Wednesday, 4 June 2014

Lessons from the TARDIS

Warning: Potential spoilers for all of Doctor Who post 2005 (especially 1.13 The Parting of Ways, 6.4 The Doctor's Wife and 7.13 The Name of the Doctor). This is written with the assumption that you are familiar with the stories.

I'm always a little hesitant to make spiritual applications to secular things. But here I am doing it again :-p And I suppose that it is something Jesus himself did in parables (taking the secular and using it to explain sacred lessons). Various people have pointed out the God-like characteristics of the Time Lord known as the Doctor in the popular British TV series Doctor Who. I did it myself some time ago in my post The Doctor and Jesus. It tends to make me feel a little uncomfortable, although I have seen it done well and sensitively. I have no problem, for example, pointing out character traits of the Doctor that can demonstrate Christ-like behaviour (as one might do with biblical characters such as Noah and Joseph and David). It's when people start seeing him as a replacement for God or an incarnation of Jesus (problematic for various reasons, not the least of which are his many faults), that I feel they have gone too far. I suppose that it is the Doctor's super-human abilities (which enable him to save planets and races and overcome death), that lend to his being compared to God and/or Christ. But it recently occurred to me that there is another character in Doctor Who which can provide for us lessons or illustrations about God and his character and how he interacts with mankind. The Doctor's sentient space ship, the T.A.R.D.I.S, bears a number of similarities to the Christian concept of God. And so I present to you five "Lessons from the TARDIS".

1. "I always took you where you needed to go"

The TARDIS is notorious for messing up the Doctor's instructions and taking taking him and his companions everywhere but where they want to go. The Doctor plans to take Amy and Rory to sunny Rio, but they end up in a cold rural Welsh village, just in time to rescue the earth from an invasion of Homo Reptilia. He tries to take Rose to a concert in Sheffield in 1979 but they end up in Victorian Scotland a hundred years earlier (and help to save Queen Victoria's life – and the world). He promises to take Donna to Ancient Rome, but but they arrive in Pompeii just in time for Mt Vesuvius to erupt. Even in the Classic era, he seldom ends up where he planned to take his companions – regularly getting either the place or year (or both) wrong.

It is never entirely clear whether it's the Doctor's lack of flying skill or the TARDIS' unreliability that is at fault; perhaps it is a combination of both. We know the Doctor didn't care much for following the TARDIS instruction manual, and that River, who was taught by the TARDIS herself was much better at flying than he was. But at the same time, the splinter-version of Clara that visits the First Doctor, telling him which TARDIS he should steal, mentions that her navigation system is “knackered”.

In the last episode of Series I, The Parting of Ways, it seems that there is even more going on than the Doctor's flying skills or the TARDIS' navigation system being unreliable. In this episode, we discover that the various occurrences of the words "Bad Wolf" throughout the series were not coincidental, but part of a greater plan which the TARDIS had some sort of control over.

In the episode from Series VI called The Doctor's Wife, the episode in which we learn the most about the TARDIS (because it is the one time she is given a voice), the Doctor openly questions her unreliability. Her response is profound.

I just want to say, you know, you have never been very reliable. 
And you have? 
You didn't always take me where I wanted to go.
No, but I always took you where you needed to go.

The Doctor is stumped. He can't argue back because he knows she is telling the truth. Every time he ended up somewhere other than where he intended to go, it was for a good reason. Usually she brings him to a place at a point in history just in time to save the world (or universe) from a terrible fate/destruction. Sometimes, it is for his own good or character-building or that of his companion(s). Though he has many narrow calls and sometimes he regrets (at least in part) the outcome, I don't think he could ever say to the TARDIS, looking back, “Why did you take me there?” There was always a reason for her taking him off course and it was always for the good of him, his companions and the universe as a whole.

It is in this respect, that the TARDIS reminds us of the Lord. We often find ourselves in places where we can't understand what is going on and why the Lord has let us end up in that place. But without fail, whenever we look back, we can always see how that was exactly where we needed to be at that point in time. Whether for our own good, or for the good of others, all the things in our lives that might look like accidents, really aren't. He always takes us where we need to go.

And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose. (Rom 8:28)

From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. (Acts 17:26)

2. Outside of Time

A second characteristic of the TARDIS that reminds us of the nature of God, is the manner in which she exists outside of time. I've never fully understood the mechanics of TARDIS time travel (I don't think it's ever fully explained), but we know she enters this tunnel that exists outside of time and space (the time vortex) and from there she can take the doctor to any point in the universe and in history. We see this in The Doctor's Wife when Idris gets confused about tenses and the past and present and starts talking about things that haven't happened yet.

The Doctor: Why am I a thief? What have I stolen?
Idris: Me. Are you going to steal me? You have stolen me. You are stealing me. Oh! Tenses are difficult, aren't they?

We get an even more powerful idea of this in The Parting of Ways. Rose, having absorbed the soul of the TARDIS makes the following famous speech:

I am the Bad Wolf. I create myself. I take the words...I scatter them, in time and space. A message, to lead myself here. You are tiny. I can see the whole of time and space, every single atom of your existence, and I divide them. Everything must come to dust. All things, everything dies. The time war ends. How can I let go of this? I bring life. The sun and the moon, the day and night. I can see everything... all that is... all that was... all that ever could be.

The TARDIS herself can't usually create life, but in this particular situation (I'm never quite sure how much is TARDIS and how much is time vortex and what the actual difference is), we get the idea of how transcendent the TARDIS is with respect to our little closed sphere of time and space. Even the Doctor, who can travel in time, needs to physically travel backwards and forwards to experience different occurrences. The TARDIS on the other hand seems to exist outside of time and knows all things that have happened and will happen simultaneously. That, in fact, is how she was able to always take the Doctor where he needed to go.

And so with God. He created time and exists outside of it. To him tenses are meaningless (except in his understanding of how they apply to us). He knows the beginning from the end and has seen all the days of our lives before any has come to be.

From everlasting to everlasting you are God.
A thousand years in your sight
are like a day that has just gone by,
or like a watch in the night. (Psalm 90:2b, 4)

For thus says the High and Lofty One
Who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy... (Isaiah 57:15a)

Where can I go from your Spirit?
Where can I flee from your presence?
If I go up to the heavens, you are there;
if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.
If I rise on the wings of the dawn,
if I settle on the far side of the sea,
even there your hand will guide me,
your right hand will hold me fast. (Psalm 139:7-10)

3. "This was when we talked"

One peculiar characteristic of the TARDIS is that although she is sentient and intelligent, she is not usually able to communicate with the Doctor. There is no direct interface between them and though the Doctor can speak to her (and it seems she hears him), she does not speak back.

Except once. In The Doctor's Wife, the soul of the TARDIS was removed from the machine and poured into the body of a human woman, Idris. Suddenly she was given a voice, and she could tell the Doctor things directly. They could discuss past events (their running away together), their present struggles, and even some hints about the future were given (“the only water in the forest is the river”).

While the circumstances are vastly different, God too does not normally speak to us directly. His communication with us, for the most part, is through what we can see in the world he has created, from his revealed word (the bible), from the events that happen in our lives, and sometimes through the mouths of others speaking on his behalf. In Old Testament times, he revealed his Law to the patriarchs and Moses and the prophets and for a long time that was all people had to go on as direct communication from God. I suppose the Law might be compared to the TARDIS instruction manual. Men in general had (and still have) the same attitude to God's Law as the Doctor did to the manual: “I threw it into a supernova, because I disagreed with it.

But once, just once, for a short period, God, like the TARDIS, did communicate with us directly. This was when he came to earth in the form of a human, Jesus Christ. As Idris contained the soul of the TARDIS, so Jesus was the essence of God poured into the body of a human. During this time, he explained in person who God was, what he had done in the past and what would happen in the future. Of course, Jesus did a lot more than this. In the case of Idris, her “incarnation” was accidental (the work of a hostile enemy), whereas Jesus' incarnation was intentional and planned from before the beginning of time as the means by which God would save humans from their sinful and doomed nature.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth. (John 1: 1; 14). 

God, who at various times and in various ways spoke in time past to the fathers by the prophets, has in these last days spoken to us by His Son, whom He has appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the worlds; who being the brightness of His glory and the express image of His person, and upholding all things by the word of His power, when He had by Himself purged our sins, sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high. (Heb 1:1-3)

While the plan was different, and Jesus' death was far more important to all people, there is one similarity in their deaths. When Jesus was crucified, his enemies thought they had won. They assumed that he was defeated once and for all, but they were wrong. Jesus, because of his holiness and lack of sin, could not remain dead, but was raised again to life triumphant. So Idris, when House thought he had destroyed her, found that the last laugh was not his. He made the mistake of trying to kill her in her own TARDIS shell. He had placed her in a body that would not long survive being inhabited by a TARDIS soul, but as the body decayed, her soul was set free and able to return to it's true house.

One of the last things Idris says to the Doctor, before the soul of the TARDIS left her, was “I'll always be here, but this is when we talked”. The TARDIS is still with the Doctor, but they have reverted to the old manner of living. There is no more direct communication, but they still live and travel together. She is always with him and there for him, making sure he ends up exactly where he needs to be.

Are you there? Can you hear me? Oh, I'm a silly old... Okay. The Eye of Orion, or wherever we need to go.

So, when Jesus returned to heaven, the time during which God lived on earth and communicated directly with mankind was at an end. But we have the record of what he said and did while he was here to encourage us and help us to understand better what it is God wants from us as we live.

4. "I stole you"

This has the potential for entering muddy waters, but I don't think it needs to. Bear with me as I try to make the point I have in mind. One of the most poignant (though also humorous) moments in The Doctor's Wife is the following conversation:

Idris: Do you ever wonder why I chose you all those years ago?
The Doctor: I chose you. You were unlocked.
Idris: Of course I was. I wanted to see the Universe so I stole a Time Lord and I ran away. And you were the only one mad enough.

This is a funny moment, but interesting too. Which version of the story is true? Despite what she says, the TARDIS does not hesitate to refer to the Doctor as “my thief”, implying that she does not take full responsibility for their running away together. I think the answer is that both versions are true. The TARDIS almost admits as much earlier on in the episode (when we still aren't entirely sure who she is): "Then you stole me. And I stole you." The Doctor wanted to run away, so he stole a TARDIS. The TARDIS wanted to see the universe, so she left her doors open for him to find her. The TARDIS provided the means of escape, but there was also a desire on the part of the Doctor to make use of those open doors and use the TARDIS as his means of escape.

This is a terribly inadequate description of what happens at salvation and I honestly don't want to take it any further, but I like the idea of it as a springboard for understanding the problem. I don't think we'll ever find the answer to the question of how we come to salvation (of our own free will or by God's sovereign will) by asking which of the two options are the right one. Like the question of whether the Doctor stole the TARDIS or the TARDIS stole the Doctor, the answer isn't either/or. Both are simultaneously true.

If you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus and believe in your heart that God has raised Him from the dead, you will be saved. (Rom 10:9)

For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast. (Eph 2:8-9)

Also, this is probably taking things too far, but since I'm already here, one more point. The story of the Doctor's original departure from Gallifrey is a little bit more complex since The Name of the Doctor aired. No longer is it simply a question of the Doctor or the TARDIS choosing each other. When I first watched the scene where Clara confronts the First Doctor, telling him to steal a different TARDIS to the one he was actually planning to take, I really liked the idea. But then I realised that it contradicted the TARDIS' version of the story from The Doctor's Wife where it is implied that he stole that particular TARDIS because she was the one with unlocked doors. We don't know anything about the other TARDIS the Doctor was planning to steal before Clara intervened (whether or not her – or his; do we have male TARDISes?) doors were unlocked, or whether the Doctor was planning to break in somehow. Whatever the story was, could I make a half-hearted suggestion that Clara's role in this story was like that of an evangelist (by which I mean any Christian sharing the Gospel with another person) who pointed the Doctor to the right TARDIS?

I'm gong to leave this issue here. (*hides from barrage of responses*)

5. The Doctor's Wife (an unusual marriage)

Finally, I always found the title of the episode The Doctor's Wife slightly confusing. I get the point about the Doctor and the TARDIS being like an old married couple – always together, often arguing, but sharing a deep respect, care and love for each other. Amy put it best when she said “Look at you pair. It's always you and her isn't it? Long after the rest of us have gone”.

But at the same time, I found this rather incongruous in the light of the Doctor's relationships with his companions. If the Doctor was really, in some sense “married” to the TARDIS, how dare he go about falling in love with Rose Tyler, flirting with countless other women, and in the very same series in which The Doctor's Wife takes place – marrying River Song?

I should probably put some context to my complaint. I read a review of The Doctor's Wife before ever seeing an episode of Doctor Who. As a result, I went into the first episode (and those subequent) with the idea that the Doctor was in reality (secretly?) married to the TARDIS. Remember, I had very little idea when I read the review of who the Doctor was, what he was like and how his relationship with the TARDIS and his companions worked. As I watched more and more programmes, I realised where and how I had been mistaken in understanding the Doctor's relationship with the TARDIS. But I still felt slightly annoyed by the title The Doctor's Wife, if for no other reason than that it had mislead and confused me.

I get it now, of course. The relationship with the Doctor and the TARDIS, while bearing some resemblance to a marriage in its consistency, duration and their care for each other is not in any sense a conventional marriage. As discussed above, they can't even have direct conversations with each other. It's a kind of transcendent marriage – they are soul-mates; but in a very different way to how the Doctor and River could be called soul-mates.

In fact, largely based on the characteristics discussed in the previous points, the relationship between the Doctor and the TARDIS is in some ways similar to that of a Christian and Christ. We talk about “giving our lives” to him, and much of the vocabulary of love and marriage can apply to a Christian's relationship with Jesus. This does not mean that Christians should all forego earthly relationships with other humans, that we should dedicate our lives to him and never love or marry a human being. On the contrary, he wants us to have relationships with other people as representative of the kind of relationship he has with us.

Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is head of the wife, as also Christ is head of the church; and He is the Saviour of the body.... Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself for her, that He might sanctify and cleanse her with the washing of water by the word, that He might present her to Himself a glorious church, not having spot or wrinkle or any such thing, but that she should be holy and without blemish. (Eph 5: 22-27)

The relationships between the Doctor and his companions belong on a completely different plane to his relationship with the TARDIS. They are not mutually exclusive because they are not the same kind of thing. Just as we have a love-relationship with Christ that does not contradict our relationships with people. Of course, we need to be in relationships with people who will respect and understand our relationship with Christ, in the same way the Doctor needs companions who respect the TARDIS and whom the TARDIS respects in return. The Church is described at various points in the New Testament as being the Bride of Christ. We can understand a little better how this works when we understand the role of the Doctor as the husband of the TARDIS.

I hope by this post to have been able to share my thoughts on how we might be encouraged by characteristics of the TARDIS in understanding our relationship with God. You're welcome to disagree with any of my analogies because I'm sure they have problems.

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