The Daemons”, another Barry Letts/Robert Sloman story) was the inspiration for this adventure– Davies stated that they wanted to create a “Russian doll” effect by wrapping the new story around the old. It's another tale that can be read in many different ways, and enjoyed by people from a variety of belief systems.
Under Davies' watch, the Doctor has transformed from an ingenious traveller into a ‘Science Messiah’ – and never more so than in James Moran's “The Fires of Pompeii”, which ends with a Roman family venerating the Doctor as a household god (even though Moran flatly denies any messianic intent, and I am inclined to believe him). But despite this atheistic vector working behind the scenes, the new Doctor Who continues to be enjoyed by Christians – the Anglican church has in fact recently studied Doctor Who with an eye to using its stories and symbols to teach Christianity. Barry Letts, who first introduced a hint of religion to the show, said of this bizarre intersection between faith and science fiction: “I think it’s inevitable because of Britain’s cultural heritage that a long-running programme about the fight between good and evil will have some Christian themes as a backdrop.” It's also worth mentioning that one of the writers on the new show is a Christian: Paul Cornell (who wrote the episode “Father's Day”) describes himself as “a Christian and a pagan”.
Just as we saw with Star Trek last week, Doctor Who works with a diverse set of belief systems because its underlying humanist morality is compatible with both faith and nonbelief. Davies metaphysics may be wildly far from Christian faith, but his ethics accord with it – his script for “The Last of the Time Lords” has a key scene during which the Doctor offers forgiveness for his old enemy the Master (a disappointing performance by John Simm, offset by the delight of seeing Sir Derek Jacobi as the Master two weeks previous). Forgiveness as the pivotal emotional crux of a story? There could not be a more quintessentially Christian theme.
I may not enjoy Davies anti-religious tub-thumping, but I applaud his magnificent reinvention of the Doctor Who franchise. I knew he had succeeded in his goals when I saw young kids on their summer holidays pretending to by Cybermen and Daleks for the first time in decades. This will be Davies final year as producer, as writer Stephen Moffat (who wrote “The Girl in the Fireplace”, perhaps the finest Doctor Who episode ever written), becomes showrunner in 2010 [I shared my thoughts on Moffat-as-showrunner two years later]. Davies and I may not have a single metaphysical belief in common, but we share a love of this incredible show. I suppose Davies is slightly too old to have shared my terror of “Genesis of the Daleks” in 1975, but I like to think that back in 1966, when he was three years old and “The Power of the Daleks” aired, he too was hiding behind the sofa.
Next week: Firefly
Visit the Religion in Science Fiction page for links to all nine parts.