The meaning of belief and religion in Dr. Who.
An Essay by Arthur Chappell.
Religion and belief have been treated with a more or less consistent degree of scepticism throughout the adventures of the good Doctor, despite the programme’s general lack of concern for continuity. The Crusade and The Massacre both depict the cruelties inflicted on humans by their own people in the name of a chosen God. The Aztecs does the same with pagan believers in pre-Christian deities, but for brevity’s sake I’ll stick to western traditions of belief. The novelisation of the Massacre describes the situation in France in 1567, when apothecaries were only allowed to conduct business if the had a Certificate Of Catholicism. Outside a closed store, the Doctor says to Steven;
"heretical ideas concerning life and death were not in accord with the dogmas of the church of Rome.... The man who owned that place may well have retired normally, but equally so he may have been a French Protestant, a Huguenot as they were called - still are for that matter - who was driven out of business because of his religious convictions."
Historically accurate, but surprisingly controversial. It was brave of a young programme to tackle the more dubious aspects of the past history of a major belief system. The trend would resurface many times, but then religion has always regarded science fiction as just as blasphemous as science itself. Many SF works take a strong condemnatory stance towards religious dogma. Frankenstein is a parable on the creation myth; the monster is seen as horrible in its disregard for the values of its own creator, Frankenstein. It was seen as a shocking and atheistic work. Much SF that has followed has maintained the trend. (C.S. Lewis’s work as seen in the Christian allegories of Narnia are a rare exception to the rule).
While The Massacre got away with it, The Daemons ran foul of the more hard line evangelical born again brigade. The Master’s role as an evil priest was too much to bear for many. Much comment was also made of the destruction of the church at the end of this adventure, (though a similar exploding church in The Awakening roused no comment, nor did the villainous and blasphemous role of The Monk in The Time Meddler for that matter. The depiction of paganism and superstition in The Daemons also raised a few hackles, much to the amusement of secular media commentators. At the story’s end the Doctor fuses science and superstition against Christian Dogma and willingly participates in a wiccan fertility dance ritual. (That is what a May pole dance involves).
The 3rd Doctor’s whole era was characterized by a sense of scientific scepticism. The occult and the paranormal were debunked as either fantasy, or what Earth science hasn’t yet grasped the concept of. The Doctor demonstrates how people will assume magical powers are in use when they see something they don’t understand. See the remote controlled driving of the car Bessie in a crucial scene from the Daemons. Liz Shaw shared that degree of scepticism, and in fact, she now looks like an early role model for the skeptical character of Agent Scully in The X - Files. (See my Skeptic Magazine published article - article X-FILES
Dr. Who also shows a strong and surprisingly consistent support for Darwinian theories of evolution, which many Creationists refuse to accept preferring to, Believe the seven day creation story given at the beginning of Genesis to be literally true. City Of Death takes us back in time to see the germination of life in the destruction of the Jagaroth spaceship. This gives the primeval soup the necessary chemical kick-start life on Earth requires.
Survival owes its very title to Darwin’s concept of the Survival of the fittest, along with its central theme. (the line ‘survival of the fittest’ is stated by several characters in the story) The most explicit depiction of the evolution controversy has to be Ghostlight though. The scene in which Victorian creationist Rev. Matthews devolves into a banana munching ape while dismissing Darwinism out of hand is straight out of an event in history. In June 1860, Darwinian scientist T.H. Huxley was involved in a heated British Association debate with Samuel Wilberforce, Bishop of Oxford. Wilberforce tried to score a few points off the man known as ‘Darwin’s Bulldog’ for his aggressive debating tactics, by asking him whether he was descended from the apes on his mother’s side of the family, or his father’s. It got a cheap laugh until Huxley replied that it was better to evolve from an ape than to evolve from someone "who, having a scholastic education, should use his logic to mislead an untutored public and should treat not with argument but with ridicule the facts and reasoning adduced in support of a grave and serious philosophical question." Huxley won the debate, and many cartoonists of the period lampooned both Huxley and Wilberforce as ape like figures. Many upper-class Victorians found themselves taking sides in such debates on evolution. Ghostlight brilliantly re-enacts such a conflict.
The strongest criticism of religion is used in The Curse of Fenric in the use of ‘faith’ as a weapon against the vampire-like Haemovores. Rev. Wainwright’s portrayal by Nicholas Parsons is one of the finest ever given in an episode of the series. He plays a vicar quietly going through a crisis of faith in God and country over English bombers killing the children in German cities during WW2. It is a crisis of faith many priests genuinely faced in such times. Wainwright dies tragically testing his failing faith against the Haemovores, who are repelled by just such faith; but the beauty is that it need not be religious faith. Captain Sorin drives them off (temporarily) through his faith in the Russian Revolution, a secular crusade inspired by Karl Marx’s blistering assertion that religion is the opiate of the people. Haemovores would undoubtedly be driven off by a child’s faith in Father Christmas, even though he certainly isn’t real. The point is that even atheists have something to believe in. Ace pins her faith in the Doctor, who may or may not be regarded as a god like entity himself, (at least until the TV movie declares him officially half-human). It is a faith the Doctor shatters in order to save her, by dismissing her as a pawn, a poor student and a person of no importance. He does it because Ace has made the same mistake as Sorin made. She believed that faith could stop Fenric (a genie or devil like entity of godlike power), just as it stopped the Haemovores. It is a mistake that costs them dearly. The point seems to be that most evil cannot be stopped just by belief in the power of good, but by direct action and intervention by those willing to risk all to alleviate suffering.
Dr. Who tends on the whole to set science and understanding of evolution above religious belief and supernaturalism. There are undoubtedly stories in which some degree of occultism is recognized; Lady Peinforte’s time traveling skills in Silver Nemesis are simply described as the use of ‘black magic’ by the Doctor, but then, he might just be using such a description of alchemy to save himself the tedium of a longer, more detailed explanation. After all, much that we once only believed possible has now been made fully comprehensible by science. Who knows the future of human evolution; a second heart could evolve, along with the technological prowess to build time machines bigger on the inside than on the outside. The implications for religion, of our knowledge of the material world growing stronger, are not the subject for optimism. The more we know, the less we have to believe in. Sadly we have a limited life time in which to find out all we can, not being Time Lords or gods ourselves. So, let’s get on with it.
The revival of the series under the guidance of Russell TV Davies has maintained a science over religion perspective. The Doctor himself tends to take on a Messianic air of egotism, especially with David Tennant's otherwise excellent portrayal. The cult-status of the Doctor as a universal folk hero is one of the show's few weaknesses.
February 4th 1997. Revised August 1st 2009
© Copyright. Arthur
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