Is Doctor Who anti-Religious?

This message is a continuation of something that was posted on “Matthew C.’s” blog Tea With Morbius in which some guy yelled at him for being a conservative and liking science fiction. This stance has always confused me completely as many people I know have religious beliefs and watch tons of science fiction TV. I’m even a Gnostic-Christian that leans libertarian and have no problems at all with having my beliefs questioned.

For me, religion and science fiction go hand-in-hand for many reasons, most notably for the concepts in many of the actual stories. We can’t have things like The Matrix, Philip K. Dick Stories such as Blade Runner, or even Star Wars without some bit of respect for religion. I know that this will make a few people angry that hold the “the religion is stooped!!11one LOL” mindset, but that’s how it has always been. Lately there has been a big smugness cloud hanging over fans of science fiction, one in which many that do not believe in any sort of deity take everything as a symbol of atheist pride. Let’s say that we find ourselves watching and episode of Doctor Who, and The Doctor finds out that a civilization’s “god” is actually a guy in a suit…BOOM TAKE THAT RELIGION! I guess it all boils down to a side-effect of the somewhat recent trend of both sides of the utterly stupid “religion vs. science” geek war that has been raging for a while. Don’t even get me started on the fact that the two institutions co-existed fairly well for nearly a millennium with only the occasional blemish such as throwing scientists in prison for heresy. Not everything is Galileo vs. The Church for Christsakes!

There are many instances of a somewhat anti-religious stance in Doctor Who, but I honestly chalk most of it up to lazy writing. Akin to my much beguiled “space Nazis” trope (I need to write something on here about that), the lazy religion bashing episode sometimes comes off as just as lame. In Doctor Who, one such episode sticks out like a sore thumb to me as the literal archetype for this type of story: Meglos. While not a particularly bad episode, Meglos excels is painting a world in a somewhat one dimensional manner in which religious folks are raving lunatics, and scientists are the best at everything. On one hand we have the citizens of the main planet split into two philosophical groups: “savants”, a group with an utterly patronizing name right from the beginning, which worship science fighting it out with the deions, a group that follows religion. This episode also features an evil cactus monster just to show how serious we can take the eye rolling religious debates.

Another motif that has clumsily popped up in Doctor Who a few times, and about 70 billion times in the original Star Trek, is the “people worship what they don’t understand” trope. In Star Trek we had the episode where the civilization worshipped the U.S. Constitution, The episode where the kids worshipped some guy in a mumu, the one where people worshipped a computer…and so on…Planet of Fire showed this when we find out that people are worshipping an empty spacesuit and the Face Of Evil did the same thing with an evil computer, there must have been a run on god-like evil computers somewhere.

These more-clumsy episodes paint religion as the total antithesis to science, something that uncivilized morons take part in. This is not the norm for the show however, as much of Doctor Who is a lot more “nice” with religious imagery and concepts, even bordering on painting the Doctor himself as a “space Jesus” of some sort. For me Meglos was simply a fluke, if anything Doctor Who teaches us that we should question authority when reasonable, something that actually chimes with my Gnostic worldview, does this mean that I feel that the show is made in that regard, NO, but just like many atheists I can see what I want as well.

As In posted in the original comments section of the thread that kicked my stream of mind ranting, I feel that more recent Doctor Who episodes are far more forgiving of religion, something that may confuse people as both show runners have been uber-super-duper atheists. One episode in particular stands out to me as the showpiece for my viewpoint, a Russel T. Davies penned episode called “Gridlock”. The plot centers around a trip to New New Earth, a planet plagued with terrible traffic. Every day the masses that live and die in the traffic jam hear weather reports such as the following:

“The sun is blazing high in the sky over the New Atlantic—the perfect setting for the daily contemplation… This is for all of you out there on the roads. We’re so sorry. Drive safe.”

For me this was obviously a reference to what these people see as heaven, something attainable if everyone has faith that the traffic will ease up. Suddenly everyone breaks out into an old hymn called “The Old Rugged Cross”:

On a hill far away stood an old rugged cross,
The emblem of suffering and shame;
And I love that old cross where the dearest and best
For a world of lost sinners was slain.

Refrain

So I’ll cherish the old rugged cross,
Till my trophies at last I lay down;
I will cling to the old rugged cross,
And exchange it some day for a crown.

O that old rugged cross, so despised by the world,
Has a wondrous attraction for me;
For the dear Lamb of God left His glory above
To bear it to dark Calvary.

Refrain

In that old rugged cross, stained with blood so divine,
A wondrous beauty I see,
For ’twas on that old cross Jesus suffered and died,
To pardon and sanctify me.

Refrain

To the old rugged cross I will ever be true;
Its shame and reproach gladly bear;
Then He’ll call me some day to my home far away,
Where His glory forever I’ll share.

Refrain

As we can see Martha breaks out into tears as we see these people hopelessly clinging to the faith that they will emerge from this ordeal and go to where they plan to go. The Doctor takes it upon himself to save them, and literally leads them out of the traffic in an almost biblical way. If Doctor Who was so unanimously anti-religion, why would there be an obvious allusion to The Doctor being Christ-like in this episode. It doesn’t end there either; season 3 seems to me to be the most religious of all the seasons considering the ending. At one point, the world is in ruins and everyone has lost hope that they will survive as the Doctor is incapacitated and The Master has seemingly won. Martha literally travels the world spreading the gospel of The Doctor’s name until everyone thinks of him. This somehow gives him all the power of the world, and he flies around and kicks ass. To be honest I wasn’t a fan of this Doctor as a Space messiah revelation, but it still stands.

In closing, Doctor Who isn’t anti-religion, but some writers may write it that way, as you have seen I can find examples of the exact opposite as well.

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13 thoughts on “Is Doctor Who anti-Religious?

  1. I love the use of ‘Abide with me’ as a Gallifrey theme in Gridlock. It’s so poignant.

    This is a great post.

    Have you checked out the audio Council of Nicaea? It’s a great example of Doctor Who taking religion seriously. It’s written by Paul Cornell’s wife Caroline Symcox, who is an Anglican priest.

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  2. not yet, I assume it’s a Big Finish Audio? I may have to skip ahead a bit….I just got a new job and will have to commute to work, so I will definitely step my game up with those a bit for the long car rides.

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  3. Good post. I enjoyed it.

    I honestly don’t mind a thoughtful critique of religious behavior or fanaticism (and yes, I myself am a Christian), but it seems these are easy tropes to pick up and very rarely does one find a positive portrayal of religion in modern science fiction. Honestly, episodes like “Gridlock” stand out as it shows the power of faith without subscribing to any particular deity. Doctor Who under RTD was possibly the most blatantly religious, which does strike me as unusual given his atheism. But I do think he was on to something with the concept of a figure like The Doctor being worshiped. You travel around for 900+ years, saving societies or collapsing them, and you will probably be seen as a deity. If I’m not mistaken, The Doctor has grown to like it a bit because the old boy has always had a bit of an ego, but constantly insists that he is no one special.

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  4. Hmmm. Fair comment on Gridlock being pro-faith (it was nominated for an award by an American Christian group, somewhat jaw-droppingly), but a lot of the other RTD episodes are systematically anti-religious, in their details if not their themes – weapons, teleportation and religion are all explicitly banned on Platform One, and the Doctor mocks humans for not being prepared to accept aliens exist but believing ‘in things you can’t see’ at the end of World War Three. It’s kind of ironic, because I’ve seen so many blog posts and articles from Christian Who-fans who’ve interpreted the Tennant years in particular as some kind of Christian tract. Possibly something funny going on here…

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    • I did cherry pick that one specifically as a “pro religion” episode, but I’m in no way saying that it’s a christian show or anything, just that folks often say the show is anti-religious when it is more balanced than something like Star Trek. I even had someone link me to a counter-argument to this, not to me personally, that said the exact opposite viewpoint for the same epiosde. it goes to show that “us humans are always seeing patterns in things that aren’t there”…lol

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