The Romantic Rationalism of BBC’s Doctor Who


Caleb Woodbridge

Article ID:



Mar 8, 2023


Dec 12, 2019

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​“Have you ever thought what it’s like to be wanderers in the Fourth Dimension? Have you? To be exiles?” So asked William Hartnell’s mysterious Doctor back in An Unearthly Child (1963), the very first episode of the long-running British science-fiction TV series, Doctor Who. He is a Time Lord travelling the universe in the TARDIS, a bigger-on-the-inside time machine disguised as a Police Box, fighting monsters with the help of his human companions. But there’s a tension running through the show’s more than 50-year run, one that goes to the heart of the character of the Doctor. The Doctor is both scientist and messiah, a rationalist trying to grapple with the realities of evil in the universe, and romantic who brings about the fairy-tale ending of everyone living happily ever after.

Cracking open the contradictions in the Doctor’s character will help us to see how they point beyond themselves. In them we see the unacknowledged longings for a savior, one who is able to satisfy our rational longing for truth and reality, and our imaginative longing for beauty and hope. This can help us understand the long-running appeal of Doctor Who and give us ways of engaging with the show from a Christian viewpoint, one that points to Christ as the true Savior.

Romantic Rationalism

So what are the tensions that run through the themes of the show and character of the Doctor? On the one hand, the show has a strong rationalistic, scientific streak. This is embodied in the Doctor’s characterisation as a scientist — searching, questioning, refusing to take things at face value. This owes much to several key writers who have been avowed atheists, such as Chris Boucher in the 1970s to Russell T. Davies and Steven Moffat in the 2000s and 2010s, and who used the Doctor’s rationalism to subtly, or not-so-subtly, undermine religious faith.

At the same time, there is the impulse in the series to elevate the Doctor beyond mere heroism into a savior, a messiah, a Christ-figure. Tied to this is the tendency toward romanticism, to the fairy-tale ending, the eucatastophe by which “just this once, everybody lives!” (as the Doctor gleefully proclaimed in The Doctor Dances, 2004). In fact, it’s far from a rare occurrence for the Doctor to find some near-miraculous way to save everybody’s lives.

The rationalistic impulse and the romantic, fairy-tale impulse are often at odds with one another in Doctor Who. The writers struggle to integrate rationalism and hope, because the show’s default naturalistic outlook gives insufficient grounds for optimism about human nature or our future. However, in part because Doctor Who is a children’s programme, the writers feel duty-bound to offer hope, even when it strains thematic coherence and plot logic to introduce it.

In this Doctor and romantic-rationalist tension, we see how the modern secular world is still haunted by the Christian imagination. As Julian Barnes famously said, “I don’t believe in God, but I miss him.” The Doctor is a hero who tries to fulfil the emotional longing left by the absence of Christ in many people’s lives today. His quick-witted, compassionate, and self-sacrificing brand of heroism frequently echoes the enigmatic and unpredictable Jesus of the Gospels, who delighted the crowds and gave His life for the world.

The Many Worldviews of Doctor Who

Of course, many different minds have shaped Doctor Who, with its many producers, writers, and showrunners shaping its stories out of a variety of worldviews. In the early 1970s, producer Barry Letts cast the Doctor’s ability to regenerate as a Buddhist parable of reincarnation, of the Doctor learning to cast aside ego on the path to Enlightenment. Many other writers had a strongly rationalistic and atheistic outlook, with apparent gods turning out not to be what they seem. Typical examples include the Pyramids of Mars (1975), which pitted the Doctor against Sutekh from Egyptian mythology, also known as Set, revealed to be one of an alien race called Osirians; or The Face of Evil (1977), in which deity Xoanon turns out to be a mad supercomputer.

Later, the American-made 1996 Doctor Who TV movie starring Paul McGann imagined the Doctor and the Master in conventionally Judeo-Christian terms as savior and devil-like opposites — when the Doctor regenerates and emerges, wrapped in white, from the morgue in which his body had been laid, the attendant gives a cry of “Jesus Christ!” before fainting — a thematically apposite taking of the Lord’s name in vain.

But while the prominence of this tension may wax and wane, it is built into the Doctor’s character. As long as he is both a friend of humanity and an otherworldly being of great age and power, that will lend the show to religious resonances. Neither does the longing for a savior need to be a deliberate, conscious intention on the part of the writers to be real and detectable in the show. Let’s turn now to some specific storylines to see how this tension plays out.

Consequentialism vs Providence in Genesis of the Daleks

This tension between rationality and romanticism can be seen in one of the all-time classics of Doctor Who. In Genesis of the Daleks (1975), Tom Baker’s Doctor is sent by the Time Lords to try and avert the creation of his arch enemies the Daleks, to prevent them from eventually conquering the universe. Eventually the Doctor stands poised to blow up the laboratory where the genetically-engineered creatures of hate are being created. But he pauses, debating with his companion Sarah Jane Smith whether he is justified in committing genocide for the greater good:

DOCTOR: Do I have the right? Simply touch one wire against the other and that’s it. The Daleks cease to exist. Hundreds of millions of people, thousands of generations can live without fear, in peace, and never even know the word Dalek.
SARAH: Then why wait? If it was a disease or some sort of bacteria you were destroying, you wouldn’t hesitate.
DOCTOR: But I kill, wipe out a whole intelligent lifeform, then I become like them. I’d be no better than the Daleks.
SARAH: Think of all the suffering there’ll be if you don’t do it. 

The Doctor and Sarah are playing out the debate between deontological and utilitarian ethics, between morality based on absolutes of right and wrong, and morality based on assessment of the likely consequences. But the debate is left muddy. The Doctor is interrupted before making a decision, and although he attempts to complete his task (suggesting he has come down on the utilitarian side), in the end he is foiled and is relieved (ultimately rejecting a “means justifies the ends” approach). When Sarah comments that he doesn’t seem too disappointed at their failure, the Doctor replies: “Failed? No, not really. You see, I know that although the Daleks will create havoc and destruction for millions of years, I know also that out of their evil must come something good.” This introduces an almost eschatological dimension — a looking to the future to give meaning to evil. However, it’s unclear within the framework of the story how a future hope can be justified. The show wants to have its ethical cake and eat it too — to keep the Doctor morally praiseworthy by taking an ethical stance against genocide that isn’t merely situational, while at the same time suggesting that the consequences of his (in)action will end up being for the good. Rationally, wiping out the Daleks is the logical thing to do; romantically, the Doctor would rather do the right thing and trust it will work out for the good.

The hope that the Doctor expresses makes sense only if there is some purpose or direction to history, something or someone who can bring good out of evil. Within the Christian framework in which God works providentially through the events of history and the free choices of human beings to bring about good, this makes sense. In the cross of Christ, we see the worst evil of all time, the unjust execution of God incarnate, bringing about the salvation of the world. Because of Christ’s victory on the cross as a matter of history and fact, we have a rational basis for believing in God’s providence, and for the future hope that He will restore all things. But for the Doctor, the idea of good coming out of evil is a borrowed hope; a romantic wish without the rational basis.

Realism vs Romanticism in the Time War

The show’s rationalist streak is accompanied by the tendency to attempt a kind of realism — to ground the show, as fanciful and quirky as it is, with real stakes, both in terms of morality and mortality. Adventure means looking death and destruction in the face and saying no to it, even if it means losing your own life. Even the Doctor can’t save everyone all the time.

This expression of the rationalist–romantic tension is seen in the Doctor’s ambivalent attitude to war. This tension has been particularly prominent since Doctor Who was revived in 2005 by Russell T. Davies. Davies introduced the storyline of the Time War, with the Doctor now the sole survivor (or so he believed) of a trans-temporal conflict between his people (the Time Lords) and his old enemies (the Daleks). As the Doctor says in Rose (2005), “I fought in the war. It wasn’t my fault. I couldn’t save your world! I couldn’t save any of them!”

While Russell T. Davies’ storylines were often humorous and silly on the surface, with farting aliens in skinsuits and far-future versions of reality TV shows like Big Brother, bubbling underneath was a strong sense of realism, even pessimism. In The Parting of the Ways (2005), the season finale of the first season of Doctor Who, we learned that it was the Doctor himself who had brought an end to the Time War by destroying both Daleks and Time Lords alike for the sake of the universe.

But the Daleks survived, and the Doctor faced a new dilemma — the only way to destroy the Daleks would be to wipe out Earth too. “Coward or killer?” taunts the Dalek Emperor, who in his madness thinks himself a god. Faced with a utilitarian dilemma similar to the one he faced at the creation of the Daleks, the Doctor chooses: “Coward, every time,” and prepares to face extermination at the hand of the Daleks.

From Extermination to Eucatastrophe

Then comes the eucatastrophe, to use J. R. R. Tolkien’s term, “the sudden joyous ‘turn’…a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world.”1 Rose Tyler, an ordinary shop assistant from London who befriended the Doctor, has been trying to make her way back to the Doctor to rescue him. She looks into the heart of the TARDIS and is imbued with the powers of the Time Vortex, appearing in godlike radiance to scatter the Daleks to atoms in judgment. But the power is too much for her to bear, and the Doctor must in turn give up his current life and regenerate in order to save her.

This ending both undercuts and underscores the messianic side of the Doctor. He makes the right choice morally but is powerless to save the day; although he is the one rescued at first, he gives up his life sacrificially to save his friend. The Doctor’s helplessness in the face of the Daleks shows the realist impulse: being a hero sometimes means doing the right thing even in the face of defeat. But then there is the fairy-tale element of Rose saving the day unexpectedly — a plot twist that prompted many complaints among fans of being a deus ex machina.

Russell T. Davies’ successor Steven Moffat (also famed for the Benedict Cumberbatch-starring Sherlock) tipped the balance strongly toward the fairy-tale. When Moffat came to revisit the Time War for the 50th anniversary episode, The Day of the Doctor, he had the Doctor cross his own timeline. Three versions of the Doctor end up together back at the fateful moment when the Doctor destroyed the Time Lords and Daleks together.

“What we do today is not out of fear or hatred. It is done because there is no other way,” the Doctor tells himself, echoing the grim realism of Davies’ Doctor, who had to make impossible choices. But the Doctor’s companion Clara reminds him of the promise that his name makes — to be a healer, not a warrior. The Doctor realises that through crossing his own timeline, he has the opportunity to redeem and rewrite his past. Rather than destroying Gallifrey, his different incarnations united can hide it in a pocket dimension, so it merely appears to the outside world that it was destroyed. This sudden joyous realization was the eucatastophe for years of Doctor Who storylines, freeing the Doctor from the guilt that had haunted him ever since the Time War.

The Far-off Gleam of Evangelium

Tolkien argued that eucatastophe, if present within a story, reveals “a far-off gleam or echo of evangelium in the real world,” and that “even modern fairy-stories can produce this effect sometimes.”2 Doctor Who sometimes attempts to ground itself as science fiction in a more serious and realist mode but has tended more and more toward fairy-story — and in that fairy-tale impulse, we see far-off glimpses of the gospel.

I once attended an orchestral concert of Doctor Who music at London’s Royal Albert Hall. As the soaring music of the Doctor’s theme accompanied images of his many faces and victories, with thousands listening in rapture, it struck me that this was worship. Here is a fictional hero who embodies many Christ-like qualities — never cruel or cowardly, never giving up or giving in. Likewise, Doctor Who fandom is an alternative church, a community with its own values, rituals, pilgrimages, sects and factions — from visiting filming locations to attending conventions to arguing about whether spin-off media form part of the “canon” of Doctor Who lore.

Unlike the Doctor, however, Jesus Christ can satisfy both our reason and our imagination. On the rational side, Jesus is not a fictional hero; you can read the Gospels, explore their historical basis, and uncover how the message that Christ brings makes existential and philosophical sense of life. On the imaginative side, like the Doctor, Jesus is deeply attractive as a hero: fierce and kind, clever and compassionate. Here is a hero who gives up His life not just for His friends but for his enemies. But unlike the Doctor, Jesus doesn’t need to keep regenerating to save the world again and again; His death and resurrection have saved us once and for all.

I believe that for many fans, the reason they fall in love with the Doctor is because they are falling in love with the echoes of Christ, if only they knew it. If you are both a Doctor Who fan and a Christian, this can give you an extra level of appreciation for the stories of the Doctor. You can enjoy the weird and wonderful adventures of the Doctor all the more for the reminders they give you of Christ’s beauty. And if you aren’t yet a Christian but love the Doctor, why not get to know the real Lord of Time who has truly saved the world?

Caleb Woodbridge loves stories in many forms, including in games, movies, comics and television, but in books most of all. He lives in Bletchley, England, and works as Publishing Director for InterVarsity Press UK.


  1. J. R. R. Tolkien, “On Fairy-Stories,” in Tree and Leaf (New York: HarperCollins, [1964], 2001).
  2. Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories.”
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