British Science Festival 2011

Over the weekend, I hopped up to Bradford to take part in a panel discussion on “Science fiction and religion”. You can read more about the panel and my excellent co-contributors here. (Make sure you read the comments from the Doctor’s parish priest!) It was a very enjoyable session; lots of enthusiasm for Doctor Who, and some great discussion about, for example, how a theologian might approach writing sf, what sociology can bring to the mix, and much more.

Here’s the text of my talk.

Alien conmen and mad computers: Doctor Who, Star Trek – and religion

In the time available, I thought I’d give a whistle-stop tour of how Star Trek and Doctor Who have treated religious practice and religious belief across the years, and that would give us some food for thought and discussion later on.

Now, both shows have been running, on and off, since the 1960s, and between them have racked up hundreds of episodes, but I think we can pull out some general themes. And if I had to sum up how Star Trek and Doctor Who have approached or shown religion over the years, I’d say both shows have had a pretty ambivalent attitude towards religious belief and religious practice. So I thought I’d start out by giving you a glimpse of how both shows historically dealt with religion. I do think that as the shows go on, they start to give much more nuanced reflections on the subject – I’ll come back to that nearer the end of my talk. But first of all, let’s think about when these shows started, and the context in which their early episodes are being shown.

Star Trek: the Original Series (1966-1968)

Doctor Who (1963-1989)

Well, as I said – both these shows began way back in the 1960s, back when the white heat of technology is firing us all up with enthusiasm about what science can do to transform our lives. Both over in the US – where Star Trek comes from – and here in the UK, there’s a great sense of belief in what humanity can achieve if we put our mind to it. It’s the period of manned space flight, of course – of voyages to the moon. Exactly like something out of science fiction! – but you’re able to watch it happening, there on the television in the corner of the room. And this is the context in which our two TV shows are created.

Star Trek in particular, was deeply rooted in the idea that humanity could progress through its own efforts; that we didn’t need gods or religions to make us better, and to make the world better. We just needed to be smart, or hard-working, or willing to work through problems.

The crew of the Enterprise:

Gene Roddenberry’s dream of what humanity can achieve through infinite diversity in infinite combinations

The creator of Star Trek, Gene Roddenberry, who was an atheist and a humanist, specifically wanted to show a future in which a diverse group of human beings – and Vulcans, and whoever – cooperated to solve problems using facts and using reason. Okay, occasionally Captain Kirk has to throw a punch and kiss a woman too.

Now it’s not that Gene Roddenberry was hostile to religion or to spirituality, more that he didn’t see how it helped us to progress – and in some of episodes of Star Trek, it’s true that religion hinders. It gets in the way; it causes problems for people – it stops them making progress. And usually what’s going on is some kind of deceit: it turns out that the entity that’s being worshipped as a god is actually an alien lifeform, or else a computer with ideas above its station. It’s not really a god, and these aren’t really supernatural phenomena – there’s a perfectly rational explanation for what’s going on.

Alien conman…

Apollo, from Who Mourns for Adonais? (1967)

…Mad computer

Vaal, from The Apple (1967)

So, just a couple of examples from a couple of episodes of Star Trek. Here on the left we have a very nattily-dressed alien who turns out once upon a time in Earth history to have been the Greek god Apollo. But he’s not a god: he’s an alien. And, from a different episode, here’s an image of the god Vaal, who turns out to be a supercomputer that has been controlling its worshippers so that they don’t have any freedom. So rather than gods, we have aliens that have capabilities far beyond our own, or else computers with technology that looks so much like divine power that people worship them. But when the Enterprise turns up, these frauds or misunderstandings are exposed, and the gods are debunked.

And we see the same kinds of stories in Doctor Who: the same kinds of explanation for these apparently supernatural beings.

Alien conman…

Azal, from The Daemons (1971)

…Mad computer

Xoanon, from The Face of Evil (1977)

So here we have the Daemon Azal, an alien who has been terrorising the people of the village Devil’s End, and who looks remarkably like our popular image of Satan (see the horns and hooves). And, from another story, here’s the face of Xoanon, a super-computer that has become strangely obsessed with Tom Baker. It happens. Xoanon has developed a split personality and over centuries surrounds himself with a cult known as the Tesh. That word’s simply a corruption of Techs – the technicians who work on the computer.

And what all these stories have in common is that the Enterprise or the TARDIS turns up, and Kirk and Spock or else the Doctor and his companion demonstrate that all these apparently supernatural events have a natural basis. If it a looks like a god, these stories seem to say – then it’s probably an alien conman, or mad computer.

So both Star Trek and Doctor Who in their early days are really quite brisk about religious belief. But as the years go by, and the shows extend into different series or go off our screens and then come back again, I think we start to see more nuanced reflections about religious belief and, particularly, religious practice.

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (1993-1999)

Doctor Who (2005-date)

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the Star Trek spin-off series Deep Space Nine, which has a very long story arc about a holy war. The Federation and Starfleet – our humanist heroes – come under threat of total annihilation from a species called the Founders, who are worshipped as gods by their genetically-engineered servants. And our heroes are assisted in this battle by another alien species, the Prophets. The Prophets don’t exist in linear time like we do, living one day after another. They live at all times, all at once. That means they’re able to make accurate prophecies, hence the name. Deep Space Nine – which ran for seven years during the 1990s – has nearly two hundred episodes, and one of its major themes, and major sources of stories, is exploring the different belief systems of the many different alien species that appear in the show.

The Founders

Shape-shifters and creators of a species of genetically-engineered super-soldiers

The Prophets

Aliens existing throughout time that make true prophecies

So here on the left are the Founders. These are shape-shifting aliens that have genetically-engineered a species of super-soldiers to worship them as gods. The Founders really did create these soldiers: they genetically engineered them, they cloned them. They brought them into existence.

And here on the right we have a character being given a revelation by the Prophets. These are the aliens that exist at all times simultaneously, and can therefore make accurate predictions about the future. You just have to know how to interpret these revelations: they can be a bit obscure.

So we get lots of gods in Deep Space Nine; lots of religious belief, and lots of religious practice. But what Deep Space Nine doesn’t do is imply that these gods are anything other than natural phenomena – it’s quite careful about this. The Founders and the Prophets are almost always described by our Starfleet heroes as aliens – even while other people in the room might be calling them gods. So they’re not supernatural: a natural explanation is always given for them. However, what DS9 does do is take very seriously the professed faith of characters in their gods. And that’s a difference from the past, I think, when more often the Enterprise would leave a planet with its gods debunked. Some of the gods in Deep Space Nine are real trouble – like the Founders, causing the war that drives the story – but other gods, like the Prophets, are shown to be sources of strength, and inspiration, and consolation. And the show strongly suggests that this is a good and a valid experience for believers.

And I think we’ve seen the same kind of shift in Doctor Who in recent years. Much more use of religious imagery, and much more willingness to explore what religion might mean to people who practice. And I think this is even more interesting in that the man who brought back Doctor Who, and was until recently one of the producers, Russell T Davies, is an atheist who, in some of his other TV drama, has been quite scathing about religion. Yet, when writing Doctor Who, Davies seems to be willing to say, “Well, let’s look at the power of religious belief in people’s lives – not just for ill, but for good too.” So although the programme remains committed to natural rather than supernatural explanations, it seems to be willing to assume that people have a good reason for religious practice.

So I’m going to finish up by showing you a little clip from Doctor Who, and this is from a story called ‘Gridlock’, written by Russell T Davies. In this story, the Doctor, played by the ever-watchable David Tennant, and his companion Martha, find themselves stuck in traffic on the Motorway. Something we can all relate to. However, this being Doctor Who, the Motorway is the size of a planet, and people have been stuck on it their entire lives. Many of them feel very lost, and very lonely, and so every day, they stop and hold what they call the Daily Contemplation. They stop and sing a hymn together.

I think this is a really beautiful moment (though I am very easily moved) as all these lost people find consolation singing their hymn together. Watch out for Martha, the Doctor’s companion, who’s also very moved by what’s happening, and ends up joining in.

But most of all, what I’d like you to watch for is the Doctor’s expression – because he’s really alarmed by what he’s seeing and hearing, and he thinks that all this hymn-singing is distracting people from their dreadful plight and stopping them doing something about it.

Well, what happens after this of course is that the Doctor leaps into action as only the Doctor can do; he discovers that the Motorway is operating automatically, he reboots the system, and everybody goes free.

But while the Doctor is very worried watching all these people singing this hymn, I think this story is again quite a bit different from those old stories where the Doctor or the crew of the Enterprise would turn up and expose an alien or a computer passing itself off as a god. The Doctor does get to the bottom of what’s been happening on the Motorway, and he helps people escape – but there aren’t any false gods, or evil villains imprisoning people and making them sing these songs – it’s just what people have been doing to help themselves get by every day.

Faith pays off (with a little intervention from the Doctor)
Doctor Who, “Gridlock” (BBC One, 14 April 2007)

And the episode ends with this beautiful and quite mystical image of all the little cars escaping the Motorway and rising up into the light. If I played you a clip here, you’d also hear that people were singing ‘Abide With Me’. The Doctor has arrived and released people from bondage, but he hasn’t taken away their faith or their belief – in fact, he may even have reinforced it.

So what I love about this story is that it shows how simple religious practice – singing hymns – has brought consolation to the people trapped for years on the Motorway. Yet at the same time it gently asks us to think that perhaps we don’t have to be satisfied just with being consoled. Instead, we can remember that there’s a wide world out there to be explored, and we can go and explore it. We’re asked to keep on challenging our beliefs and our assumptions, but we’re reminded that a really curious mind – like the Doctor’s – will always want to understand, even if doesn’t always agree.

So I think both Star Trek and Doctor Who have come a long way from those old days of exposing alien frauds and mad computers. And I think that in accepting the possibility that there may be more in this universe than we have dreamt of, both shows start to ask better questions about the nature of faith and the experience of the numinous, whilst still being confident that there will always be a rational explanation. We just have to set our minds to finding out what it is.

10 Responses to “British Science Festival 2011”

  1. Tony Keen says:

    Actually, what’s interesting about “Who Mourns for Adonais?” is precisely that Kirk and Spock don’t prove that Apollo is an alien. They assume it, yes, because it is the only explanation they can accept. But they don’t demonstrate it, and Apollo himself, bar one ambiguous exchange with Carolyn Palomas, never comes near admitting that he is not what he says he is.

  2. Una McCormack says:

    Interesting, thanks for that.

  3. Ika says:

    I adore you. This is a fantastic reading of Gridlock, and of the move from the 60s to the 00s more generally. Obviously I think everything is driven by academia, but also I do think the version you see in the 1960s is very heavily based in theories about myth that come out of – well, the nineteenth-century comparatists, really, where myth sort of objectively is a pre-scientific explanation of the scientific universe (I just read a really good book on this, so am seeing it everywhere).

  4. Una McCormack says:

    Ooh, very interesting. I put that trajectory up-front, but knew that I didn’t really come back to it, partly because I couldn’t quite decide ‘why’, whether the kind of conceptual shift you describe, or simply that television narrative has become more complex, and audiences wouldn’t be satisfied with ‘mad computer’ any more. Or perhaps a nostalgia as a result of secularisation: “God is leaving us, God is leaving us – more pang, more pain than birth or death.”

  5. [...]  See also the contents of the talk which Una McCormack gave, on sf and religion in Dr Who and Star Trek, for the same [...]

  6. J Elliott says:

    If you haven’t already seen it, you might be interested in the episode of ‘My Name Is Earl’ where Earl tricks a woman into thinking that God is talking to her, but later wrecks her life by confessing what he has done.

  7. Una McCormack says:

    Ha! I’ll look out for that one, I like My Name is Earl, though I keep missing it.

  8. J Elliott says:

    According to a fan-site it is the sixth episode of the second season, entitled ‘Made A Lady Think I Was God’.

  9. Una McCormack says:

    Thank you! I’ll look out for that one. Great title, it’s such a funny show.

  10. J Elliott says:

    It’s on E4+1 tonight at 9.30

  11. Una McCormack says:

    Sorry I missed this! I very much appreciate you taking the time to let me know it was on.

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