Science fiction isn’t exactly known for centering its stories on parenting, but rather, on topics like exploration and problem solving. And yet, parenting often involves those very things. The recent Doctor Who seasons contain some interesting commentary on parenting that can help us in the task of raising children, whatever universe we may be from.
As an extraterrestrial — a Time Lord from the planet Gallifrey, to be precise — the Doctor travels through space and time in the TARDIS, a spaceship that looks like a British police call box. The Doctor goes on adventures, checks out historical moments, and battles evil monsters with the help of their human companions.
For the first 50+ years of the show, the Doctor was cast as a man. But the Doctor’s thirteenth and most recent incarnation has been a woman, played by Jodie Whittaker. Personally I like Whittaker’s Doctor; she puts her own unique spin on the Doctor’s classic quirkiness, crazy brilliance, and attempts at being a force for good (although this video offers up a good critique of the run).
Doctor Who started in 1963 and I’ve seen all 868 episodes released to date, so I fancy myself a Whovian. I’ve been to the Gallifrey One convention (with my kids), attended Comic-Con Hall H panels, and even have a TARDIS tattoo. I acknowledge I’m biased, but even so, I was pleasantly surprised to see the theme of parenting in all three of Whittaker’s seasons.
It’s entirely fitting that the Doctor and her companions Graham, Ryan, Yaz (Yasmin), and Dan have called themselves “fam” from the beginning of their adventures together. So let’s explore the Doctor’s unexpected parenting, specifically in providing a conducive atmosphere, customizing her coaching methods, adventuring with safety, and teaching the recognition of true evil.
Air Corridor: Providing a Conducive Atmosphere
In Jodie Whittaker’s first episode as the Doctor (“The Woman Who Fell to Earth”), we’re introduced to 19-year-old Ryan who, due to an absentee father, lives with his grandmother Grace and her husband, Graham. Despite Graham’s attempts at connection, Ryan wants nothing to do with his step-grandfather. But when the evil extraterrestrial Tzim-Sha (hilariously misunderstood as “Tim Shaw”) removes Grace from their lives, Ryan and Graham are thrust together.
Their close proximity in the TARDIS isn’t the only reason for their relationship’s growth, though. Being with the Doctor in a conducive atmosphere makes all the difference.
Since my kids were babies, I’ve practiced being a protective caregiver and providing a stable environment to (ad)venture from and return to. In psychology, this is known as attachment theory. I’ve worked at making myself available, and making it clear to my kids that I actually am available, so that when the teenage years hit, I could maintain conducive, supportive relationships. (More on that shortly.) It’s not about proximity so much as availability.
Our children’s friends have a massive effect on their lives, as well. Whittaker’s debut also introduces Yaz who, as the season progresses, grows close to Ryan and Graham. In “Kerblam!,” the group gets jobs at a thinly veiled Amazon-esque warehouse to investigate missing employees. All three companions become friends with their fellow Kerblam! employees, one of whom has weaponized bubble wrap. (Which sounds cheesy but is well-executed.) While it’s unlikely that our kids will fall in with the “misunderstood murderers” crowd, training our kids to be discerning concerning their influences is wise.
When my son was in fifth grade, he complained to me about his friend group and some slight bullying. I addressed the issue but also explained how important it would be to make friends with good character in junior high and high school. I pulled the old-man-Dad card and described the adventures I had while also highlighting how making good friend choices kept me out of (felony-level) trouble. Now, five years later, my son has great friends. They’re a mix of Christians, other religions, and atheists, but all of them provide adventure and safety.
The Doctor also trains her companions to be independent while accepting support from her as well as each other. It was easy for Graham to be protective of Ryan when their adventures first began. But by following the Doctor’s example of positive attachment theory — specifically, watching for risks while providing a safe environment to return to (the TARDIS) — Graham learned how to better parent and connect with Ryan.
In time, Ryan begins to appreciate Graham as both a mentor and a friend. And though Graham struggles with the right balance, he always tries to have Ryan’s back so that his grandson can become his own man. As Christians, parenting is about setting a physical example so that our kids have a reference for their spiritual relationship with God. As they become independent from us, they should become increasingly dependent on God.
Companion in Training: Customized Teaching
As the Doctor spends more time with her companions, she customizes her teaching depending on the individual or the group. Regardless of whether she’s offering fun lessons or harsh guidance, the Time Lord prioritizes empowerment while counseling on being at peace with one’s own decisions.
In “Demons of the Punjab,” Yaz wants to see her grandmother as a young woman. The Doctor initially takes the time to explain why that’s a bad idea, i.e., doing so would damage history, create butterfly effects, tear up the fabric of time, and all that. But as Yaz shares her grandma’s personal and historical significance, the Doctor listens. Finally, the Doctor agrees to the trip while explaining things on each companion’s level.
During the episode, the Doctor continually reminds Yaz to not interfere with her grandmother while allowing Yaz to make her own choices. My fifteen-year-old son is a scientific verbal processor while my twelve-year-old daughter is an artist who shuts down when problems hit. Recently, I talked for 45 minutes with my son about a homework issue while my daughter was struggling to come up with a scientific theory. I had her sketch the experiment, and then she walked away and wrote her theory apart from me. I needed to remind and support, not micromanage.
But not everything works out all the time. Sometimes our kids argue or fight us. Since they’re humans, they can also be monsters. Again, we lovingly customize our mentoring. When the group runs out of options during “The Haunting of Villa Diodati,” Ryan wants to sacrifice one person to save many (i.e., the trolley problem) and the Doctor gives him a solid tongue-lashing. She disciplines Ryan in the way he could understand, and though he didn’t enjoy it in the moment, he was better for it in the end.
We must also teach our kids that the physical is an exercise for the spiritual. Covering their needs for food, shelter, transportation, education, health, and safety is a picture of God the Father. And, just like God, when our monsters are bad, a parent’s job is to discipline the physical to cultivate the spiritual. Customizing the communication behind why we’re doing what we’re doing is crucial.
It benefits our children when we provide rationale on parenting decisions across the spectrum from encouragement to discipline, and explain how the spiritual relates. A couple of weeks ago I talked with my son about eating in moderation, but I explained it’s not just about food; self-control is also about the spiritual life.
Finally, we need to be honest, with both ourselves and our children, that we don’t have all the answers. The “Can You Hear Me?” episode received some complaints concerning how the Doctor handled the topic of cancer. After Graham confides in the Doctor about his fears of his cancer returning, the Doctor awkwardly struggles with the severity of the conversation — much like a parent might struggle with an awkward or difficult conversation with their child. Even so, I encourage you to be transparent when you’re unsure. I tell my kids when I don’t know something; it keeps me humble and models truth and vulnerability. At the same time, I promise to find the answer and communicate it to them.
An Adventure in Safety and Time
Parenting is often about finding balance. Children learn balance when they’re kept safe while also being encouraged to have semi-risky adventures. In “Praxeus,” the Doctor rushes off in typical fashion while Yaz is determined to stay behind and recover some important technology. The Doctor’s agreement to leave Yaz is pivotal because it underlines her trust in Yaz even as it gives Yaz a taste of high stakes danger on her own.
My son will have his driver’s license soon and I’m struggling a bit with him risking his life piloting a deathtrap at high speeds. God started preparing me for his risky independence early on, though. When he was born, my son couldn’t breathe and was rushed to another hospital’s NICU. It was tough on me and my wife, but it gave us a unique perspective: our son wasn’t our own, he was God’s. Over time, I’ve given my son semi-risky tasks to develop trust. Meanwhile, God has given me the very risky task of raising kids, thus developing my own maturity. Recognizing my fear of the unknown hasn’t been enjoyable, but ultimately, it has brought peace.
Throughout the eleventh and twelfth series, Graham learns to back off from being a helicopter parent, and Ryan (literally) finds his feet at being adventurous. For example, when the group returns to Earth in “The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos,” Ryan’s real dad reaches out to him and Graham is rightfully protective. Danger is often not so much in surroundings but in relationships. But Ryan manages to begin reconnecting with his dad while still maintaining a close relationship with Graham.
This balance of adventure and safety is highlighted in “Ascension of the Cybermen.” The Cybermen convert people to be part human, part machine. Knowing the Cybermen will stop at nothing to wipe out humanity, the Doctor gets her three human companions out of harm’s way. The danger was simply too great.
She doesn’t, however, send them back to Earth, hover over them, or abandon them. Rather, the Doctor trusts that she’s trained her companions to handle what’s next. In the same way, we need to constantly calculate how much risk our kids can handle. Not what we’re comfortable with, but rather, what they can handle.
“Acceptable Failure” is a theory in business that can also apply to parenting. The idea is to allow someone to take a risk even if they’re likely to fail so that they can learn from their mistakes. There’s a wise and mindful way to do this while still being at peace as God practices this with us as parents. I’ve always held to the idea that a little pain is actually healthy. Losing the game is permissible, but allowing yourself to be pressured into cheating is not.
Honest About Evil
As the “Flux” story arc of the thirteenth, and current, series opens, we’re introduced to Karvanistra, an anthropomorphic dog who terrorizes the Doctor and kidnaps some bloke named Dan. However, when a swarming cancer destroys planets, embodied in the unimaginatively named Swarm, we find Karvanistra is actually protecting Dan. Karvanistra’s race is sworn to defend humanity so even though he doesn’t treat Dan with dignity, he is more friend than foe. This misunderstanding of evil is also found in our world.
My uncle Paco was bullied in high school by a guy named Tom. One day, my uncle grabbed Tom by the collar, shoved him up against the wall and told Tom the bullying was over. In what admittedly sounds like a scripted conclusion, Tom respected Paco, and now 50 years later they remain close friends. Similarly, it wasn’t until the Doctor disabled Karvanistra’s ship and confronted him — the proverbial “by the collar, against the wall” approach — that they could launch a defense against Swarm’s attack.
And as the story arc continues, Karvanistra stops his inhumane ways and learns compassion. Christian parents, and much of the Western Church, could learn this lesson. Instead of being assertive against lesser evils, we must correctly diagnose true threats.
In “Flux: Village of the Angels,” Swarm has been temporarily incapacitated but a Weeping Angel hijacks the TARDIS, depositing the Doctor’s group in the cursed village of Medderton in 1967. There, the Doctor encounters Eustacius Jericho, whose house is under attack by the Angels. Inquisitive Jericho misdiagnoses the problems caused by the Angels with rational explanations like hoodlum pranks. But the Doctor explains that it’s not hoodlums throwing rocks or playing recordings of Jericho’s voice. Rather, a greater supernatural enemy is responsible.
Likewise, our kids are inquisitive but instead of facing the real dangers with them like the Doctor, we distract and condemn lesser evils. Rapper and social commentator Sho Baraka explains: “In many churches we use pizza, cool music, and funny skits to distract teenagers from the many things they desire to explore.” [i]
When our children are young, we should foster exploration while protecting their naïve purity. I did this from the time my kids were babies by kneeling at their level but communicating as if they were a few years older. Lowered to elevate. But they must mature into adults ready for the real world. The Doctor patiently corrects Jericho’s acceptance of lesser evils. The true enemies are Swarm and (apparently) the shadowy organization known only as Division.
Baraka continues, “One extreme teaches sexual repression and wonders why many become sexually defiant. Another extreme teaches sexual relativism and wonders why many are concerned about changes in society.” [ii] When our kids hear us calling a wrong Starbucks order a “trial” or a stubbed toe “spiritual warfare,” we’re sending them the message that minor inconveniences are Satan’s worst offerings. Meanwhile, our pious ignorance keeps us from talking and equipping ourselves against real evil.
My communication technique described above has thus far paid off: my tween and teen talk with me about tough subjects like sexual addiction, drugs, social media, and suicide — all the things every teen is dealing with whether we’re discussing those evils or not. The Doctor’s lesson comes full circle when she’s turned into a Weeping Angel herself. She couldn’t protect her companions from being transported to the 1901 version of Medderton, but she did prepare them to accept support while being independent.
Parents can’t, and shouldn’t, protect their kids from every bruise, but children must grow in accepting support. Parents spend a few years training their children for their entire lifetime. My grandparents taught my uncle Paco his value in light of true evil and to stand up for himself while accepting support from those like Tom. My uncle recently learned that his prostate cancer has returned. Although his parents have passed away, Paco gets strength to battle the evil of cancer from friends like Tom who are at his side.
Reversing the Polarity: Do I Call You Doctor?
Doctor Who surprised me with its parenting insights. Jodie Whittaker shapes her companions’ future while letting them make their own choices. She models being available and providing a conducive environment for our kids to be supported while gaining independence. She provides customized teaching and explains the reasons behind her decisions. We see her model balancing the need for adventure with safety because adult life is dangerous, and children need to be exposed to risk incrementally. And finally, Whittaker’s Doctor teaches us to see evil honestly and clearly, and not be distracted by what catches our eye or appears to be evil.
If given the right atmosphere and patiently taught with their learning style and given adventure with the right amount of safety, our little monsters can mature into healthy, productive members of society.
[i] Sho Baraka, He Saw That It Was Good, 2021, p. 150
[ii] ibid Baraka