450: BBC’s Doctor Who sings a modern Psalm to our place in God’s cosmos

It’s time for some spiritual fun! We know that you enjoy TV and an occasional good movie. You’ve told us that over the past year. Many of you especially enjoy science fiction and fantasy. Remember our coverage of Star Trek and Battlestar Galactica?
    Well, among true sci-fi aficionados, one of the world’s cultural temples is the British TV series: Doctor Who. Our guest writer today is Abigail Sines from Ireland. She last appeared in our magazine in February, writing about the discovery of spiritual insights in our everyday lives through the timeless wisdom within “The Rule of St. Benedict.”
    She’s back today with a look at …

Doctor Who and the Theology of Identity
By Abigail L. Sines

    I admit it: I’m a sci-fi fan. I wouldn’t go so far as to call myself a sci-fi “geek;” I don’t think I’m technical enough for that. For me the realm of sci-fi is interesting and entertaining because it allows so much latitude to explore what it is to be human: We learn about ourselves when we encounter what is different. In the imaginary worlds of sci-fi there are infinite possibilities to explore human identity. 
    Plus, today’s CGI and special effects produce some spectacularly cool-looking aliens and interstellar shoot-em-ups! This is fun.
    Star Trek has always been my sci-fi flavor of choice and it was always the conflicted characters that captured my fancy: Mr. Spock balancing his human and Vulcan halves; Lt. Worf, a Klingon, making his way through the ranks of Starfleet; Lt. Commander Data, an android, making forays into the world of human emotions; even the holographic doctor in the Voyager series coming “alive” through his increasingly complex and personal interactions with the rest of the crew.

    Recently I’ve taken to watching the latest version of the BBC Doctor Who franchise, featuring David Tennant as the 10th Doctor. (If you care to watch the last couple of years of Doctor Who on DVD in the U.S., you’re looking for sets labeled “Third Series” and “Fourth Series.”)
    Tennant masterfully presents a quirky, boisterous, and witty Doctor. Who could resist the ongoing battle between good and evil in a universe still plagued by vintage Daleks and Cybermen? Like a bad penny, they just keep turning up. Those ‘70s era robotic designs and digitized “exterminate” and “delete” refrains seem clunky by today’s slick sci-fi standards, yet they still manage to embody evil. But, I’m most interested in the Doctor’s interaction with his human companions, all women: Rose Tyler, Martha Jones, and Donna Noble.
    The Doctor is fascinated by humans. Yes, us. You see, the Doctor really is a lonely Time Lord with all of time and space at his doorstep thanks to his faithful TARDIS contraption (shaped like a telephone booth on the outside). The Doctor is so far advanced beyond humans that he almost seems omnipotent by comparison—yet, at times, he seems quite in awe of us. He remarks on the human inclination for curiosity, exploration and survival.

    There are two episodes in “Series Three”—“Human Nature” and “The Family of Blood”—that really explore the nature of human identity. For a time, the Doctor himself becomes human!
    In these episodes, the Doctor is pursued by a nasty, evil, little bunch of aliens, the Family. The Family life span is about to run out and they are seeking to consume the life force of the Time Lord to replenish themselves. In fact, if they succeed, this ploy would enable them to live forever—wreaking havoc across all time and space. The clever Doctor decides to evade them by becoming human for a while.
    The quirky yet unbelievably powerful TARDIS is outfitted for just such an eventuality, and the Doctor’s Time Lord consciousness is tucked away inside an ordinary-looking pocket watch while the Doctor’s physiology is converted to fully human (just one heart instead of two). In the process, he is integrated into the pre-World War I timeline in England as a teacher, John Smith, in a boy’s boarding school. Companion Martha Jones, posing as a maid at the school, is left to keep an eye on the Doctor. If worse comes to worse, she is instructed to open the watch and release the Time Lord consciousness to reunite with the physical body of John Smith.
    Ahhh, but things don’t stay so simple for long.
    John Smith dreams wild dreams and records them in a notebook! Impossible things run through his dreams like: battling evil space aliens and traveling in time in a curious blue box. Nurse Redfern, the school matron, catches Mr. Smith’s eye, and soon we have a star-crossed romance on our hands. The Family turns up in the English countryside, creating an army of scarecrows to do their bidding. The pocket watch goes into hiding thanks to some telepathic communication with one of the schoolboys, waiting until the opportune moment to reveal its precious contents.

    But this current version of Doctor Who is far more than a sci-fi action flick. Yes, there’s a lot of fun and high adventure in these episodes—but there are deeper questions as well.
    In fact, when the human John Smith is confronted with giving up his life to resume the Doctor’s cosmic duties, he is not pleased. In one scene, he cries out: “I’m John Smith…that’s all I want to be…John Smith. With his life and his job and his love. Why can’t I be John Smith? Isn’t he a good man?”

    The climax of the drama is remarkably gripping. One schoolboy looks to Smith as an important mentor in his life, describing his beloved teacher this way: “He’s like fire and ice and rage. He’s like a knight and a storm in the heart of the sun…. He’s ancient and forever and burns at the center of the universe…. And he’s wonderful.”
    John Smith realizes that he is being asked to make the ultimate sacrifice: He is being asked to die so that the Doctor can resume his bodily existence and foil the plans of the Family. As he holds the watch in his hand, he pleads desperately for a way out, “I should have thought of it before, I can give them this, just the watch…. Then they can leave earth and I can stay as I am.”
    I won’t spoil the plot by revealing more, but the script is pointing at larger theological reflections.

    As I watched these scenes, I thought of Psalm 139: “I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well” (vs. 14). The psalmist marvels that humans are the object of God’s attention, that God even takes note of us: “When I was woven together in the depths of the earth, your eyes saw my unformed body. All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be” (vs. 14b–15). The psalmists reaches out to God: “How precious to me are your thoughts, O God! How vast is the sum of them! Were I to count them, they would outnumber the grains of sand” (vs. 17–18). 
    These themes echo throughout the Bible. Read Ecclesiastes, 3:11: “He has also set eternity in the hearts of men; yet they cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end.” Or, think of Romans 11:33: “Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out!” These biblical writers are grappling with the mystery and perfection of divine love—and human limitation within that divine relationship. “For we know in part…but when perfection come, the imperfect disappears…. Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known” (I Corinthians 13:9,12).

    Overwhelming. Mysterious. A simple human can be excused for feeling at loose ends from time to time—even the superpowerful Doctor!
    But here’s one way of posing the question that might spark your own reflections this week: If there is something of the divine planted within us, how should we handle that within our physical limitations? Like the human John Smith, how do we even become aware of this true identity? When John Smith becomes aware of his identity, he wants nothing to do with it!
    We have been entrusted with great power—each of us with the power to do evil and to do good. God is great—and yet somehow we matter in these cosmos.
    We’ve made a mess of things, haven’t we? Yet we’ve still got the freedom to act.
    Christian thinkers have wrestled with these questions for centuries—so have sages in other religious traditions. For Christians, theologian Jurgen Moltmann writes that “Christian identity can be understood only as an act of identification with the crucified Christ,” a complete, self-emptying love. Miroslav Volf, building on Moltmann’s theology, writes that the “center of the self…is the story of Jesus Christ.” It is this identity alone that makes it possible to live and act in the world without being drawn into its patterns of violence, destruction, and exclusionary behavior. 

    Once again: overwhelming and mysterious. I find that I am quite ready to avoid these choices, given the least opportunity. I would just as soon slip the watch back in my pocket and ignore those fanciful dreams, ignore the whispering voice that would say to me, “There is something more true than this that you are living now.”
    But, like the Doctor, we’re called, aren’t we? We’re called to go ever deeper into the mystery of our relationships with a perfectly loving, perfectly powerful, perfectly gracious God in order that we may find the true nature of our humanity.
    There’s no TARDIS waiting in my back yard—or yours—but the Doctor manages to take us on quite a journey!


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