Saturday, April 23, 2011

Doctor Who

An Inter-Dimensional, Inter-Stellar Look at Resurrection, Regeneration, Humanity, and Salvation

Doctor Who (1963 to the present) has the distinction of being the longest running science fiction show on television for a simple reason: regeneration.

In 1966, to keep the show going when faced with the pending departure of lead actor William Hartnell, the producers decided to introduce the idea of regeneration - where The Doctor would transform into a new body when the previous incarnation had "died." So in that year, a new actor (Patrick Toughton) was able to step into The Doctor's shoes thanks to this ingenious idea.

This brilliant programming move allowed eleven actors to assume the titular role over the decades since. It's the same essential character, but eleven different incarnations with unique physical and emotional characteristics.

For Christians, this sounds a bit familiar. As we approach the Easter holiday (which may or may not be coincidentally linked to the season premiere of the series each year), regeneration hints at the concept of "resurrection." Of course the two ideas are theologically different, but one can't help but find parallels and similarities:

In order for regeneration to take place, the body of the previous Doctor needs to physically die - just as the resurrection of Christ could only occur when Jesus had been crucified.

Even though Jesus knew of his resurrection, he still feared death as seen in his experience in the Garden of Gethsemane. Similarly, even though The Doctor knows he will regenerate, he is truly frightened and anxious about his current body's eventual death.

In most cases, the Doctor dies to save another's life, sacrificing himself for the sake of humanity, which is precisely the reason Jesus died upon the cross - to sacrifice for and save us.

And when regeneration happens, the Doctor acquires a new appearance, unrecognizable at first to anyone, even his companions. But when he speaks, people somehow know it's still The Doctor. In much the same way, we hear in Scripture of Mary Magdalene and the disciples on the road to Emmaus not being able to recognize the Risen Christ at first; but once he speaks, their hearts burn within them - and they know with certainty that this is Jesus.

Now let me be clear: The Doctor is not The Messiah. But his fictional tale gives us a new yet timeless dimension (quite literally) to the Christ Figure.

Doctor Who reminds us that we need to be saved. In almost every episode, humanity (or some alien race somewhere in the universe) is under attack in one way or another. To respond, people (or extraterrestrials) usually look to violence and weapons to save themselves. But it never seems to work out so well.

"Put your sword away, for all who live by the sword shall die by the sword!" proclaims Jesus (Mt. 26:52) and echoes The Doctor, who prefers to save people without using a single weapon. Like Christ, The Doctor's words, compassion, and sacrifice are the things that save the day.

One of the bad habits of society today is our need to fix everything ourselves. We seem to have this belief that because there is hardly a problem we cannot solve, we can save ourselves from any problem. The economy, medical conditions, poverty, and rush hour traffic are all things we keep trying really hard to save humanity from... but try as we might, we cannot do it all. Look at the weather: everyone's been complaining about it since the dawn of civilization, but no one has yet been able to save us from hurricanes, tornadoes, blizzards, and cloudy days.

Even in our struggle with our own selves on this planet (in genocide, oppression, and terrorism), we have this misguided notion that we can take care of everything - and in this conviction, we often turn to violence and war as the route to salvation.

But this is what is so radical about resurrection and about Christ (and echoed so well in Doctor Who)... we are saved by the peace, selflessness, compassion, and sacrifice of God - who loved us so much he came to earth, took our form, showed us the way of the gospel, and died upon a cross to truly save the day.

In a way, these stories remind us of our helplessness - and this is a word few of us want to claim. It makes us feel weak, unimportant, and vulnerable. Everyone wants to be the superhero. Few want to be the damsel in distress. But it is a good reminder for us, Doctor Who fans or not, to recapture our humility and to let go of our desire to fix everything. Sometimes we simply need to call upon a higher authority.

This is the meaning of resurrection: that salvation doesn't always come by our hands.

Scholars for generations have tried to explain or describe "resurrection" and "salvation." But just like explaining the nuances of inter-dimensional travel in a 1950s British police box that's bigger on the inside than on the outside, these theological concepts go beyond our comprehension. Catholics call it a "mystery," which has caused some to throw up their hands in desperation because they cannot fix it or understand it... but again, even in defining the terms, we are called to humbly admit our helplessness.

This notion challenges me as well. I like control. I like to fix things. I want to save the day when others need me. Sometimes it works but sometimes it doesn't - and I am reminded of my place in the universe. Luckily, Doctor Who helps me to let go.

The Doctor reinforces the fact that, at any given point, there are a million problems waiting to be solved - whether they are Daleks poised above the earth, Silurians plotting their return underground, Weeping Angels waiting in darkness and stone, or our own wars, diseases, and traffic jams. With all that, what can I do on my own? Answer: very little.

But that's when The Doctor swoops in on the TARDIS, taking care of those pesky problems in short order - a fictional analogy to Christ, who is the source of all hope and the one for whom the multitude of problems we face is never overwhelming. God will always have the final word.

So this Easter, when we celebrate the victory of compassion, love, and justice over all the struggles that the world can throw at us, let us be thankful that we are a people worth saving and that being dependant upon God isn't such a bad thing after all.


clara27 said...

Beautifully but, thank you. I would be interested in hearing what you have to say about Jack Harkness as the leader of Torchwood.

ESGillispie said...

I'm amazed lately at all the things seemingly secular and unnecessary for spiritual life/expression can be redeemed by Christ for his glory.. And while watching Dr. Who I was especially drawn to the Christ "likeness" in particular of the tenth doctor and his relationship with Rose and how He could love her soul and well any life or creation he came into contact with. Always positive, always hopeful...

usethebrainsgodgiveyou said...

This Christmas I was especially drawn to the "Christ-figure" analogy in Dr. Who...and when I saw David Tenets rendition where the time-lords come to earth and Dr. Who gives up his live for a simple old man...I saw salvation in a new light.

Most of us are not heroes by any stretch of the imagination. As an old Russian Catholic woman used to say, "God must have loved the common people because He sure made enough of them!" For the first time I understood, we aren't worthy by human standards, but that is what makes it all so remarkable. Much like the way we love our children not because they are worthy, but because they need us. It seems literary devices are also very effective teaching tools, shortcuts to understanding (parables, anyone?)

All my words are inadequate these days, but I just wanted to thank you.