Classic Doctor Who has a rather tentative relationship with organized religion, usually depicting members of black magic cults as being evil or misguided by some mastermind or alien.
The Pertwee adventure The Daemons went so far as to include the Master operating as a vicar in disguise and offered up the revelation that mankind had evolved as part of a plot concocted by aliens that looked like massive devils.
Faith was a key factor in the 1989 adventure The Curse of Fenric and shown to have a real power over those who had lost their souls to darkness.
The Doctor has fought ‘gods’ on several occasions from Pyramids of Mars to The Greatest Show in the Galaxy, so clearly such a concept exists in that universe… but what about Jewish, Muslim, Christian and Hindu beliefs? What role do they play?
The program is over 48 years old and has had several writers, directors and producers steering Doctor Who in specific directions. Barry Letts reflected his Buddhist beliefs during his tenure but this was tempered by the view of conservative script editor Terrance Dicks. Russel T Davies, by contrast, referred to the Doctor as a Lonely God’ and even featured ‘Brights Movement’ proponent Richard Dawkins in an episode.
This makes a definitive statement on the role of religion in Doctor Who difficult to pin down. I do recall a moment in one of the Missing Episodes Books, The Ultimate Evil when the Doctor said ‘My God!’ that took fans by surprise so religion is clearly a controversial subject for the program.
Award-winning author Naomi Alderman (an orthodox Jew) spoke to the folks at the Jewish Journal about her book Doctor Who: Borrowed Time and the role of religious belief in Doctor Who. I found it very interesting and have posted an excerpt below:
What I found compelling was that Naomi had been raised as an orthodox Jew and further, that her first novel, the Orange award winning and controversial “Disobedience,” depicted a rabbi’s daughter from North London who comes out as a lesbian. In short, there’s a rich history brewing in Naomi’s noggin and I, for one, wanted to get inside. What follows is a brief interview:
Q: The Doctor never seems to deal with actual religions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam, etc) but rather faux “orders”. Assuming this is done so as not offend, is it possible that the show is missing an opportunity to explore something seemingly fundamental to human nature?
Hmmm, interesting. In fact, there has been some portrayal of actual religion, including a positive portrayal of Buddhism in Planet of the Spiders. But I suspect that the answer is that the UK is a fundamentally not-very-religious country, and that Doctor Who accurately represents our suspicions and our non-confrontational but deep-rooted agnosticism. To go back in history and have the Doctor ‘prove’ that Moses, Jesus and Mohammed didn’t exist would clearly be offensive and far too confrontational for British people. But to have him meet the ‘prophet’ or ‘god’ of an imaginary civilization and find that they are either misguided or plain manipulative I think is a way of saying what – dare I say it? – most British people quietly think about religion: that it’s fine as long as it’s comforting, but shouldn’t be taken too seriously or followed blindly. The Doctor is an atheist hero.
Being an American, I can’t speak on the validity of Alderman’s statement on the importance of religion in the UK, but I think even if I lived in downtown London I’d refrain from making such a blanket statement. The deification of the Doctor in the BBC Wales version is a rather strange turn of events as he has become the ultimate power in the universe.
There’s even a revised (Time) Lord’s Prayer that was posted online which I find incredibly questionable and frankly in bad taste.
What role do you think religion has in Doctor Who?