Doctor Who holds the record for the longest-running science fiction TV series of all time, so evidently they're doing something right. This weekend, BBC America hopes to draw a wide U.S. audience into the same thrilling, quirky, sexy, dorky, nerdy-cool cultural phenomenon that the series has become after 47 years in the British imagination. The new season premieres April 23 (9/8C).
Starting life as a low-budget '60s children's show with sets and effects that made the original Star Trek series look like Inception, Doctor Who may have found the key to a long run by mastering the twice-a-decade reboot long before all the cool franchises were doing it.
The main character, known only as the Doctor, belongs to an alien species that can "regenerate" one's body when the old one wears out. Every few years he reappears in the form of a fresh and not-yet-typecast actor who would apply his own take to the character—enabling the Doctor, and the show, to change with the march of decades.
The Doctor resumed his adventures in 2005 after 15 years without new episodes. The current production team spent their childhoods with the original show and their grown-up years with the postmodern fantasy of series like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel. They crafted a show that blended slick dialogue and serious characterization with the original's sense of humor and sci-fi wonder, giving it a stylish charm that makes you sort of forgive the sensational plotlines, silly-looking aliens, and the annual season-ending deus ex machina. It's regularly among the top-rated shows in the United Kingdom.
Nine centuries old and counting, The Doctor is now in his eleventh incarnation (28-year-old Matt Smith, born right before the original show's 20th season), but is still essentially the same hero. He's still traversing all of space and time in his ship, the TARDIS, which still looks like a vintage 1960s British police phone box. He still travels with a human companion—generally an attractive young female whose eyes glaze over when he launches into technobabble but who sometimes has to explain to him when he's being rude to people. He still uses a sonic screwdriver to fight aliens who look like trash cans with ray guns. He still seeks and finds adventure pretty much anywhere and anywhen in the length, breadth, and duration of the universe.
But over the past five seasons, the series has undertaken an almost brutally thorough examination of the Doctor's character, personality, and his role as a hero. This has led viewers to some interesting—and unexpectedly spiritual—places.
A terrible messiah
On one hand, the show can build The Doctor up to messianic heights. He goes from saving Earth in Season 1 of the new series to stopping a race of omnicidal aliens from bringing about "the destruction of reality itself!" (as they gleefully declare in their B-movie-robot voices) in the Season 4 finale. The story sometimes pauses for characters to praise him in cosmic terms ("He's like fire and ice and rage. He's like the night, and the storm in the heart of the sun. He's ancient and forever. He burns at the center of time and he can see the turn of the universe. And … he's wonderful.")
The series even started weaving spiritual imagery into what had once been a solidly secular universe. Some of it superficial, like the infamous moment in the 2007 Christmas special when robotic angels lift the Doctor (David Tennant, Number Ten) high into the air, or the alien species that named him "the lonely god."
But sometimes the show embraces the metaphor, like in the Season 3 finale "Last of the Time Lords." The climax of that episode involves all of Earth's people praying to the Doctor for help (there's a telepathic field involved, giving it a sci-fi excuse, but even the episode's villain calls it what it is). At which point the Doctor, nearly drained of life energy, revives and flies up in a brilliant halo of light (not normal behavior even for him), overpowers his enemy, and offers him forgiveness. Oh, and then he sets humanity free from slavery. So yeah.
British fantasy novelist and Who fan Sir Terry Pratchett dryly suggested last year that the BBC start airing the program on Sundays. "The Doctor himself," he wrote, "has in recent years been built up into an amalgam of Mother Teresa, Jesus Christ … and Tinkerbell."
But neither the show nor the Doctor are blind to his faults, and both are aware that he makes a terrible Messiah. The 2005 series darkened his backstory, slipping a deep layer of guilt, loss and self-hatred underneath the classic madcap persona. Every victory he achieves is really someone else's; after hundreds of years, he's used to losing everyone close to him.
A recurring theme in the series is that the Doctor keeps on traveling in part because he's grown to avoid commitment and consequences. He considers himself the protector of Earth and humanity, but several characters point out to him that he doesn't show up when people need him—he shows up when he feels like it.
The Doctor's appearance somewhere can even attract dangerous villains-of-the-week to places and people who would have been just fine otherwise. This doesn't always bother him as much as it ought to. His off-kilter absent-minded-professor persona may work for comic relief, but it isn't entirely compatible with true heroism. He also manifests a ruthless side when provoked, sometimes coming terribly close to outright revenge-murder. It's hinted that the reason he travels with human companions is that he needs someone to keep him in check.
Russell T. Davies, the creator behind the 2005 revival, has written about Christ figures before. A "deeply atheist" man who doesn't mind offering his views and provoking discussion about religion, Davies wrote a 2003 TV miniseries called The Second Coming about a reincarnation of the Christ as an English video-store clerk (Christopher Eccleston, who went on to play the first Doctor of the new series). That story features a Son of God who doesn't necessarily like the people he's come to help and discovers in the end that they don't need him. For the Doctor, Davies shaped a Messiah-like figure who can amaze, excite and inspire, but who isn't completely worthy of trust and who himself doubts that he deserves any adulation.
The show, like the TARDIS, keeps moving on. Current showrunner Steven Moffat is less interested in dropping explicit religious allusions than in making you hide behind your couch in terror. The sixth season of the new series and the second on BBC America starts the night before Easter with a two-parter, filmed in the USA for the first time. It's likely we'll meet the same laughing, mourning, damaged hero we've been watching for years.
We'll also get to see him wear a cowboy hat, sit in the President's chair and save Earth from horrific villains, and maybe that alone is enough to keep people watching for another 47 years.
Copyright © 2011 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.