We are huge Dr Who fans in our house. And this weekend has been epic. For eleven days – one for each Doctor to date – we counted down to Saturday and the fiftieth anniversary feature-length episode. And we were not disappointed. Just as last year, on the fiftieth anniversary of the James Bond films, Skyfall re-booted the most iconic series in British cinema, so The Day of the Doctor – along with its mini-episode prequel The Night of the Doctor – was a landmark event for the most iconic series in British television. And as testimony to its cultural significance and appeal, it was simultaneously broadcast in 94 countries.
I genuinely believe that understanding (not necessarily appreciating) Dr Who is essential to understanding British-ness. This show has impacted our collective consciousness for fifty years, and has gone through many changes. It started in a post-WWII world where Britain understood itself – quite self-centredly – as having defeated the Nazis and saved the world. But it takes us on a journey of discovery. Through the Doctor, we discover something about ourselves – something much more complex, with good aspects and darker aspects. Through his human companions this alien learns, increasingly in recent years, what it means to be human. It takes us from colonialism to post-colonialism. It still has a journey to go: still, every regeneration of the Doctor has been a white male (a bit like our bishops…). It charts many of the changes we have undergone as a society over those fifty years. It is about finding our place in the world, when the world we grew up in no longer exists – some critics argue that it is merely an attempt to pretend that Britain is still the centre of the universe, but if it is (and I think that a mean-spirited assessment), that centre has shifted, even if not enough for some - and learning to be good while recognising that in the name of goodness we have done terrible things. It is about redemption. It creates a myth – a framework for exploring so many things – for an increasingly post-Christian (and bereft of myth) culture. It helps us confront the monsters we face and fear. It has a profoundly Christo-centric heart, with victory through self-sacrifice and resurrection. It plunders history and science fiction for good storylines.
Through characters such as the Paternoster Gang, the writers explore the reconciliation of former enemies and the appreciation and value of accepting diversity – things the Church struggles with.
At one level, it is a big adventure kids (of any age) can get excited about. But, like the TARDIS, it is bigger on the inside.
Here are some other aspects that I appreciate about the good Doctor:
The Doctor is one person, who has undergone many regenerations – a different face, different personality (or, means of exploring different aspects of his personality), different costume to reflect that personality. There is both continuity and integrity of character, and reinvention. I find that to be true. I have lived and gone about my calling in different contexts, and in each context I am different – not presenting a false image, or being a self-made and re-made individual, but finding that I must grow into the person I am called to be in each new season. That person changes, in part because I am called to grow into myself, to become more fully formed, to discover by degree who God has called me to be and who he is forming me to be; and also in part because who I am as a person is shaped by the different companions sent to accompany me, some of whom are constant or recurring characters, and some of whom are passing. Often when I move location, I make changes to my wardrobe as a prophetic expression of new identity.
On occasion, more than one regeneration of the Doctor find themselves in the same place at the same time – a risky thing, but sometimes necessary to overcome a particular challenge. Likewise, there are times when I need to draw on who I have been in the past but have, on the whole, moved on from.
The Doctor faces certain enemies on many occasions; and yet each time it is different, because both the Doctor and the enemy are no longer what they were, and the context and companions have also changed. This, too, I find to be true. Life is a battle, at times, and there are certain monsters we face over again, and yet each time is different. There are no formulas.
The Doctor also meets friends in different points in time; and for me this is akin to coming to familiar points in the Church year – Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Passiontide, Easter, Pentecost, All Saints – on a regular basis. Each time is fresh, because I have changed.
The Doctor is compelled by a vocation, to stand between worlds – but primarily this world – against destruction. And as a disciple of Jesus, there is something in that, even if I am not the character at the centre.
The scriptwriters have to work with a corpus, a pre-existing story. They must develop the story, take it on, play with it, make it come alive afresh in each new generation. There is no slavish adherence here, and yet – as fans themselves – there are certain parameters that they have to work with. And that is exactly how my own storyline relates to scripture and church history: the stories I find myself immediately part of are part of a much bigger story, a story to be loved and embraced and written-into, and out of…
There are things about the Doctor that I don’t like. Of course there are. There are things about myself that I don’t like, that I don’t like to face up to, that I run from – and that I will have to confront at the appointed time and place where, wherever I run, I will arrive at. There is a time and a place, God knows – and we cannot force either and it go well. I would love to see a female Doctor – just as I would love to see female Bishops, something we might get sooner. And yet Chris was the perfect choice to bring the Doctor back, David to take him on, and Matt was simply inspired casting…and so I await the time, confident that it will happen.
So, I am unashamedly a Whovian. Indeed, I get emotional when all the Doctors come together in a storyline, as they did at the end of the fiftieth anniversary, despite the fact that three were before my time, despite the fact that I haven’t watched every episode or ever gone to a fan convention. It just resonates with something inside me. Being British, for ill or good, most likely.
And that, too, is like being part of the Church…