Many devotees of Doctor Who - most of whom are much too old and really ought to know better - were filled with childish delight last month at the news that Richard Dawkins would be making a guest appearance in the present series. The excitement was shared at the very highest level, as series supremo Russell T Davies told the Independent:
People were falling at his feet...We've had Kylie Minogue on that set, but it was Dawkins people were worshipping. He was as mad and as barking as you'd want him to be...Just brilliant.
Yet if Dawkins - married to a former Who-girl - is a fan, so too are many Christians, and some of them have latched on to the time lord as a potential recruiting tool. Last year, a Welsh church put on a special Who-themed service. Its organiser, Fr Dean Atkins, thought he could detect numerous parallels between Jesus and the Doctor:
The figure of Doctor Who is somebody who comes to save the world, almost a Messiah figure. In the series there are lots of references to salvation and the doctor being almost immortal. We are using the figure of Doctor Who as a parable of Christ. The language used in the series lends itself to exploring the Christian faith.
Christ is a kind of cosmic figure as well if you like, somebody who does not travel through time but all eternity is found in him. He is a kind of encapsulation of the beginning and the end, in fact he existed before time began and he will exist when time ends.
More recently, an American evangelical group gave an award to the episode from last year in which people in a never-ending traffic jam start singing The Old Rugged Cross. And a couple of weeks ago the Church Army staged a conference at its Sheffield training college entitled Spirituality and Doctor Who. Organised by minister and long-time Whovian (I believe that is the technically correct designation) Andrew Wooding, the day-long bash was an opportunity to examine the quasi-religious themes to be found in some of the episodes, and to pursue some slightly half-baked notions (the Tardis "was considered to represent a Church by being an ordinary object that points to something higher", for example). But it was also explicitly evangelistic in intention. According to Wooding,
There are countless examples of Christian symbolism in Doctor Who, which we can use to get across ideas that can otherwise be difficult to explain. Clergy shouldn't be afraid to engage with popular culture as for many young people television plays a large role in their thinking.
Rev Andy Myers, from Leeds, enthused as follows:
A wonderful relevant, vibrant and absolutely relevant day today was for any Christian who wants to find ways of connecting with today’s questing and questioning people of all ages who are devotees of Dr. Who. Dr Who works at many levels for millions of viewers and for me God is alive and at work in Dr. Who – let's hope Christians can have the imagination to make this connection and the vast majority of people, especially the young, who are deeply spiritual. They might understand what we are talking about in our Churches more if we use a language and a medium in which they are already engaging with Christ- even if at present they don’t quite know who and what they are engaging with.
Themes touched on during the conference included the role of the Daleks as the embodiment of moral evil, nihilism and "closed religion", the ways in which monsters on the show have been used as metaphors for whatever is currently worrying the public, and the complexities involved in moral choice. Myers even claimed that the scene in the recent episode, set in Pompeii, where Donna persuades the Doctor to rescue Caecilius and his family from the volcano, was "surely a reference to Genesis and Abraham’s bargaining with God over the fate of Sodom and Gomoroah."
This picture shows Anthony Thacker, author of Behind the Sofa, a history of Doctor Who, talking about Daleks. (Credit: Media Image Ltd)
Whether Russell T Davies, a happily extra cellula atheist, is altogether keen on the idea of Who being used as part of a strategy for putting bums on pews is unclear. In the past, however, he has openly acknowledged his use of religious themes in his work. Before the broadcast of the last Christmas episode, for example - which featured flying robot angels, among other delights - he admitted that the series "lends itself to religious iconography because the Doctor is a proper saviour, who saves people through power of his mind".
There are however dangers in seeking to purloin modern myths of the Who variety for the purposes of evangelism. Of course there are parallels between Christian themes of sacrifice, redemption and soteriology and those found in modern popular myth. One could mention, in addition to Doctor Who, the entire superhero genre, especially as shown in the last (and it should really have been the last) series of Heroes. Or the Star Wars saga. Or the post-feminist spin on the concept that was Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Like religion, these products all ask Big Questions (though the answers are rarely that surprising). But these are, after all, modern-day fairy tales, works of fiction - and childrens' fiction, at that. And they are, at the end of the day, humanistic products. The super-powers are metaphors for human striving.
The organisers of the recent conference might want the Doctor to be understood as a Christ-like figure. But one could just as easily make a case for Christ as a Doctor Who-like figure.
There's no doubt that the Christian narrative - the drama of redemption through the sacrifice of a saviour-god, followed by resurrection - threads itself powerfully through western thought. That it has played a significant role in shaping the form of narrative fiction is undeniable. But it also partakes of these dramatic forms, which preceded it - and, perhaps, helped to give it the very qualities that made it so powerful to begin with. Many scholars have noted the similarities between the life of Christ and those of mythological heroes. The same themes occur: the miraculous birth, the trial through which the hero proves himself worthy, an initiation, the contests with rivals, supernatural assistance, above all the final great test through which the hero achieves a great feat of liberation for his people - sometimes, but not always, at the cost of his own life.
E.M. Butler, in The Myth of the Magus (1948), put it thus:
In fact the canonical life of Christ seems to be blending history and ritual in much the same way as Euripides' Bacchae, and reads almost like a mystery drama transposed into epic form... it is also the fullest extant ritual life we possess...
Apart from the doctrine preached, the story thus simply and shatteringly told, with nothing wild, fantastic or incredible in its method of presentation, was destined to have the lasting effect that it produced, because of the emphasis on the tragic and terrible end. Mysterious and violent deaths had been a constant feature of magical legend; but here the actual tragedy of the dying god is depicted in a sober, telling and unforgettable way;... this humanising of what in the legends of Osiris and Dionysus had been divine mysteries made a reality of the sacrifice which staggered the whole world.
The result, she believed, was the "downfall of the magus" of antiquity:
Both as god-man and as the hero of the mystery tale, Christ represented a limit beyond which human imagination could not go in developing the magus-legend. The mould was shattered by the content and only fragments remained.
That may have been true for centuries. But when, with the waning of the Middle Ages, the western imagination escaped its millennium-long absorption in religion, it was to the old story that it turned. The basic European myth is that of the Man Who Goes Too Far. It might be Prometheus, stealing fire from the gods; or Satan, rebelling against God; or Faust, the man who wants to know everything; or Don Juan, the man who wants to fuck everything. More recently, its most resonant incarnation has been Frankenstein, who experiments with the limits of scientific possibility. Frankenstein scares us because he both is and is not God. He creates life, thus defying the limits apparently set by nature. Yet the forces that he unleashes he cannot ultimately control.
This, of course, is where the saviour-god comes in. For humanity, having comprehensively (or so it seems) fucked things up, casts around for a solution; and not seeing anything immediately to hand, looks to a benign pseudo-parent to appear magically and clear up the mess. Deus ex machina. And sometimes it is literally a machine: a Tardis, which even looks like a piece of stage equipment. In the Fifties, when the shadow of Hiroshima and the Cold War filled people with dread of nuclear annihilation, cults emerged around belief in UFOs, whose technologically and spiritually advanced occupants would come to earth and save us. Technological and spiritual, notice. The Doctor, too, is a sort of super-scientist. He talks the language of morality; he fights bad guys whose plans tend unimaginatively to involve killing lots of people and enslaving the world. But he also possesses a sonic screwdriver.
This detail matters, because it implies that the problems that the Doctor is dealing with are material problems. But that would seem to be the case, increasingly, with religion too, as church leaders seek to re-define sinful behaviour as that which is environmentally wasteful or otherwise socially irresponsible. Even the Vatican has recently sought to put a modern, materialistic spin on what were formerly acknowledged to be spiritual offences. Such tendencies are, indeed, partly a response to the appropriation by governments and pressure groups of moral and religious notions of "sin". Carbon offsetting has been compared, tellingly, to the medieval sale of indulgences; while smokers, drinkers and the moderately overweight are loaded with guilt by impertinent state nannies. The body, rather than the soul, is now where the action is, morally and religiously.
The message of these developments, like the message of the Doctor Who symposium, is that other things - science, secular ethics, storytelling - are now doing the jobs that religion used to do. That does not mean that their concerns are religious concerns, any more than the fact that Yamaha started out as a piano manufacturer means that motorbikes are musical instruments. But it does lead to religious leaders trying some peculiar gambits to reclaim lost territory. Turning Jesus into a sci-fi hero is one of the more amusing.