Almost ten years ago, when I was working on my dissertation, people would ask me what I was writing about. I would happily answer “sacrificial death in children’s literature,” and the people who did not quickly back away or change the topic would say one of two things: “oh—you mean like in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe?” A question to which I would easily and readily respond in the affirmative. But a good number of other people would say “oh—you mean like in Doctor Who?” After receiving this response from quite a few people of different ages and backgrounds, I decided that I needed to find out what they were talking about.
As many people now know, the British science fiction television series Doctor Who has run for more than fifty years, and has a huge dedicated following that crosses all ages and several continents. It is a show in which one enigmatic character, the Doctor, travels through time and space to save humans from the messes that they get themselves into—over and over again. It is a fun show because of the adventure and the silliness, but it is also a show that asks some serious questions and requires its audience to think about some very serious issues. While the creators of the series are outspoken atheists, Russell Davies, one of the writers, explains at one point in his book Doctor Who: The Writer’s Tale that sometimes the show deliberately engages Christian themes and ideas, while at other times, they come in uninvited because of the topic a particular episode is addressing. For example, while the main character, The Doctor, is a complicated, scientific-materialist, he is also in many ways a Christ figure, who willingly sacrifices himself to save entire worlds from destruction or annihilation.
There are quite a few other ways that the series engages Christianity, as well. For example, some characters are named after people in the Bible, in such a way that the viewer who knows the Bible story will have an idea about what is going to happen as soon as that character’s name is spoken. Some storylines actually reflect Biblical stories—one episode, “The Doctor’s Daughter,” even tells the entire story of the Bible, working through the main points on an alien planet. At various points, the series also asks some serious questions about specific aspects of Christian faith, such as what really happened on Easter or whether or not Satan could really exist. These questions, when they arise, are helpful not only for the Christian viewer to think through his or her own stance on these things, but also for opening doors to conversations about issues of faith with those who might otherwise not be interested.
C. S. Lewis, in an essay called “Sometimes Stories Say Best What’s to be Said,” said that he had created the Narnia stories to sneak theology and the story of Christ “past watchful dragons.” Those dragons he was talking about included then, and still include now, cultural assumptions, previous experience, and learned prejudices. The Christian who has thoughtfully engaged any aspect of popular culture such as the series Doctor Who may be not only refreshed by the experience, but also better equipped to use this as a way of sneaking past those watchful dragons—or in this case, aliens.