Although the TV series ‘Doctor Who’ is classed as science fiction, it has a broad appeal beyond sci-fi fans and ‘trekkies.’ It mixes genres of comedy, drama, humour, thriller, and epic—and you never know what mixture any given episode will have.

The Doctor, a humanoid from the planet Gallifrey, takes companions from Earth with him on his time-travelling escapades across the universe. Sometimes they have adventures in the past, encountering Caesar or Van Gogh. Sometimes they go shooting into the future, to watch the last few moments of planet earth, or walk the streets of New-New-New-New-New York. One thing you can be sure of about every episode: it will be fun, exciting, and a little insane.

The show also is also quite profound. The Doctor, from time to time, has saved the planet earth from destruction—whether from an alien invasion or an impending apocalypse. Sometimes he does so at great cost to himself. Because he will never ever use violence to accomplish his goals, he would much rather sacrifice his own happiness and glory for the sake of the other.

His companions undergo character formation as they travel with him, as their eyes are opened to ever widening horizons. When done travelling with him they are never the same again. When they have returned to their lives on earth after a breathtaking adventure, they have to decide how to handle normality. Will they wistfully pine after the thrills of the past, seeing normal life as dull and boring, or will use the wisdom gained from their adventures to bring excitement into daily life?

His first companion, Rose, put words to the experience at a time when she thought she’d lost the Doctor. As her mother and her boyfriend try to comfort her, she vents her exasperation:

Rose: What do I do every day, mom? What do I do? Get up – catch the bus – go to work – come back home – eat chips and go to bed? Is that it?

Mickey: It’s what the rest of us do.

Rose: But I can’t!

Mickey: Why, ‘cos you’re better than us?

Rose: No, I didn’t mean that!

She calms down and, through tears, tries to explain: “It was… it was a better life. And I don’t mean all the travelling and… seeing aliens and spaceships and things… that don’t matter. The Doctor showed me a better way of living your life. That you don’t just give up. You don’t just let things happen. You make a stand. You say no. You have the guts to do what’s right when everyone else just runs away.

Time travel carries grave responsibilities. Will the Doctor go back in time to prevent global catastrophes? Is it heartless of him to choose not to? Sometimes his companions get angry with him for not using his almost limitless power to save, cure and free everyone throughout history. He tries to explain to them that “some things have to happen this way” but they don’t understand. The Doctor is alone in his understanding and his power.

Doctor Who often asks the question “how should good people wield power?” The age-old question, answered with finality at Calvary, rings throughout one episode when he does use his vast power, compelled by the desperate need of his two closest friends. He gathers an army to rescue them from imprisonment by a massive alien force. He does not know that his friends are bait: the aliens are really after him. After a violent and bloody war, he succeeds in saving them, but he has lost his innocence. When a mysterious woman, River Song, arrives at the end of the battle, he berates her angrily:

Doctor: Where the hell have you been? Every time you’ve asked, I have been there. Where the hell were you today?

River: I couldn’t have prevented this.

Doctor: You could’ve tried!

River: And so, my love, could you.

Doctor: You think I wanted this? I didn’t do this. This… this wasn’t me!

River: This was exactly you. All of it. You make them so afraid. When you began, all those years ago, sailing off to see the universe, did you ever think you’d become this? The man who can turn an army around at the mention of his name? Doctor? The word for healer and wise man, throughout the universe. We get that word from you, you know. But if you carry on the way you are, what might that word come to mean? To the people of the Gamma Forests, the word “Doctor” means mighty warrior. How far you’ve come!

The image of Christ can be seen in the Doctor in two ways. His discipleship of his companions clearly tests their character and develops virtue in them. He forces them to face their fears and to make pivotal decisions about what kind of people they are going to be. After an encounter with the Doctor, nobody is ever the same again. But secondly, and more profoundly, the Doctor’s own dilemmas represent the dilemmas Christ faced: at the temptation in the wilderness, at his trial, and as he hung on the cross still able to save himself if he chose. Will he use his power to crush evil and establish justice through fear? What does he want the name of Christ to mean to people?

The question also applies to us, his followers who bear his name. Our actions shape the meaning of the name of Christ to those around us. What do we want his name to mean?

Further Reading

Check out this interesting post called “Doctor Who and Substitutionary Sacrifice


This post was first published at Kings Theology on Sep 04, 2012.

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Barney is Assistant Professor of Systematic Theology at St. Mary's Seminary and University. He hosts a podcast called Faith at the Frontiers which confronts challenges to the Christian faith with hope. He also has a column on Seen and Unseen, a magazine that offers Christian perspectives on life and society for a non-Christian audience.