Dr. Who , television’s longest-running science fiction show, has returned to planet Earth after battling near extinction. Certainly, for anyone who grew up watching BBC from the 1960 to the 1980s, the mysterious Doctor and his police-box time machine are unforgettable¯so much so, that the London Times has called the series "quintessential to being British." Now in its forty-fourth year of life (originally running from 1963 to 1989, and then regenerating in 2005), Dr. Who is winning a fresh audience. But those familiar with the Dr. Who of old may be wondering¯just who is this new Dr. Who?
The resolution of this year’s finale owed much more to the philosophical world of C.S. Lewis than to that of Douglas Adams , the show’s one-time script editor. For those unfamiliar with the program, the Doctor is a Time Lord from the planet Gallifrey, which gives him superpowers of regeneration. He has made it his mission to act as a force for good in the cosmos, protecting Earth in particular, and even more particularly Great Britain, from the malice of various extraterrestrial creatures bent on enslaving, dominating, or simply destroying Earth’s inhabitants.
In the conclusion of this revived version’s third season, the doctor’s archenemy and not-so-fellow Time Lord, the Master, has conquered the world, slaughtered billions of defenseless people in his conquest, enslaved billions more, tortured the Doctor and his allies, and is on the brink of using Earth as a launching pad for a war against every civilization in the galactic neighborhood. In typical serial-drama fashion, tension mounts and there seems little hope of defeating the Master. Little hope¯until the writers turn to weapons alien to standard science fiction: faith, prayer, and forgiveness.
The Master, of course, mocks all three, even as these spiritual activities rip apart his totalitarian regime. Indeed, it is the offer of the last, of forgiveness, that finally undoes him. When the Doctor offers him new life in a resurrection-like process, the Master’s refusal rings Miltonic and biblical in its undertone: Here we have a completely unrepentant and certainly undeserving murderer being offered forgiveness and new life by the Doctor he tortured¯the Doctor who let himself be tortured in order to save others. The echoes can’t be avoided.
What’s more, the moral image of forgiveness being offered to the undeserving has been a consistent element in the new series since its debut in spring 2005. The new Doctor, embodied first by Christopher Eccleston and now by David Tennant, has shown a marked propensity to give grace rather than judgment to his enemies, even when doing so makes no rational or military sense. A remorseful member of the murderous Slitheen family, the body-stealing aliens of The Family, the Daleks, and wicked nuns evolved from domestic cats (who run a charity hospital, no less) have all benefited to one degree or another from the Doctor’s penchant for showing grace and mercy to his enemies.
This unwillingness to repay his enemies as they deserve is something of a surprise, coming as it does from the pen and mind of Russell Davies , the man who inflicted Queer as Folk on the world and who once boasted, "I got Second Coming onto ITV . . . at the end of which God was killed, and Atheism conquered the world."
Clearly, Davies is no adherent to biblical religion; he doesn’t even give it any credit as a beneficial moral or cultural force. And the result, unfortunately, is that the mercy and forgiveness in his Dr. Who remains completely incoherent, philosophically speaking. The program is ostensibly committed to giving a materialist account of reality in which bare, undirected, and indifferent physical forces determine the origin and fate of everything in the cosmos. How can the program’s title character have defining characteristics that are alien to his cosmos? If matter is everything, then the only intellectually coherent response to a threat against one’s own life¯or, more grandly, against one’s favorite species¯is to obliterate that threat with all possible dispatch.
If you happen to be a Time Lord, and if you happen to be faced with a murderous assault on Earth from an interplanetary gang, the rational response would be to travel back in time and eradicate the gang’s ancestors and thus the threat in one fell blow. At least that’s what the Doctor would do if he were an intellectually consistent materialist. In Davies’ writing, though, the Doctor feels that he is somehow responsible to a higher moral law and its transcendent Lawgiver; he treats even murderers and monsters with mercy.
The existence of a transcendent moral law, however, is exactly the notion that such intellectually consistent materialists as William Provine and Francis Crick categorically reject, in a demonstration of philosophical coherence rare for materialists. If materialism is true, Provine admits, there is no good and evil¯or, in this context, no reason to prefer the Doctor to the Daleks.
Even the preference for one’s own species has no rightful place in a philosophically consistent materialist’s mind. As Richard Dawkins has noted, "Universal love and the welfare of the species . . . are concepts that simply do not make evolutionary sense." Dr. Who knows that evolution is a "fact, fact, fact!" but still¯unnaturally and inexplicably¯he cares for another species. Ours, as it happens.
If the materialist account of man’s origins, nature, and fate is correct, then James D. Watson, co-discoverer of DNA, is right to characterize "Love your enemies" as one of the "two stupidest sentences" in the English language. ("The meek shall inherit the Earth" claims the other spot.) In a materialist cosmos, there is simply no justification for showing mercy to an enemy, except possibly out of fear of retaliation if you don’t.
That the protagonist of BBC’s flagship science fiction series so dramatically rejects these truths is remarkable. Throughout most of its long history, the Dr. Who series has operated as a sort of stealth propaganda mechanism for philosophical materialism. Yet it seems unable to accept the full implications of that philosophy.
Perhaps Davies and the rest of his writing staff see the intellectual shortcomings of materialism’s truth claims¯but I find that unlikely. The more probable explanation is that they realize that Dr. Who as an intellectually consistent materialist would soon morph into an utterly repellant character, one that audiences would rightly reject.
Dr. John D. Martin has been Visiting Faculty at Purdue University and the University of Texas at Austin, and has written freelance for Boundless Webzine and the Crux Project.