Time Lord Regeneration and Resurrection (Part Two)

For the first instalment Time Lord Regeneration and Resurrection (Part One) click here. N.B. The following written text in this blog-post Time Lord Regeneration and Resurrection (Part Two) is Copyright © 2012 Philip Johnson.

A couple of years ago I stumbled across a web-chat about Doctor Who. There was a chat thread involving  excited shop-talk among some fans who identified Christian themes in the post-2005 series. I recall that one adolescent contributor had a bit of a dummy-spit about all the religious chatter and bluntly said words to the effect that because it is science-fiction “there’s nothing religious about Doctor Who.” In one sense this adolescent is correct: Doctor Who is not a TV series written to propagate or teach religious beliefs.

Yet in another respect, this adolescent viewer is completely mistaken if by the remark “nothing religious” it is a denial of there being any religious plot-lines, ideas or beliefs to be found in Doctor Who since the TV programme began in November 1963.

One might also add in passing that religion, myth and science frequently intersect in science-fiction novels, films and other TV series. To claim that there is “nothing religious” then points to a woeful lack of understanding and familiarity on the part of that particular adolescent mentioned above with religious themes and concepts in general, not to mention their presence in many classic science-fiction stories. The remark perhaps reveals more about that adolescent being so personally alienated from the history and faith of European civilisation that he/she was incapable of recognising the Christian elements that the other web-chatters had noticed.

Barry Letts (1925-2009) served for many years as a producer of Doctor Who, directed a few stories, and also wrote or co-wrote some stories (such as The Time Monster, The Green Death, and Planet of the Spiders). Before he died Barry Letts was interviewed by Jonathan Wynne-Jones for an article about Doctor Who that was published in the English newspaper the Telegraph. Letts commented:

“I think it’s inevitable because of Britain’s cultural heritage that a long-running programme about the fight between good and evil will have some Christian themes as a backdrop.”

That Doctor Who has provided an imaginative avenue through which religious ideas can be expressed in stories is something that Letts admitted to doing in a story that he wrote. During the 1970s, Letts was personally interested in practising Zen Buddhist meditation. He indicated (see the DVD) that for the last Jon Pertwee story, Planet of the Spiders, that he offered a bit of a mish-mash of Tibetan Buddhist and Zen ideas.

That religious plot-lines both non-Christian and Christian turn up in Doctor Who stories is confirmed by other script-writers. Another obvious non-Christian example crops up in the story Kinda featuring Peter Davison as the fifth Doctor. Just take note of what script-writer Christopher Bailey had to say about Kinda on the DVD. As a practicising Buddhist, Bailey took the opportunity of writing a Doctor Who story built on strong metaphysical themes. Hints about Buddhist beliefs and ideas are found in the names of two female characters Panna (wisdom) and Karuna (compassion).

Other clues in the story are found in the name of the metaphysical serpent (or demon) that Tegan encounters called the Mara. There is the strange box of jhana (meditation) opened by the Earth-colonist Hindle. One should also not miss the references to Deva Loka (plane of existence for the devas) and to one of the four Noble Truths of Buddhism: Dukkha (suffering).

Kinda is not a purely Buddhist-based story — it does also incorporate Biblical elements of the Garden of Eden/Paradise, and the female character Tegan (echoing Eve) passes the forbidden fruit to a man (character Aris). Nevertheless, the basic point is confirmed that here is a Doctor Who story that carries forward a religiously-based plot-line.

Last time (see Part One) I drew attention to Time Lord regeneration and mentioned that it can be understood as an analogy for resurrection from the dead. Just in case someone is a bit sceptical and thinks that this claim is a theologian’s sleight-of-hand card-trick, consider the sleeve jacket comments for Doctor Who The Movie: “With the themes of resurrection and rebirth at its core, it is fitting that Doctor Who The Movie should prove to be the keystone for the successful revival of the series.”

James Chapman, who can scarcely be regarded as being a partisan for Christian theology, has noted the importance of resurrection motifs and analogies when commenting about Doctor Who The Movie:

Another form of symbolism that pervades the film is its use of Christian imagery. The Doctor is (quite literally) resurrected: he emerges from the mortuary wearing only a white shroud in what seems a conscious reference to the Gospel of St Mark where Christ’s disciples discover in the holy sepulchre ‘a young man … clothed in a long white garment’ (Mark 16:5). If this might seem a fanciful interpretation, the imagery is even more explicit at the climax of the film where the Doctor, as one critic put it, ‘is manacled to a crucifix and garlanded with a crown of nails’. (Inside the Tardis, p. 180).

There’s more to talk about resurrection in Doctor Who that continues in Part Three.

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6 thoughts on “Time Lord Regeneration and Resurrection (Part Two)

  1. Religious symbolism has been pervasive in the more recent seasons of the show. Russell T Davies fascination with religious themes is a matter of public record. It is interesting that Davies preoccupation tends to be with an exploration of the idea of “the failed God”. The God who in the exercise of his powers reveals his fallibility and gains strength from resisting the use of divine prerogatives. The Doctor, alone and apart from the humanising influence of his companions, is a dangerous “God like savior” figure who must learn restraint.
    This is, I think, Davies preferred construction of the idea of God. His mini-series “the second coming” makes this even more explicit by having God ultimately commit suicide in order to free the universe to “grow up and stand on its own two feet”.
    Stanislaw Lem’s famous Science fiction novel ‘Solaris’ captures the idea particularly well when one of the character’s states his preference for an “imperfect God” who is as lost in the universe as any of us.
    When asked ““What gave you this idea of an imperfect god?’ the character, Kelvin, responds,
    ‘I don’t know. It seems quite feasible to me. That is the only god I could imagine believing in, a god whose passion is not a redemption, who saves nothing, fulfills no purpose–a god who simply is.”
    The attraction of a failed God is undeniable for those who wish to maintain the autonomy that Eve reached for in the Garden of Eden. A failed God can be held responsible for the hubris involved in the act of creation but has no moral authority with which to call that which is created to account.
    The tragedy of such a conception is that it leaves us with a hollow shell. The religious content has ultimately been scooped out to leave behind nothing but a few emotional associations bereft of all power and any capacity to engender hope.

    • Some more of Kelvin’s speech from Solaris is below.
      ‘I’m not thinking of a god whose imperfection arises out of the candor of his human creators, but one whose imperfection represents his essential characteristic: a god limited in his omniscience and power, fallible, incapable of foreseeing the consequences of his acts, and creating things that lead to horror. He is a…sick god, whose ambitions exceed his powers and who does not realize it at first. A god who has created clocks, but not the time they measure. He has created systems or mechanisms that serves specific ends but have now overstepped and betrayed them. And he has created eternity, which was to have measured his power, and which measures his unending defeat.’

    • Good thoughts Craig. I have yet to comment on Russell T. Davies’ renewal and revision of Doctor Who, and the use of religious ideas in the revived series. There is some bleakness expressed in the story arc of Utopia, Sound of Drums and Last of the Time Lords (Series 3 David Tennant as Doctor). The bleakness crops up in Lucy Saxon’s remarks about what she saw at the end of the universe: “Dying. Everything dying. The whole of creation was falling apart. And, I thought, there’s no point. No point to anything. Not ever.”

      Another bleak perspective comes in the Torchwood stories particularly those associated with the death/resurrection/and final demise of Dr Owen Harper: there’s just blackness or nothing at death. Yet, even with the secular/atheist outlook expressed, even Torchwood retains themes of redemption, resurrection from the dead, sacrifice and atonement. Torchwood: Children of the Earth has Captain Jack leave his “empty tomb” (concrete entombment), and to save the children of the earth and atone he surrenders and sacrifices his one and only grandson. At the end he parallels the ascension by teleporting off the earth to a space craft. The extra DVD chapters describe Children of the Earth as being somewhat “biblical” in its inspiration and adaptation.

      Yet Captain Jack comes back to the world in Torchwood: Miracle Day (most Aussies have not seen this 4th series). In Miracle Day the resurrection theme runs throughout the arc of the story with the climax involving death (crucifixion pose), shedding his blood that literally pours through a crack in the world, and rising again. There is the funeral service that follows complete with Christian hymn played, and the pondering by Gwen Cooper why there was not enough “grace” to save their lost comrade (Esther), and there is the transference of resurrection power to their new colleague (Rex Mathieson) who having had Jack’s blood flow throughhis veins is shot by a double-agent after the funeral of Esther and the story ends with Rex rising again.

      Also in the climax there is the convicted criminal Oswald Danes who is wired up with explosives. He was co-opted by the criminals in the story but shifts allegiance to Torchwood in an uneasy truce and because of his child-abuse crimes is loathed and suspected by Jack and Gwen. As Torchwood confronts the human enemies who are trying to control the world Danes who is so utterly corrupted by his crimes says that he can “feel the sin” in the cavern and that he is so “used to sin”. Danes confesses this as he stands in the presence of the earthly “miracle” power that has taken away “death” and given “immortality” to everyone on earth using a morphic field shaped by Captain Jack’s immortal blood. I will have posts about Torchwood on this blog coming up. Great to hear from you, Craig!

  2. Pingback: Time Lord Regeneration and Resurrection (Part One) | TARDIS: Theology and Relative Discourses in Space

  3. Pingback: Time Lord Regeneration and Resurrection (Part Three) | TARDIS: Theology and Relative Discourses in Space

  4. Pingback: Doctor Who and The Master’s Resurrection (Part Two) | TARDIS: Theology and Relative Discourses in Space

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