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The Rite Way

A look at Religion in Doctor Who

By Jamas Enright

This article looks at how religion is presented in Doctor Who. Religion will be defined here as the worshipping, implicit or explicit, of a being or ideal greater than the worshippers. This does not mean ritual, myth, legend or tradition.

Primary reference sources used here are the television stories and the novels, ignoring the short story collections and the like. Admittedly, this is filtered through the reference books and memory, so a few examples may have been omitted. Warning: severe spoilers for all sorts of stories.

The first part looks at how the Doctor and Doctor Who takes on a non-religious, almost a-religious, stance, in which religion is seen as something to be explained away. Then various stories with religious components are examined, and their treatment of religion briefly examined. Finally, the use of religion as a means is discussed.

The Doctor's religion

The Doctor comes from a pure science background, where everything can be explained through scientific understanding. This precludes the concept of the Doctor having any kind of religion at all, as everything that happens must admit a scientific explanation. In The Curse of Fenric, the Doctor exhibits ‘faith’ as a shield. That this is faith in his companions in an invention of the novelisation. As far as can be determined, all the Doctor is really doing is generating a psychic shield, after perhaps calming himself by thinking of his companions.

Doctor Who itself is built on principles of scientific explanation. It's a children's show designed to educate as well as entertain, and does this through the Doctor. Thus the program must, in many ways, adopt a non-religious stance. It is very much the “mystic figures who could fly are just guys with rocket pants” view.

The Doctor is contrasted with religion in order to explain it, and hence must always take a stand contrary it. To admit religion is to admit that scientific knowledge is insufficient. Note that psychic phenomena are prevalent when analysing religion, using such things as telepathy, clairvoyance and telekinesis, to explain, for example, how a god-like being can know what people are thinking. This shows that Doctor Who accepts parapsychology, within scientific trappings.

This last comment is interesting, in that Spiritualism gave way to parapsychology, with parapsychology used to explain Spiritualism in Doctor Who, such as in The Ghosts of N-Space. Yet, ‘real’ scientists want nothing to do with either concept, and view both as quackery.

The Doctor becomes the incarnation of pure science. Religion is seen as a counter to science, as religion is not founded on common sense/rational principles. (Those principles are usually defined as scientific, which leads to a somewhat vacuous definition for religion — that of religion being non-science) Religion is then contrary to the Doctor, and, via the Doctor, presented as something contrary to the viewer.

When faced with religion, the Doctor tends takes on a superior air, as if the religion is something almost distasteful. This doesn't mean he is disrespectful, indeed he respects the religion of the Primitives in Colony in Space and the Deons in Meglos, for example. However, he doesn't subscribe to their religious interpretations, instead going for scientific understanding, such as seeing the Dodecahedron as just a power source (in Meglos), or treating the Sacred Flame as nothing more than a natural gas (in The Brain of Morbius). This attitude is very belittling to the religion.

Already, from this, religion is placed on tenuous ground.

Religion as fantasy

Doctor Who is first and foremost science fiction in which everything is explained, to educate the children watching, by scientific understanding, then fantasy. Hence any fantastic elements must be explained by scientific principles. The classic example is The Dæmons, which pits Miss Hawthorne, the white witch, against the Doctor for explanations, with the Doctor winning through scientific technobabble.

Alien religions

The majority of the alien religions presented in Doctor Who are primitive in nature, simplistic mono- or poly-theism, especially when compared with the space-faring humans who usually encounter them in the story, and with the Doctor. Such as the Gonds, the Exxilons, the Primitives (Colony in Space), the Flight (The Speed of Flight), the Minyans, the Swampies (The Power of Kroll), the Kinda, the Sisterhood of Karn, the Ribans (The Ribos Operation), the Deons (Meglos) and the Elders (Planet of Fire).

There are fewer religions on the level of organised religions. The Lazarus Intent (The Crystal Bucephalus) has alien members, and the Church of the Way Forward look to erase the boundaries between races, but both of these have human influences in their religious make-up. An interesting ‘religion’ are the warrior-like Grel, who worship facts, mainly seen in the Benny New Adventure Oh No, It Isn't!

Arthur C. Clarke's ‘Third Law’ states “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” and Doctor Who has used this upon occasion to explain how magic, and religious occurrences, fit into its universe. Advanced technology explains the source of Merlin's powers (Battlefield), and the Doctor explains the existence of ghosts (The Ghosts of N-Space) with scientific principles. (In the TV Movie, the Doctor says he doesn't believe in ghosts, which is true as he doesn't see them as ghosts with the same connotations as humans do). In The Sorcerer's Apprentice, the planet Avalon works by magic, but this is revealed to be via nano-technology, which is the use of Clarke's “Law” taken to the extreme.

Compare with The Scarlet Empress, which has magical/religious acts with no explanation given other than being near-magic. But we could, if needed, find an explanation for these acts through the high science already demonstrated in other stories.

Unfortunately, there is then the tendency towards easy explanation through science, moreover through techno-babble. It's easier for science to think of a being with, either through technological aids or paranormal abilities, the ability to throw lightening bolts from its fingers (The Masque of Mandragora) or animate corpses (Grave Matter), rather than a god with a weakness for blondes (The Dæmons).

And with this easy explanation to hand, religion and fantasy have the ground cut out from underneath them in Doctor Who.

Religion as a world-view

What does religion offer? It does provide a way of viewing the world, offering a way to interpret the world and our existence, through the actions of powerful deities.

However, in Doctor Who, this explanation is never enough, and so a more scientific explanation is provided. Again Miss Hawthorne's mystic argument is seen as insufficient when compared to the Doctor's scientific explanation. The religious viewpoint is seen as more naive, and so the viewers come down on the side of the Doctor, and against religion.

In The Myth Makers, the Doctor is seen as Zeus, arriving in his blue temple, and is continually taken to be the god, especially by Katarina, despite his protests. As Katarina travels in the TARDIS, she accepts it all as mystical, though we, the audience, know otherwise. She is reluctant to change her view, and eventually sacrifices herself for her god.

Contrast this with Leela, who also starts off seeing the Doctor as a god, this time as The Evil One. However, she does overcome her religious upbringing and sees with a more scientific mind, although she may not always believe the scientific explanation.

In The Lords of the Storm, Hinduism is the religion used, but even here it comes off as a superstitious way of explaining what is happening. Nur talks of seeing Rudra, and the Sontarans are Rakshasi (demons). The audience knows the real/scientific reason, and so the religious aspect is very inadequate in explaining the nature of the threat that they face. Knowing that a creature is a demon is entirely different to know it's a Sontaran that can be killed via the probic vent.

In Placebo Effect, there's a three-page diatribe about the nature of religion versus science, but the religious arguments fail to convince Sam. The argument for religion is largely generic, one that the audience has probably come across before. As such, presented here, the case for religion isn't likely to convert anyone who isn't religious, nor turn off anyone who already has religious interests. In this light, it is rather puzzling that this discussion is included at all.

Religion fails to stand as a replacement for scientific understanding, and so comes in inferior to science.

Religion as community

Faction Paradox

The Time Lords are supposed to be as scientific as the Doctor, and have supposedly cast all concept of religion out (in Christmas on a Rational Planet), the Gods arc in the Benny books not-withstanding. The Faction Paradox started as a cult that worships paradox, creating chaos out of time, springing from the Time Lords (Alien Bodies). They use voodoo to perform rituals to manipulate biodata to create paradoxes, and they revere the figure known as Grandfather Paradox, someone who went back in time to kill his own grandfather. Unfortunately by the end, they are just another mad cult with delusions of grandeur (The Ancestor Cell), much to Lawrence Miles' dismay. This could have been a very interesting take on religion, but ends up being no more than people grabbing for personal power.

Another effect of religion is to bring people together. The Church of the Way Forward (Placebo Effect) and Church of the Vacuum (Love and War) united many races. Various brotherhoods and cults unite people who would otherwise be outsiders (eg. Faction Paradox — see side bar), although not always voluntarily. However, a lot of these gatherings provide a way for the story to have a group of people band together and perform acts and rituals that the Doctor must oppose. Again largely negative aspects are presented.

A rather extreme case is presented in Beltempest in which one must take communion, join the religion, or die. It comes across as the lesser of two evils, but still as an evil.

So religious gatherings are negatively presented.


Being the more common religion of Western Civilisation, it's hardly surprising that this is the most common religion presented in Doctor Who. One of the more frequent uses of Christianity is for the Doctor and companions to land during some momentous occasion in history, sometimes future history, and become embroiled in the plots and counterplots of the time. See, for example, The Crusade, The Witch Hunters, The Plotters, The Roundheads, The Massacre, Catastrophea, Managra, Zeta Major, and Sanctuary.

Although such instances are meant to educate, it is usually portrayed through a large amount of violence and backstabbing, mainly the use of religious ideals for political gain, which, whilst accurate in many cases, doesn't throw the best of light on the religious aspects. This is done to provide conflict and thus a story, and it is for the need for a story that the negative parts of Christian history are selected. But surely there are some positive parts of history that the Doctor could be at? How about the miracles of Jesus, or even the birth of Christ?

Occasions in history aside, various Christians in other stories don't fare so well either. Reverend Matthews, who is presented as a caricature of 19th Century thinking anyway, is turned into a monkey in Ghost Light. Mr. Wainwright is killed by Hæmovores in The Curse of Fenric. The Church of the Way Forward (a Christian off-shoot) doesn't survive The Placebo Effect. Reverend Magister turns out to be the Master. The Monk is a Time Lord adopting the disguise of the Christian.

One positive use: In The Empire of Glass, Cardinal Bellarmine hosts a galactic arms conference with no more than his religious knowledge, completely oblivious to the real nature of what is going on around him, and does very well.


There are, of course, other religions in Doctor Who, many of them worshipping only one God/God-like being, or concept. However, most of them are portrayed as being very simplistic in nature, not much better than tribal savages worshipping the sun for being hot. The attitude of the Doctor, whilst not being disrespectful, is very much the ‘savage who doesn't know any better’ view, a very imperial/Colonial stance, although that is also his attitude towards Ian in An Unearthly Child for not believing in the science of the TARDIS. For story purposes, most of the religions are against the Doctor, and many of the worshippers want to sacrifice either him or his companions.

The Tribe of Gum worship Orb. The Peladonians worship Aggedor. The Deons worship the Dodecahedron in Meglos. The Tribe of the Free worship Hadron in The Mysterious Planet. Hecate was worshipped by a cult in K9 and Company. Cessair of Diplos took on the form of the Calleach, complete with cult, in The Stones of Blood. The Sarns worshipped Logar in The Planet of Fire. The Swampies worshipped Kroll in The Power of Kroll. The Sisterhood of Karn worshipped the Sacred Flame in The Brain of Morbius. The Primitives worshipped the Guardian in Colony in Space. The Sevateem worshipped Xoanon in The Face of Evil. The Atlanteans worship Kronos in The Time Monster, and Amdo in The Underwater Menace. The Flight worship the Sun in Speed of Flight.

Similar to this are cults with a figurehead. Max Stael led a cult in Image of the Fendahl. The Lazarus Intent has Lazarus as a Messiah in The Crystal Bucephalus, and has aliens as members. Matheson Catcher used a cult to worship rationalism, a somewhat contradictory notion, in Christmas on a Rational Planet. Ed Hill had his own cult worshipping him in Revolution Man. The Master used a cult in The Dæmons.

There are other cults with somewhat more vague gods, or other beliefs, such as pain. There is a large number of brotherhoods, such as the Brotherhood of Demnos in The Masque of Mandragora, the Brotherhood of Rexulon in The Menagerie, the Brotherhood in Sleepy, the Brotherhood in The Death of Art and the Psionic Brotherhood in Damaged Goods and So Vile A Sin. The Mentiads in The Pirate Planet and the Family in The Death of Art banded together because of they were different from everyone else. The Chapter of St. Anthony in St. Anthony's Fire used brainwashing techniques to get Ace to join them. The Sacred Order of the New Dawn in Birthright, the Shadow Directory in Christmas on a Rational Planet and The Death of Art have their eyes on humanity. Not much is known about the Turtle cult in Sleepy. The Watchers of the Keeping in Genocide keep an eye out of the Uncreator to kill him.

Other religions

There are also religions with more than one god, but again the religion comes across as almost primitive. The Gonds worship the Krotons; the Sentarii worship the Rutans in Shakedown; the Ogrons worship the lizards in Colony in Space; the Egyptians worshipped the Osirians in Pyramids of Mars and The Sands of Time. The Ribans worship the Ice Gods in The Ribos Operation; the Kinda; the Aztecs; the Minyans worship the Time Lords in Underworld; the Anean Sun Samurai Cult seek the Chosen Ones in Sky Pirates!

One completely botched job of religion is in Salvation, where the multitudes of religion create havoc for the five beings who are worshipped as gods.

In The Abominable Snowman, Planet of the Spiders and The Room With No Doors, we are presented with another organised religion, namely Zen-Buddhism, but this it is presented in such a way that the religion comes across as very stereotypical, very flat, in many ways primitive to the science of the Doctor.

Voodoo is used in White Darkness, and it is related to Cthulhu-ism which extends to several other stories. (See Nick Withers' The All-Consuming Cthulhu Mythos in TSV 42.)

The Polynesians have a rather effective religion, based on alien science, in Eye of Heaven, although it appears very primitive. It manages to keep their society together, and provide a very effective defence system against outsiders.

The Monks of Felsecar are mentioned as preserving dangerous objects in Love and War, which also mentions the Vacuum Church, although that is tainted by the Hoothi.

Religion as means to an end

One of the most common story uses of religion in Doctor Who is as a means to an end, either for personal or political gain, where the latter can be either religious politics or governmental politics. The Doctor and his companions are swept up in the plans, typically for the worse, and so must play against the people using the religion, thus casting the people, and the religion, in the trappings of the villains.

[The Cailleach]

In the personal gain category: In The Stones of Blood, Cessair of Diplos used the persona of the Cailleach, amongst others, to lead the local populace and live among them for 5000 years — and also to provide a useful resource when it came to disposing of unwanted investigators. In Image of the Fendahl, Max Stael runs a cult as a way of gathering power, which is also how the Master operates in The Dæmons. Hieronymous used the Brothers of Demnos, then the Mandragora Helix used him. Ishtar pretends to be a god in Timewyrm: Genesys. The Rutans set up the religion on Sentarion just as a way to protect their wormhole in Shakedown. The Krotons were worshipped by the Gonds, although they only wanted the Gonds for their minds. Scaroth used the his abilities to appear as a god, in The City of Death. Magnus Greel impersonated Weng-Chiang. Matheson Catcher tried to use a cult to rationalise everything in Christmas on a Rational Planet (before religious chaos broke out). As a somewhat ultimate example, the Monk, a Time Lord, adopts religion as a guise.

Also prevalent are leaders or followers of a religion acting for self-advancement or self-importance, using religion, in which the Doctor and companions end up caught in the plots. For example: Tlotoxl in The Aztecs sought power through religion. King Richard in The Crusade tried to use religion for political gain. Hay in The Plotters wanted political change. The Abbot in The Massacre and the girls and Preacher Samuel Parris in The Witch Hunters acted in ‘the best interests of their religion’ largely for personal gain. Hepesh in The Curse of Peladon wanted more political power. The Deons in Meglos wanted to control the Tigellans. Almost everyone in Zeta Major used religion for political gain. The Brotherhood of Rexulon in The Menagerie were fanatics against society. The Church in Managra and the Church officials in Sanctuary wanted to rule their way. Ed Hill in Revolution Man started his own religion.


Religion is largely presented very negatively in Doctor Who. Either by showing religion in conflict to provide a story. Or by having the religion as primitive/tribal in order for the Doctor, the hero, to have some adversary to overcome. Or having religion used as a means, a tool in machinations that must be defeated.

This is a shame, as religion can be portrayed as good, and has many positive influences which could be examined more, especially in the novels. So far, however, there's little sign of that happening. One of the best examples so far has been the, admittedly humorously presented, act of Cardinal Bellarmine hosting the arms conference in Empire of Glass. Religion came up against the concept of races conducting war and coped more than adequately. Perhaps we could have a story where the religious interpretation allows the Doctor to overcome whatever the enemy is, where the scientific understanding of events only hinders.

Can religion be a force for good in Doctor Who? Well, it would make a change, certainly.

This item appeared in TSV 61 (December 2000).