British TV’s most popular science fiction show is written by atheists, yet focuses on a compelling central character whose life has more than a few parallels to Jesus. So is this modern Christianity’s greatest allegorical resource, or is Doctor Who a subverted Messiah?
We're very excited for Doctor Who's return to our screens this autumn! Ten years ago it was a TV relic with wobbly sets and awful papier-mâché monsters. Today it’s a BAFTA-grabbing sci-fi phenomenon. Thanks to a complete reimagining by some of broadcasting’s most visionary writers, Doctor Who has re-established itself against the odds as the pinnacle of British television. Now with one eye on American conquest, the time-travel show is approaching its seventh season since the 2005 reboot and, despite often being written by confirmed atheists, cannot seem to help creating Christian allegory at every turn. I am, rather embarrassingly, a massive Who geek. As a child I amassed a collection of nearly 200 paperback novelisations; I filled my parents’ house with VHS recordings of the show’s first 26 series. I once even forced my dad to queue around a block for five hours, just so I could get (Seventh Doctor) Sylvester McCoy’s autograph. Judge away. When, aged 11, I heard the BBC announcement that there would be no more Doctor Who, I was devastated. This was my ‘American Pie’ moment; the day the music died. During my teenage years I suffered the disgrace of being a superfan of a programme that wasn’t even on any more. Then, to my utter shock, some 16 years later, another statement emerged from the same corporation. Thanks to highly-regarded writer and noted ‘Whovian’ (yep, I know, it’s not as cool as ‘Trekkie’), Russell T Davies, Doctor Who would be making a long-awaited comeback. And what a comeback it was. A mix of clever casting (most notably including pop star Billie Piper), great writing and a largely increased effects budget ensured that within just a few short weeks, Doctor Who was cool again. The show was successfully marketed to both children and adults – the former enjoying the monster-laden capers; the latter nostalgically mis-remembering how lukewarm they used to feel about the original series. The show’s three lead actors (The Doctor ‘re-generates’ into a new body whenever the man playing him has had enough) have all seen their profile raised considerably; the two show-runners (Davies handed over to fellow atheist Steven Moffat after four series) have become deified as the UK’s top screenwriters. There is an almost unfathomable amount of good will surrounding the show, much as there was during its golden age in the 1970s. Anecdotally, Doctor Who appears to be even more popular among Christians, and for perhaps understandable reasons. The show was always about big ideas – alien life; time-travel and the like – but when Davies took it on, he remodelled it on a much more epic scale. Whereas the Doctor was once the greatest of his race (The Time Lords), now he is the last; where the show was often concerned with the fate of worlds, now it repeatedly places the entire universe in peril. So the Doctor becomes the one person in the whole of existence capable of holding back the darkness, and he frequently places his own life on the line – and even loses it – in order to save us all. Sound familiar? Christians will claim that atheist writers cannot help but write the gospel story because it is the great story that lives within us all; atheists would use the same argument to explain how the gospel itself was fictionalised. Whichever way your perception filter is programmed (that one was for the nerds), it is undeniably true that the epic storylines created by Davies and Moffat continue to lead a Messiah figure to a metaphorical cross, save mankind through him, then give him a resurrection. Each series so far has culminated in such a manner, and twice so far the character has paid the ultimate price – through a visual effect that is strikingly cross-like – only to be ‘reborn’ with a different face. So regardless of whether they’re intentional, what do we actually do with these moments of Christian allegory? Are they simply gift sermon illustrations? And what of all the other stories and scenes (click here for examples) both in Who and spinoff series Torchwood, which raise questions of faith and existence? Doctor Who should not be painted as some great evangelistic resource. The allegory doesn’t point toward Jesus, but toward science. To suggest that viewers will somehow be inspired by the redemptive nature of the storylines to investigate faith, is to overlook the various anti-Christian elements in the same series. Humans as a whole are portrayed as a gloriously good race with a few bad apples (who often turn out to be aliens anyway). The Messiah figure saves the world, but then has to keep on going back to the ‘cross’ to save it again each year. Elements of the biblical story – such as God as creator and the existence of the devil – are explained away as scientific or paranormal phenomena. This isn’t the full gospel then; merely a helpful echo of part of the story. What the show does do however is cause us to think about big ideas. Sometimes – as in the first show of the latest series, which began at the end of April – it’s an idea about the nature of alien existence. At other times though, we are led to consider what it means to be human; whether we’d lay down our life for love; the nature of good and evil, darkness and light. As Christians, Doctor Who offers us two things: a superblywritten, often hugely enjoyable show concerned with ideas which we find important and interesting, and a great trigger for discussion. Most Monday mornings during Who-season, I find myself next to the watercooler with my friend Dave, unpacking events from Saturday night from a place of immersion and excitement. Many of those times, we have found ourselves in discussion about the more spiritual themes, the same thing being true of similar conversations with the young people I work with. For preachers and witnesses to the Christian faith, the show provides a wealth of story touchstones with which to connect the even more fantastic story that we know. Let’s just not kid ourselves that he’s meant to be Jesus. Originally published June 2011, edited August 2012.