Doctor Who’s Benediction

Sarah Welch-Larson

The recent season of Doctor Who offered a fresh version of the same story that’s been told over and over again since the 2005 revival—and even since the series was launched in 1963. Instead of the Doctor traveling with a single companion, there are three; instead of the episodes being about monsters of the week, they’re about real-world issues; and, most importantly, the Doctor has become less of a stubborn know-it-all and more of a gentle team player, open to other people’s points of view, particularly with regards to religion. The Doctor even ends one adventure with something resembling a benediction: “Keep your faith. Travel hopefully.”

To recap for the uninitiated: Doctor Who is the time-traveling British version of Star Trek, all the way down to the more-or-less pacifist, secular humanism beating at its heart. The title character is a humanoid alien who travels around space and time in a blue police box that’s bigger on the inside. The Doctor likes to go exploring, to solve puzzles, and to right wrongs. The Doctor usually travels with at least one companion, typically a young woman from Earth. And when the Doctor is about to die, the Doctor “regenerates” into a new body, with a new personality.

This last season broke with tradition in that all 12 previous incarnations of the Doctor have been white and male. Now, the Thirteenth Doctor is a woman, played by Jodie Whittaker. Every version of the Doctor is a reaction to the version that came before it. The Twelfth Doctor was standoffish and emotionally detached, but ultimately good. It stands to reason that Thirteen would be warm, caring, and gentle, but still firm when the situation calls for it. She’s still the same alien, traveling through space and time, righting wrongs. Like previous versions, she’s a motormouth, irrepressibly curious, clever, and daring. And even though she’s not human, at heart she’s a humanist.

Doctor Who in the past has been staunchly secular, demonstrating a marked resistance to deeply engage with religion and religious beliefs. Religion has mostly been used as a way to provide color to a setting, without interrogating the nature of belief. (In Doctor Who’s picture of the 51st century, for example, the Anglican Church is more akin to a branch of the military, with clerics acting as soldiers. No reason is given for this shift, except that “the Church moved on.”) The most recent season of Doctor Who has demonstrated itself to also be different in that it is more willing to wrestle with the complexities of being a person of faith.

In the past, the Doctor has been the only person able to solve problems. Now, she’s fallible, prone to making mistakes and assumptions that might not be correct. Over the course of the season, she occasionally steps back. She’s learned to be a witness, to hand the spotlight over to others who might be able to save the day better than she can. Her viewpoint is no longer infallible, and with the shift from certainty, the Doctor has taken a step away from strict secular humanism, in which there is no room for a higher power.

The most recent season is more willing to wrestle with the complexities of being a person of faith.

The common thread of this season is the sanctity and dignity of all life. This is not a new theme to Doctor Who as a whole, but it is the first season where the show practices what it preaches, and that fact alone has made the show fall more in line with humanism of the Christian variety. Much of Doctor Who up to this point has tended toward abstract thought-experiments, with weekly supporting characters and settings providing color, but not much else. In the past, supporting characters would die, just to prove that the monster of the week was dangerous. In this season, character deaths are rare. And when they do happen, the consequences reverberate throughout episodes and across the span of the entire season. There’s space allowed to mourn. The supporting characters and settings feel fleshed out. Some episodes are overstuffed, but they’re all reaching to explore difficult concepts, with no filler. It’s true science fiction, considering the question of what makes us human and affirming the sanctity of life. This affirmation contains echoes of Christian humanism, which understands humanism (“people have inherent worth and value”) in the light of God’s sovereignty (“all people have been created in the image of God, and therefore have inherent worth and value”).

Unlike previous seasons, which have rejected faith as something to evolve beyond and which have used religion primarily as set dressing, this season has embraced a more religious humanist outlook. There’s room for belief in the show, and there’s room allowed for the possibility that this faith can inform and enrich our understanding of what it means to be human. This isn’t explicitly Christian, but it is a step away from the secular humanism of previous seasons, which has had no room for faith at all.

This season is full of stories about faith. In “The Witchfinders,” the Doctor and her companions take a trip to the England of King James and a time of witch trials. In “Demons of the Punjab,” tensions escalate between Hindus and Muslims in 1940s India and Pakistan. The series finale is perhaps the most daring, at least by Doctor Who standards. The religion of a group of aliens is corrupted by an outsider, for nefarious purposes. Instead of condemning the aliens who fell victim to their corrupted religion, the Doctor goes straight to the source, challenging instead the outsider who twisted their religion to his own malicious ends.

And when it’s time for her to go on to the next adventure, the Doctor does not condemn the religious adherents for being deceived. She tells them to keep their faith, to retain their hope, and to go out and continue to practice their religion in a way that brings life, not destruction. It’s an affirmation of faith, an instruction to go and sin no more, and a call both within the context of the show and to those of us watching to carry on in the faith that grounds us. It’s an encouraging step in the storied journey that is Doctor Who. I’m excited to see where we travel next.

Topics: TV