On Christmas Day, “Doctor Who” returns in a new television episode that will send shock waves throughout the universe. Spoiler: The Doctor will save somebody (or the earth or a galaxy) and die while doing it. The episode is not special because Doctor Who dies; he’s done that 11 times before. And each time he does, he regenerates before our eyes into a new persona. Same person—different body, different personality.
What makes this episode unique is how he regenerates.
Doctor Who has been saving people and galaxies since the show’s first episode aired in England the day after President Kennedy was assassinated. It began as a Saturday morning children’s program with “the Doctor” traveling through time and the universe. The multi-episodic stories, complete with menacing monsters and perilous cliff-hangers, mesmerized children for decades. The Doctor Who character became an icon of British pop culture.
Since November 23, 1963, 12 actors have played Doctor Who. Each has traveled in the TARDIS, a time-and-space-trekking craft. Americans became aware of “Doctor Who” and its campy acting, hokey costumes, and bizarre aliens in the 1970s through public television. Over time, the program became a cult phenomenon.
For creative and financial reasons, the BBC put “Doctor Who” on hiatus in 1989, promising to bring back the show after a makeover. Finally, after several false starts, in 2005 an updated, heavily financed, and clearly adult version of “Doctor Who” exploded back onto television. Now broadcast in 50 countries, it is among the top five grossing programs on BBC International.
In the series, Doctor Who is a Time Lord, a being who has the knowledge, power, and technology to travel through time and space, often bringing traveling companions along on his adventures. He can regenerate if the ultimate sacrifice is necessary.
The Doctor, who is from on the planet Gallifrey, consistently uses his power for good (a serious nod to a moral law governing the universe). His traveling companions heighten the moral stakes as the Doctor confronts a series of staggering ethical dilemmas. These frequent dilemmas can rival the depth of discussions in any college philosophy class.
In one episode, he must decide whether to allow the people in Pompeii to perish in the eruption of Vesuvius or save them but unleash an alien terror that would destroy millions. The Doctor alone had the power and responsibility to choose. Not to decide is to decide. The complexity of similar moral choices is on full display throughout the Doctor’s career.
In the upcoming Christmas special, for the first time in 54 years, the Doctor will regenerate as a woman. Nothing in the DNA of the storyline would preclude the Doctor from becoming a woman. The choice of Jodie Whittaker to take on the role is solid. She is a marvelous, versatile actor, and I hope she pulls it off with great success.
Perhaps if a woman had been cast as Doctor Who five or 10 years ago, a kerfuffle might have ensued among some fans. But if the change were well-played, the program’s legacy would have broadened to embrace the change. But to many loyal fans today, the timing seems less about the “Doctor Who” narrative than a surrender to cultural winds of change. Many devotees claim they will boycott the show for becoming “a venue for PC propaganda.” A Daily Mail front page headline reads: “Exterminate! As Dr Who changes sex, … why ARE all the male TV heroes disappearing from the box?“
For decades, what made Doctor Who the archetypal hero were his character, compassion, courage, quirky personality, and his universal genius and cleverness (literally–he is a “doctor of everything”). The Doctor is known throughout the cosmos—loved by those who do good and feared by those who do evil. He gives his age as somewhere between 1,000 and 4 billion years. Doctor Who defies description.
Throughout most of the show’s history, no one would have known if the Doctor or his companions were gay, straight, vegan, Labour, Tory, or Liverpool FC fans. It didn’t matter. All of that was beneath him. Fans have considered him oblivious to love and sex, for example. Sixth Doctor actor Colin Baker agrees, saying, “Love is a human emotion and the Doctor isn’t human.” Both the fourth and elventh Doctors, Tom Baker and Matt Smith, have acknowledged that their Doctors were asexual and naive toward human sexuality.
Now that the change has been made, however, cultural forces won’t leave the Doctor alone. Requests abound that the Doctor be openly identified by sexual orientation (preferably gay), ethnicity (black, Asian, Indian, anything nonwhite), food consumption (vegetarian, vegan), etc. The only criterion not up for grabs is that the Doctor must be British (or, at the very least, not American).
We have gone from Doctor Who to Doctor What.
Does all of this really matter? In the grand scheme of things, of course not. This is, after all, just a television program. But it provides an interesting look at how our culture is collapsing into the black hole of self-identity. Ironically, we are losing our individualities under the mantles of social and sexual adjectives. As people strive to define themselves, they demand everyone else do the same. Instead of asking, “Who are you?” they want to know, “What are you?”
What is missing in the current search for ourselves? From a Christian worldview perspective, the removal of God from a meaningful place in culture has its greatest impact on those created in His image. While self-identity is a crucial development in everyone’s life, when we are separated from any reference to the Creator, we are left groping for cultural tropes to express the “real me.”
C. S. Lewis warned that the more we search for ourselves, the less likely we will find ourselves.
“There are no real personalities apart from God,” he said. “Until you have given up yourself to Him you will not have a real self. . . The more I resist Him and try to live on my own, the more I become dominated by my own heredity and upbringing and surroundings and natural desires.”
The only way to find ourselves is to find the One who made us. He adds, “Look for yourself, and you will find in the long run only hatred, loneliness, despair, rage, ruin, and decay. But look for Christ, and you will find Him, and with Him everything else thrown in.”
I hope future incarnations bring us Doctors who look like people from many parts of the world. And I also hope those in charge of the “Doctor Who” franchise will not give in to the demands for a culturally relevant Doctor. Why? The most compelling mystique of Doctor Who comes from the fact he isn’t culturally relevant.
And neither are we.
Dr. Bill Brown is Senior Fellow for Worldview and Culture for The Colson Center for Christian Worldview.