Doctor Who: Christ figure or the ultimate humanist?

OK, it’s time to admit it. I’m a Whovian. I’m excited about the 50th anniversary Doctor Who special – “The Day of the Doctor” - that will be shown on BBC America around the world this Saturday.

When I was a young teen, every Saturday night I would tune in to my local public television station to watch the adventures of an ancient Time Lord – a benevolent alien who travels through space and time in his TARDIS to battle menaces across the galaxy. Back then, the special effects were pre-Star Wars. Each planet looked like a London quarry pit and the aliens sported theatrical makeup and silvery jump suits.

The stories are what drew me in every time. Doctor Who used his wit, humor and Sonic Screwdriver to rescue the universe. With each week being a cliffhanger, I was anxious to see how the Doctor would get himself out of his latest predicament.

The premiere of Doctor Who on Nov. 23, 1963, makes it a few months younger than I am, but it has aged very well, even with all its bumps and bruises. The first Doctor started out as an old man (the character is over 900 years old), but he has regenerated many times - a plot device that allows the lead actor to leave the series every few seasons. Today the series features the 11th doctor, played by the awkwardly batty Matt Smith, and its rating success has solidified its place as a British cultural icon enjoyed globally.

One of the Doctor’s distinguishing characteristics is that he loves the human race. He celebrates us in quite a giddy fashion. He protects us and even chastises us when we get it wrong. The Doctor also runs a lot. He never uses a gun. He has no power. He thinks his way out and battles with his brain. He has sacrificed himself for the earth and for the universe at least 11 times. And we get to see him renewed and ready to fight the next alien threat. The TARDIS doesn’t take him where he wants to go, but where he needs to be.

Any fictional character with these qualities of redemption, restoration and suffering might be seen as a Christ figure. Others have claimed he is the ultimate humanist. For my part, I appreciate the way Doctor Who makes me ask important questions. What defines us as human? Who is my neighbor? Why do bad things happen? From where does my hope come? What makes this series unique is that these questions have continued to intrigue us for the past 50 years.

The future of Doctor Who looks bright, what with a new doctor, Peter Capaldi, scheduled to be introduced in the annual Christmas episode. I look forward to more adventures of a mad man in a blue box righting terrible wrongs, all while showing us a good time.

Ron VandenBurg is a teacher and writer in St. Catharines, Ontario, Canada. / Image courtesy of BBC America.

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The Doctor Who official site reports:
After a spectacular night of global celebration for Doctor Who’s 50th Anniversary, Executive Producer and Head Writer Steven Moffat was presented with the Guinness World Record for the largest ever simulcast of a TV drama, following a global campaign from BBC Worldwide that saw The Day of the Doctor broadcast in 94 countries across 6 continents.

The show had amazing international reaction to it with fans demanding local theater showings because no network carried the broadcast. Such a simulcast was necessary because no fan wanted to read online spoilers from other fans. Online forced a communal watching.

Thanks, Ron, for this piece. I must also admit that I am a committed Whovian - although, a relative newcomer. Matt Smith is (and will likely forever be) my Doctor, THE doctor when I fell in love with the show. Others have their merits but I will always have a soft spot for Matt - especially after the 50th special and how it explained so much of 11’s characterization.

I also appreciate the approach you take. DW is one show I watch that I don’t typically think about in terms of Christ-figures. DW taps into our thirst for adventure. For me it’s not about the Doctor but about the companions with whom we fall in love. The tragic love story of Amy and Rory, the insufferable Donna Noble, Clara the Impossible Girl - this is where the show finds its humanity.

As sad as I am to see Matt go, I am excited for Capaldi’s take. What happens now that the modern doctor is ready to “grow up” again?

I agree with your approach as well. DW has always been about the companions- a way for the audience to ask the Doctor questions, a way to see the universe through the companion’s eyes. What I like about DW is all the possibilities! All time and all space. What a great show that explores the imagination, the adventure, and the question- what does it mean to be human? My first doctor was the third doctor. My early favourite was the fourth doctor, so I was an excited fan to experience the anniversary. I hope some day to explore some of the others, their companions and their adventures.

The Doctor certainly has some Christ-like qualities—being an ancient, almost-omniscient, powerful, self-sacrificing, resurrecting, empathetic, justice-loving, lover of humans.

Yet the Doctor is flawed and haunted by his own perpetration of death. And does the Doctor have a sense that there is something bigger than the universe? that Morality is a real thing, woven into time-space? Or are we just helping our friends as we knock around until it’s over?

A great worldview test is the question “What is the nature of evil and how is it addressed?” In Doctor Who, the evil is usually some wicked alien that needs defeating. Rarely, it’s the protagonist’s own dark side. That’s often a mark of Enlightenment Humanism—the notion that people are not only basically good, but getting better.

So it’s a little muddled. Maybe he’s more a demi-god, a super-human hero in a cold universe.

I appreciate the worldview test, Steven, but I think you miss part of the truth of DW. Beneath most (granted, not all) is a twisted version of the good. The Cybermen are a race who, in the attempt to free themselves from pain, eventually gave up even on emotions, resulting in cold, fearless killing machines. Inside the shell of a Dalek is a weak, shriveled being that exists purely on hate.

And, of course, the 50th anniversary (spoiler alert) was almost entirely devoted to the Doctors (10 and 11) saving the Doctor (the War Doctor) from himself. The psyche of the modern doctor has always been shaped heavily by his role in the Time War, and it was in the 50th anniversary that we finally learn how the modern incarnations of the Doctor have been fueled largely by regret and the struggle to get beyond his dark side.

Beyond the 50th, several individual episodes also raise this point in some profound ways. “The Pandorica Opens/The Big Bang” gather all of the classic ‘bad aliens’ in order to capture the Doctor, naming HIM as the most dangerous enemy in the universe. In “Asylum of the Daleks” in the most recent season we see the Doctor from the perspective of the Daleks - their most feared enemy responsible for the death of countless individuals. These episodes prompt us to stop and wonder “What if the doctor isn’t as great as we seem to think he is?”

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