I was intrigued to read on DoctorWhoNews.com that an episode of Doctor Who has been shortlisted for the Epiphany Prize, an award which is presented at the Movieguide Awards, a “faith and values awards gala”, and which, according to its website,
“endeavor[s] to encourage the production of feature films and television programs which are wholesome, uplifting and inspirational and which result in a great increase in either man’s love of God or man’s understanding of God. These Prizes are intended to encourage spiritual wisdom, knowledge and growth.”
Now, Who has always seemed to me a pretty staunchly rationalist, humanist programme. What could they have possibly found in it to support this set of criteria?
The episode in question is Gridlock. The one with the people in little boxy hover cars, who’ve all been stuck in traffic for years, feeding gas-dependent crabs (Macra) off their fumes. What, I asked myself, was going to “result in a great increase in either man’s love of God or man’s understanding of God” in that?
Unfortunately, the website doesn’t give any explanation of their decision. But I’m pretty sure that the Templeton Prize people must have nominated this episode on the grounds that there’s a couple of quite moving hymn scenes in it (“The Old Rugged Cross“, and “Abide With Me“, according to Wikipedia).
So are they right to see a religious message in this? Not if the writer has anything to do with it. After all, this is the man who wrote The Second Coming. If you listen to the podcast commentary for the episode on the BBC website, then you will hear the following exchange:
Russell T Davies: It’s a very Doctor Who thing, this. It’s easy to write dystopia, and I remember when I first thought of this, thinking ‘oh, there’ll be cannibals, and pirates, and they’ll all be eating each other’, and you think those things only in order to get rid of them, and come out the other end at what is a very Doctor Who story, and what I absolutely love about this is that they’re not all killing each other in these cars. And they live like this, and they survive, and they have hope, and they have optimism, and that’s why they end up singing a hymn: because.. um.. I think it’s very human. I think in the most appalling circumstances, people will.. well, they’re [Ardal O’Hanlon’s cat character and his wife] breeding, in a funny way they’re happy, they’re.. um.. like.. you could also argue that’s their greatest downfall, that they don’t try to get out of their world.
David Tennant: And that’s what’s complicated about that moment, which I think is why it works, because on one hand there’s a wonderful kind of sense of community going on –
DT: – Which gives you.. belief in the human spirit and warms the cockles of your heart. At the other side, it’s an opiate of the masses –
DT: – And I remember we talked about… cuz I think originally.. the original stage direction was that the Doctor was moved by this, along with everybody else –
RTD: Towards Valerie –
RTD: – because he was so rude to her.
RTD: You know, he’d actually upset her.
DT: Yes. And I remember we talked about whether that was right or not, and actually –
RTD: No, you were right, because there was a stage direction just saying ‘he puts his hand on her shoulder during the hymn’. And you brilliantly didn’t want to –
RTD: – I absolutely agree now I watch it, because actually you’re right, this faith that they all have is brilliant, and stops them all murdering each other, and is fantastic. Equally it stops anyone saying ‘What the hell is going on here?’, and that’s.. the… next.. er.. the hymn does change everyone; it makes Martha part of the world, and she joins in singing, it makes you – the Doctor – break the world, and start jumping from.. and defying the laws of physics, and all the laws of gravity of the world, by going from car to car to car. Which noone’s ever thought of doing –
RTD: – so.. yes, it has both things happening in opposite directions at the same time.
DT: It’s very moving though, as well.
RTD: Look at them.
DT: I do think it’s a brilliant bit of writing, though, to put him.. Doctor Who, seven o’clock on a Saturday night, and to use it in this way.
RTD: I hope so. Good.
DT: I can’t imagine anyone else would think of that, and I think it’s a stroke of genius, I really do.
RTD: Oh thank you. You should have been my neighbours, cuz I bought this CD of Welsh Male Voice Choir, and when I’m writing it, when there’s a piece of music that goes with a scene, I have to keep repeating it and repeating it; I must have had The Old Ragged Cross coming out of my house about a thousand times, and they’re going ‘I knew he’d turn! Knew they’d get him in the end!’
RTD: But there it is: The Doctor’s inspiration goes the opposite way.
Now, note a couple of things.
1. The series typically encourages us to identify with the companion as a representation of what we might do in that situation. It encourages us to view the Doctor as correct, except on very rare occasions. In The Unquiet Dead, it is the Doctor who takes the pro-asylum seeker stance in the face of Rose’s cultural objections. In The Silurians (just out on DVD, and a treat it is too, folks), the Doctor holds the moral high ground in holding out for peace in the face of increasing hostility from both the “monsters” and from UNIT. One could go on. The point is, the Doctor’s judgment is the one we are almost always supposed to accept.
2. The reasons that Davies and Tennant give here for why the hymn might signify a good thing as well as a bad one are the kind of arguments which atheist apologetics for religion employ. Neither the good thing nor the bad thing about the hymn, in their eyes, is based on the actual existence of God.
Still, hymns, eh?