“…for when I am weak, then I am strong.”
—2 Corinthians 12:10
He’s back. My favorite recent incarnation of the alien Time Lord known as the Doctor arrived again this month, sonic screwdriver (or sunglasses) at the ready. Peter Capaldi’s portrayal of the Doctor is prickly, intelligent, standoffish, and alien in ways that harken back to the first decade of Doctor Who. It’s worth pondering that on a series fifty years old, sometimes a return to origins feels fresher than “new” directions, which often end up taking a show in the same direction all the other shows are going. In the opening two-parter The Magician’s Apprentice / The Witch’s Familiar, the Doctor once again faces Davros, the maniacal creator of the Daleks, in what may be the best use of the character since Tom Baker’s Doctor faced him when he was first introduced in Genesis of the Daleks (1975).
In these two opening episodes of the series, the Doctor is facing not only two of his oldest enemies: Davros and the Master (now regenerated into female form as the Mistress)—but also the question of whether his own weaknesses may be his ultimate downfall.
What some people call NuWho, the show since it’s revival after a long hiatus, has been hit and miss. But so was the original. The budget has increased vastly since the original run of Doctor Who, which at times had the homespun charm of watching a community theater production. I can remember as a child realizing that various monsters were made of such things as bubble wrap and tape. Unlike slick Hollywood productions, on Doctor Who the seams were all visible: a rampaging robot might brush a “metal” wall and make the whole set wobble. But the actors playing the various incarnations of the Doctor, Jon Pertwee and Tom Baker especially, had a charisma that could make you forget the low budget. As an adult, I began to delve further back into Doctor Who, back to William Hartnell’s crotchety First Doctor and Patrick Troughton’s Chaplinesque Second Doctor.
In the 1980s Doctor Who began to misstep. Stories began to be cynical and dark, and often complicated and confusing. Though Peter Davison, who played the Doctor in the early 80s, was a dashing figure, his replacement was Colin Baker, written as a garishly dressed (even by Who standards) and aggressively unpleasant Doctor. The show never really recovered from this, though Sylvester McCoy, who followed Colin Baker, starred in a series of episodes that showed a great deal of improvement. The television show was suspended in 1989. In the 90s an attempt was made to revive the series with a television movie co-produced by American investors, starring Paul McGann as the Doctor (very good) and Eric Roberts (wait, what?!) as his nemesis, the Master. It failed to jump-start a revival.
It was in 2005 that Doctor Who came back starring Christopher Eccleston and garnered a new generation of fans. Modern Whovians glommed on particularly to David Tennant, the Doctor from 2005 to 2010, whose portrayal of the Doctor was probably the most human of all the incarnations. He was followed by my son’s favorite Doctor, the Eleventh, played by Matt Smith, who departed in 2013. Which brings us back to Peter Capaldi.
My oldest son, who is on the autism spectrum, was upset at first when he heard that Matt Smith would regenerate into a new Doctor. He went so far as to write a letter to Smith, giving him the heads-up that “you will regnrat in to Petr Capaldy.” It was touching then, to see Peter Capaldi take some time to speak to another young fan with autism in the UK, reassuring her that it was okay with Smith that he was the Doctor now. Capaldi also filmed a special message for a nine-year-old boy with autism whose grandmother had just died, helping the boy process his feelings. It made me a bigger fan of his work than ever before.
The Doctor values humanity. He sees the rights of the downtrodden and steps in to aid them whenever he can. His gruff or frivolous or snarky behavior (depending on his incarnation) is just a mask for the deep generosity of his character. And it’s here that I want to go a bit deeper.
The behavior of the Doctor presupposes that sentient beings such as humans have something special about them. It was the English writer G.K. Chesterton who noted that there isn’t a firm basis for the equality of man or the rights of man unless one holds to the divine origin of man. No doubt this idea would be disputed—heatedly, perhaps—by the writers and producers of Doctor Who, who are vaguely humanist secular mold. The current show runner Stephen Moffatt is an atheist, as was his predecessor Russell T. Davies. Most of the best writers for the show over the years have been atheists or agnostics, including the brilliant Douglas Adams, who went on from Doctor Who to create The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.
But, as noted by J. Budziszewski in his book What We Can’t Not Know, “There is no vast array of possible moralities. Natural law is not the one true star in a galaxy of false one; it is the only star… The so-called new moralities do not pluck from different trees. They pluck from the same tree, but selectively.” We can appeal to the idea that Roman and Greek thought led to modern ethics, but it took Christianity to definitively make a break from a moral code that did not value man in himself. The theologian Henri de Lubac pointed out, “Of the three principal contributions that are commonly said to have formed Western man—Greece, Rome and the Gospel—the third is the essential contribution. It is of a different order than the other two. To Greece we owe especially our logical reason; to Rome, our maxims of law and government; but to the Gospel we owe our very idea of man. If we deny the Gospel, we are lost.”
One of the titles the Church has for Jesus is “The Divine Physician”. By his wounds and through his compassion, we are healed by this divine Doctor. It is through the Incarnation that the world is redeemed, and it is through that redemption that we learn the true value of compassion, the true meaning of weakness, the true value of human life. Our alien protagonist the Doctor may be a Time Lord from the planet Gallifrey, but his moral code is unmistakably Judeo-Christian. The Doctor wouldn’t be the Doctor without the Divine Physician.
Let me pause here for a moment to say that I am not trying to claim that Doctor Who is a secretly Christian show. One of my pet peeves is Catholics or Christians taking something they happen to like in pop culture and then reverse engineering a reason why it’s actually really truly Christian. Doctor Who isn’t a “Christian” show. But it exists in a universe which makes sense only if we take for granted a view of humanity which was unknown to the world until the arrival of Christianity.
The “weakness” of the Doctor as depicted in The Magician’s Apprentice / The Witch’s Familiar is the same weakness he has had since the beginning: he has compassion. In the eyes of the powerful, this compassion is nothing but foolishness. But, as Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings put it, the Doctor and his companions decide to let folly be their cloak, “a veil before the eyes of the enemy.” And so it is that these episodes resolve, with evil mocking compassion, a cry for mercy awakening anew in the Doctor his determination to help the weak despite the cost, and the designs of the proud and powerful crumbling in the face of lowly virtue. Not bad coming from secular humanists.
Note: for more Catholic perspective on Doctor Who, check out the Secrets of Doctor Who podcast from SQPN, featuring Fr. Roderick Vonhögen, Jimmy Akin, Fr. Cory Sticha, Domenico Bettinelli, and others.
Also, those looking for more science fiction here at the Ignatius Press Novels page: check out this original short story by T.M. Doran, “Leonardo’s Work”, or read the first chapter of Michael D. O’Brien’s Voyage to Alpha Centauri.
Image: Promotional graphic for Doctor Who via the official DW facebook page.