A religious who's Who
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Date: 05 January, 2006
Philip Purser-Hallard reviews Back in Time, a book offering Christian perspectives on Doctor Who.
Christian Doctor Who fans have long been aware that our fandom has a lot in common with our faith.
Both groups of followers take inspiration from a peaceful, selfless saviour-figure, yet insist on having acrimonious ideological arguments in his name. Both are concerned – some would say obsessed – with wresting meaning from a vast conglomeration of disparate texts. Both could, to some extent, do with getting out more.
From the introduction to Back in Time, which explains precisely which categories of Doctor Who are considered to be ‘authoritative’ and ‘canonical’, it’s clear that the authors’ fannish credentials are as impeccable as their (evangelical) Christian ones. Other fans may disagree with their conclusions, but the fact that they even consider the matter worth mentioning is enough to mark them out as one, or rather three, of us.
Back in Time has every right, therefore, to call itself A Thinking Fan’s Guide to Doctor Who. A follow-up to Damaris Books’ equally Christian perspectives on the Matrix and His Dark Materials series, it divides its content roughly equally between the programme’s original 26-year run and its spectacular 2005 revival, to which it also attempts, rather awkwardly, to be a reference guide.
As fans, the authors clearly know their stuff (although, as a fan, I feel duty-bound to point out that there are some easily-rectifiable errors and omissions), but there’s little in the first four chapters or the appendices which isn’t available both freely on the Web and expensively in other, more comprehensive reference works.
Fortunately the rest of the book is more substantial, though it remains at its best when using the series as a framework on which to hang its theological musings. The account of the development of the Daleks as a metaphor for various cultural terrors, from 1963’s atomic Nazis to 2005’s religious zealots, is splendid, and similar gems (including an examination of the Doctor’s attitude to violence, killing and self-sacrifice) are scattered throughout.
A whole book with this approach could have been the best of last year’s predictably huge crop of unofficial tie-ins – particularly since the style is very readable, and leavened helpfully with humour (as when describing the Victorian ghost-story episode as ‘more séance fiction than science fiction’).
Unfortunately, the book also includes some unnecessarily dogmatic assaults upon contemporary philosophies of science, drawing very little on Doctor Who except as an occasional source of spurious metaphors. The substance of these rants wavers between the intriguing and the infuriating (‘intelligent design’ indeed), but its relationship to the authors’ ostensible subject-matter remains free-associative at best.
The result is an ambitious yet bitty book, attempting to cover too wide a ground and spreading itself terribly thin as a result. At times it reads as if each author was secretly hoping to write a book of his own, with an entirely different agenda from those of the others.
Nevertheless, Back in Time does what it says on the tin. Although I frequently disagreed, sometimes loudly, to the consternation of my family, with both the theology and the fan-politics (Tom Baker the best Doctor? Oh, come on...), the book persistently challenged me to consider and to justify my own opinions.
In that respect, for this thinking fan at least, Back in Time achieves its purpose.
Back in Time: A Thinking Fan’s Guide to Doctor Who by Steve Couch, Tony Watkins and Peter S Williams, Damaris Books, 2005, 271pp.
Buy this book here and raise money for Christian Aid.
Read Salvation through time travel, the spirituality of Doctor Who, by Philip Purser-Hallard here.