Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Russell T. Davies, the BBC's Own Godmaker

Every one of us is, even from his mother's womb, a master craftsman of idols.
—John Calvin

Even before he gained international renown in resurrecting Doctor Who, Welsh-born TV writer and producer Russell T. Davies had a reputation for dealing in religious issues. Shows he created or oversaw, like Revelations, Springhill, or The Second Coming dealt with the complexities inherent in transcendent belief in an increasingly secularized Britain. It was an impressive output for a self-described atheist.

So it perhaps comes as no shock that religion crept into his take on the Doctor. The first overt consideration of religion I recall was in the 2005 episode “Boom Town,” when the villain Margaret Blaine, seeing the interior of the TARDIS for the first time, describes the Doctor’s vessel as “the technology of the gods.” The Doctor, played then by Christopher Eccleston, explains why he would make a poor object of worship.

Eccleston’s successor, David Tennant, displayed no such false modesty. In his very first regular episode, “New Earth,” several characters call the Doctor “the lonely god.” This is only the more blatant because some characters using this title are nuns. Then, having been identified for what he is, the Doctor proceeds to uncover the sin concealed by righteousness, heal the sick, and cast the mighty from their temple.

This establishes the Doctor in a strange dichotomy: identified as God, he also becomes his own prophet. Though the Doctor fudges what he actually believes in the episode “The Satan Pit,” he never denies being “the lonely god.” Indeed, in his repeated self-made appointment as dispenser of justice, he elevates himself to godlike status. Savvy audiences may recall Daniel 11:36-37.

We should note that the Doctor never calls himself God. In the episode “The Sound of Drums,” the Doctor explicitly rejects divine status—an action not shared by the Master, who uses mock biblical language after cracking open the sky and sending his angels down to establish an apocalyptic empire over Earth. Like the Son of Man, the Doctor does not proclaim his divinity; like Simon Magus, the Master claims someone else’s godhead.

But like Jesus, the Doctor does not stop his own humility from permitting others to proclaim his status. The subsequent episode, “Last of the Time Lords,” features the Doctor’s companion Martha traveling the Master’s shattered world. In the climactic scene, Martha reveals that she spent her travels evangelizing the Doctor as Savior of the world, and urging the nations to call on the name of the Doctor for salvation.

The Master calls this what it is: prayer. But the Doctor goes further, demonstrating the one triumphant power he has over his opposite number: forgiveness. The Master harbors powerful grudges, lashes out at small offense, and encourages others to nurse petty grievances. The Doctor overcomes the Master by whispering “I forgive you.” This not only breaks the Master’s dominion, but to undoes the damage his empire has wreaked on Earth.

I could continue. In “Voyage of the Damned,” the Doctor asserts control of the angels and has them ascend him to the highest deck. In “The Satan Pit,” he personally casts The Beast into a black hole. In “School Reunion,” he is tempted with absolute power, but rejects it because he will not arrogate such power to himself. But the repetition gets tedious.

In fairness, Davies did not invent the idea of the Doctor as God. In the original series, which ran from 1963 to 1989, the Doctor was variously mistaken for a god, a wizard, and a prophet. This came across most aggressively in the 1977 episode The Face of Evil, in which half-remembered myths of the Doctor present him as a totemic idol for a primitive tribe. This story channels Sigmund Freud’s elegant but unprovable Totem and Taboo.

Since Steven Moffat took the reins of Doctor Who, this theme has diminished significantly. But Davies retains control of the spinoff series Torchwood, featuring Captain Jack Harkness, the man who cannot die. The most recent season of this show culminates when Jack’s blood defuses an earth-shattering threat. Having made the Doctor into God, Davies makes Jack God’s risen son, whose blood takes away the pain of the world.

The prophet Isaiah complained that “the people worship things they have made with their own hands.” I doubt anybody seriously worships the Doctor, but Davies proves that even people who claim to have no god still seek divinity. And when they believe they cannot find such glory on high, people will manufacture it for themselves.

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