DrewBackWhen summarises why a more respectful, inclusive, and expansive dialogue between science and religion on Doctor Who benefits everyone.
In at least two decreasingly recent WBW reviews, I’m thinking of Day Of The Moon and The Rings Of Akhaten especially, I fluffed my lines trying to address the place, or the treatment, of religion in Doctor Who. I have a right old time whenever I attempt to broach the subject because even though I know the fans of our show are fantastic and make Podcastland a joyous place to speak freely, still the great black void-space of the Internet fills me with premonitions. Pre-echoes of a horrible conversation I could be venturing into, and have had. What’s worse, I have to untangle the issue with my voice, my least preferred medium for everything except Futurama-style Nixon impressions. I find myself trying to argue against being reductive with limited time, via bullet points and shorthand, whilst blinded by anxiety – talking over truth, hobbled and tripped by a halting tongue.
What tends to happen is I’ll stumble halfway towards my point, but halfway towards another point, perhaps diametrically opposed, that I would like to dissociate myself from entirely. (Take as an example my summation of Amy Pond in our Eleventh Doctor Retrospective, where I made it sound as if I’d have preferred Amy as a buttoned-up nun. All I actually wanted was a non-psychopath with a few positive qualities, her freedom to express desire being neither here nor there – only, not the night before her wedding with someone who wasn’t her betrothed.)
Anyway, the original point I never wanted to make, and which I would like to disavow here, for these episodes and all others, is that Doctor Who should lay off religion. This is no plea for tolerance or special treatment, no request to continue drifting comfortably un-pricked in a cloud of cosseted ignorance. Doctor Who has the inalienable right to offend, provoke, and take bites out of its audience, to force everyone watching to sit up and think anew. Because religion shouldn’t have a privileged or protected place in the media, conceptually or institutionally speaking; it, like anything else, operates in a free marketplace of ideas. I wholeheartedly advocate its being subject to as meritocratic a treatment as possible, because hiding nothing is essential to our thinking evolving, progressing towards contingent or universal truths and being able to recognise the difference therein.
Mauro Arthur Fuxake said on Facebook the show should be about influencing mankind for the better. I agree, it absolutely should, like anything else. But there are two related problems DW runs into when dealing with religion. The first is, it can’t deal with it directly, or in specifics, perhaps because of BBC impartiality guidelines. Thus, some hiding is inevitable. Occasionally more substantial talking points make it through: for instance, people are allowed souls, but contrary to expectations these remain buried in their graves or are essentially memories ultimately uploaded to the Testimony Foundation. More often though, religion is treated via thematic or verbal collocation; for example, the Space Pope’s been a psychopath all her life running a pointless church. So, most of the time we get jibes.
Erstwhile showrunner Steven Moffat is famously an atheist; Gatiss as always is right behind. And for these writers to keep deriding religion during Moffat’s time at the helm suggests a conviction or a complacency that they’re benefiting the audience or at least not harming the show with their wisecracks and allusions. It’s on this point I disagree. I hope it’s been evident that when I’ve previously argued the Doctor’s no messiah and it’s worth distinguishing and interrogating aspects of faith and religion, it’s because I can glimpse a better outcome with only minimal alterations.
The second problem is a corollary of the first: that, as seems increasingly significant, all free markets are flawed to some degree, and open to abuse. Nothing is more vigorously opposed than the truth – in thought, and word, and deed – through ignorance, weakness, or our own deliberate fault. A lazy collocation leaves the ellipsis to be filled in by motivation, be it to learn or to loathe. Based on these nudges and winks, people will have taken the wrong ideas away from the show. Moffat’s Doctors, sometimes models for acting, thinking, tolerance, and kindness, are also keen on your being a wannabe-Dawkins about 80% of the time. So what? you might say. Much of the news media’s dominated by the finest sociopaths of our generation, amoral GOAT shitbags routinely fomenting far worse than some wounded feelings.
My conjecture is, somewhere between The Handmaid’s Tale and Atlas Shrugged, there is a place where science and faith complement each other and society profits. And we have to find each other in a place of respect and acceptance in the middle, bring the damaged others there too, then run the world on something more robust than memes, schadenfreude, insults, and the lies you can tell about the Other once you’ve deployed the first three.
This isn’t about me specifically, nor even Christianity; it goes even broader than religion. It’s about anyone who turns up expecting impartiality and is rebuffed, with nowhere better to turn. Those who watch Doctor Who (or QI, or have to read The Guardian as a leftie) accompanied by a faith that they think, after long and searching reflection, public scrutiny, and a soupçon of education, is reasonable. A belief system searchingly considered enough that when they see everyone else gambling their paths through their own existences, they don’t feel uniquely ill-equipped. Something distinguishable from a cult or witchcraft, that isn’t convincingly bested once and for all by “Shit it” followed by whoops and audience applause, jaws all on the floor like Voltaire, like Nietzsche just burst in the door.
My essential point is: offend if you must, but do it well, not lazily or lightly. Show a rigour of comportment that buttresses the claimed higher rigour of intellect. And don’t do it on a whim, out of devilment, nor as a casual aside, but in the service of truth or, more realistically, something better that ultimately brings us on board. Speaking for my own lot, we love having Epiphanies.
Doctor Who is science fiction. But like all good fiction it should point us towards, or at least not obscure, essential truths. What bites at me occasionally isn’t that religion appears on the show; it’s not even that it’s sometimes in a hostile way that’s condescending to people with a faith-based background – because I could take that if it was, if it ever could be, intellectually backed up to my satisfaction. Just like any other group of billions, we faith-aspiring types run the full gamut from terrific to terrible, from saintly to evil. The most salient uniqueness of our group may be that our gods do, too. Our mosques, churches, temples can be heavens on earth, they can be dens of iniquity and the most repellent inhumanity, although in this they’re much like any other organisation of sufficient size and opacity – sports clubs, corporations, political parties, royal families.
So in the spirit of fairness, please do scrutinise, provide an illuminating angle, mock our milieu if you must. But potential subscription to either perfect or horrific extreme isn’t bound to our group identities. Nor are obscurantism or hypocrisy, and nor are these our exclusive purview. And as I said before, if you’re going to pick holes, then do it from a place of persuasive, demonstrable superiority.
This brings us to the Silence. Moffat’s trinity of new fanfare Doctor Who villains are Angels, this breakaway religious chapter once affiliated to the Church of the Papal Mainframe, and the Monks from Series 10. Don’t forget the Topknots (aka the Headless) either. The connection is clear. The odd bone is thrown to balance them out. But the Silence were Moffat’s big play. The Weeping Angels are great and scary but they just do their one thing in different places and on different scales. The Silence were part of a mystery that lasted the entire Smith era. And they exist to absolve the religious of their guilt (as Michael Ridgway said, forgetting your sins isn’t how it works!) or otherwise to shut down knowledge, when they’re not electro-bursting slow-witted bystanders in bathrooms.
Boo! But Moffat took it too far. A couple of our reviewers picked up on the Doctor’s response to the Silence as a massive inconsistency in his character. He licences genocide, he reverse-brainwashes a significant chunk of humanity into slaughtering the previous brainwashers. We don’t know what events the Silence were responsible for in DW-Earth’s history (besides, ironically, one of humanity’s greatest scientific achievements, the Moon landing) but did they turn us into killing machines? The only way to take the show’s side is to assume, yes, they must have done, the Doctor must know that theirs is an ancient and pervasive evil. I wish that had been clearer. Furthermore, every last one is in on it. Other species get differentiated – behold Madame Vastra and Strax – but you can tar all Silence with the same brush; this lot, you really can reduce to a cipher.
This is something reserved for the really big bads, those people whom there’s just no point talking to. You can never trust a Dalek (quiet, Rusty) or a Cyberman (shush, Handles), but not these Silence and what they represent. And we know what they represent. There’s a greater concentration of Silence in America, they’re in every state, they’ve been running our lives. As representatives of some cosmic church, they become a metaphor for what one might call the myopically religious, those who set different boundaries on logic to what one in a particular place and context could define as the scientific norm. And so, is the revolution the Doc starts one of correct thinking? I mean, you’ll finally know why you’re doing something. Right now you’re just acting on half-remembered ideas planted in your head, but really you’re all brainwashed and the Doctor will set you free. Just pan away before we see the bloody tidal wave that ensues.
It’s a confident play for allegiance among science fiction fans with no place for religion in their lives, sure. It’s hard not to sound a little churlish in objecting to enlightenment, so I need good reasons why it can’t possibly hold up here, even beyond the ensuing off-screen carnage. And can I really argue that the Silence, the feckin’ Silence for pity’s sake, are in truth a stand-up bunch of lads capable of rallying round and ending up on the Doctor’s side? Wait a minute…
Even as I watched Day Of The Moon I thought, maybe there really are good Silence, long before they’re rehabilitated in The Time Of The Doctor. Some bats in the belfry who keep out of the way, some trainspotters down in the tunnels who never did harm to anyone. Later, it turns out this murderous chapter was possibly only a minority of them in any case. Moffat is a past-master at going to the well one too many times; that this is eventually doubled back on is no surprise. Why then is this possibility so unequivocally denied here?
Perhaps, and I’m conjecturing here but you can judge the likelihood of it, Moffat in writing the Silence was presented with two options. One: explain the Doctor’s antipathy and indifference, give examples beyond one random murder, but this would be to make explicit the religious element in a way the BBC couldn’t countenance. Two: what we got; the Doctor’s associates can shoot as many as they like, because whatever the Silence are, they’re not to be regarded as having the same value as humanity, or the Silurians, or the Human-Daleks, or the Zygons, or whoever else wants to share the planet with us that week. They’re to be exterminated, they’re up there with the Daleks as an ultimate evil. But they’ve only just arrived in our perception. How’s the Doctor made his mind up? I can only assume it’s because his writer has a compelling point in mind. One that, for him, will ultimately justify suspending the Doctor’s morality – unless it’s a mere oversight. Either way, it’s there that the superiority goes out the window. His conviction, on screen, bears his complacency on the flip-side.
Or, is it a kind of modernist play for moral ambiguity? That’d suit Moffat, who loves to base a mystery on multiple competing plausibilities and to engage the viewer’s cognitive capacity to an extreme, here across series. The Doctor lies, so the lesson could be that we must question everything. To wit: can you reconcile this modernist tactic with arcs that’ll satisfy a primetime (not lowbrow, but mixed) audience? Obviously one cannot satisfy all the fans in a modern or postmodern world, so should one even try? Can ratings be sustained when viewer retention hinges on their accepting the writer’s experiment rather than the results? Can you shoot for the moon/egg and go for everything at once? Or is that over-egging/over-mooning the pudding? Is this too slippery? Which leads me to my next question: by the power of suggestion, can you be a didactic modernist?
Maybe sometimes, but I’d suggest that you can’t pair it with a blanket condemnation and expect both to stick. Present a bunch of options on the same level and one might prove superior. But taking an absolutist tack and giving it to the Doctor nullifies the call to interrogation. One way or another, right at the moment to stick the allegory, it unstuck itself.
All this said, I (unlike Amy) can empathise with Moffat. He too tried to make some points and was hamstrung by unintentionally begetting the exact opposite outcome. But then, we hurtle on into the future faster than we can ever fix the past, and don’t the churches likewise ask forgiveness for their previous sins while professing now to be lovers of mercy walking humbly with God? Compare Smith claiming he won’t forget a single line of what took place when the Doctor was him, just as not one stroke of a letter can be struck from the Law. Does that mean Capaldi doesn’t chuck the Half-Face Man to his death the next week?
If I sounded happy or even smug at any point in the Day Of The Moon recording that Moffat hadn’t succeeded in getting the Silence into the highest echelon of Doctor Who villainy alongside the Cybermen and Daleks, please let me clarify that too. It was relief; relief that the message I inferred, “We represent the destruction of humanity by religion,” didn’t become some iconic defining feature of the show.
Religion and science get along just fine (in my head); at their best they are both idealistic searches for the truth operating with different fundamental, (currently) untestable, non-arbitrary presuppositions. They also share the same weakness: people, doing their worst, ruining these ideals much like people ruin everything else. Both can learn from the other. You can live happily open to both, actively pursuing both. Whole books will be published trying to argue this until the end of civilisation (or indeed the Second Coming, the reappearance of the Twelfth Imam, the arrival of Maitreya, etc., etc.). That’s no argument in its favour because publishers will hawk absolutely anything, but regardless, this synergy is something I believe in and hold dear. And so when I see a quick dig, I see a blinkered snipe, an invitation to derision and division. I see the benefits of levity or catharsis but still I think it’s a really poor example to set. That’s all I ever object to.
Churches and sci-fi are both rich souks of ideas about the nature of the universe tugging on emotion and allegiance as well as the intellect; sparking off the subconscious, the buried circuits of the brain primed with greater activation potential, as well as the conscious. When religion and sci-fi are set in opposition, as rivals, it’s upsetting to me, it’s a thousand missed opportunities if churches as a whole are reduced to some term synonymous with brainwashing, and it’s not intellectually probing of the enormous variety available in both.
Let Doctor Who promote hostility against extermination by fascism, yes. Hostility against deletion by technology, please. Hostility against silencing by religion as it intersects with either of those things, by all means. Hostility against religion that promotes bigotry, intolerance, discrimination, oppression, hate, killing Joy in the bathroom with Mrs Silence’s favourite finger, go for it. But what can the show achieve as a launch pad for hostility against having faith flat-out, flattened out, per se? Apart from a smaller audience and less influence?
Because you’re not criticising some concept, you’re just criticising people. We’re not all made with “scientific minds”, and even those with scientific minds don’t all reach the same conclusions. People can and should be trained, but the effects of the training will be individual. Shouldn’t everyone be allowed to enjoy sci-fi though, and be accepted without having a know-it-all in charge implicitly mocking them for their perceived mental deficiency?
At its worst, religion does have the power to destroy humanity, as much as fascism and technology do. We should be warned off its excesses, its concealments, the way it shuts people down so they won’t listen to reason, so that they elect basically the Antichrist and don’t mind all his callous egomaniacal whoring around because he tweets about Jesus at Christmas and maybe Easter if he’s not too busy golfing. Not that I’m a great Christian, or person, either. But that’s not all there is to it. Because I am still a person, no more or less than anyone else. If Doctor Who dismisses any group outright, devalues them from three-dimensional beings into a worthless concept, then people aren’t learning, but instead eyes and ears are closing, forgetting humanity, the need to esteem and seek to redeem every single life, and in the name of a capital letter applied to Logic or Reason rather than God, a writer ends up risking the very heart(s) of what he holds dearest.
We should be able to trust the Doctor with our lives. He stands for ideals, for cosmic justice. Now Chibnall’s taken over, she shows enough respect to incant at the side of the fallen pilot (without playing up her mumbling being a disingenuous attempt to blend in). To officiate the marriage of a Muslim and a Hindu. Yaz can drop lines about coming back from the mosque and nobody rolls their eyes. A little courtesy is shown. The Doctor talks about her own faith, which may be the same as love for life in all its forms. When you believe, as I do, that God is ultimately responsible for the creation of all life, and you work to love God, it’s really not such a leap.
Until recently I attended the University Church of St Mary the Virgin in Oxford. The place is crammed with intellectuals, beside which I pale to the point of translucence. There’s no shortage of brainpower in there, no shortage of diversity either (certainly on the staff), and no shortage of reason or logic. We all want the truth. Being civil about finding it can perhaps enable civility to be a way of highlighting those who want something else behind what they say. Doctor, we’re listening. If you’re as clever as you say you are, use that intelligence to pinpoint your criticisms accurately, because we can all improve. Follow guidelines that moderate conduct rather than content – but spare nothing. Help us, Doctor – be an example. Not a perfect one, but at least point the way. Perhaps you could even include a lesson like another example I follow once did, and point out how two people sniping away unaware of their respective blind spots are always going to be as thick as two short planks (Matthew 7:5).
And right now, as the UK writhes in the throes of another election cycle, with the US to follow in 2020, we need each other more than ever. Scientists and believers who likewise prize truth are under constant threat from those who hold it in contempt, those who think civility, humility, and morality are merely obstacles to domination. Politicians misrepresenting at every turn without scruple to retain power. I’m pleased to see the heads of my church are on the side of transparency and understanding in this current melee, rather than cuddling up to a corruptive alliance. And once the norms shift a little towards an expectation of mutual respect, maybe we can talk more about politics and religion in our daily lives with less trepidation, without having to arm ourselves beforehand in case of a verbal war, and people can stop retreating to first positions, acting like the Enlightenment or Darwin happened yesterday and the arguments haven’t been refined since. Was this why ultimately the Silence joined forces with the Doctor to take down the Daleks? I can’t be sure that’s what Moffat intended, but it puts me in mind of mysterious ways.
Next time… I don’t know. I’m leaving my seat in the Pews for a bit, for a side project. See you for Death in Heaven, if not sooner.
Side note: By now it must be obvious that I’m no omniscient comparative theologian and my religious perspective is closely tied to my brand of Christianity, but we at WBW would be really interested in reading what other fans of faith have to think, of any religious persuasion. Leon asked me at one review to write a piece perhaps including Buddhism, but I won’t pretend to any such knowledge; if we have any Buddhist readers out there, please write in and throw them a bone!
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