How Doctor Who Became My Religion
Recently, my son started watching Doctor Who on Netflix and after a few months of hearing about time vortexes and sonic screwdrivers, I decided to check it out for myself. For those who don't know: Doctor Who is a British program that has been running almost continually since its 1963 debut. It involves a 900-year-old Time Lord from the destroyed planet of Gallifrey who travels through time and space inside the TARDIS -- a sentient spacecraft shaped like an old UK police call box. He also has the ability to regenerate, taking on new forms and new personalities which also has conveniently allowed for new actors to assume the role over the last fifty years.My childhood memories of Doctor Who were from the few Tom Baker episodes I saw on public television. I remembered the Doctor's fro, long scarf, and some truly terrible special effects, but that's about it. Not something I thought appropriate for adult viewing.
Not a Marx Brother.
Still, I tuned in for a new episode, and a funny thing happened: I cried. Then I watched another episode and guess what? I cried again. In fact, I watched four episodes over two days and for each one, I cried. I can't think of any other show that has made me cry four times, let alone four episodes in a row, so I began to investigate.I checked the mirror. Perhaps, like the Doctor, I had regenerated too, but into the form of a 14-year-old girl. Nope, it was still me. Also my penis and testicles had not suddenly gone missing.
They were safe on top of my dresser in their special box as always.
But even though my appearance was the same, I'd definitely changed. I'd become a fanatic. More than a fanatic: I'm a zealot. I want to sit around all day writing Doctor Who scripts. Lots of them. Hell, I want to be the Doctor. Who says he can't be American? He can be anything. BBC, call me!
Or actually call my son. He's much better at making David Tennant faces.
Initially, I thought Doctor Who was packing such an emotional punch because of the way it dealt with deeply-rooted issues and mythologies. Still, Star Trek and even Star Wars did that too, and I never cried from them.
OK, I cried a little during Phantom Menace but that's only because George Lucas was urinating on my childhood.
Craig Ferguson has suggested that nerds like me like Doctor Who because it's about the triumph of intellect and romance over brute force and cynicism, and that's a very accurate point, but it still doesn't explain why I'd become such a huge wuss and fanboy.
Still, after much analysis, I came up with a three step answer. More specifically, one realization composed of three parts. I'll take you through the analysis, but because this is the Internet which exists only to oversimplify things to the point of being incorrect, the basic realization was:
Watching Doctor Who Is Like Having A Relationship With God.And I don't mean the Doctor is a metaphor for gods we know, the way the lion is Jesus in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe . I mean the Doctor is a god. But one we can see and understand. And he loves us more than all the other creatures in the universe. He would die for us, but what he really wants to do is live with us. So it's no wonder the show has fanatics. It's not a show. It's a philosophy. A religion. Before I go further, let me be the first to say I am in no way a Doctor Who scholar. I've seen a fraction of the episodes. There are whole seasons I know nothing about. I'm not pretending to be an authority. I'm just relaying why this show has emotionally clobbered me in a way that might be relevant to both the uninitiated and longtime Whovians.
We Are Not Alone Against EvilEvery week, Doctor Who introduces some new unspeakable horror in the universe. The galaxy it seems is filled with no shortage of pricks who want to devour our souls, our faith, and even our faces. There are evils that want to make us cyborgs, or collect our organs for spare parts, or just flat out murder us. Yes, us. With Doctor Who, it is humanity that's in jeopardy. Not Captain Kirk or Luke Skywalker. Not even Scully and Mulder. Almost every week, either all of humanity or at least a specific human companion of the Doctor's is confronted with more evil than anyone could be expected to bear. But unlike real life where loved ones fall to cancers that consume their bodies or terrible fates that shatter their minds, we are not alone. Doctor Who provides a savior. The Doctor risks his 900 year old-plus life to save our miniscule existences.
And he often does it in some truly terrible clothing.
A God That Needs UsBut that still wasn't enough to explain my reaction. If that's all Doctor Who was than the show would amount to little more than wish-fulfillment. The Doctor's relationship with humanity is more complex. He doesn't save us because he is all-powerful like a parent rescuing a wayward child. He does it because he thinks we're wonderful. He has seen countless races at infinite times, and, without doubt, he thinks humans are just awesome. The show simultaneously illustrates how inconsequential we are in the vastness of time and space, while still praising our ingenuity, curiosity and capacity for kindness.And although the Doctor plays at smugness (to varying degrees depending on the actor) he does not offer a helping hand in a condescending way, asking to be worshipped. Instead, you can't help but feel he needs us just as much as we need him. Humanity fills a void for the Doctor that has persisted through countless lifetimes. You see that a lot in David Tennant's run. Madame du Pompadour refers to him as a "sad angel", and when confronting Satan in the depths of "hell" the Doctor clings to his faith in his human companion Rose. In "Journey's End" the Doctor tells Rose that she made him a better person, and when Rose leaves, another human (Donna) tells the Doctor he needs someone to keep him balanced and in check. Perhaps, more telling, when the Doctor (Tennant) begins traveling alone in his final few episodes, his behavior becomes erratic, even conceited, as he tries to alter the time-space continuum to satisfy his vanity as much as to save human life.People sing songs about having a friend in Jesus, but this is a friendship that's much easier to understand. And not just because the Doctor is flesh and blood. He's a savior who loves us and needs us like the best of friends do. That he can bend time and space to save all of Earth from a Sycorax invasion is just gravy.
Yep, the winner's on the left. Swoon.
A God Who is FallibleSo to recap, the Doctor's a great godlike alien who loves and needs us. That's great, but it still doesn't fully explain why I'd embarrassed myself so continuously with my tears. If that's all Doctor Who were about, then I'd watch episodes with fist pumps and cheers more than tears. What makes the Doctor so special is that for all his success, he often fails. People do die on Doctor Who. Civilizations are lost. Characters are made to suffer despite the Doctor's best intentions.The show makes us realize that even with a semi-immortal Time Lord on your side you can lose. That we are struck by tragedy does not mean that there is no sense or purpose to life. It doesn't mean we are alone. Sometimes we see the very real reasons the Doctor can't save someone. Sometimes, it's as simple as having to make a choice like in "Satan's Pit" when circumstances only allowed time for him to rescue one crew member and not the alien collective known as the Ood.
Contrary to rumor, the Doctor did not let them die because they were "so damn freaky looking."
But what I find most engaging are the times I don't fully understand why the Doctor could not do more. So many times it seems the Doctor's hands are tied by scientific constructs I don't pretend to understand. And although it might be unsettling to believe in a god that has limits to his abilities, it's also reassuring that bad things can happen despite the best wishes and efforts of a higher power. Lastly, and maybe this is especially true for me as a new viewer, but often the Doctor behaves in ways I don't fully appreciate because he's lived for over 900 years (50 on TV) and there is so much I haven't seen. So many episodes I've missed. And that's just with a TV show. Imagine, for a moment that there is a real God. How many of His storylines have we not been exposed to? That god must have been broadcasting on channels we don't get for millennia. It would take a lifetime longer than the Doctor's to fully understand such a god. Doctor Who teaches me I just don't know everything. Horrible events can occur for reasons explained in lost episodes or laws of physics too dense for my blogger's mind and that doesn't mean we are lost or unloved. There is the possibility of a god who roots for us, loves us, and grieves for us just like the Doctor. And a god who has saved us so many times and in so many ways we've never known.And as far as I can tell, on a very basic and unspoken level, that is what hits me so hard about the show. Also, I really like