At the end of my discussion of “Extremis” last week, I said that, one of these days, I’d have to get around to discussing religion in Steven Moffat’s Doctor Who. Now I guess that day has come. “The Pyramid at the End of the World”—written by Moffat and Peter Harness—is not as overtly steeped in church imagery and language as “Extremis.” (For one thing, the Pope is not traveling in the TARDIS this week.) But I’m convinced that, at its heart, Part Two of this story about the alien race known as “The Monks” is dealing with issues of religion. (Not theology, necessarily, or spirituality—which would be a whole other conversation—but religion.) And, looking back over Moffat’s era of the show—and indeed, all of New Who—we see some of these same questions and themes recurring time and time again.
To be honest, I have doubts about my ability to tackle this unwieldy subject comprehensively in a reasonable amount of space. But, with Moffat’s era coming to an end, this seems like as good a time as any to give it a whirl.
Settle in, folks: this one may take a while.
“You act out of love. Love is consent. We must be loved.”
To begin with, let’s simply acknowledge that Steven Moffat—an atheist, like previous showrunner Russell T Davies—is, at the very least, obsessed with religious imagery. This is perhaps most clear from the villains, monsters, and adversaries he has created.
The Weeping Angels—Moffat’s signature monster—are, of course, angels, icons of Christianity who literally steal your life by sending you backwards in history. In Season Five’s “The Time of Angels”/”Flesh and Stone,” the Doctor is joined in his battle against these monsters by militarized 51st century Clerics, and their presentation is largely positive. (The Doctor gets in a few digs about the church—”Then they started having laws against self-marrying: what’s that about?”—but the Bishop and his men are decent enough people.)
However, this was pretty much the last positive representation of religion in the Moffat era. By the 52nd century, in “A Good Man Goes to War, these same Clerics—and the “Papal Mainframe” that rules them—have turned against the Doctor, and they are largely shown to be ruthless warriors and gullible idiots. (“We are soldiers of God, we are not fools,” they chant, right before the Doctor makes complete fools out of them.) By this point, the Clerics have joined in alliance with The Silence, which is basically responsible for manufacturing all the major threats in Seasons Five, Six, and Seven. (As we learn in “Let’s Kill Hitler,” the Silence is “not a species,” but “a religious order, or movement.”)
Joining the Silence in their crusade is another religious order called The Headless Monks, who go into battle to the soothing rhythms of Attack Prayers. They can never be reasoned with, we learn, because membership in this church requires sacrificing your head: it’s the ultimate expression of religion as anti-intellectualism. (“They believe that the domain of faith is the heart, and the domain of doubt is the head,” we are told. “They follow their hearts, that’s all.”)
In Season Eight, Moffat leaves the Silence, Clerics, Monks, Angels, and the Papal Mainframe behind, but he still isn’t done with religion. Season Eight’s over-arcing mystery is all about finding “The Promised Land,” the afterlife, the Kingdom of Heaven. “There isn’t any promised land,” the Doctor protests to the Half-Face Man in “Deep Breath.” “It’s just a superstition that you have picked up from all the humanity you’ve stuffed inside yourself.” At the end of that story-arc, in “Death in Heaven,” it is revealed that the “Promised Land” is really a digital hard-drive on which Missy has been storing the souls of everyone who died, so she could download them into Cyberman bodies. And it is strongly implied that this is where the entire “superstition” of an afterlife comes from. (Kate Lethbridge-Stewart asks the Doctor how long Missy has been doing this. “How long has the human race had a concept of an afterlife?” he asks her, in response.)
I would never argue that Doctor Who isn’t an ethical show, or a moral show, or even (if you want to see it as one) a spiritual show. But I think it’s hard to deny that Doctor Who is decidedly anti-religion. And the evidence is not just to be found in the major arcs, but also in throw-away lines and stand-alone stories. In “The Pandorica Opens,” a Roman commander asks River Song what her blaster is. “A fool would say the work of the gods,” she responds. “But you’ve been a soldier too long to believe there are gods watching over us.” In Toby Whithouse’s “The God Complex,” the monster is a minotaur who feeds, literally, on faith. (“They descend on planets and set themselves up as gods to be worshipped,” the Doctor explains. “Which is fine, until the inhabitants get all secular and advanced enough to build bonkers prisons.”) In Moffat’s “Death in Heaven,” the Doctor says “We don’t want Americans bobbing around the place: they’ll only start praying.” In Neil Cross’s “The Rings of Akhaten,” people worship (and sacrifice their daughters to) the planet-sized Akhaten as a god, but the Doctor strips this “god” of his delusions:
“Can you hear them? All these people who’ve lived in terror of you and your judgement? All these people whose ancestors devoted themselves, sacrificed themselves, to you. Can you hear them singing? Oh, you like to think you’re a god. But you’re not a god. You’re just a parasite eaten out with jealousy and envy and longing for the lives of others. You feed on them.”
I could go on and on. There is the monstrous religious oppression of Gillyflower in “The Crimson Horror,” who preaches against “moral turpitude” and has convinced her daughter that sin makes her worthless. (“That’s nonsense,” the Doctor tells Ada. “Stupid, backward nonsense, and you know it.”) There’s “The Fisher King” of “Under the Lake“/”Before the Flood“—named for a Christianized Arthurian legend—who deals in “souls wrenched from the dead.” There is the constant repetition of “May the gods look favorably upon you” by the doomed, overworked crew members in the nihilistically bleak “Sleep No More.” There is the “Myth of the Foretold,” which leads people to try—futilely—to save themselves by confessing their sins in “Mummy on the Orient Express.” There is the phony, posturing god of “The Girl Who Died,” who asks “What is a god but the cattle’s name for farmer? What is heaven but the gilded door of the abattoir?” (The Doctor knows instantly he’s a fake. “Because what’s the one thing that gods never do? Gods never actually show up!”) There is the idea of the “Confession Dial,” which is intended to be used for “a ritual act of purification” that allows “a dying Time Lord to make his peace,” but which becomes a torture chamber in which the Doctor is trapped for a four and half billion years.
But I’m (nominally) supposed to be discussing “The Pyramid at the End of the World,” so let’s talk about The Monks. They are—not surprisingly—in the same mold as a lot of other Moffat-conceived threats. Their name and their imagery, obviously, is quasi-religious—right down to their headquarters in a pyramid, with its implied promise of an afterlife—but the associations go beyond that. Their power, for example, seems to be virtually unlimited: they are very nearly omniscient—they know everything that has ever happened, and everything that will ever happen—and they are very nearly omnipotent.
(It is a gripe I have with Moffat’s writing that his monsters have virtually no rules: they tend to be able to do just about anything. These guys can predict the future down to the nearest second, snatch bombers from the air and submarines from the sea, magically restore eyesight, design a hell of a VR program, and even control wristwatches. What can’t they do?)
And, as we saw last week, they literally created the (or at least a) world. (It was a virtual world, but the people within it didn’t know that until they discovered a text that “preceded the church itself.” They learned that their supposed “free-will” was an illusion, and that the world was completely controlled by invisible, all-powerful architects.)
They are, in short, practically gods, and—like most gods—they have been created in our image. (“We have chosen this form to look like you,” they explain. “You are corpses to us.”) They present themselves—as the American commander, Col. Don Brabbit (Eben Young) says—as “guardian angels,” descended to save us, and protect us, “forever.” But—as the Doctor points out—their help has conditions. “To save you, we must be asked,” they say. To rule through fear is inefficient, they say, so they must be invited. “We must be wanted. We must be loved.” Impure consent means death: they demand absolute devotion and submission, without any hint of ulterior motives.
Isn’t this what many religions demand? The Judeo-Christian God is vengeful—he rules in part through fear—but He is also “a loving god,” who demands love in return. (“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind,” Jesus says in Matthew 23:37-8. “This is the first and greatest commandment.”) Christian preachers frequently rail against the dangers of “impure” faith, and speak of the need—though the phrases are not in the Bible—to “ask Jesus into your heart” (the invitation) or—more forcefully—to “give yourself to Jesus” (the total submission).
I’m not going to dwell on all of this—I have neither the comparative-religion background nor the space—but I think the markers are fairly clear, especially given the iconography of the Monks and Moffat’s track record of presenting organized religion: the Monks are offering themselves as the new religion, promising security and salvation in exchange for absolute love and absolute submission.
All of which is anathema to the Doctor. “There’s a line in the sand, and I’m the man on the other side of it,” he says here. It’s perhaps the most explicit example of a familiar trope from Doctor Who history: the Doctor vs. God. (I’m keeping myself sane by limiting this discussion to New Who, but tearing down false gods was a favorite pastime of Doctors One through Seven as well.)
“No, I’m the Doctor, but it’s an easy mistake to make.”
At the risk of trying your patience with yet another truncated encyclopedia of past references, I think any discussion of religion in Doctor Who is incomplete without considering the deification of the Doctor himself.
“Oh my god!” Erica (Rachel Denning) exclaims, when the Doctor appears in her lab this week. “No, I’m the Doctor,” he says. “But it’s an easy mistake to make.” And indeed, it is an easy mistake to make, one that has been made persistently throughout New Who.
Though he didn’t deal as openly with the iconography—except during his weirdly cynical Christmas stories—previous showrunner Russell T Davies was often as distrustful of organized religion as Moffat is. “Gridlock,” for example, can be read as a critique of blind, passive faith, with the population of New Earth doomed in an eternal traffic jam, joyfully singing hymns while dreaming of help—which is never coming—to reach the rumored “paradise” above. In a throwaway line in “The End of the World,” we learn that Platform One “forbids the use of weapons, teleportation, and religion.” In “The Fires of Pompeii,” the Doctor chastises the High Priestess of the Sybiline Sisterhood for perverting the intentions of the good person on whom the church is based. “Let me tell you about the Sibyl, the founder of this religion,” he says. “She would be ashamed of you. All her wisdom and insight turned sour. Is that how you spread the word, hey? On the blade of a knife?” Davies, too, gave us evil monks (in “Tooth and Claw”), evil vicars (in “The Unicorn and the Wasp”), and even the Daleks set up a dangerous church during his era. (“Since when did the Daleks have a concept of blasphemy?” the Doctor asks, in “The Parting of the Ways.”)
It’s in the two-part story “The Impossible Planet”/”The Satan Pit” that the Doctor comes closest to making a statement of faith—or lack of faith. In a discussion of religious backgrounds, he is asked what he believes. “I believe I haven’t seen everything,” is what he says. “That’s why I keep traveling: to be proved wrong.” And later, face to face with “The Devil” itself, he rejects theology and expresses his faith in humanity (personified in Rose):
“So, that’s the trap. Or the test, or the final judgment, I don’t know. But if I kill you, I kill her. Except that implies, in this big grand scheme of gods and devils, that she’s just a victim. But I’ve seen a lot of this universe. I’ve seen fake gods and bad gods and demi-gods and would-be gods, and, out of all that, out of that whole pantheon, if I believe in one thing, just one thing, I believe in her.”
So I would argue that we can describe the Doctor as a secular humanist. He is, after all, a scientist. (“Is that your religion?” the demon in “The Satan Pit” asks him, about his certainty that nothing could have existed before the Big Bang. “It’s a belief,” the Doctor responds.) Of the existence of any kind of divinity or afterlife, I think at best we could describe him as skeptically agnostic. (“Almost every culture in the universe has some concept of an afterlife,” he says, in “Dark Water.” “I always meant to have a look around, see if I could find one.”)
What he mostly believes in, however, is the miracle of individual people. “Who said you’re not important?” the Doctor asks two ordinary people in Season One’s “Father’s Day.” “I’ve travelled to all sorts of places, done things you couldn’t even imagine, but you two: street corner, two in the morning, getting a taxi home. I’ve never had a life like that.” When Clara says in “Hide” that humans must be nothing to the Doctor, he protests that, on the contrary, they are “the only mystery worth solving.”
And when human beings subjugate themselves through blind faith and obedience, it’s an outrage to the Doctor, whether they do it for secular or religious reasons. This is the reason he dislikes soldiers, who just follow orders. In Season One’s “Bad Wolf,” one of the producers of the murderous reality shows protests that they were just doing their jobs. “And with that sentence, you just lost the right to talk to me,” the Doctor sneers in contempt. He values independent thought and a questioning nature: complete submission to any higher authority is perhaps the greatest sin he can imagine. If faith is (as the Headless Monks say) the domain of the heart, I think we can agree that the Doctor’s domain is that of the head.
If the metaphor of “Humanism vs. Religion” became sometimes muddled during the Davies era, however, it was because Davies frequently indulged himself in pseudo-mystical and -religious plotting, and gave into the temptation to elevate the Doctor himself to quasi-divine status. It was in David Tennant’s second story, “New Earth,” that the Doctor is first referred to (by nuns) as a “lonely god,” and a few episodes later (in Moffat’s “The Girl in the Fireplace”) he is called a “lonely angel.”
“You’ve got your faith, you’ve got your songs and your hymns,” Martha says in “Gridlock. “And I’ve got the Doctor.” In “The Last of the Time Lords,” Martha’s journey with the Doctor ends with her almost literally becoming his apostle, wandering the earth sharing his story so that the combined “prayers” of humanity can restore and amplify his power. He was carried aloft by angels in “Voyage of the Damned,” and became a household god in “The Fires of Pompeii.” Towards the end of the Davies era, storylines became choked with prophecies and fuzzy mythology around the central character, and the Ood evolved into a weird cult of high priests dedicated to his legend. (This pseudo-sacred air was intensified by the most heavy-handed of Murray Gold’s music, through which heavenly choirs rhapsodized on the soundtrack.)
To be fair, Davies was aware of the dynamic he was creating. In Season One’s “Boom Town,” the Doctor says “Don’t worship me. I’d make a very bad god. You wouldn’t get a day off, for starters.” And in his correspondence with Benjamin Cook in Doctor Who: The Writer’s Tale, Davies says anyone who thinks he’s deifying the Doctor is missing the point. “Dumbos think that I’m turning the Doctor into God, when clearly I’m saying that God doesn’t exist, that we mythologise real people, events or aspirations into deities, and pay the price for it.” But if “dumbos” made that error, at least part of the fault lay with Davies and his inability to resist presenting the Doctor as a Christlike figure: it was, indeed, an easy mistake to make.
“Forget your faith in me.”
This inherent tension persisted through the Moffat era. After all, Moffat’s Doctor is, literally, the answer to a prayer: in Moffat’s first episode as showrunner, “The Eleventh Hour,” little Amelia Pond is praying for help, to Santa, on Easter, when the Doctor crash-lands in her garden. (“Thank you, Santa,” she says, when she sees the Police Box.) And this image of the Doctor as the answer to a prayer recurs a few times in the Moffat era. In Season Six’s “Night Terrors,” little George’s desperate prayer—”Please save me from the monsters”—magically reaches the Doctor somewhere in deep space. And in 2010’s “A Christmas Carol,” when poor people beg nasty Kazran Sardick for help, he mockingly tells them to “off home and pray for a miracle,” and at these words the Doctor tumbles down the chimney.
So Moffat isn’t above playing to the theme of the Doctor as perceived deity. In “The Impossible Astronaut,” for example, River Song reminds the Doctor how they worshipped him on Easter Island. (“Have you seen the statues?”) And in “The Angels Take Manhattan,” she refers to him as a god. (“When one’s in love with an ageless god who insists on the face of a twelve-year-old, one does one’s best to hide the damage.”) In “The Woman Who Lived,” Ashildr—once she is converted to the Doctor’s cause—describes herself as his “patron saint.”
But Moffat has spent more of his time on Doctor Who challenging the mythologization of the Doctor, and breaking down his saintly, all-powerful image. As I’ve written before (and therefore won’t dwell on at length here), Seasons Five and Six of Doctor Who were largely about walking the Doctor back from the oversized, overblown image he’d gained in the Davies era. With Season Five’s “cracks in time,” Moffat erased from continuity some of the stories that made the Doctor a famous and revered figure on Earth. Season Six managed to delete his name from every database in the universe, and ended with the Doctor faking his own death. (“I’ve grown too big,” he said, in “The Wedding of River Song.” “Too noisy. Time to step back into the shadows.”)
And Moffat’s reconstruction plan included deconstructing the Doctor’s image as an all-powerful god. “He is not the devil,” Colonel Manton told his Clerics in “A Good Man Goes to War.” “He is not a god. He is not a goblin, or a phantom or a trickster. The Doctor is a living, breathing man.” In that story, Lorna Bucket had joined the Clerics for the sole purpose of meeting the Doctor again—she joined the church to find the god—but her faith didn’t turn out to be justified: she was mortally wounded in a fight the Doctor missed, and she barely met him, just seconds before she died.
Amy Pond—who summoned the Doctor through prayer in “The Eleventh Hour,” and resurrected him by sharing his story in “The Big Bang”—had her faith in the Doctor sorely tested as well. He had been the closest thing she had to a religion all her life, but he let her down, time and time again. Finally, he failed to save her baby, allowing little Melody Pond to be kidnapped by the church and corrupted into the assassin known as River Song.
Several of the episodes that followed dealt directly with Amy’s disillusionment—her fall from faith, if you will—with the Doctor. In Tom MacRae’s “The Girl Who Waited,” we saw her transformed into a bitter, angry warrior, who blamed the Doctor for everything that had gone wrong in her life. (“Oh, there he is: the voice of God,” she scoffed cruelly.) And in Toby Whithouse’s “The God Complex,” the subtext became text. “Why is it up to you to save us?” Rita asked the Doctor. “That’s quite a god complex you have there.” And at the end of that episode, Amy’s faith in the Doctor had to be broken forever for her to survive:
“Forget your faith in me. I took you with me because I was vain. Because I wanted to be adored. Look at you. Glorious Pond, the girl who waited for me. I’m not a hero. I really am just a mad man in a box. And it’s time we saw each other as we really are.”
It’s a theme Moffat hits several times. In “The Witch’s Familiar,” Davros taunts him, daring him to commit genocide and destroy all the Daleks. “Are you ready to be a god?” Davros asks, but the Doctor rejects both this power and this interpretation of who he is. He’s not a god: he’s barely, as he admits, the Doctor:
“There’s no such thing as the Doctor. I’m just a bloke in a box, telling stories. And I didn’t come here because I’m ashamed. A bit of shame never hurt anyone. I came because you’re sick and you asked. And because sometimes, on a good day, if I try very hard, I’m not some old Time Lord who ran away. I’m the Doctor.”
And, as I argued at the time, the narrative proximity of the Doctor’s experience with Amy to “The Rings of Akhaten” means that the Old God—”the Grandfather”—in that story can darkly be seen as a metaphor for the Doctor himself. It is a thing that thinks it’s a god, and is perceived as a god, but it’s really just a cosmic parasite feeding on stories and the life force of an endless series of young girls.
But, as the resolution of that story proves, it’s normal human beings that matter, not the gods. (It is Clara who saves the day, not the Doctor.) In a speech the Doctor makes to Merry—the girl who feels honored to be chosen as a sacrifice to the god, as his companions feel honored to be chosen by him—we hear an echo of his “I believe in her” from “The Satan Pit,” and we hear his secular humanism proclaimed loudly and clearly. He doesn’t talk about a divine plan, but about the accidental miracles of the universe, weaving science into an inspiring and edifying creation myth:
“It’s not a god. It’ll feed on your soul, but that doesn’t make it a god. It is a vampire, and you don’t need to give yourself to it. Hey, do you mind if I tell you a story? One you might not have heard. All the elements in your body were forged many, many millions of years ago, in the heart of a far away star that exploded and died. That explosion scattered those elements across the desolations of deep space. After so, so many millions of years, these elements came together to form new stars and new planets. And on and on it went. The elements came together and burst apart, forming shoes and ships and sealing wax, and cabbages and kings. Until eventually, they came together to make you. You are unique in the universe. There is only one Merry Gejelh. And there will never be another. Getting rid of that existence isn’t a sacrifice. It is a waste.”
The Doctor’s near godlike reputation—which, despite the machinations of Season Six, he still seems to have whenever it’s useful to Moffat—is a card the Doctor will always play if needed. He used it to cow the Vashta Narada in Moffat’s “Forest of the Dead.” He used it to scare the Atraxi away from Earth in “The Eleventh Hour,” and to buy some time in “The Pandorica Opens.” And he just used it last week, to rescue Missy from the executioners. (“Do me a favor,” he said. “The Fatality Index: look up ‘The Doctor’…under ‘Cause of Death.'”) But Moffat is careful to always show that it is mostly a bluff, a con, a bit of smoke and mirrors. The Doctor isn’t all powerful: some days, he’s barely the Doctor at all. (“That’ll keep them squabbling for half an hour,” he said, after his big speech in “Pandorica,” instantly undermining his own power by admitting that all that grandstanding would buy about 30 minutes.)
Mistaking him for a god is always a mistake—whether the mistake is made by his enemies, his friends, or even by the Doctor himself.
“Fear is temporary. Love is slavery.”
So I want—finally—to circle back and discuss “The Pyramid at the End of the World,” for the dilemma it establishes is essentially a lot of these same themes writ large.
Of all the things Moffat has done in his last couple of seasons of Doctor Who, establishing the Doctor as the Secret President of the Earth is probably my least favorite. (This happened in “Dark Water”/”Death in Heaven”—also my least favorite Moffat story by a country mile—and it struck me as a gigantic step backwards towards the Doctor’s overblown celebrity status during the Davies era.) But it kind of works here, if only to establish the metaphor: basically, humanity is given a choice of embracing either religious submission to the Monks or the secular humanism of the Doctor.
We could call it a choice between two divinities, but the Doctor has hardly ever seemed less like a god than he does here. Still blind, and living in fear, he is floundering a bit: he keeps trying all his usual Doctor tricks, and they keep not working. He tries trading on his reputation. (“We know you,” the Monks tell him. “Then you know there’s a line in the sand, and I’m the man on the other side of it. You want to keep me that way.”) But the Monks aren’t scared of him. He tries—somewhat uncharacteristically—embracing the use of force, to no avail. He tries brokering a peace treaty between warring nations, and that has no effect.
He is so ineffective, in fact, that the Monks start to seem like the better choice to the leaders of the Earth. Interestingly, there is a moment when Col. Brabbit realizes that humanity is standing between these two alien powers. “It’s your planet, I can’t just give it away,” the Doctor says. “You know what, sir?” Brabbit replies. “Finally, you’ve said something I agree with: it’s our planet, our choice.”
What the Monks are offering is, seen from one perspective, not that different from what the Doctor offers. He wants to be invited in. (“That’s my theme tune,” he said last week. “Otherwise known as a distress call.”) He wants to save and protect the Earth, even (or especially) from their own mistakes. Like the Monks, he can see both the past and the future with near perfect clarity. And, like the Monks, he wants—at least sometimes—to be loved. (“I took you with me because I was vain,” he said to Amy. “Because I wanted to be adored.”) With all the apparent similarities between the two forces seeking to guide them, the leaders of Earth don’t see a lot of point in obeying the one who seems most likely to get them killed: they reject the Doctor, and choose the Monks. (In doing so, of course, they seal their own dooms: in “Doctor vs. God” scenarios, you should always bet on the Doctor.)
But the Doctor is not really like the Monks. He believes in free will, not submission. (Here—as in the previous story from co-writer Peter Harness, “Kill the Moon“—the Doctor insists that humans must decide their own fate.) He is not really all-powerful, as this episode (and the entire Moffat era) have proven. He is always willing to help, but never to control, and certainly not to rule. He’s not a god: he doesn’t even mind the “impure faith” the humans show in him. And his personal, very human craving for love is tempered by the knowledge that, as he says here, “love is slavery.” That sounds like a harsh, cynical thing to say, but love is the domain of the heart, not the head, and unthinking devotion is the death of reason. Sometimes—as with Amy—love must be dissuaded, and loved ones must be pushed away. Love is—like the Doctor himself—blind.
“Tell you what, old man. You better get my planet back.”
And it is love that leads Bill to make a terrible decision. It is important to note that Bill does not submit to the Monks out of fear, or out of faith, or even to save the Earth. The Earth—as she well knows—has already been saved. The Doctor got it done, and it wasn’t through any mighty display of magical powers, but through logic and science. He figured out the problem—which turned out to be humans playing god, accidentally creating a new life form—and puzzled out a solution in partnership with a human scientist. Bill doesn’t submit to the Monks to save humanity: she does it to save the Doctor.
Bill’s time with the Doctor has been short, and she has never venerated him the way some other companions did. (He wasn’t her “lonely god,” or even her object of adoration: he was her tutor, and sometimes her embarrassing granddad.) Still, throughout “The Pyramid at the End of the World,” you can see Bill going through her own mini-arc of disillusionment with the Doctor. “What’s wrong with the Doctor?” she asks Nardole early, and as the story progresses we see her doubting him and questioning him as she’s never done before. (“Doctor, is it just possible they’re right?” she asks him, when the commanders want to submit to the Monks.) She sees him floundering, and her faith in him is shaken. Far from being the all-powerful, all-knowing savior, he becomes someone to worry about, and—finally—someone to save. She sees him, in the end, the way he sees himself: he’s just a bloke in a box, a scientist and humanist, trying, with everything he has, to be a doctor.
And so the decision she makes—though perhaps selfish, perhaps reckless—is very much in the spirit of the Doctor, and very much in the spirit of Doctor Who. We can argue whether she makes it from the domain of the head or the domain of the heart—it’s a little bit of both, certainly—but she does the humane thing, and the humanist thing. She makes her own choice—defying the Doctor’s authority—and she chooses to value the individual, the unique entity that is her friend. As the Doctor said to Merry in “Akhaten,” there will never be another Doctor, and getting rid of that existence wouldn’t be a sacrifice, it would be a waste. The Doctor, once, when confronted with something that claimed to be a god, bet on Rose Tyler. Now Bill, confronted with something that claims to be a god, bets on the Doctor.
Additional Thoughts and Favorite Bits
- A minor gripe: the Doctor can reprogram robots, and write sentient software, and do a million other things with his sonic screwdriver, but he somehow can’t manage to shut off one stupid 21st century ventilation system? Or open a damn door?
- On the other hand, the bit where the Doctor and Nardole figure out which lab it is, by turning off the cameras and seeing which one turns back on, is the kind of clever I like.
- Have we considered the possibility that this entire story is still taking place within the Monk’s simulation? That would be irritating, but not entirely unlike Moffat. (I keep expecting someone to point out that the Monks are basically con-men, running a protection racket.)
- Here, at the end of this very long post, I find I’m not sure I arrived at a lot of iron-clad conclusions about Doctor Who and religion, except to say that the show comes down firmly on the side of individual people and independent thought. (I knew that already.) But that’s okay: like the Doctor, I haven’t seen everything yet, and we are obviously not done with this unruly topic: from the previews of “The Lie of the Land,” it looks as though we’re going to see what it looks like when the “church” of the Monks has dominion over all of humanity. Let’s talk more next week.