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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