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Don’t let Doctor Who turn into Polly Toynbee

Peter Capaldi as Doctor Who

If Doctor Who were filling out the national census, what would he put as his religion? Back in the 1970s, Jon Pertwee (Doctor #3) might have said “questioning Anglican”. Combining his thirst for social justice, establishment superiority and fantastic hair (you could lose a sonic screwdriver in that thing), he was surely a double for Bishop Mervyn Stockwood – bringing tea and sympathy to the Venusians.
But the contemporary Doctor is more likely to tick “atheist”. The show presents religion in either a dystopian or a satirical light, while science is the path to enlightenment. In the Whoverse future, the Pope is a woman, the Church is an extension of the internet and priests are butch gays. The forces of evil are represented by alien cultists (the Daleks are essentially Scientologists) and – in the most transparent dig at Catholicism – an army of quite literally “headless” monks. The latter are a sect who see life as a fight between the head and the heart and have made their loyalty to the heart irreversible by cutting off their heads.

The producers could fairly argue that they’re following in the footsteps of the original series. Oftentimes, the old Doctor would confront a myth or superstition, reveal its entirely scientific origins and then spin us some moral about trusting our brains. In Old Who, young viewers are told that the Devil is actually an alien experimenting on mankind (The Daemons) and that the Egyptian gods were beings from another planet (The Pyramids of Mars). Tom Baker’s Doctor is the closest we get to a card-carrying member of the National Secular Society, because he’s forever explaining to his savage, under-dressed companion, Leela, that everything she believes in is rot (introducing some Edwardian gentlemen to her, he says: “They’re almost as primitive and as superstition-ridden as your lot are.”) In the truly terrible serial Meglos, we encounter a society torn between priests and scientists arguing over the nature of their fading power source – a gift from God or simply a fading crystal in need of proper maintenance? The clerics are presented as violent thugs incapable of rational thought. But given that the real threat to the planet turns out to be a talking cactus, a cynic might say that the biggest show of misplaced faith on display was the producer for commissioning such a weak script.

And yet sometimes Old Who could be quite sensitive to faith. Pertwee’s producer, Barry Letts, was a Buddhist who inserted various Eastern themes into his plots. Likewise, if Peter Davison’s Doctor #5 was filling out that national census then he would definitely tick “New Age”. Petrovian serials like Kinda and Snakedance were full of mystical allusions to a camp mix of Buddhism and Christianity. And Sylvester McCoy’s Doctor, who admits to being a hippie in one episode, could probably pass for a pacifist Quaker. It was in McCoy’s era that an attempt was made to reintroduce mystery to the show and move away from the overly rational take of the past. In Battlefield (Arthurian knights from another dimension come to England for some reason or other), he observes that “advanced forms of magic are indistinguishable from science” – a nice way of excusing the gobbledygook to follow.

If McCoy’s producers wanted to return to the very origins of his character then they might have gone further and made the Doctor an outright believer. Because William Hartnell’s first incarnation was conceived by at least one writer as a Christian. Back in the 1990s, an unmade script for what was intended to be Hartnell’s second story made it into the public domain. Called The Masters of Luxor, it features the Doctor and his companions encountering a race of robots searching for their creator – who turns out to be a flawed genius unworthy of worship. The plot is pure B-movie hokum, but what does stand out is the characterisation of the Time Lords as god-fearing. The Doctor makes the case for a worldview that balances faith and science, while the robots’ desperate need for something to believe in beyond themselves is at once tragic, terrifying and touching.

The Masters of Luxor is not explicitly pro-Christian, although two characters ward off the automatons sent to kill them by singing “Onward Christian Soldiers”. But it does present religion as a complex ethical matter worth dealing with seriously – not a grand cosmic joke, as it has become in New Who. William Hartnell’s Doctor was probably the closest thing to a Catholic priest we ever got.

That said, there are signs of maturity in the latest episodes of the new series. In the episode Kill The Moon, Peter Capaldi’s Doctor #12 and his female companion, Clara Oswald, discover that the moon is pregnant and that if it is allowed to give birth then its offspring might destroy the Earth. It’s an oversized metaphor for the abortion debate. “This is a life, this must be the biggest life in the universe,” says Clara, and even if does pose a threat to others, “you can’t blame a baby for kicking”.

Clara finds herself locked in a battle of conscience with a female human who wants to carry out a termination with nuclear weapons. Happily, the pro-life argument wins and the moon is allowed to split in two to reveal a pretty space dragon that flies away harmlessly.
We could see all of this as a clunky case for banning abortion but, in fact, the Doctor stands back from the dilemma and makes it clear that it is up to the humans/women to resolve it for themselves. He simply hopes that they’ll make the right decision – suggesting that Capaldi’s Doctor is the stripe of free will-loving Methodist that a Christian libertarian like Margaret Thatcher could go for. Ergo, the episode doesn’t borrow its morals directly from the Catechism, but it ought to win plaudits for being the first balanced piece of television about the abortion issue for many, many years. Left-wing reviewers hated it, labelling it simplistic. Yet the unambiguously pro-abortion plot that they would doubtless have preferred would hardly have been an exercise in nuance.

Of course, Capaldi’s era has been no less sceptical of old-fashioned, organised religion than the rest of New Who. But, then again, it could be argued that the entire new series has become so obsessed with carving out an alternative to stuffy Christianity that it has invented a faith all of its own. The Doctor performs miracles, looks human but isn’t, lives beyond space and time and regularly dies to save humanity, only to be reincarnated/regenerated. In a way, Doctor Who is a liberal atheist’s idea of Jesus.

This testifies to the appeal of Christ which goes beyond taste, politics and even belief. If you didn’t believe in this incredibly wonderful person, you’d have to invent him and – in a way – that’s exactly what New Who’s writers have done. Ironically, this obsession with the fantastical elements of Who’s format makes the show considerably more “magical” than it was in the old days, when it tended to have marginally more respect for faith.

What would Jon Pertwee’s Doctor make of the new one – so highly strung and forever battling with grave moral issues? He would probably tell him to relax, put his feet up and have a brandy. Yes, Pertwee’s Time Lord would’ve made an excellent Anglican bishop.

This article first appeared in the Catholic Herald magazine (19/12/14)