“You know, it seems to me that there is so much more to the world than the average eye is allowed to see. I believe if you look hard, there are more wonders than you could have dreamed of.” – The Doctor
When I was growing up, one way I could tell if something was significant or important was if my parents let me stay up past my bedtime so I could experience or see it. A thing like watching fireworks on the 4th of July, or staying later at my great-grandma’s house when family was visiting. Or being allowed to stay up and watch TV when something was happening in the world that we could only see on television, like a space shuttle launch or a royal wedding.
One of the things my parents deemed worthy of overriding bedtime was watching reruns of the BBC science fiction television show Doctor Who, which aired on the local PBS channel at unusual times. During those after hours, I met the most extraordinary character: an alien called a Time Lord from the planet Gallifrey, who instead of wanting to harm the earth was enthusiastically invested in protecting it. The Doctor seemed to care deeply about the residents of earth, as he often chose humans to accompany him in his T.A.R.D.I.S – a time machine capable of traveling through both time and space. Which meant with The Doctor, you could go anywhere at any time, and it was always amazing. And I was all too eager to join The Doctor on any adventure.
Long after I’d grown up and been ordained a priest, BBC brought back Doctor Who after many years on hiatus. While a bit skeptical at first, I only had to watch one new episode to recognize The Doctor was back and remember why I enjoyed watching Doctor Who. The Doctor is a different kind of hero; often flawed, sometimes fails, but never gives up, is clever, kind and has a deep respect for life and its diversity. However, as I watched the newer episodes, I noticed something in Doctor Who I hadn’t before: Christian themes.
When I moved to Dayton for my previous cure, I noticed quite a few cars sporting “MY OTHER CAR IS A T.A.R.D.I.S” bumper stickers and found myself talking about Doctor Who at stores and coffee shops with all kinds of folks. It was energizing sharing my love for Doctor Who with others and hearing their take on the show, so I decided to host a conversation around the Christian themes in Doctor Who at the church. I called it “The Gospel According to Doctor Who” and promised each conversation would feature an entire episode.
It attracted people of all ages; some were active in local parishes, some were not. Some were familiar with Doctor Who, a few had never seen an episode, and a few were such die-hard fans they brought their own sonic screwdrivers. Some were conservative, others liberal. Much like the character in the show, Doctor Who has a draw that transcends differences.
We started with an episode called “Rings of Akaten” that featured a character named Merry Galel (in whose name I heard Mary of Nazareth in Galilee), who was a young girl who knew the songs of the past and was going to sing a song to an old god. But when the old god turned out to be not so kind, Merry decided to help her people by singing a new song. A song of hope. A song that calls for awakening.
This episode helped me talk about the song Mary sang before she gave birth to Jesus, her Magnificat, how it is based on the Song of Hannah in the Old Testament and is also a new song of hope and awakening. After sharing my observation, it wasn’t long before everyone who came started participating in the conversation by sharing what themes they saw. The delightful part for me was watching how excited people were when they made connections to their faith and life and realized that God really might be in the heart of everything we enjoy, even a TV show.
There is a new season of Doctor Who starting this fall, with a new actor playing The Doctor. This happens frequently on Doctor Who, as the character posses the ability to “regenerate”. It has been this characteristic of The Doctor that has helped me understand change and transition, to embrace the sorrow of farewell with the hopeful curiosity of meeting the same character again. It has also helped me see how we all change as we grow as individuals.
This time the actor playing The Doctor is a woman, and the response from fans reminds me of the response of the Episcopal Church after General Convention voted to ordain women to the priesthood. Some people are shocked and offended and are threatening to stop watching, others are overjoyed; some promise that although they’ve never watched the show they will now, some say it’s about time, and some say its just another change to get used to.
I can’t help but wonder if this is God acting through pop culture to help us see what equality looks like. It makes The Doctor a hero on another level for me, creates a new opportunity for conversation, and shows how TV shows can be more than entertainment. Occasionally, they can be places where what we learn in church intersects with the world we live in, proving that “bidden or unbidden, God truly is Present” even in places we might not expect.
In a time when it seems many church folks lament the growing secularization of culture, the darkness of some pop culture, or the divisions that isolate us, I find it audaciously hopeful that there are still characters like The Doctor that can bridge those divides and storylines that hold more wonders than we might see at first glance.
The Rev. Deborah Woolsey serves as Priest in charge at Church of the Good Shepherd in Athens.