In this final week of showcasing student work from our Bible and Pop Culture course (THEO 101/G), we return to the theme of popular messiahs and the American Monomyth. Our guest author is Amy Calder – Amy is in her first year studying a Bachelor of Arts majoring in English. She admits to enjoying THEO 101 a great deal, especially as it gave her the opportunity to brag to her friends about being able to write an essay about top TV programme, Doctor Who. Amy hopes to continue her studies to postgraduate level once she has finished her degree. So, whether or not you are a fan of the Time Lord, read on and enjoy.
The Gallifreyan and the Galilean: Doctor Who, the Biblical Messiah and the American Monomyth
by Amy Calder
Messiah means an “anointed person or thing” (Stanton 2002, 242). There are many references to messiahs throughout the Hebrew bible, but Jesus is the figure who has come to be synonymous with the term in Christian tradition. The way Jesus behaved during his life, and particularly his death and resurrection, provides a model for the secular hero of western pop-culture known as the American Monomyth. Despite the name, this is not exclusive to American characters or texts. The monomyth involves a hero who is “lonely, selfless and sexless” who saves a community in danger then disappears (Lawrence and Jewett 2002, 5-6). Doctor Who (1963-1989, 1996, 2005-present) is a British science-fiction television show. This essay will focus on the Russel T Davies era of the series (2005-2010). The Doctor is an outsider and loner – the last of his people, the Time Lords of Gallifrey. He renounces temptation, particularly the temptation to become human. Most importantly, the Doctor sacrifices himself and is resurrected twice in the Davies era. Davies, as an outspoken atheist (Clark 2015, 33), did not intend for the Doctor to be a Christ figure but rather a Christ substitute (ibid, 31).
One of the aspects of the American Monomythic hero is that they come from outside of the threatened community or that they are a loner within that community (Lawrence and Jewett 2002, 47). In the classic series, the Doctor had a difficult relationship with his own people. He chose to interfere with the universe rather than being merely observant. Jesus had a similar relationship with his home people. When he returns to his hometown to continue his ministry, the people think of him only as a carpenter’s son. He tells them “A prophet is not without honour except in his own town and in his own home” (Matt 13:57).
In the revival series, the Ninth Doctor is fresh from the Time War, which has left him the last of his kind. He embodies the Monomythic idea of originating outside the community he saves (ibid), and moving on. In “New Earth” (2.1, 2006) he is called “the lonely god.” Rose Tyler becomes the first companion of the revival series, and a disciple-like figure. Rose adopts a similar lifestyle to him, leaving behind her mother and boyfriend to travel in the Tardis. Similarly, Jesus’ disciples are asked to leave everything to follow him (Matt 4:18-22; Mark 1:16-20). It could be argued that Jesus and his disciples cut family associations to focus on their ministry without distraction. Jesus, in fact, seems to place loyalty to God above loyalty to family in Mark 3 where he calls his followers his mother and brothers. In Doctor Who‘s series 2 finale “Doomsday” (2.13, 2006), the Tenth Doctor has to seal the void into a parallel universe. Because Rose has been to this universe, she is in danger of being sucked into the void and lost forever. The Doctor intends to send her into the parallel universe with her family, but she chooses to stay with him, putting herself in danger and potentially isolating herself permanently from her family. The Doctor is a messiah-like hero in that he never has a sense of home, aside from those he brings with him.
In the American Monomyth, the hero overcomes temptation, and remains chaste for the duration of the mission (Lawrence and Jewett 2002, 47). Overcoming temptation is also important for the biblical messiah. Jesus undergoes 40 days of temptation in the wilderness (Matt 4:1-11; Luke 4:1-13). The Devil tempts Jesus into using his power for selfish reasons, and tempts him with power. Whether Jesus was tempted sexually is unclear, although widely speculated. In Hebrews 4:15 the author writes “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin.” This implies that Jesus faced some sort of sexual or romantic temptation but did not give in to it.
Likewise, Dee identifies “sexual abstinence” as one of the main parallels between The Doctor and Jesus (2010, 24). However, although nothing is made explicit, we know the Doctor was married in Gallifrey and had children. For the Doctor, the greatest temptation is humanity. In the two-parter story “Human Nature” (3.8, 2007) and “The Family of Blood” (3.9, 2007), the Doctor becomes temporarily human to hide from a family of aliens. His human alter-ego, John Smith, is unaware of true nature as a Time Lord and falls in love with a nurse, Joan Redfern. Towards the end of the story, John Smith must choose to take up his true identity and save the day, or remain human and be with Joan. He imagines growing old by Joan’s side. When he chooses to become the Doctor again, we know he has fought the temptation of humanity.
Central to the Monomythic hero is the humanity-defying ability to be resurrected after death, the aspect which connects the American Monomyth most directly with Jesus as a Biblical Messiah. Ever since the first doctor became the second because of the failing health of the actor (Clark, 2015, 32-33), “regeneration” has become central to Doctor Who. But death in itself is not characteristic of the American Monomyth, rather death as sacrifice for a community. The Doctor makes many sacrifices to save humanity, but his deaths in the Davies era are to save individuals.
In “The Parting of the Ways” (1.13, 2005), Rose looks into the Heart of the Tardis and gains God-like powers. However, the power is too much for her, so the Doctor absorbs it himself, knowing it will kill him but that he will be able to regenerate. The Doctor’s speech to Rose before regeneration shows a calm resignation to his fate not unlike Jesus or other heroes following the Monomythic structure: “Time Lords have this little trick. It’s sort of a way of cheating death. Except… it means I’m going to change.” He knows, like Jesus, that he will be resurrected, although Rose is unaware of this. When he has regenerated, she struggles to accept his new face, not unlike Mary Magdalene who thinks the newly resurrected Jesus is the gardener (John 20:11-18).
The Doctor has a different kind of “resurrection” in “The Last of the Time Lords” (3.13, 2007) when he is resurrected through the “prayers” and faith of the people Martha has talked to (Balstrup 2014, 148), amplified through the Archangel Network (Dee 2010, 29). When the Tenth Doctor becomes the Eleventh in “The End of Time Part 2” (special episode 5, 2010), the Doctor once again sacrifices himself for a friend, Wilfred Mott. After having saved the universe from the end of time itself, the Doctor hears four knocks and knows he will soon die. The Doctor rescues Wilf from the radiation chamber, and then begins to regenerate. However, he is less resigned to his fate than his predecessor. He visits all of his present incarnations’ former companions like Jesus appearing to his disciples before his ascension. Then, his final words before his regeneration “I don’t want to go” echo Jesus prayer in Gethsemane; “Take this cup from me” (Mark 14: 36). However, the Doctor has no choice, and he is reborn once again. Hefner notes the symbolism of sacrifice as a guilt-offering (Heffner 1980, 417). For Jesus, it is an offering for the guilt of humanity. For the Tenth Doctor, it is a guilt-offering for himself – for all the people he failed to save.
The titular character of Doctor Who fits many of the aspects of the American Monomythic hero. Firstly, he is a loner who saves the world, and moves on. However, his greatest temptation is settling down and living a normal life. Instead, he must sacrifice himself to save the world, and die for his friends. Russel T Davies invokes religious symbolism without completely acknowledging the Doctor as Christ-like. However, the audience reception of the character is just as important (dee 2010, 24). Whether seeing him as representing Christ, a substitute for him in a God-less universe, or a powerful secular hero, the Doctor continues to inspire audiences to this day.
All references to the Biblical text are from the NIV.
Balstrup, Sarah. “Doctor Who: Christianity, Atheism, and the Source of Sacredness in the Davies Years.” Journal Of Religion & Popular Culture 26, no. 2 (2014): 145-156.
Celibacy. In Encyclopedia of the Bible Online. 2012. Berlin, Boston: De Gruyter. Retrieved 9 Oct. 2015, from http://www.degruyter.com.ezproxy.auckland.ac.nz/view/EBR/MainLemma_5780
Clarke, Jim. ””The Resurrection Days Are Over”: Resurrection from Doctor Who to Torchwood.” Journal Of Religion & Popular Culture 27, no. 1 (2015): 31-44.
Dee, Amy-Chin. “Davies, Dawkins and Deus ex Tardis: Who finds God in the Doctor?” In Ruminations, Peregrination and Regenerations: A Critical Approach to Doctor Who, edited by Christopher J. Hansen, 22-34. Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2010.
Family. In Encyclopedia of the Bible Online. 2014. Berlin, Boston: De Gruyter. Retrieved 9 Oct. 2015, from http://www.degruyter.com.ezproxy.auckland.ac.nz/view/EBR/MainLemma_5211
Hefner, Philip J. “The cultural significance of Jesus’ death as sacrifice.” The Journal Of Religion 60, no. 4 (1980): 411-439.
Lawrence, John Shelton and Robert Jewett. The Myth of the American Superhero. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002.
Stanton, Graham. The Gospels and Jesus. 2nd ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.