On Christmas Day, the British sci-fi series Doctor Who broke new ground. The Doctor (a superhuman Time Lord from the planet Gallifrey, who travels through time and space in a vehicle resembling an old-fashioned police call box) regenerated into a female body. After 12 male Doctors over a 54-year history, the casting of Jodie Whittaker might seem audacious. But for a show featuring a female, prehistoric lizard-like warrior married to a 19th-century, human maidservant, the switch of the thus-far male Doctor into a woman’s body is practically tame.
At the heart of the series lies a much more controversial crux. While the treatment of religion in Doctor Who is almost always negative (witness the murderous headless monks, the life-sucking weeping angels, and the portrayal of the 51st-century church as a purely military operation), the parallels between the hero of the show and the hero of Christianity are unmistakable.
Six Echoes of Jesus in the Doctor
The Doctor (whose name is never disclosed) looks human, but he isn’t. In this respect, he is importantly unlike Jesus. But there are at least six respects in which the resemblance is hard to miss.
- The Doctor can navigate effortlessly from the beginning of the universe to its end. He sees the whole of time in every conscious moment. And yet he is deeply present and engaged with people. “When you love the Doctor,” the enigmatic River Song laments, “it’s like loving the stars themselves. You don’t expect a sunset to admire you back.” But her claim is immediately overturned when the Doctor shows up, to love her.
- The Doctor is stubbornly non-violent. He carries a screwdriver instead of a weapon and fights evil with his two hearts and one, magnificent brain. And yet he is terrifying to his enemies: “The man who can turn an army around at the mention of his name.”
- The Doctor routinely offers his life to save the world, the lives of his friends, and even his enemies. In “Forest of the Dead,” River Song has to knock him out and handcuff him to a pipe to make him let her sacrifice herself instead!
- The Doctor gravitates toward the marginalized. He despises status and lifts up the weak to shame the strong. Speaking truth to power in “A Christmas Carol,” he retorts: “In 900 years of time and space, I’ve never met anyone who wasn’t important.”
- The Doctor calls people to repentance and risks his life to give even the most apparently irredeemable a chance. When he is successful, he enables them to live new lives. For example, he found the lizard-woman, Vastra, killing tunnel-diggers on the London Underground, and turned her into a Scotland Yard detective.
- And of course, when faced with death, the Doctor resurrects. His periodic “regeneration” into a new body is convenient for a show that has been running on-and-off since the 1960s. But it also gives the series a sense of resilience in the face of death, a hopefulness that death might be cheated—for the time being at least.
But there is a fundamental difference between the hero of Doctor Who and the hero of Christianity. The Doctor fights death with every ounce of his being. As River puts it, “Everybody knows that everybody dies and nobody knows it like the Doctor, but I do think that all the skies of all the worlds might just turn dark if he ever, for one moment, accepts it.”
And yet the Doctor cannot ultimately overcome death. He may be the “hoper of far-flung hopes and the dreamer of improbable dreams.” But those dreams and hopes have an expiration date. This final inability to cling to the real writes itself back into the Doctor’s worldview as he whispers to his best friend, Amy Pond, while she sleeps: “We’re all stories, in the end. Just make it a good one, eh?” In the moment, this perspective seems heroic. But if we are truly no more than stories, our meaning and morality unravels: we’re left not even knowing what a “good” story is. Jesus, by contrast, invites us into a larger story, a story in which our individual stories find their meaning.
If we are truly no more than stories, our meaning and morality unravels: we’re left not even knowing what a ‘good’ story is.
For a show that actively resists Christian beliefs, Doctor Who’s greatest controversy is that it draws so clearly on the life-source of the universe, the man whose story lurks behind so much of who the Doctor is: the true hero who embraces the marginalized, gives his life for ours, and conquers death.