Dr. Who and The Search for Significance


Over the last few months, I’ve begun to watch Dr. Who (after hearing so many speculative reader and writer friends heartily endorse it), and with interest I’ve observed various themes develop as the series has unfolded. In the first season, one of the things which stood out most to me was the clear demonstration of the human yearning for significance and meaning, for something more than the mundane tasks of everyday life.

In the final episode of that season, Rose Tyler, unwillingly sent home while the Doctor is facing his death, demands to know what she should do, how she can return to everyday life while matters impacting the universe are occurring around her. She can’t because she’s seen a better way of living life and the value of even one person who will make a stand for what’s right.

Her words bleed with the desire for something greater, the desire to make a difference, to have an impact on her world. Yet ultimately the show provides little satisfaction for this longing, even for the characters that inhabit it. The Doctor can’t take everyone exploring the far reaches of the universe. He can’t demonstrate to everyone the wider world out there, and the place they have within it. Only a select few, Rose among them, have their lives changed, and their horizons broadened by their adventures with him. Though those that interact with the Doctor are changed, he’s far from an omnipresent being. Of the alien race of Time Lords, yes, but still only able to personally impact a small number of lives.

So Dr. Who demonstrates the human yearning for significance and meaning in life, yet it doesn’t provide the means to satisfy it and doesn’t show the reason that longing exists in mankind. Indeed, the show leaves little room for a Creator. Yet it still accomplishes a purpose, for we must feel a desire in order to long for and seek its fulfillment. As does much of speculative fiction, Dr. Who not only unfolds an intriguing tale, it also has the potential to rouse people from the slumber of the ordinary and ignite that spark of desire in the human soul for another world–a desire which may find perfect fulfillment in God. For Scripture says, “he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened.” First comes the desire, the hunger, the seeking…and then the fulfillment.


  • Kessie
    January 4, 2012 - 5:46 pm · Reply

    Wait until you get further along in the series and tackle some of those questions. Like the question of not saving people who are supposed to die (like when Mount Vesuvius erupts).

    Or later on, when the Doctor is talking to a baby, telling him about looking forward to the rat race “and a lingering sense of spiritual emptiness”, and the Doctor is so sad about it. Or an extremely sad episode when his current companion girl gets stuck in a separate timeline for 36 years, and the Doctor has the choice to save the young, present version, or the old, jaded, future version, when both are pleading to be saved. (That episode is a terrible tear-jerker.)

    Or at the end of season 6, when the Doctor faces down the person who has come to kill him, and he tells them, “I just wanted you to know that you are totally and completely forgiven.”

    Gee, now I want to go watch all 6 seasons again. 🙂

    • Sarah Sawyer
      January 10, 2012 - 1:42 pm · Reply

      I’ve already been pleasantly surprised so far at just how many meaningful questions Dr. Who raises–questions that explore the meaning of life and death, time and eternity, mercy and justice, and so much more. Of course, it usually doesn’t have answers to offer, but it’s wonderful food for thought.

      No question, the characters face some serious dilemmas, and that’s part of what makes the show so compelling to me. There have been some powerful moments already, and it sounds like many more to come. I’m excited to see how things will continue to develop.

  • TheQuietPen
    January 4, 2012 - 9:56 pm · Reply

    I do appreciate how wonderfully depressing Doctor Who is—in that it does grapple with the realities of the Doctor’s position as the last remaining survivor of his race, the destroyer of his race (in order to save the universe), and the tenuous joy he receives from his human companions, who ultimately leave in some way or another. I like how it de-glamorizes immortality, in a sense–it may sound good to live forever, but it’s very, very lonely if there’s no one who can share it with you (not that I’m immortal or anything, but let’s just say I’ve had time on the brain since I was a very small, very odd child).

    The Doctor himself seems to constantly be searching for wholeness and redemption throughout his journeys, and his incessant drive to right wrongs and save the day. It definitely does speak to a deeper longing for something to fill that emptiness that no amount of good works can fill–and of course, that can only be filled with God.

    • Sarah Sawyer
      January 10, 2012 - 1:46 pm · Reply

      Yes, the Doctor has some pretty grim backstory, and yet he still manages to look on the world with wonder (despite moments of pain and loneliness). You’re right that they don’t gloss over what it would mean to be the sole survivor of your kind and to live forever, watching everyone you care about grow old and die. Oh, and I also remember wracking my brains as a child to try to comprehend eternity. 🙂

      Honestly, seeing man’s version of immortality reminds me of just how good eternity is in the way God set it up…that we get to live forever in a perfect world, no more sorrow or suffering. You can’t get better than that. 🙂

      Good analysis of the Doctor. He does seem to be on a quest to find redemption, in a way.

  • Mary Ruth Pursselley
    January 4, 2012 - 11:39 pm · Reply

    Alright, this does it. I’m going to have to go to the library and see if I can’t find the Doctor Who seasons. I just keep hearing more and more about the show, but haven’t gotten around to actually watching it yet. Until I have, I don’t really feel like I can contribute anything of value to this conversation, other than just to say that Sarah, I’m continually impressed with your ability to see the theme and underlying meanings in just about everything, it seems. It inspires me to look deeper into things for myself.

    • Sarah Sawyer
      January 10, 2012 - 1:47 pm · Reply

      Mary, that’s exactly what happened to me. Everyone seemed to be discussing Dr. Who and giving glowing endorsements or thoughtful analyses, so I thought I’d see what all the fuss was about. 🙂 And I’m glad I did. I started with the first season of the relaunch with Christopher Eccleston as the Doctor, rather than going back to the really old stuff (though I may check that out someday).

      Also thanks for your kind words–they’re truly an encouragement, and I’m glad you’re inspired to look deeper. 🙂

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