Monday, July 02, 2007


So, the third series of the revived Doctor Who is over. It's a programme I grew up with intermittently in the '70s, and which now seems to be turning viewers and revenue towards the BBC at a significant rate - due to the undeniably artful regeneration worked on it by Russell T. Davies. The genres of fantasy adventure and sci-fi are not ones that really press my buttons, though I can appreciate the ideas they throw up. But when I am in London I share a house with three people very much absorbed in such worlds, intelligently and entertainingly so. Through this I have discovered that it can be fun to live in another universe. Plus I have friends whose kids love the show. All of which means that, when I'm around, and he's on BBC1, I tune in to the Doctor to see what he's up to. I guess I've seen half of this latest series. I don't, of course, pretend to know much about DW. But I hope I know enough to comment on the 'theological projections' some people seem keen to attach to it.

The 'season finale' (which was on Saturday 30 June 2007) is a good example, since it had enough apparently "obvious" reiterations of Christian or religious notions to excite those who look out for these kind of connections. Among whom I am not, it must be said, one. The industry of dismally poor 'Christian' cultural interpretation is depressing enough, without feeding it. (Forgive me if that seems mean, but 'glib' and 'embarrassingly superficial' could be the only responses to a trawl of the dross that's out there on the internet claiming that just about every fictional character ever invented is Jesus in disguise, sort of.)

What one needs to understand, I think, is that to Russell T. Davies 'theology' (I use the inverted commas advisedly) is simply the ordering of another form of fantasy fiction. So while the references in DW are probably deliberate, they function within a set of archetypes which presuppose their redundancy in 'religious' (q. v.) terms. It may be overstating the situation to say that their use is deconstructing religion, but it would be nearer the truth. However, those who look too hard, and who want what they take to be a 'Christian' message affirmed too easily, don't get this. Doctor Who is, it seems to me, fairly discernibly post-Christian and post-religious in its assumptions (while being playfully elusive about this kind of stuff, to keep everyone on board). It absorbs 'religious' tropes into a self-generating science culture fantasy.

So, in Last of the Time Lords, 'prayer' becomes an organic, near-universal wish-fulfilment channeled through a sort of kinetic energy force-field, say. Which is, of course, an idea based on a popular (mis)understanding of prayer as the childish reaching out for help to an all-powerful but non-existent force - a notion now transcended within the 'real' DW world reconfigured by post-atomic and post-silicon based technology. (Actual prayer, by the way, is more to do with abandoning the attempt to turn the universe to one's advantage, though you wouldn't know that from the way it gets spoken about and practiced in many quarters).

Note also the way that forgiveness and nonviolence, though recognised as 'better ways', become antechambers to potentially endless imprisonment, precisely because there can be no final redemption. So The Master, who is about to be a captive in a time machine, ends up being killed by a human, his wife, whose life he took over - and who in an instant puts an end to such well-meaning futility (because, as someone has just pointed out to me, he has hypnotised her). In the bigger narrative this assumes, the power of love is not denied - but being dependent upon creaturely will, it cannot overcome sheer power. Only force can do that. That is the Doctor's fate, too. He defies death and violence as far as he can, often very far indeed. But even he is subsumed by it. This is the type of 'saviour figure' Dr Who is; the best 'incarnation of good' you could reasonably hope for in the absence of God (and the presence of a quantum leap in technology). That's post-theology, or rather (I'd argue) post bad theology - the only kind most people know.

There is much to learn in all this, of course. And like many humanistic visions that start with how good can prevail after it can safely be assumed that God is dead, Doctor Who, even while it is 'only' an entertainment show, has great moral nobility. (I would argue that Nietzsche has a considerably more realistic viewpoint, however, which is how he can recognise the tragedy of God's death in a way that more braggardly non-religion simply can't.)

If I had the time, inclination and ability, I might be be quite interested to explore what kind of 'God' has 'died' (or, rather, ceased to have any kind of meaning at all, outside the pervasive comfort-zone of 'spirituality') in much contemporary popular culture. It is, I am sure, in some way or other, 'the God of metaphysics' (a 'higher power' derived from speculative theory and transcendental analogies of being). And a good thing too. The catch, of course, is that this is taken to be the end of the God story per se, since many people who have left 'religion' or who have never felt its suasion have little grasp of (or patience for, or interest in) how to think beyond what are actually rather naive forms of forensic, positivistic and 'sola empiricism' reasoning in this area. But that is the big intellectual blindfold of Western cultures at the moment. Along with neoliberalism. And therein lies another story...

Incidentally (and excuse the momentary diversion), Jacques Derrida's later fascinating dialogues with academic theology (conversations carried out by a man who proclaimed that he"could rightly pass for an atheist") sprung from precisely this recognition about the naivete of attempts to 'end' God-talk through positivism, showing that you do not have to be a 'believer' to recognise what's wrong with some kinds of atheism. Just a person who appreciates the significance of the 'linguistic turn' and of phenomenology for confounding hubristic, analytically-developed arguments that far too many people on all sides think are (or can be) essentially 'decided'.

Anyway, back to Doctor Who! Rowan Williams made an interesting comment about the programme some time ago. There are also, I'm told, reasonable theological interractions with the Doctor around - such as Philip Purser Hallard's. Ekklesia referenced his 2005 Greenbelt talks here. I ought to look at them more carefully, but I haven't yet. Maybe when I do, and when other people get back to me about what I've written here, I shall discover that I'm on the wrong track altogether. Ah, for an intellectual Tardis, eh?

1 comment:

Nessa said...

You write very well.