If you’re a Christian who wants to see popular culture in light of Scripture, you have at least considered the idea of viewing fantastical heroes as Christ-figures. After all, if a decent hero such as The Doctor of Doctor Who respects life, shows love, and sacrifices himself to save the world, doesn’t that imitate the original Hero? Shouldn’t we laud that reflection of Jesus?
But this gets more complicated when the hero does not behave like a Christ-figure should.
So it is with the Hero of true-myth whom the Doctor’s stories can’t help but reflect and tribute. Christ’s friends may not always feel his love, but love he does — the greater love, not only for his friends but for his enemies.As we explored in “Doctor Who’s Doctrine: The Doctor of Philosophy,” previous lead-actor changes on Doctor Who (the post-2005 stories, anyway) included quick answers to identity questions within the new actor’s first episode: Who is the new Doctor? How is he like the previous one? What will he wear? Fans share theories, photos, articles and fan art about these relatively surface details. But Series 8 had deeper questions in mind: not only “Who is the new Doctor?” but “Is the character of the Doctor a good man?”
In “Into the Dalek” the Doctor poses the challenge to his friend Clara: “Am I a good man?” She doesn’t know. “Neither do I,” says the Doctor. And the story’s answer is ambiguous: A good man would do better, but the Doctor at least tries.
Some fans found that lacking, especially when Who’s showrunners seemed determined to test fans’ patience. After seven years of dashing younger male leads, the BBC had gone back to the show’s roots by casting older performer Peter Capaldi as the Twelfth Doctor. Also on purpose the story switched the Doctor from “quirky quippy young adventurous professor” to “grumpy sarcastic old adventurous professor.” Yes, “adventurous professor” stayed. But many Who fans were bothered by the Doctor’s non-temporal personality shift. They asked: Why were Twelve’s predecessors’ silly antics replaced by apparent hostility toward others?
The Tenth Doctor tolerated Rose’s loser boyfriend Mickey Smith, then praised his heroism. But the Twelfth Doctor mocks Clara’s new boyfriend Danny — a good man, former soldier, and math teacher. The Eleventh Doctor brings a child to a Narnia-like world that she calls a fairyland; “Grow up,” Eleven feigns to chide, “Fairyland looks completely different.” But Twelve upon meeting the real-life Robin Hood is rude and skeptical of fantasy heroes.
Of course Twelve remains the hero, the cleverest one in the room, the man who solves the mysteries, defeats monsters without violence, and makes the tough decisions about who lives and dies. But he constantly behaves in unheroic ways. Why? He loves to help others but his attitude makes him feel unloving. Why?
The Doctor himself answers both questions in the series 8 finale, “Death in Heaven.”
‘I Am an Idiot’
Missy, an old foe in a new maniacal form, returns to challenge the Doctor with a new army of Cybermen, this time not converted from living humans but counterfeit-resurrected from the dead. By the story’s end Missy takes a sudden twist: She hands control of her army to the Doctor. “Armies are for people who think they’re right,” she explains. “And nobody thinks they’re righter than you. …All those people suffering in the Dalek camps? Now you can save them. All those bad guys winning all the wars? Go and get the good guys back.”
“All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” Those of us who appreciate popular culture Christ-figures (or Christ-figure figures) may see yet another parallel.
But at this temptation the Doctor, though not a good man, reacts as a good man should.
“Thank you,” he says, kissing his enemy. “I wasn’t sure. You lose sight sometimes. Thank you! I am not a good man! And I’m not a bad man. I am not a hero. And I’m definitely not a president. And no, I’m not an officer. Do you know what I am? I … am …” The heroic music has started, this series’ first(?) in-episode theme for “I Am The Doctor,” so I’m certain that’s what he’ll say. But he finishes: “… an idiot!” And he is overjoyed at this humble, deprecatory admission. “With a box! And a screwdriver. Just passing through. Helping out. Learning!”
That should resolve all the fun fan debates. No, the Doctor is not a hero. He’s not a Christ-figure. He’s not even a good man, for “no one is good except God alone.” Instead the Doctor ends up a reflection of sainted humanity. He is an idiot, using tools, finding adventures, attempting to follow sometimes-made-up ideals, personality-shifting, and growing.
It’s a partial answer, but the other question Doctor Who asked of its hero and fans remains: Why did the new Doctor act so unloving toward those whom he actually does love?
‘Love Is a Promise’
The answer comes in showrunner Steven Moffat’s second crack at a series-long love story. His first was with Rory and Amy Pond/Williams, the stunningly traditional commitment-exalting tale of a lifelong romance. Story 2 apparently resolves differently, for unlike Rory who “died” multiple times and returned, Danny Pink’s afterlife and resurrection are both mechanical, villainous counterfeits. He returns as a Cyberman, but with story-exception abilities of being not yet submitted to the metallic zombies’ emotionless collective will.
Danny saves his true love Clara from other Cybermen, then takes her to a graveyard. What happens next shows Doctor Who at its dark-fantastical finest, exploring this sobering what-if question: What if human beings were cyber-converted into a “human point two,” with all emotions cauterized or removed? Only for Danny, who is halfway through the process, the pain of being fake-“resurrected” for an evil cause is worse than anyone should bear.
“I need you to do something for me,” he sadly intones. “I can’t do it myself.” He unscrews his Cybermen chest plate. “It’s an inhibitor. It’s not activated. I need you to switch it on. … It deletes emotions. Please. I don’t want to feel like this.”
Clara is forced to activate the inhibitor. Danny goes rigid, submitted(?) to the hive mind. But like any fairy tale, even darker tales, the story takes a joyous, eucatastrophic turn.
“I don’t need an army,” the Doctor pronounces. “I never have, because I’ve got them.” He beckons to Cyber-Danny, who despite his deleted emotions wraps his cyber-arm around Clara. “Because love — it’s not an emotion. Love is a promise. And he will never hurt her.”
Moments later, Danny the faux-resurrected Christ-figure-figure leads an army of the dead in an ascension from the planet into the clouds, to destroy evil in a wave of apocalyptic fire.
So why doesn’t the Doctor act very loving toward those he does love? It’s because he’s like a reluctant Cyberman. The Doctor doesn’t always need to show the surface emotions we associate with true love to show such love. Instead, true loving heroes keep their promises.
And so it is with the Hero of true-myth whom the Doctor’s stories can’t help but reflect and tribute. Christ’s friends may not always feel his love, but love he does — the greater love, not only for his friends but for his enemies. And if I can love and trust a fantasy hero who’s a well-intended idiot, how much more can I keep loving and trusting in the true Hero.