10 things Doctor Who taught me about religion
Doctor Who is a simply wonderful series. Much like religion, I grew up with it and now have an ongoing love/hate relationship with it, but it remains one of the best things on television. Even better, I recently realised just how much it had taught me about religious claims and ideas, at least after a fashion. I trust all the parallels are self-explanatory.
1. One person, many faces
Despite apparently being the same person, the Doctor can have entirely different appearances, approaches and even characters at different times – Marcionites take note. He can even occasionally meet himself, despite the apparent logical and chronological problems, in as many as five persons at once.
2. Impossible is nothing, or possibly everything
The difficulty with any series involving time travel is that anything happening in the past is a known quantity for the audience. We know certain things happened in the past, and we know the world wasn’t blown up, because it’s still here. So to maintain dramatic tension it was necessary to explain that time is complicated, and things can happen this time that didn’t happen before. That was fine, but then one day the plot required an event to be unchangeable, so this was described as a fixed point in time. With these two tools in place, any event can be explained away in whichever direction is more convenient, perfect for smoothing over those awkward plot holes.
3. Bafflegab is your friend
If you talk nonsense with enough confidence, it sounds like an explanation. Which is quite handy if you need to map the probability vectors, identify a spatio-temporal hyperlink, or reverse the polarity of the neutron flow, to remotely unscramble the different timelines and break a timelock for just long enough to do some technological jiggery-pokery. Or even explain how someone can be his own father without causing a time rift or running up against the Blinovitch Limitation Effect.
4. Everything revolves around humankind
The Doctor could go anywhere or anywhen in the infinity of time and space, but spends a huge amount of his life (or lives) hanging around Earth, having repeatedly expressed a deep fondness for humanity. Alien races are constantly attempting to invade/enslave/destroy the planet, even though they always fail because, you know, the Doctor, and even though other planets disappear completely with less fanfare than the death of a single Ewok. Assuming they’re not all being completely irrational, Earth and its inhabitants must be uniquely special in some way.
5. Consistency isn’t that important
There’s a huge amount of history, some of which already appears completely contradictory, and trying to make everything fit in with the existing content would be both thankless and futile. Whatever you do, there’s always some geek who remembers a line from 1971 which clearly demonstrates that you’ve got it wrong in some way. But if you’re going to sin, sin boldly – if you cheerfully acknowledge the inconsistency, and hint at very good reasons for it, you’ll have an army of Whovians coming up with ingenious post hoc reasons why it isn’t actually inconsistent at all.
6. Canon is only half the story
I know it’s a cliché, but there are great non-canonical stories out there, some of which contain fascinating ideas. The details contained in Lungbarrow alone would be enough to keep Steven Moffat in teasers and dramatic revelations for years. Rightly or wrongly, though, it’s pretty clearly been left out of that club. Which might be good from the point of view of consistency and ongoing development, but it’s still something of a shame.
7. Women, know your place
In the old days of Classic Who, women didn’t have a significant role. They were patronised by the Doctor and captured by aliens (often with excessive screaming), but rarely did anything else. These days, they try, and things have definitely improved, but despite some fine words and obvious changes, women still often seem to be second-class citizens, and the top job remains out of reach.
8. Reboots are cool
You can get away with a lot of subtle and not-so-subtle tweaks of emphasis, even in the limited timeframe of 50 years, but if you need a change that goes beyond a coat of varnish and a couple of new characters, there’s nothing wrong with a reboot. The best thing about this is that you can claim a continuity of history and use as much of that heritage as you like, while ignoring anything that’s inconvenient.
9. Play those emotions with music
You’ve set everything out exactly as you wanted it and told your story with skill and verve, but what if that isn’t enough? You need to stir the emotions, and the best way of doing that is with a stomach-churning, pulse-racing, tear-jerking soundtrack turned all the way up to 11. After all, if you don’t get enough of an emotional response, people might start thinking about whether the story actually makes sense.
10. Paradox is inevitable
Even in the most careful hands, time travel and paradox go together like a horse and anachronistic nuclear-powered antigravity carriage, and Doctor Who takes more liberties than most. This is a universe where your future self can come back in time to rescue you from an eternal prison, but was only able to do so because his future self had done the same thing, and his future self before him (or possibly after him), and so on and so on. It’s future selves all the way down. Once you’ve swallowed this, anything else will look positively rational.
11. Put yourself in charge and you can get away with anything
How many rules has the Doctor broken because it seemed like a good idea at the time? How many times has he forbidden other people from doing something he went on to do himself? If he was writing a list of a specified length, he’d add an extra one at the end just to show that he could, especially if it happened to bring the total up to a significant number, like (for example) the number of Doctors. Above all, he knows that if people are going to let you tell them what to do just because you act like you’re in charge, they’ll still accept it even if you show yourself to be the sort of scoundrel who doesn’t follow his own rules.