Doctor Who and the problem with death and dying

Warning – spoiler alerts

Another Doctor Who season has come to its finale, after all the twists and turns, the Doctor has stepped in to protect humans from watery aliens, monks and the perennial arrival of cyber-men. There’s even been cameo appearances from his arch-nemeses The Master and the Daleks. 

In the last episode, we saw the Doctor resisting regeneration -at one point it looked like he was going to join Missy in ending his own timeline -but of course, no, the Doctor will be back and soon there will be a newly regenerated Time Lord taking Peter Carcaldi’s place.

We should have noticed by now that Doctor Who has a big problem with death. Originally regeneration provided a simple plot-line explanation for why different actors took up the role but it’s not just the Time Lord who is seen cheating death.  His companions do too. Rose (played by Billie Piper) announces in her final episode that “This is the story of how I died” except that she doesn’t she is simply exiled to another parallel universe whilst Jemma Coleman’s character Clara was snatched between heart beats to set off on her own inter-galactic adventures.  Now, this season ends with Bill being rescued and revived from her impending cyber-man death.

In fact, you might suggest that at the heart of the Doctor Who plot is our desire to escape and to cheat death. It is expressed in the arrogant claim of David Tennant’s Time Lord to be the lord of space and time (he isn’t, he is just an ordinary alien). It is seen in the way that major characters are given new lives and new existence in parallel dimensions.

Doctor Who has stumbled on one of the central themes not just of science fiction but of the greatest story ever told, the story of Creation.  Its writers recognise that our true arch-nemesis is not other alien life forms, not sophisticated robots and not even shadowy, conspirators in government or secret organisations. Instead, we see that death is the final enemy.

I say that this is the theme of the greatest story ever told because long before science fiction writers, the Bible told us that we face this fearful enemy. Death entered the world because of sin, it is the punishment for our rebellion against God. In its reluctance to confront the reality of physical death it also stumbles upon another Biblical truth. Death is not merely about our physical organs ceasing to work. In seeking to preserve Rose, Bill and Cara, the writers subject them to another form of death. Rose was right, she was telling the story of how she died because death is about seperation and exile. With physical death we experience separation from those we love. The story of death as our historic enemy is that it separates us from God.  Without hope, we face eternity outside of his loving presence and instead under his wrath.

Doctor Who can try to avoid death but it cannot stop it or deny its reality.  We fear death because it is a real enemy. The sting of death is judgement for our sin.

The greater and better story does something different.  It tells us that death has been defeated. Death was defeated because God came in the person of Jesus and took my guilt on himself. He died in my place so that I could live.

This is the story of how I died

“I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” (Galatians 2:20)