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The Healing Doctor

2013 November 2
by Julie Clawson

This post is part of a synchroblog for Doctor Who and Religion Day

doctor who sonicIn the Series 1 episode “The Doctor Dances,” the Doctor and his companions Rose Tyler and the newly joined Captain Jack Harkness find themselves cornered by hospital patients infected with alien technology. Captain Jack brags about his sonic blaster and asks what sort of weapon the Doctor is carrying. Jack is incredulous that the Doctor merely has a sonic screwdriver, quipping “Who looks at a screwdriver and thinks, ‘Ooh, this could be a little more sonic?” Although said in a moment of humor, the answer is, of course, the Doctor. Instead of carrying a weapon that can threaten and destroy, he brandishes an implement of repair as his go-to device. As one who seeks to heal the wounds of the universe, he has no need of a blaster that could be used to coerce or manipulate others into doing his will. Instead he uses the sonic screwdriver as he works alongside others in order to heal what is broken.

The Doctor’s aversion to displays of strength and power, even to the point of rejecting weapons, echoes descriptions of a God who operates from a position of weakness. Unlike depictions of an all-powerful God who reigns above all things and can use fear of punishment to coerce followers to his will, a weak God operates out of compassion to heal the wounded. The Doctor’s choice to carry a tool of repair instead of a weapon of destruction models what it means to exchange the way of strength and power for the ways of weakness and love. This stance is what author John Caputo refers to as taking place in an “anarchic field of reversals and displacements” which appears “wherever the least and most undesirable are favored while the best and most powerful are put on the defensive.” It echoes Mary’s Magnificat where the rulers are brought down from thrones and the lowly lifted up. When he is at his best, the Doctor mirrors the very description of the divine that scriptures offer up and the Church has largely ignored.

One sees an example of this in the 2007 Christmas special, “Voyage of the Damned”, as the Doctor displays his inclination to stand alongside the least and undesirable in even the ordinary moments of life. Having found himself on a luxury cruise spaceship, the Doctor is immediately drawn to a couple that seems out of place in the opulent settings. While most of the guests on the ship are thin, attractive, and impeccably dressed, this particular couple is rather overweight and dressed in garishly tacky clothes. They are in the process of gorging themselves on the ample free food when the Doctor joins them at their table. He soon discovers that unlike the rest of the guests on the cruise ship, this couple won the trip through a raffle and are enjoying a vacation they never dreamed they would have. Soon though it becomes apparent that a group of the other guests are making fun of this couple. Overhearing this mocking of the undesirables in their midst, the Doctor with humor in his eyes draws out his sonic screwdriver and uses it to pop the cork of a bottle of champagne at the table of the mockers. They are drenched in the resulting spray and the Doctor assumes an innocent look. It is a demonstration of that very reversal of roles where the powerful are brought down and the humble lifted up, done not maliciously but with well-timed humor. It is an affirmation of Walter Wink’s assertion that “The Powers That Be literally stand on their dignity. Nothing depotentiates them faster than deft lampooning. By refusing to be awed by their power, the powerless are emboldened to seize the initiative, even where structural change is not possible.”

It is Amy Pond in her first trip out into the universe in the TARDIS in the episode “The Beast Below” who voices aloud the depth of compassion of the Doctor. Despite the Doctor’s protest that he just travels the universe to observe and not to interfere, she can’t help but notice that when he sees a small girl in pain he cannot but step in and help her out. As Amy points out to the Doctor, “You ‘never interfere in the affairs of other peoples or planets,’ unless there’s children crying.” From his position of weakness, the Doctor cannot help but notice the suffering of the innocent. He embodies the description of one who “fills the hungry with good things” and wipes away every tear.

It will be curious to see in “The Day of the Doctor” who the Doctor who is not the Doctor truly is. For when he stops extending infinite compassion, seeks power instead of leveling playing fields, and turns aside from his role as healer of the universe, he is most certainly no longer the Doctor. Throughout history, believers have tried to turn God into something God is not. Lust for power and an affinity for violence are not the traits of one who loves and heals. The Doctor serves as a reminder of what such a God should look like, and how utterly tragic it is when he does not.

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3 Responses leave one →
  1. November 5, 2013

    Great commentary on the Doctor and views of God.

    I think the Doctor’s approach to such things was one of the reasons I was so drawn to it as a child as opposed to things like Star Trek or Star Wars – where the heroes solve their problems through violence as a rule.

  2. January 27, 2014

    Definitely. The Doctor approaches every problem in order to heal. Even when he fails, it’s still marked by the fact that he tried and tried without applying violence. It was wonderful the way they reclaimed Doctor 8.5 as a true Doctor in ‘Day of the Doctor’.

    BTW, my daughter and I enjoyed the panel you were on before the simulcast at Comic Con. We stayed straight through from Stan Lee to James Marsters to the Doctor panel and simulcast that day. And enjoyed all of it.

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