The hype ahead of tonight’s premiere for the BBC’s “Doctor Who” (9 p.m. Eastern time on BBC America) is only the latest in a series of resurrections for the beloved series. This fall, I’ve seen so many ads on buses, subways and Times Square billboards in New York for the second coming of Peter Capaldi — the show’s 12th Doctor (No, we aren’t counting the War Doctor.) — that you’d think he’s visiting the city in a few days and not the pope.
Now in its sixth decade, the longest running and most successful sci-fi series in television history returns with a fresh wave of international media acclaim.
For those unfamiliar with the show, whenever the Doctor dies, he regenerates into a new incarnation of the same man (hence, the genius behind the show’s longevity).
The Doctor, (also known as a rebel alien Time Lord) and his companion, currently Clara Oswald, travel in the TARDIS, a time and space traversing vessel disguised as a blue 1960s-era British police box. Along the way, the duo confront monsters that symbolize humanity’s deepest fears.
In response to the new book I co-edited, “Bigger on the Inside: Christianity and Doctor Who,” someone asked a good question on Twitter: “Do these things even go together?”
I think they do. Time after time, the series explicitly brings up questions about the reliability of our most deeply held beliefs, mores and views about creation.
The parallels between Christianity and Whovian themes are present even in the trailers for the new season, each one ending with the Time Lord exclaiming, “I’m The Doctor, and I save people!” followed by the new series tagline: “Doctor Who: Born To Save The Universe.”
The Doctor receives inevitable comparisons to a Christ figure, though he fails to neatly to match the description. Yes, he is both begotten and eternal, and incarnate through his numerous regenerations. Yes, he is a dying and rising “god” who is perpetually suffering for the sins of the world, which was especially true of David Tennant’s portrayal of the 10th Doctor (2005-2010). The Doctor loves who human beings are, but not always what they do. He grieves as men easily commit genocide or enslave an entire species of peace-loving aliens. But despite their sins, he never tires of defending the human race from horrible threats – or from themselves.
But the Doctor and Jesus of Nazareth are also worlds apart. Unlike Christ, the Doctor apparently has no parents. He is the ultimate orphan. There is no heavenly Father for him to obey. He is alone in the universe, without peer, which is both exciting and deeply troubling for the viewer.
“Doctor Who” is compelling to us subconsciously because, unlike other hero stories in fantasy literature, the Doctor doesn’t have to reckon with his parents. He does not have to live in a world in which the fifth commandment is required of him.
Only occasionally does he get a glimpse into how complicated and beautiful a father’s relationship is to a son. Without father or mother to chide or guide, the Doctor is left for all eternity to determine by himself what is right and wrong. For him, it sometimes becomes a tyranny.
What happens when the Doctor goes beyond ethical boundaries in order to do good?
In one storyline, the Doctor alters the course of human history, changing the time stream of a key figure in history, to satisfy the the whims of his own conscience.
Although the Doctor has saved Capt. Adelaide Brooke from certain death on a space exploration on Mars — a death she was supposed to die for the benefit of the human race. She scolds him, “The Doctor is wrong. The Time Lord victorious is wrong.” She then commits suicide after the Doctor has safely brought her back home.
All of the sudden, the Doctor is guilt stricken. “I’ve gone too far,” he says.
It’s clear that there’s a higher standard of justice beyond him, but yet there is no one to whom he can pray, as Jesus does, “Father, let this cup pass from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but thine be done.”
The Doctor is alone in the universe. Or is he?
One of the most compelling aspects to this forthcoming season is that the Doctor seems to have finally acquired some humility, which is one of the most welcome traits in a list of virtues. For years, the series has obsessively asked itself and viewers, “Who is the Doctor?” Is he a “good man?” The Doctor’s enemies are keen to establish moral equivalence between themselves and the Time Lord.
In last season’s finale, the Doctor’s archenemy gives him the “gift” of an army, based on the premise that only a man who thinks he is righteous should have battalions of soldiers to carry out his crusade. He rejects the offer, but is not sure why, until the following realization suddenly dawns on him. He explains:
Thank you so much. I really didn’t know. I wasn’t sure. You lose sight sometimes. Thank you! I am not a “good man!” And I’m not a bad man. I am not a hero. And I’m definitely not a president. And, no, I’m not an [army] officer. Do you know what I am? I… am… an idiot, with a box and a [sonic] screwdriver. Passing through, helping out, learning. I don’t need an army, I never have, because I’ve got them [Pointing to his companions Danny and Clara]. Always them. Because love, it’s not an emotion . . . love is a promise.
Now and then, the Doctor seems to have picked something up from the man from Galilee. Even when Clara lies to him and puts his life and the TARDIS in jeopardy, the Doctor responds with a Christ-like compassion: “Do you think that I care for you so little that betraying me would make a difference?”
In the tantalizing “Prologue” teaser trailer to this upcoming season, the Doctor says to a mysterious character, “An enemy is just a friend you don’t really know yet.” That sounds remarkably like something Jesus said on the Sermon on the Mount, “Love your enemies, and do good to those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven. … For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have?”
If I don’t miss my guess, that’s more than enough scripture for us all to work on for the foreseeable future. And it might just make us all bigger on the inside.
Gregory Alan Thornbury is president of The King’s College in New York.