‘Doctor Who’, humanist hero?

‘Doctor Who’, humanist hero?

To the rational mind, nothing is inexplicable, only unexplained.” Not necessarily the kind of philosophy you’d expect in a
child-friendly family drama on a Saturday evening, but that’s Doctor Who for you.

IT’s nearly 50 years since “the Doctor” first appeared on British television screens. He has become as iconic a character in British culture as Robin Hood, Sherlock Holmes and James Bond; yet, while those characters have necessarily been redefined over the years, Doctor Who is surely unique in incorporating the process of re-interpretation into its own DNA. It’s now an accepted part of Doctor Who that its main character will physically change his appearance and overt characteristics every few years, whenever a different actor takes on the role.

The uncharitable might suggest that consistency, therefore, isn’t likely to be one of the show’s strongest points; arguably, they’d be right! In his time, the Doctor has brought down oppressive regimes (often within 24 hours, without even breaking into a sweat) yet he’s also supported absolute monarchies against revolution. He’s thwarted the machinations of despots, military leaders, free-market businessmen and self-described freedom fighters with equal vigour. Although religious belief is usually dismissed as primitive superstition, he has equally opposed the most perverse extrapolations of science. The Doctor is no one-trick pony, imposing the same solution on every situation.

What does remain true to this day, however, is how the Doctor remains a hero who prizes knowledge and individuality in thought and action, who abhors despots, conformity and the external imposition of control – whether it’s on a planet, a people or a single mind. Such an innately liberal slant should hardly be surprising, given the similar cultural position of the institution that makes it – the British Broadcasting Corporation. From sun-worshipping cavemen in its first broadcast story (100,000 BC in1963) to the “fish people” of Atlantis (Enemy of the World, 1967); from the murderous religious wars in 16th century France (The Massacre of St Bartholomew’s Eve, 1966) to the Exxilons worshiping the sentient city built by their own space-travelling ancestors (Death to the Daleks, 1974), it’s arguable that religious belief has never been shown in a favourable light in Doctor Who.

At best, it’s presented as the misinterpretation of technology and science (for example, Face of Evil, 1977); at worst, faith is shown to be a potentially fatal weakness (The Curse of Fenric, 1989 and The God Complex, 2011) while dogma is frequently a source for brutal social oppression and control (Planet of Fire, 1984).

Not only that, but time and again, 20th century Doctor Who described the move from superstitious belief to rational science in positive terms of progress, growth and advancement. On those occasions when technologically superior aliens were misinterpreted by more “primitive” cultures as gods or demons, the Doctor usually inspired a conceptual breakthrough after which the advanced technology was recognised for what it really was.

No wonder the writer and academic Una McCormack highlights what she describes as 20th century Doctor Who’s innate “technocratic humanism”.

21st century Doctor Who has continued to cast religion in a poor light; from seemingly throwaway lines – a space station forbidding the use of “weapons, teleportation and religion” (The End of the World, 2005) – to more recent episodes in which future faiths have evolved into active military forces. Chief writer and self-described atheist Russell T Davies also wrote Gridlock (2007) in which religious beliefs expressed through communal hymn-singing, while bonding and comforting thousands of people trapped in an endless traffic jam, also helped ensure that nothing changed – it took the arrival of the questioning Doctor to trigger a resolution which saw everyone escape. Earlier, in The Parting of the Ways (2005), Davies even went as far as suggesting that the only thing worse than a xenophobic Dalek is a xenophobic Dalek whose “dislike of the unlike” is founded not on political, cultural and genetic programming, but religious belief.

All of which suggests that the Doctor is the kind of hero atheists should admire. Some might be put off, however, by the fact that Davies and his successor as “showrunner”, Steven Moffat, have often chosen to apply the iconography and narrative templates of religion and belief directly on to the Doctor himself; after all, when you think of it, what better way is there to describe a benevolent, messianic being who usually comes down to Earth to save us all?

This process has ranged from the simple twisting of images usually associated with Christianity – killer Christmas trees, or robot angels carrying the Doctor into the air (The Christmas Invasion, 2005 and Voyage of the Damned, 2007) – to the Doctor’s overt effect on his companions’ lives once they’ve left his side.

The quintessential Doctor Who companion was Sarah Jane Smith (played by Elisabeth Sladen) who in her own spin-off show, The Sarah Jane Adventures, explained how she was “left behind with his legacy … to help and to protect, to make a stand and to never give up”. A disciple, or what? Moffat’s other current job is the BBC’s critically acclaimed modern-day update of Sherlock Holmes. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s consulting detective was certainly a significant antecedent for the Doctor, but Moffat is quite clear on the fundamental narrative difference between the two characters; the Doctor is “like an angel who aspires to be human”, whereas Sherlock Holmes “is a human being who aspires to be a god”. This distinction is most obvious in Doctor Who’s “traditional” festive specials which – thanks to their larger, more diverse, Christmas Day audiences – Moffat believes need to be a “simpler … more sentimental … most iconic” version of the show in which the Doctor is “like an angel who comes to help”.

Groups such as Christian Voice have, on occasion, expressed offence at the messianic portrayal of the Doctor on such occasions; arguably, that’s precisely why the Doctor should be seen as an atheist’s hero. For modern Doctor Who isn’t afraid to critique the idea of its own hero as source of ultimate authority and the dangers arising from his behaviour.

While the words may be placed in the mouths of the show’s “villains”, that does not deny their power. For example, Margaret the Slitheen in Boom Town (2005): “From what I’ve seen, your funny little happy-go-lucky life leaves devastation in its wake; always moving on because you dare not look back. Playing with so many people’s lives, you might as well be a god.”

The Doctor isn’t a god, however; indeed, he wouldn’t even describe himself as a good man, as he explained to one opponent: “Good men don’t need rules. Today is not the day to find out why I have so many.” (A Good Man Goes to War, 2011.) The Waters of Mars (2009) was promoted as being one of the scariest Doctor Who stories ever, but arguably this wasn’t down to the water-streaming aliens – it was when, at the story’s conclusion, we saw the Doctor beginning to believe he was the ultimate authority over history itself, the “Time Lord Victorious”. It took the noble sacrifice of one human to bring him back to his senses; to remind him (and us) of the dangers of absolute power and an abandonment of responsibility. A secular hero, or what?

Paul F Cockburn, an Edinburgh-based freelance writer who specialises in arts and culture, disability issues and military resettlement, is one of several new contributors to the Freethinker. His recent articles and reviews have appeared in regional and national publications including Able, Disability, The Herald,, and Scotland on Sunday.

11 responses to “‘Doctor Who’, humanist hero?”

  1. 5ec4um says:

    I was a little too young to remember the first Doctor Who series, but I grew up with it and this article makes me begin to appreciate how that may have influenced my non-religious beliefs and interest in science.

    I’ve watched some of the newer series but felt turned off by the overt popularising of the story lines and the blatant attempts to pander to an international audience. Soppy sentimentality and over use of contemporary icons such as mobile phones haven’t helped.

    But overall, yes, the Doctor has been something of a humanist role model, leaving aside any aspiration to save the world / universe every other week.

  2. stargraves says:

    Interesting article!

  3. Matt Westwood says:

    A delight to read. Full marks.

  4. Carasek says:

    And there was me thinking (for a short moment) that Barry Duke knew an awful lot about Doctor Who. An interesting read, cheers.

  5. Lorna says:

    I’ve never viewed Doctor Who so in depth, but this explains why I have had quite an attachment to it (well those that came out in my life time) I feel a Doctor Who marathon coming on! I need to view it from this angle!!

  6. Shane Tyson says:

    A very interesting and thought provoking piece.

    Though to describe the BBC as ‘innately liberal’ is debatable.

    In most of their religious pieces, especially regarding the Anglican and Islamic world, I find them dogmatically ‘politically correct’ and unable to produce in-depth, and accurate work.

  7. Matt Westwood says:

    @Shane Tyson: Paradoxically, their coverage of current affairs tends to be far more intelligent, objective and establishment-questioning than the jingoistic, populist and fascistic tripe that vomits stinkingly from the commercial channels.

  8. AgentCormac says:

    Thought-provoking and well-written article. Just one quibble – is Christian Voice really a group? I thought it was just you know who. Oh, yes – and his mate, Robin.

  9. Shane Tyson says:

    @Matt Westwood

    Yes agree with you Matt, most days am glued to News24.

    Their religious pieces make me cringe though.

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  11. Harry says:

    When religious people accuse Doctor Who of being anti-religion I like to point out that Bishop Octavian was probably the most awesome single-story character in the series.

    Aside from that, I think a lot of people would appreciate reading an article named How Doctor Who Became My Religion