by Z. P. Moo
When you try to figure out who are among the most important figures in human history you tend to get a lot of the same names regardless of how many people you ask. Common choices tend to include your great leaders like Julius Caesar and Henry VIII, scientists like Einstein and Newton who revolutionised how we understood the universe and our place therein, maybe some more unusual but nevertheless valid answers like Hitler might show up, and so on.
Yet among these military giants, political figures, and scientific geniuses there comes what at first may seem like an outside choice – the son of a carpenter, who grew up as one of a displaced and persecuted people group, under the rule of a conquering foreign power, who looked different enough from his father and brothers to have questions raised about his legitimacy, having been born in wedlock, and who was ultimately executed due to self-contradictory and false evidence in his early thirties thanks to the combination of religious leaders abusing their power and a political leader who refused to use his own.
That is of course a very very brief and concise description of a man named Jesus, who remains one of the most controversial figures to ever live and is still to this day a contender for the title of both the most loved and most hated man in all of history – not an unimpressive record, considering his religious ministry only lasted for around three years nearly 2000 years ago! His ministry is known best for his claims to be the son of God, the prophesied messiah, and it is recorded for us in the first four books of the New Testament, named for their respective authors Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.
An interesting observation can be made if one looks at how Russell T Davies takes the figure of Jesus, as presented in The Bible, and applies it to the 10th Doctor (played by the great David Tennant). The name of this article comes from the 10th Doctor’s swansong adventure “The End of Time“, credited to Davies. It’s a story with which I have a very complicated relationship but on writing this I have found my appreciation for it has been raised, so let us look straight to its opening scene and dive right in in search of religious imagery.
“This was the site of a convent, back in the 1300s. It’s said a demon fell from the sky. Then a man appeared in a blue box. They called him the sainted physician. He smote the demon and then disappeared.”
– The Woman, “The End of Time“
This monologue is accompanied by an image of the Doctor’s TARDIS in a stained glass window seen by Wilfred Mott after he just happens to enter a church to get shelter from a blizzard on Christmas Eve. So here we literally have the Doctor being presented alongside images from Christian tradition, presumably including a presentatation of Jesus himself.
As “The End of Time“ reaches its drawn-out conclusion, the Doctor is forced to make a choice to sacrifice himself to save Wilf and after a few moments of struggling with this he concludes it’s the right thing to do and he does exactly that – Wilfred may live but the Doctor will have to die. It’s not hard to see the Jesus comparisons here, since the Bible makes it clear repeatedly that Jesus’s death by crucifixion serves exactly the same purpose for humanity as a whole. The idea here being that by sinning the human race is separated from God. Jesus, an innocent man who never sinned, dying instead means that the punishment is paid and humanity need not die. This is a self-sacrifice death that Jesus undergoes in the New Testament narrative, just like the Doctor in “The End of Time“.
Similarly both of them are seen to struggle with the knowedge that their deaths are imminent, having prophetic foreknowledge of it before the event. In a rare understated scene from TEoT we see the Doctor privately confide in Wilf about what’s coming…
The Doctor: I’m going to die.
Wilfred: Well, so am I one day.
The Doctor: Don’t you dare!
Wilfred: Allright, I’ll try not to.
The Doctor: But I was told. “He will knock four times.” That was the prophecy. Knock four times and then…
Wilfred: Yeah but I thought… when I saw you before you said that your people could change, like your whole body.
The Doctor: I can still die. If I’m killed before regeneration then I’m dead. Even then. Even if I change, it feels like dying. Everything I am dies; some new man goes sauntering away. And I’m dead.
And for comparison, here is Jesus praying on the evening before he is arrested:
Then Jesus went with them to a place called Gethsemane, and he said to his disciples, “Sit here, while I go over there and pray.” And taking with him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, he began to be sorrowful and troubled. Then he said to them, “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death; remain here, and watch with me.” And going a little farther he fell on his face and prayed, saying, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.” And he came to the disciples and found them sleeping. And he said to Peter, “So, could you not watch with me one hour? Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” Again, for the second time, he went away and prayed, “My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done.” And again he came and found them sleeping, for their eyes were heavy. So, leaving them again, he went away and prayed for the third time, saying the same words again.
– Matthew 26 v 36-44
Again, Davies makes the comparison with Jesus – both he and the 10th Doctor are seen struggling with the knowledge that they are going to die, and despite the knowledge that they will come back to life again afterwards they still find it a huge obstacle to overcome. They are each able to avoid the death too. There is no reason why the Doctor couldn’t walk away from the Immortality Gate and leave Wilf to die in there (something a Titan comic shows him doing in an alternate future), while Jesus being God is undoubtedly able to stop his arrest and subsequent execution. Yet neither of them do so, both instead choose to go to die knowing that by doing so they’ll be saving the people they love.
But this isn’t the end for either of them. The last fifteen minutes show the Doctor visiting many of his past companions and asociates, with Davies later retconning that he in fact visited every single one of them at some point in their lives (which raises the question of why he saved Rose for last after even the likes of Adric, but that’s just me being picky so ignore it). Whereas Jesus comes back to life after he died and is depicted as ascending into heaven shortly afterwards. This is what Saint Paul describes Jesus as having done first:
He appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve disciples. Then he appeared to more than 500 brothers and sisters at one time most of whom are still alive, but some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, and then to all of the apostles.
– 1st Corinthians 15 v 5-7
I have no idea whether or not the comparisons are deliberate, but it’s hard not to see them. Don’t forget that the very first scene puts the TARDIS into a stained glass picture and this is the image that is intended to linger in our minds as the titles play out. The intent of Davies is to put religious imagery into our heads and set that as our frame of reference for the Doctor’s character arc throughout the two episodes that follow.
It’s certainly an interesting way of presenting the Doctor in his final story but I would question how well it works. Personally, I’d rather see the Doctor’s final story be one that dares critique his character yet still manages to remind us all why we’ll be missing him once he’s left. It serves as a brilliantly bombastic tribute to Ten but never really dares to dive into his flaws in the same way that we see in other regenration stories like “Planet of the Spiders“, “The Caves of Androzani“, and “The Time of the Doctor“ do, to name just a handful of examples. I’m confident the as-yet-untitled 2017 Christmas Special will offer this for the 12th Doctor as well.
But there is a Tenth Doctor serial that manages to find a critique of him whilst still taking on Jesus as a clear parallel (allowing me to pick it apart here). For that we have to look at “Human Nature / The Family of Blood“, written by Paul Cornell. I’m going to put it on record that I consider this serial a masterpiece, but that’s getting off-topic.
The plot for this serial is fairly basic at first glance – the Doctor becomes a human to escape some monsters, he falls in love with a human woman, but the aliens catch up and Martha must convince John Smith to “die” so that the Doctor can return and save everyone, he does this but in doing so breaks the woman’s heart.
And it’s beautiful.
It’s not dis-similar to who Jesus claims to be throughout the New Testament: God taking on the form of a human in order to save them. But in becoming a human, Jesus’s aim is to save people from the devil and sin whereas the Doctor simply wants to hide out for a while and ends up bringing the titular Family Of Blood to an English village where they end up killing multiple people. John Smith is a very different kind of man to the Doctor whereas Jesus is unmistakably presented in the gospels as the incarnation of God.
Another key difference in the ancient mysterious figure becoming human is in how they deal with what they find there. John Smith is not an overly competent man when it really comes down to it, and instead it falls to the Doctor’s companion Martha Jones to get things done.
“God, you’re useless as a human!”
– Martha Jones to John Smith
Martha is shown to be a very competent individual as the Doctor’s companions go and that’s perhaps never more obvious than it is here, except perhaps for in the episode I’ll be looking at next. Martha is forced to stick around the school where Smith is working and she has to cope with abuse due to her being both black and female. She is the one who stands up to The Family breaking the Held At Gunpoint scenario that serves as the cliffhanger (and in the process she superbly subverts the usual trope of the Doctor saving the companion by saving herself instead as he stands on being rubbish). Ultimately it is Martha that has to prove the Doctor is real and finally gets Smith to become him once again.
If we see Smith to the Doctor as Jesus is to God (which is already a rough comparison since Jesus knows who he is whilst Smith has to learn) then Martha can be seen holding the role of the disciple. And unlike Martha, these twelve people are, initially, all talk. As we already saw in the exerpt from Matthew’s gospel earlier, they can’t stay awake when Jesus needs them most. Peter is effectively their leader, so let’s look at him for a moment. This is a man who attends Jesus’s trial and there infamously denies knowing Jesus three times out of fear. Before that we have him trying to walk on water like Jesus, only to start sinking as soon as he has any success. Even though Peter does reach his full potential later it takes a few years for him to get there and he keeps putting his foot in it more times than I’d care to count. He eventually gives the first Christian sermon in history, and it laughably begins with him clarifying to his audience that he and his associates aren’t drunk.
In short, Peter and the other disciples are, at first, a bunch of useless and inept and selfish people and never the sort of people that you would choose if you wanted to start a religion. By the time they finally get themselves sorted it is after Jesus is gone from them, a full three years after they began. The way Martha is presented couldn’t be more different!
And I suppose that makes sense, because of how John Smith is presented. While Jesus is proactive in doing things and seeking out people, Smith is not. Smith watches as Martha, his companion, and Joan, his lover, are held at gunpoint and doesn’t do anything. As footsoldier scarecrows (because it’s a Doctor Who episode) advance towards the school he is arming young boys with weapons as he finds somewhere safe to run off and hide.
As the story comes to its close we see John Smith do something similar to Jesus, and indeed to what the 10th Doctor does in his final moments: He gives up his life. By dying, Smith makes it possible for the Doctor to return and he goes and seeks out The Family to defeat and punish them. Smith is reluctant but he does it anyway, which could be seen as foreshadowing of how this Doctor incarnation would die too. I’ve covered the self-sacrifice angle already when I looked at “The End of Time“ earlier so I won’t dwell on it any more here but it’s a strikingly similar ending to that character’s arc, so much as John Smith can be described as having one, to how the life of Jesus ended. Even though Smith doesn’t rise again he is still somewhere inside the Doctor, although that tragically isn’t enough for Joan.
So that’s two examples of the 10th Doctor giving himself up in a manner similar to Jesus, what of the Doctor literally becoming him?
That kind of exists too. Say hello to “Last of the Time Lords“!
Russell T Davies’ series three finale is a fairly polarising episode to put it mildly, but what I want to look at it for is one specific scene towards the end. The third part of a three-part story, its plot begins with Martha returning to a Britain under occupation by the Master, who has become Prime Minister and is probably much better than our current real-life one. By the end of the episode we learn that Martha’s been spending the past year telling the people she meets all about the Doctor and getting them all to wait until a particular moment on a particular day and to then think about the Doctor. The Master mocks her for it – “That’s your secret weapon? Prayer!” – but then, through the magic of sci-fi technobabble, it actually works. The Doctor, aged into what can only be described as a rejected special effect from an early Harry Potter movie, suddenly returns to his normal form and then he starts floating around in the air, subduing the Master completely, and he somehow restores things to how they were before the Master’s plot got fully underway.
(It doesn’t really make sense but just go with it.)
For some reason with this finale, Davies decided to go all the way and turn the Doctor into some kind of literal Jesus figure. It’s not allegorical or metaphorical here; this is the real thing. Perhaps the idea is to fully exploit what the Master, as played by John Simm, is all about.
This incarnation of the Master is written as, in effect, the anti-Tennant. All the endless energy, the affinity with the TARDIS, his use of pop culture, and the romantic relationship with a human woman, these are all directly targeted at the 10th Doctor. These are all things that this Doctor has and yet here they are being taken and perverted by the Master in order to attack the Doctor on the most personal and direct level possible. Simm’s Master is concieved as the perfect foil for Tennant’s Doctor and it makes you think. Is this particular pairing of Doctor/Master meant to parallel God/Devil?
The final scene is certainly possible to see as such. There’s clearly meant to be religious imagery in “Last of the Time Lords“; the Master occupies a devillish role, as the Doctor becomes the godlike figure and an answer to literal prayer. One possible reading of the events, which can help excuse the Jesus imagery, would be as a story about the resurrection of Jesus. Hear me out – the account of the resurrection is consistent in all four gospels and is one of the few things that all four of them record, and it goes like this: Jesus is arrested, put on what is bascially a showtrial, is executed for crimes he didn’t commit, spends three days dead, and then resurrects. In doing so he defeats the devil once and for all.
Compare it to series three’s finale then: The Master takes over the world, captures the Doctor, humiliates him completely and utterly, it stays this way for a full year, but just before the Master can finish the job the Doctor is back to how he was before with the Master only able to cower and beg for mercy. It’s not a perfect comparison but the Jesus imagery is hard to miss and thus it is an allegorical reading that I think holds up.
The devil as some powerful being is an idea that popular culture has latched on-to over the years, which makes the final scene of “Last of the Time Lords“ all the more striking for being much more in-line with how The Bible presents him. He’s not seen in it as being as powerful as God is, anything but in fact. Unlike God, he is described as a created being. Unlike God, he is not all-powerful. He has to obey God if he is given an instruction. It’s consistent with the other time a devil figure was present in the Davies era of Doctor Who, “The Impossible Planet / The Satan Pit“, in which a literal devil (which claims to be the actual Satan) is encountered by the Doctor only for it to turn out to have limited power on his own and only able to get things done by using his influence on others. It also allows for the Doctor from then on to be able to claim that he’s thrown Satan into a black hole, which is a pretty badass claim to make as badass claims go. I’m surprised that he’s never used that one to show off to people!
The story of Job from the Old Testament is one of the more interesting presentations of the devil in The Bible. In it we see him seeking to turn Job away from trusting in God but he isn’t able to do anything that God tells him not to do – for example, in both the first and second chapter of that book we see the devil come to God and seek permission to attack Job but both times he doesn’t kill Job despite a desire to. The reason the devil leaves Job alive is because God gives him strict command not to do that.
Russell T Davies seems to be a big fan of turning the Doctor into some kind of Jesuslike figure then! Which is weird, given that he’s not himself a religious man. I guess he just sees it as a good source of inspiration. That would make sense to me. The story of Jesus, his sacrifice, and his ultimate return to power is a very powerful one regardless of whether or not you choose to believe it and so it’s not hard to see why when you’ve got a lead character that is extremely mysterious and ancient and complicated but first and foremost a good man, then it makes sense that the ulitmate example of these things would become a presence in the stories you tell.
Or maybe it’s just that a bit of religious imagery almost always looks awesome. As with any religious issue, that’s one for you to decide.