Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Book Review: Religion and Doctor Who

Of the many things I love in life, chief among them is Doctor Who, a British science fiction television series.  The show's latest season premiers on Saturday, August 23, with the venerable British Broadcasting Company (BBC) and via BBCAmerica.  (Check local listings).  The show offers fifty years (give or take) of some of the best BBC sci-fi drama, with its most recent seasons garnering critical and fan acclaim.  

Below is a book review exploring the "faith" issues raised by the show.  This review was published earlier this summer via the Academy of Parish Clergy and their journal "Sharing the Practice".

Crome, Andrew and James McGrath, eds., Religion and Doctor Who:  Time and Relative Dimensions in Faith.  (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2013).  ISBN #978-1-62564-377-3.  $40.00

           A new niche in publishing aims to connect popular culture with the great questions humanity asks of itself.  For older generations, Robert Short’s classic The Gospel According to Peanuts is not likely a book parted with, instead treasured by the reader.  Later on, “The Gospel According To…” type books were picked up by other publishers, most notably Westminster/John Knox Press.  Wiley/Blackwells Publishing maintain a large list of titles gathering philosophers and faculty to write about pop culture and connections to various schools of thought.  I am a proud owner of their volumes of “Philosophy and….” covering comedian Stephen Colbert, the Green Lantern comics, the Game of Thrones novels and HBO adaptation, and the venerable series Doctor Who.
Regarding Doctor Who, a team of writers have produced “Religion and Doctor Who”, exploring the issues of “Time and Relative Dimensions in Faith”.  (Note:  The subtitle is an in joke.)  Over the show’s fifty years and counting, the writers and producers have engaged issues of changing social and moral values, taking a show sometimes remembered in its earlier decades of “wobbly sets” and not-so Star Wars type effects and influencing the lives of viewers well beyond its original mandate to be educational children’s television programming. 
At the outset, the editors counterpoint the show’s start in 1963 with Christianity’s decline beginning in the United Kingdom and the growth of pluralism as well as secularization.  The essayists offer a volume “designed to enhance our understanding of popular culture; how people make use of science fiction in their religious practice and what religious themes in this culture say about secularization” (p. xxiv).   The sets may have wobbled, but the good Doctor’s adventures inspired many to explore the fundamental questions vexing humanity throughout the eons.  
In his essay “Why Time Lords Do Not Live Forever”, ethicist Courtland Lewis explores Doctor Who’s negative depiction of immortality, often casting the idea as a fool’s errand, especially when the search impairs one’s ability to live in the “now”.  A number of “bad guys” find their comeuppance grasping at power.  While long-lived, the Doctor himself is driven far more by risk and compassion.  Even he is able to “regenerate” anew his body and appearance when death threatens, his different incarnations usually meet their end in noble ways for the sake of others. 

Other essayists explore the implications of persons following the Doctor into his adventures.  Called “companions” in the fan lore, some of these women and men find themselves in a “teacher/student” relationship with the Doctor.  Brigid Cherry traces the narrative arc of Martha Jones, a young medical student who travels with the Doctor and blossoms into a sort of apostle.  When the Doctor is imprisoned by an old enemy now in control of the world, Martha carries a message of hope to Earth’s people.  

A far-fetched tale to modern ears perhaps, yet Martha’s journey resonates with early Christian missionaries spreading the gospel against the Empire’s claims.  The given Doctor Who storyline features a rather overt messianic motif when the Doctor overcomes his captor and saves the day thanks to the belief psychically given in a moment of global solidarity.  The Doctor’s foe (known as the Master, irony of ironies) is puzzled how something akin to prayer could be used against his dominating power.  Like many religious narratives, hope and trust will overcome the powers that be.   
Another essay considers the shadow side of placing one’s faith in the Doctor.  British scholar Tim Jones compares stories from divergent periods in the show’s history ("The Curse of Fenric", 1989 and "The God Complex", 2011) involving plot lines with companions experiencing crises of faith regarding their trust in the Doctor.  In both stories, Jones illumines the various competing claims religion and ideology play in the lives of each story’s characters. He observes how the 2011 story (“The God Complex”) reflects the more skeptical era of its 21st-century public in England and abroad.  Reflecting today’s British movement toward secularization, faith is portrayed as if illusory and therefore obscuring reality’s truths.  The 2011 story is a far cry from the 1989 era story, as the earlier story revolves around faith getting challenged yet being affirmed in the end.  The older story concludes with the Doctor’s companion Ace, a troubled young adult, experiencing a cleansing moment of clarity similar to baptism.
As the formative influence of Christendom ebbs, the nineteen essays reflect the possibilities of a more pluralistic Britain. One contributor reviews the Buddhist themes to be found within the narrative arc of the Tenth Doctor, portrayed by Scottish actor (and clergy kid) David Tennant from 2006-2010.  A further essay compares the work of Russell T. Davies and Steven Moffat, the two lead producers of Doctor Who’s post-2005 era, demonstrating how their various stories reference the Church of England and institutional religion.  The Davies and Moffat eras reflect the plurality of perspectives about religion and society, though institutional religion (i.e. Western Christianity by way of the Church of England) appears to be muddled at best in the present and potentially irrelevant to humanity (Davies) or at least its core tenets in the far future (Moffat).  Perhaps it is a case of art imitating reality as another essayist, Presbyterian minister (and American fan) Laura Brekke observes,

In 2010, more than 10.4 million viewers in the UK alone watched the fifth series finale of Doctor Who, while fewer than one million people sat in the Church of England pews each Sunday (p. 94).

While I enjoyed reading this collection, I found myself at a familiar crossroads from reading similar books connecting popular culture with religion. An essayist is faced with a daunting task of engaging divergent audiences, ensuring no scholar, fan or curious reader is lost in a veritable vortex of academic/ecclesial “in speak” or wading through fifty years of a television show’s core concepts and continuity.  On the latter count, the essayists have a particular challenge, given a show about time travel has been known to break its own established rules.  A brief essay suggests we consider the midrashic implications of Doctor Who’s many adventures, including those in original novels and authorized audio dramas bringing back older actors with new stories set the show’s previous seasons.  It may take a reader to have deep knowledge of the “source material,” regardless if it is “the faith” we keep or decline or the vast possibilities (and convoluted continuities) within the “canon” of Doctor Who.   
              From time to time, I quibbled with the ways essayists referenced the series, sometimes as a seminary graduate and other times as a diehard fan.  I would encourage clergy to view some episodes referenced in the essays, an easy task with many of the newer seasons (and some “classic era” ones) readily available via streaming video services.  Make acquaintance with the Doctor in all his incarnations and ponder his adventures.  The experience may enliven a Saturday night, if not your Sunday sermon.

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