Doctor Who and religion’s good and bad sides

I like the British sci-fi programme Doctor Who in pretty much all of its filmed manifestations (and also comic books featuring one or other Classic Doctor) — I am even amongst those who feel that the 1996 TV movie that failed to produce a re-boot is not as bad as all that; Paul McCann gave a good performance as the Eighth Doctor, even if the script he had to work with was more than a little shabby. What follows, however, is about the 2005-present reboot on the BBC — in particular, last Saturday’s episode, ‘The Rings of Akhaten.’*

Like most sci-fi, there is not a lot of religion on Doctor Who.** However, like most sci-fi, Doctor Who is a way to explore real concerns — what does it mean to be alive or a person? What has real value in this ‘verse? How many hearts does a person really need? Can things be smaller on the outside? And so, occasionally religion makes its way into the programme.

For example, we have ‘The Satan Pit’ in series two, a season packed with a high number of well-written and well-executed episodes, this one including. And series four has the episode ‘The Fires of Pompeii’, which has some interesting visions of Roman religion. The writers/directors/whoever has power try to keep some balance in their representations of religion.

And so this past week, ‘The Rings of Akhaten.’ This episode shows us the sociological phenomenon at its best and worst, I would argue. Indeed, the truth claims of the religion are hardly an issue for the Doctor. What matters for him when he and Clara visit Akhaten is the togetherness produced by the religion. These various alien species who share a religion have come together to worship and, stemming from that, to do business, to have social gatherings, all the things persons tend to do when put together in large groups.

And so we have the scene where little Mary, the Queen of Years, sings to Grandfather and the whole stadium joins in. The Doctor also sings, and encourages Clara to sing along. As you watch and listen to the vast crowd singing the fairly lovely song together, there is a strong sense of togetherness, of belonging, of strength.

This is the beautiful side of religion and its social aspect.

But religion can also consume persons and societies. Thus the adventure part of last week’s episode, where a star-dwelling alien worshipped as a god seeks to devour people’s souls. And the Doctor, of course, saves the day — with Clara’s help.

All religious movements and many religious ideas can consume people in a bad way. They can destroy cultures, they can cause wars, they can bring people to neglect certain of their earthly duties, they can help foster the madness of ethnic cleansing.

But this is rare, and most religions — except for obvious things such as the ‘Teutonic’ religious beliefs attached to something like Nazism — do not promote destructive activities. All of them may call you to sacrifice, but true sacrifice is a choice you make in the face of losing your very self — a martyr is faced with the brutal option of either physical death or the soul-death of abandoning his/her truest ideals. In that case, it is not the religion but the persecutor who destroys.

Nevertheless, we should watch that even Christianity, which I believe is the one, true religion (or, as is popular today, ‘faith’), does not become a destructive rather than creative force. For some, twisted readings of Scripture are used as authorisation for a host of ills and ways of tearing people asunder. But for others, such as my mediaeval hero St Francis, Scripture provides the fuel for feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, producing art out of love for God and neighbour.

As we read in the book of James, true religion that is acceptable to God is helping the poor, the orphans, the widows. Such people hold a special place in the heart of our God. Will we help them, or will we chant ‘God hates fags’ or make fun of our Muslim neighbours or scorn the turbans of our Sikh co-workers?

Who will you become — St Francis or Frank Phelps?

*This always looks like a misspelling of Akenaten, one of my favourite pharaohs. Interestingly, the programme features a being referred to as a mummy and a giant pyramid. And sun-worship.

**Reasons for liking Firefly and Battlestar Galactica include the presence of the religious impulse in the characters. Our sense of the numinous will not be diminished by technology. Indeed, I imagine that starships and the vastness of space may have the opposite effect upon us. Technology may even start religions, cf. Endymion by Dan Simmons.