Religious Authority in “An Unearthly Child”

Za emerges from the cave with a flaming torch.

This is the first in what I hope to be a semi-regular series exploring how religion is used in Doctor Who. I’m not sure how often I will update this series since the next few months will be very busy for me, but this particular one has been on my mind and I want to get it out there as soon as possible. I don’t plan on covering every episode of Doctor Who because I don’t expect every episode to have religious themes or subtext. However, quite a few stories comment on religion, explicitly and implicitly, and I think it would be fun to explore this.

Doctor Who: Year Zero

The Doctor and Susan check the year on the TARDIS console.
Image from Doctor Who: “The Cave of Skulls.” It is owned by the BBC.

In exploring the origins of this new television show, the decision was made to explore origins in a very historical way, to cast our view back to the dawn of human civilization. The Doctor kidnaps the two teachers Ian and Barbara in an act of self-defense, and the TARDIS arrives at year zero. We can quibble about the idea of “year zero,” but in terms of the new show, it is the beginning—nothing had come before. It truly is year zero for Doctor Who.

But along with that, we have prehistoric humanity. Years are arbitrary expressions of time used to categorize information. Even the term “prehistoric” has a categorical meaning: that which happened before we recorded it. It is an era of mystery and uncertainty, part of the long chain of events that led to where we currently exist, but we still don’t know what happened then.

And as far as Doctor Who at this point is concerned, it is year zero. It is a new calendar to mark a beginning. Yes, things happened before, but what matters most is what happens right now, in this story, with these characters. Maybe the TARDIS knows more about what its occupants need than they do. It recognizes this is their beginning.

The Tribe of TARDIS

I love the way Anthony Coburn and Waris Hussein set up the conflict in this story.

Za and Hur of the Tribe of Gum debate who these strangers are. Kal, the usurper who found the strangers, insists they arrived from a magical tree and they can make fire. Za believes instead that they are part of another tribe, one from the mountains. Za is more right than he realizes.

Just as Za and Kal fight for political authority, so do the Doctor and Ian struggle against each other. While the latter struggle is less political, it is still no less a fight for survival. The Tribe of Gum will die out if they do not have food or fire, for an ice age is coming. The Tribe of TARDIS, on the other hand, will die if they do not work together to escape. In his intense need for fire, Za wants to sacrifice these strangers to Orb (the Sun) so he may be given the divine flame that will keep his tribe warm to survive the cold. He who has fire is the leader. Those are the terms. Thus, fire is both practical and religious. It meets a physical need while being an authoritative sign from the divine Orb.

And Orb has withheld its favor. Za does not have fire. But neither does the usurper Kal.

With Orb’s silence, the conflict unfolds politically. Kal’s best political weapon is to attack Za’s authorizing agent. If Orb grants authority and that authority is seen in the creation of fire, then Za is obviously not a leader. Where is his fire? Does Orb truly speak to him? On the other hand, Kal brings food to the tribe. Surely fire is not necessary to survival, but food is! So, with Za sitting around waiting for Orb to give something that he doesn’t seem willing to give, Kal is feeding the tribe.

This opposition becomes ideological very quickly, as the immediate need—food—is put against the impending need—heat. In reality, both are needed, but the easiest way to for Kal to usurp power is to make the conflict an either/or, to simplify the solution to the problems the tribe faces.

Politics has changed very little, it seems.


“Old men see only as far as tomorrow’s meat,” Hur says. But the old men have earthly authority. Without Orb’s divine approval, the old men become the council that grants leadership. Za, however, brings vision and innovation, both through fire and in the wisdom he gets from the Doctor and Ian.

Ian advises Za on tribal strength.
Image from Doctor Who: “The Firemaker.” It is owned by the BBC.

“Kal is not stronger than the whole tribe.” It is a lesson that was imparted by both the Doctor and Ian.

And yet, up to that point, the Doctor and Ian were in a similar conflict. The Doctor could only see as far as potential discovery and capture—an immediate need, an immediate fear. He kidnapped Ian and Barbara. He was willing to kill Za to guarantee their escape. Ian interfered in this latter action. While Ian also valued escape, he wanted to do so ethically. He did not want to violate his principles.

So, once more, concrete versus abstract, meat versus fire, Machiavellian tactics versus ethical tactics, immediate need of escape versus impending need of unity.

Both the Tribe of Gum and the Tribe of TARDIS must learn the same lesson:

Struggle is not stronger than the whole tribe.

Divine Authority?

It is after Ian and the Doctor learn to work together that Ian succeeds in starting a fire with sticks and leaves. He even has a moment where he defers to the Doctor’s leadership. They have learned their lesson, and now they can impart their gift of knowledge, their gift of fire.

But who grants the authority of fire and leadership? The terms were clear in the beginning: Fire is the sign of leadership, Orb gives fire, but Orb won’t give fire without a sacrifice.

Ian made fire, but only Za saw it. And as Orb rises above the tribe, Za must make a decision about the Tribe of TARDIS. The turning point comes in the cave when Kal returns in secret and tries to kill Za. Instead, Za kills Kal. He then emerges from the cave with a flaming branch.

Kal is killed, Ian gives Za fire, and now the tribe acknowledges Za’s authority.

Za emerges from the cave with a flaming torch.
Image from Doctor Who: “The Firemaker.” It is owned by the BBC.

Sacrifice, fire, authority.

The terms were fulfilled. The divine right of leadership was upheld because events unfolded according to the prescribed terms. The religion wasn’t subverted; it was upheld. And so the question becomes, was this a humanistic unfolding of events, where Kal’s death coincidentally occurred before Za was given the fire created by Ian? Or was Kal’s death a necessary sacrifice in order for Za to be given the fire?

Regardless of your interpretation, the fire became an authorizing object for Za’s leadership. But, in an interesting turn, Za gives fire to the tribe, an act that will, with time, remove the divine authorization of fire. Is Orb still divine? The story doesn’t really address this, but it is telling that Orb is the ruler of day and that night is feared. Za’s last statement in the story is that with fire, night becomes day. Has Orb entered the world as fire, bringing light to the darkness? Or has the fire removed the need for Orb as an authority, leaving the tribe to make their own way without fear?

For an exploration of the relationship between the construction of authority and the role myth and religion play in that dynamic, I recommend Bruce Lincoln’s Authority: Construction and Corrosion. His ideas lurk beneath the surface of this post, so the very least I can do is give him a shout-out. Not that he needs that from me.

Over the Edge of the Wild

Here is a .gif that sums up how I feel 2014 ended:

jackIt was a good year, but about half of it was incredibly difficult. The last few months involved balancing two writing/reading intensive classes while working a 30 hour per week job that was also writing intensive. As I mentioned in a previous post, I will be working full-time this year, which means more work and responsibility and, consequently, more money. This is good.

But I still have two more classes before I graduate, and both are 500-level classes. Both look to be writing and reading intensive again. I need both to graduate. And so, I’m looking at about 16 weeks of very little free time. This could be bad if I don’t enjoy the classes.

While I know intellectually that I will come through this fine and I will do as good as I can under the circumstances, I am anxious in a way I haven’t been since I returned to school two and a half years ago. The end of 2014 rattled me hard. I doubt myself in ways that I haven’t in a very long time. I am in too many new circumstances and I don’t have enough experience navigating them to feel confident in myself.

Today I watched The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey Extended Edition with my wife and one of my sisters-in-law. This was the first time watching the movie since I saw the theatrical edition when it first came out. The first time I saw the movie (on New Year’s Eve), I was excited for the great adventure the new year would bring. Today, I felt drawn to the difficult journey and the unlikeliness of success. Characters pursuing a goal with everything against them, some unaware of their chances, others fully aware but moving forward with hope.

I have a good idea of what is ahead. I don’t know if I have much hope, however. And while I find great comfort and strength in how the film portrays Thorin in that movie, I know how his story ends (From the book, at least. I have yet to see The Battle of The Five Armies, though I assume his fate is the same. No spoilers, please.)

This is, in part, why I am going against my usual trend and am looking ahead to 2015 now. In the past, I have preferred to do such reflection on my birthday. However, tomorrow starts my 16-week journey, so it feels appropriate. I want to look back after graduation and see where I was. Hopefully doing this will give me some encouragement and help me enter the next phase of my life.

So, call them resolutions, goals, dreams, or whatever. This is what I want to do in the coming year.

  1. I have a job, so I don’t need to worry so much about getting straight A’s this semester. Last semester ended that streak anyway. While I would still love to accomplish this, the amount of work required and the amount of time I actually have may not be conducive to this. So I will be content with passing and graduating.
  2. Since I watched An Unexpected Journey Extended Edition the day before this journey begins, I think it would be appropriate to watch the extended edition of The Desolation of Smaug at the half-way point (Spring Break) and The Battle of The Five Armies at the end, so after graduation.
  3. In conjunction with these, I would like to save up for and purchase better movie-watching technology for our space. At the moment, we have a large TV in the corner, and we have to move couches or chairs to watch things. There is a lot of furniture arrangement when we have guests for viewing parties. In truth, I would love to have more viewing parties, but I haven’t felt that our space really suited such activities. I would like to work toward that. So, the saving would be for flat screen television appropriate for our space and maybe a bit up an upgrade to the sound system, which is just a fifteen-year old stereo with A/V jacks. I don’t need top of the line, but I would like something bigger and with better sound. I confess that my vision, even with glasses, isn’t what it once was. (I’m thankful that my new job has a vision plan.) It would be great to break in this new set-up after graduation.
  4. At graduation, I don’t want to feel like the previously posted .gif.
  5. As per my usual GoodReads tradition, I want to meet my reading goal for the year. My goal this year is 50 books.
  6. I want to feel depressed less.
  7. From June until the end of the year, I want to update this blog at least once a week.
  8. After graduation, I want to give serious thought to what the next phase of my life should look like. While I understand that we have less control over this than we sometimes think, I know from past experience that it would be very easy for me to settle in to a pattern of working to earn money for escapism. I don’t want my life to be lived as endless escape, constantly ignoring the world in order to retreat into my own mind. I’m a writer, so there will need to be some amount of internal world-building and dialoging, but it must be held in balance and not be pursued at the expense of living a life that give me fulfilment. At the moment, I don’t know what that looks like. I think I’ve been avoiding the question, but after graduation, I need to give this serious thought.
  9. I want to find a group of people who will play table-top RPGs with me. Again, by necessity this should probably start after I graduate, but I have an intense longing to play The One Ring, Dungeons & Dragons, Pathfinder, or any number of games by Pelgrane Press. This may require me pursuing relationships outside my normal circle, and possibly stepping out on my own into uncomfortable spaces.

Some of these are pretty heavy goals, I know. Some of them, I don’t even know where to start. Although, voicing them is a start. Putting them into writing is the first step. I don’t know where this year will lead, and I don’t know if I will meet these goals. Neither do I expect them to be quick or easy. But I think they are worth pursuing.

If I have time, I will try to keep you informed about how things are going and about whatever else may be on my mind.

Having been inspired by the works of Tolkien, I will end with two of his quotes:

“It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.”

“Home is behind, the world ahead,
And there are many paths to tread
Through shadows to the edge of night,
Until the stars are all alight.
Then world behind and home ahead,
We’ll wander back and home to bed.
Mist and twilight, cloud and shade,
Away shall fade! Away shall fade!”

New Year Forecast

I’ve been extremely busy for, what my blog archives indicate, are seven months or so. Indeed. I took an internship that led to full-time employment in technical writing. Balancing the remaining classes with this new work schedule forced me to narrow my focus. And while I can’t guarantee I will be posting frequently in the next few months (due to my final semester of college), I hope to get a post up from time to time. I have some ideas for evaluating classic Doctor Who episodes (and new Who, as I come to them) that will enable me to apply some things I learned this past semester.

And I doubt that every episode of Doctor Who will fit what I want to do, so I’ll be picking and choosing. We’ll see how it goes.

A few minor thoughts that have occurred over the last few months:

  • I love Peter Capaldi’s take on the Doctor, and thought that series eight was a breath of fresh air. Steven Moffat impressed me with the change in tone and style. I didn’t expect him to pull it off. Series eight may be my favorite series of the revived show.
  • For the critics who say Missy is yet another appearance of Moffat’s sassy/sexy/smarmy Amy-River-Adler-etc. trope, I disagree. Missy is Moriarty from Sherlock. (These links have spoilers.)
  • I am not happy that Doctor Who DVDs are going out of print in the U.S. I refuse to pay $100 for “Battlefield,” and “The Curse of Fenric.”

Happy 2015.