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Doctor Who and the Modern Parable

Updated: Sep 2, 2023

Last week we looked at Marc Chagall’s painting White Crucifixion, helped along by some poetry and some music. This week we stayed with God in popular culture, but turned our attention to something a little bit more lowbrow, taking a trip through time and space with the television show Doctor Who. This occasional series on God in popular culture was always going to come round to Doctor Who eventually, because it was the subject of my Masters dissertation. I spent a year and fifteen thousand words on this, so I was never going to resist its pull for long.

Please don’t worry if you don’t know Doctor Who very well, because I’m not going to assume lots of knowledge. All you need to know is that it is about an alien called The Doctor who travels in time and space, meeting friends and foes along the way. If you don’t like Doctor Who...well, that’s another matter entirely!

So why, of all the things I could have chosen to write my dissertation on, did I choose Doctor Who? I promise it wasn’t just because I could spend hours watching television and call it research, although that was a bonus. I’ve been watching Doctor Who since it’s revival in 2005, and it has sparked many interesting conversations and trains of thought, largely because it asks - and even dares to seek to answer - so many philosophical and ethical questions.

Bad science fiction is often criticised for a 'monster of the week' approach to storytelling, and while Doctor Who is often guilty of slipping into that formula, it more often feels like 'moral dilemma of the week', with the Doctor seeking to stay true to their core principle of doing what is "right and decent and kind" in the face of situations that would easily compromise that. This is such an important part of the show that one writer has even claimed that Doctor Who teaches viewers an ethical way of life, with the Doctor representing a lived example of ethics in action. I felt there was great potential to be explored there, and fifteen thousand words of dissertation seemed a good way to do that.

There are a number of moral themes which Doctor Who repeatedly comes back to, and which I could have chosen to explore. There is a lot around ideas of personhood, with the fundamental inhumanity of characters like the Daleks and the Cybermen coming from their inability to feel, suggesting that our capacity for emotion is a huge part of what makes us human. There is also a repeated call to embrace the alien, often quite literally given the nature of the show. And the show seems certain that humans are bigger on the inside, with a great optimism about the human capacity for transformation.

For my study however, I chose to focus on the show's commitment to nonviolence because it seems to me to be the most significant theme, the one which the show returns to most often and the one on which it makes its strongest statements. It also seems to be an appropriate thing to speak at SBC, with the words at the front of the sanctuary reminding us of the church’s historic commitment to nonviolence.

That the Doctor is an avowed pacifist may seem surprising to those with only a passing acquaintance with Doctor Who, given that the central character spends much of their time fighting monsters, but a closer look shows us that most of the violence on the show is committed by other characters, with the Doctor rarely using it except as an absolute last resort. And so violence is portrayed in almost wholly negative terms, as an act of evil or a failure to find a peaceful resolution.

The Doctor’s pacifism is central to the programme, exemplified and reinforced by their decision to carry a screwdriver as their sonic item of choice, a tool of construction rather than destruction, and their declaration that weapons are “not the way I do things”. Of course there are exceptions, and the Doctor does on occasion bend or break their own moral code, but in a way that often serves to highlight the complexity not only of the central character but of pacifism itself, which often has to be tempered by a degree of realism and a willingness to choose the lesser harm.

Last Remembrance Sunday I talked about Walter Wink’s theology of nonviolence, and last Sunday I gave a brief nod to Rene Girard’s ideas about cycles of violence. I believe that Doctor Who has a greater awareness of the violent cycles Girard identified than much of popular culture, and continually seeks to break out of them and begin new cycles of grace, with forgiveness and redemption prominent themes in the show’s treatment of its villains. I also believe that The Doctor frequently models something which comes remarkably close to the Third Way of creative nonviolent resistance described by Wink, giving no ground to evil but continually seizing the moral initiative and finding alternatives to violence.

I chose Matthew 5:38-48 as our reading, not just because it is a great passage which we should probably hear cone a week anyway, but because it is crucial to Wink's Third Way (you can refresh your memory about that here) and because I think The Doctor does a pretty good job of living up to it. The Doctor does not insist on an eye for an eye - unlike many heroes of popular culture, for whom the only possible end is the complete destruction of the villain - instead being willing to risk their own safety to subvert the situation, disrupting rather than destroying. The Doctor also has a remarkable capacity for enemy love, firstly by not immediately casting the other as the enemy, but ultimately by being willing to believe that even a Dalek may be redeemed. And so we see The Doctor play out these principles at the heart of Jesus' teaching, increasing our imagination for how we too might live them out.

The way in which The Doctor models a positive ethic of creative and nonviolent resistance got me thinking about Doctor Who as a modern parable. So let me tell you two parables now. I tell you this, once there was a farmer who had sowed a field of wheat, but weeds grew in it and started to strangle the wheat. The weeds were sharp and poisonous and so he could not pull them out, but could only destroy them by burning the field. He readied a torch, but could not bear to destroy the wheat with the weeds and so he put it out. At that moment a creature appeared, unlike any he had ever seen before, and began to eat the weeds, leaving the wheat in tact. In the same way, do not act in haste or violence but leave judgement to God.

And I tell you this, once there were two families who claimed ownership of the same field. They each sought to destroy the other, knowing that in doing so they might destroy themselves too. They sought the counsel of a wise judge, who taught them that peace could only be found through reconciliation. They had the same argument each year, but each year the judge taught them again. If the judge will keep giving chance after chance, how much more will God keep giving chances in the pursuit of peace?

Perhaps they sound familiar. The first was a retelling of the climax of The Parting of the Ways, when the Doctor refused to destroy the Daleks because in doing so they would kill every living creature in a wide radius, but was saved by Rose who had absorbed the power at the heart of the TARDIS and was able to atomise the Daleks without harming anyone else. The second was an adaptation of the crucial scene in The Zygon Inversion, when the Doctor talked human and Zygon representatives out of risking mutual destruction in an attempt to wipe out the other, it finally being revealed that this was the fifteenth time such a scene had played out.

I think the ease with which I was able to recast these stories in the style of Jesus' parables shows their similarities. We have figures and scenes which make complete sense within their own stories, but which may also stand as metaphors or archetypes which invoke similar persons and situations, and in doing so reveal an underlying message, in these instances about a commitment to nonviolence. Understanding popular narratives in this way helps us to see the way in which they can inform and shape our ethics. Of course our ethics must ultimately be those of the kingdom, and I think it would be fair to say that not all of popular culture is morally reliable, so we have to be wise and discerning and recognise that we can be shaped for worse as well as for better if we are not careful, but I think there is great potential that it would be a waste to lose through being overly cautious.

So what do we do with these modern parables? Jesus used parables in a number of different ways, and that may give us some models to work with. The models are imprecise, not least because Jesus was both storyteller and interpreter, whereas we are focusing on instances where we will be interpreting stories told by others, but they may be helpful nonetheless. In some instances, Jesus told a story which was then developed into a teaching point. The scope for applying this method to Doctor Who is almost endless. For example, in The Zygon Inversion, The Doctor asks the human and Zygon representatives “Do you know what thinking is? It’s just a fancy word for changing your mind”, which could lead to an exploration of ideas about repentance, which itself means "changing your mind".

On other occasions, Jesus would tell a story and then ask a question. Again there are countless ways in which this could be done with stories from Doctor Who. I’m really interested in the idea that the decisions we make as we live vicariously through story may become rehearsals for the decisions we make as we live actually in the world, and The Doctor’s refusal to press the button and destroy the Daleks at the end of The Parting of the Ways could prompt questions about whether the viewer would have made the same decision. Such questions naturally require an element of speculation, and so rather than giving firm answers, they can open up a conversation, here about the exercise and limits of nonviolent resistance.

And of course Jesus would often tell a story and then leave it to his listeners to puzzle it out. The reality is that this is how we most often experience the parables offered to us by popular culture. We read the book or watch the television programme unmediated by any formal explanation or teaching. But just as the crowds who gathered to listen to Jesus would have discussed his parables among themselves, so we make sense of the culture we engage with as part of what can be called communities of interpretation. They could be book clubs or internet forums. Christian voices speaking as members of such communities can spark the sorts of insights and questions I’ve tried to suggest, and so there is a real potential for mission in this kind of cultural engagement.

And if we can widen our scope for a moment, we can see that we don't have to use specific narratives from popular culture in order to benefit from them, as they can encourage our own creativity. Telling new stories can bring freshness and authenticity, and telling old stories with new vigour can uncover meanings we had forgotten or overlooked. That’s one of the reasons I love Godly Play as a way of teaching, and not just for children. I love the way it often reframes stories by taking them down to the bare bones, and the way it invites hearers into them with a time of wondering.

Frederick Buechner called on preachers to tell the gospel as the fairy story that is uniquely true, proclaiming it “in its highest and wildest and holiest sense…as the tale that is too good not to be true, because to dismiss it as untrue is to dismiss along with it that catch of the breath, that beat and uplifting of the heart near to or even accompanied by tears, the deepest intuition of truth that we have”. I haven’t been able to get that quote out of my head since I first read it. I know I’m a way off, but I want to do what Buechner calls for, to preach the gospel as high and wild and holy, and I think popular narratives may give me many of the tools I need.

But to return to Doctor Who one final time, the tear-jerking delight of hearing the Doctor pour grace on his companion with the words “Do you think I care for you so little that betraying me would make a difference?” may prepare us for the heart-piercing joy of hearing God say those same words to us, and the thrill we feel at the idea of standing with the Doctor in nonviolent resistance may help us to refine and enact our Christian theologies of conflict and justice. For me, such moments of enlightenment easily justify the trials and pitfalls of engaging with the narratives of popular culture.

My aim in these reflections on God in popular culture has been to tease some lessons out of the culture that surrounds us, but also to encourage you to go away and do the same, to be more mindful of what you engage with and how it affects you. So next time you sit down and read a book or a film, I encourage you to spend some time afterwards thinking about what it says about how to he human or how to live a good live, and ask if it reflects or pulls against what your faith says about those things. Or cast your mind back to a story that has taught you something important, and see if you can rewrite it as a parable.

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