Science Fiction, Doctor Who, and Learning to Pray

Sunday afternoons in high school, I sat sideways with my legs hanging over the arms of the green leather chair in the family room, and I listened for the creak upstairs that meant my parents were settled in for their nap. My father, a pastor, generally needed a lie down between the morning’s sermon and the evening’s requirements, whether it was a business meeting or small groups or a potluck dinner. My mother, on the other hand, grabbed any excuse for a nap that she could find. My siblings scattered around the house to do their homework, so I was generally left alone to finish my own. I opened a book on my lap, but once I heard the all-clear, I clicked on the television, turned the volume down low, and — I never thought I’d admit this — turned on Andromeda. I’m not sure when the sci-fi series starring former Hercules actor Kevin Sorbo actually aired, but there it was, every Sunday on UPN (also known as the channel people rarely watch on purpose), the adventures of the spaceship Andromeda and its crew. I always turned it off if my parents or siblings came into the room because 1) my parents would not have approved of the space suits the female space travelers wore, and 2) I didn’t want to have to explain my fascination with science fiction.

I’m not much for science in general. I dreaded the unpredictability of high school science courses, save for Mr. Bannow’s chemistry class. I only liked it because he greeted each student by name as they entered – if he forgot anyone, he made sure to do so before teaching – and his lab directions designed to see if you were actually reading them. Often, #4 on the directions of a metals lab was “kill your lab partner, dig a hole, and bury him in it.” There was less hilarity in college science. I hobbled through Environmental Science and Chemistry of Life, but not without much groaning and belly-aching.

I know science fiction is less about science and more about technology. I’m not super great with technology either. In fact, new technology tends to make me woozy, and the idea of scientific progress worries me. I cling to the old, nostalgia, the familiar. I’m not a fan of what I don’t know and can’t understand. Hence why, when I discovered my old-old-old cell phone (it has a CAMERA), I was terribly tempted to keep it forever instead of donating it. Forget about my new 3G Droid X. For a moment, I missed my flip phone.

And don’t get me started about space itself. It is too immense for me to even consider, much less be impressed with. I think about the planets, I see graphs and models, and I shrug. It’s just too much for me. I cannot wrap my mind around light-years (unless the word Buzz precedes it) or galaxies or black holes. The exception is, of course, if these elements are the backdrop to a fantastic story. Then I am utterly hooked. I’m predictable that way (see: history, psychology, English).

Science fiction books captured me first. They have become more acceptable over the years, with the popularity of the mass-marketed movies surrounding the tales. I gobbled up the Lord of the Rings series, the Wrinkle in Time books, and later Harry Potter. I briefly flirted with adult science fiction books by way of Fahrenheit 451. I didn’t stay in adult sci-fi, though, because of a lack of imagination and suspicion. I moved into mystery instead, science fiction’s more mainstream cousin, still full of strange tales to be told and secrets to hold, just without the space ships or other wordly technology.

During college, my penchant toward science fiction was diluted by the classics and real humans. Everyday life – boys in particular – was inexplicable enough. I couldn’t handle any more mysteries in my life than life itself. I mean, how was one supposed to pay bills on time? Or take her car into the shop and still get to class? Or buy groceries when naps seemed like a better idea?

What brought me back to this world of the future? One word, that strikes both joy and fear into my heart: Netflix. This joint DVD and online streaming subscription ruined my life and made it infinitely more wonderful. There are entire television shows, available wherever wireless internet and my computer are located. All it takes is the click-click of a few keys, and before I know it, it’s five hours later, I’m alone in a dark apartment in my pajamas, I haven’t seen a single actual real-life human being all day, and I am content.

After blowing through seasons of television series rapid fire (hello and good-bye, Veronica Mars), I saw a show come up that I had only heard about: BBC’s Doctor Who. It was spoken of, tongue-in-cheek, by some British comedians and friends, and that was all I knew about it. It looked intriguing, and even though it was under the science fiction label, I gave it a shot.

Of course I adored it. Oh, this television show combines every single thing I love about stories: wit, mysteries, charismatic figures, doomed romances. The characters were attractive, but not too attractive (thank you, British television) and all of them had magnificent accents. I started calling my obsessive watching “research” for my upcoming trip to Great Britain, for I learned the location of Cardiff, the difference between a Southern and Northern accent, and some useful phrases. Oh, and don’t get me started about David Tennant, that wonderful Scot.

At the center of the series is an enigmatic man who travels in space and time, feeling responsible for the universe and everything in it because he failed his family, his country, and his species. Accompanying him on his adventures is a beautiful young woman who desires to see the world, falls madly in love with him, and finds out about herself and her world because of everything this wide universe has to offer. Plus, there are dozens of frightening and/or comically-lame aliens who either need to be rescued or need to be attacked. You must excuse the lame ones – this is a show that is 46 seasons old, and what was frightening back in the mid-60s was a little different than it is today.

What I mostly love about it – besides David Tennant as the Doctor – is threefold. One, it is ingrained in the psyche of the British people. Some British folks think it is rubbish, but they at least know it. It’s been part of the culture for dozens of years. I’m also a sucker for a good psychologically complex character. The Doctor is completely mad and clever, with the longest history possible and an immense capability for attachment despite pain. He takes the responsibility for humanity upon his shoulders, and this sometimes means sacrificing few for the sake of the many. He’s fascinating to me in the same way that Sherlock Holmes is – they baffle me.

The other reason I love this show is the same reason I love science fiction in general: it helps humankind look at itself subjectively. We can look at a future race of people, a future world, and condemn it because of the distance between them and us without getting too uncomfortable and shutting off. Because the situation is obviously fiction, we don’t get as personally affronted when a negative conclusion is made. But then after further reflection, we see the undercurrent of truth and go, “Huh. That was us. That was us in the future if we keep going like this. That can’t happen.” It’s tricky and wonderful.

I’ve been reading the book Crazy Love by Francis Chan with my church small group. It’s been an interesting and intense experience, because – as anyone who has read this book knows – it is a hard book to go through. One of the first chapters talks about how we should stop praying. Now, Chan isn’t advocating the complete lack of communication with the Almighty. Instead, he is denouncing those who approach God with lack of thought or preparation. I read this chapter right in middle of my Doctor Who obsession, and somehow, the Doctor helped me understand this God of mine better.

The Doctor was taking me to the farthest corners of this (made-up) universe. Despite the fiction, I began to realize how magnificent our real universe truly is. How big and wonderful and unfathomable. How there are galaxies and planets and stars and moons and places we can only pinpoint in this wide expanse of black we call the night sky. And how maybe the planet Gallifrey is just a figment of a writer’s imagination, but it makes me see that there might be a planet out there like it, where there are people and creatures like those. We might not be alone, and God – in his infinite and beautiful creativity- may have created other worlds out there that seek him.

On the flip side of that, I see how small we are, how little we can do and yet, how our actions change the world, one small step at a time. Any time travel aficionado knows that it’s imperative to leave some things as they are, because without them – regardless of how awful and cruel they were – things that we know now as beautiful would not exist. In an episode of Doctor Who, because a great commander dies, her granddaughter is inspired to live the same life of heroism. When the Doctor in an act of hubris tries to go back in time and save the commander, the commander denies him, believing that future generations need her dead more than alive. Had this been reality and she lived, maybe things would have turned out okay, maybe her granddaughter would have profited more by her life versus her death, but our actions change the world with every moment. We are not to know the impact we have – only God holds those things in his hand.

And so when Chan said to approach the throne of the Savior with gravity and gratitude, I started to picture this throne room. I’m not a true literalist. I don’t necessary think that Jesus is literally at God’s right hand in a magnificent room; I recognize more the social and spiritual ramifications of that statement. But I’m also a believer in the power of story and imagination and pictures. And because of this, now when I pray, I picture God’s throne room at the top of a grand staircase. I have to ascend the stairs every time, and my stomach drops out in nervousness, as it does before I give a presentation or meet someone I admire. Every step resounds in the great hall, but instead of sounding like the slap of a shoe against glassy marble, it sounds like bells. The floor makes my footsteps sing. The doors are ahead of me, wide, huge doors, twenty feet high and made from the most beautiful wood, trees who gave their very selves to create an ornately-carved passage for the King. Carved on the door is a beautiful tree, the tree of Good and Evil that caused Eve’s downfall and our distance, but also our choice. There’s an impact to every choice. At this point, I have to decide to open the door or not. I know what is inside, and because of Doctor Who, I can imagine the various crazy figures around the throne. In person, they inspire fear but also awe, and then I am in the proper understanding for God’s presence.

And so, Doctor Whoaffects my spiritual life, because God is in all, and he is seen in all, and he becomes all. And all is beautiful through him. Even science fiction geeks like myself.

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4 thoughts on “Science Fiction, Doctor Who, and Learning to Pray

  1. I would love to see a piece of fiction developed out of the brief description of moving up the staircase to the thrown room. It reminds me some of C. S. Lewis' The Great Divorce- but with more realism. That would be an amazing story- beautiful imagery.

  2. So, first of all, The Lord of the Rings is NOT science fiction. Tolkien and Lewis had to fight hard for fantasy to be recognized as a legitimate genre (even though sci-fi, somehow, already was). . . don't undo their hard work. But I forgive you. 🙂 Secondly, I REALLY want to see Dr. Who. I don't really know how I still haven't. Alas. Thirdly (and most importantly) I really love this post. "Carved on the door is a beautiful tree, the tree of Good and Evil that caused Eve’s downfall and our distance, but also our choice." Ah. That's just it, isn't it? One choice, and this whole mess of beautiful, terrifying, painful goodness ensued. And we can't go back, but do we even really want to? Back before the cross, and the grace, and the knowledge of the full, terrifying, costly love of God? What a good (awesome, mighty, beautiful) God we serve.

  3. My apologies to the Misters Tolkien and Lewis. 🙂 Whatever was I thinking?Thanks to everyone for their comments! I greatly appreciate your thoughtful comments!

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