So this guy came up to me – okay he was another Jesuit in a Jesuit rec room, not just some guy on the street – but, he asked me: “John, dude, we’re starting a website that looks at popular culture and faith and stuff, and we’d wondered if you’d be interested in contributing something, especially considering your interest in Doctor Who?” No, really, he talked like that. He’s a dork.
I had to suppress a laugh. In the 25+ years I’ve been a fan of the show, I had never heard the words “Doctor Who” and “popular” occur in the same sentence.
For those living on the dark side of Skaro, allow me to briefly describe this invasion of British “pop culture”. Begun in 1963 in the Drama department of the BBC, the initial Doctor Who was supposed to be an educational series for children. Instead, and sorry Star Trek fans, it ended up being the longest running science-fiction series in the history of television. The show follows the adventures of the Doctor, a renegade Time Lord who travels through time and space fighting evil. The Time Lords have the ability to regenerate when old or injured (and, coincidentally, when the actor playing the Doctor decides to leave). The Doctor travels in a bigger-on-the-inside-than-the-outside TARDIS, which is permanently stuck in the disguise of a police box due to a malfunctioning Chameleon circuit. So yes, the TARDIS pre-dates Bill and Ted’s Ersatz Adventure and time traveling phone booth. Finally, a companion, usually a young attractive Earth woman, almost always accompanies a disinterested Doctor on his travels. And like one of the Doctor’s faithful companions my own fidelity to the show has remained for decades.
Yes, I’ve been a fan of the show since my family started watching it on Cleveland’s public television station in the early ‘80’s. In other words, when precisely no one in the United States (and most of Great Britain) had even heard of the good Doctor. Outside my family, only one of my friends, Matt, knew of the show (he occasionally watched it with his dad). My brother and I called him Matthew Waterhouse in reference to the actor who played Adric in the show. Such an obscure reference would have made MST3K proud if they had been around.
The few people who did see the show dismissed it as “stupid,” citing its wobbly sets and rubbery monsters. For whatever reason, I saw through its low production values and became a loyal fan who watched it faithfully every Saturday afternoon. Unfortunately, tragedy hit in 1989 when the show took a “hiatus” and I had to get my Doctor Who “fix” through numerous book series (the Virgin New Adventures, the Virgin Missing Adventures, the BBC Eighth Doctor and the BBC Past Doctor), the 1996 TV movie, the Big Finish audios and various email list serves. One day I hope to finally catch up on reading the tremendous creative output that this “tragedy” produced.
It’s not easy remaining loyal to Doctor Who. Especially since its fans typically encounter blank stares or downright disdain, even from other sci-fi fans. I gave up defending Doctor Who against Star Trek and Star Wars fans (mostly because they were all ignorant of this British sci-fi show). But Doctor Who fans are fiercely loyal, sometimes to a fault. I remember volunteering at Columbus’s PBS pledge drive and showing up wearing a Doctor Who T-shirt. The show had been off the air for years, but the volunteer coordinator apparently harbored some negative feelings towards the show and its fans. Upon seeing me and my shirt, she rolled her eyes and exclaimed, “Oh no, not a Doctor Who fan. Please don’t tell any of the callers that the show is coming back because it’s not!”
Despite her prediction, the show did come back. In 2005 the television reboot Rose debuted. I remember my shock and excitement when the premiere pulled in over 40% of the available British television audience and became popular overnight.
Like all fads, people want to jump on the bandwagon. The British comedian, Toby Hadoke, narrates a hilarious and touching autobiographical story of growing up as a Doctor Who fan in Moths Ate My Doctor Who Scarf. At one point, he encounters a man claiming to be a life-long fan of the show. Skeptical, Toby asked who was his Doctor. When he replied, “That bloke with the scarf,” Toby launches into the following tirade: “Bloke with the scarf?!” he yells to the audience, “this guy was coming out of a closet he’d never been in. I was in that closet for 16 years and there’d been plenty of room! Bloke with the… That’s like saying ‘Oh, I love the Rolling Stones’ ‘Oh yea, who’s your favorite member?’ ‘Oh, that jiggy fellow with the big lips’.”
As we know from Ecclesiastes, all things pass – even Doctor Who fads. And I’ve been a Doctor Who fan long enough to know that it too shall pass. Although the show has shaped me, taught and inspired me, I know better to place too much faith in something so fleeting. But I also see the virtue in staying true to something important, especially when it’s not popular. It’s the same reason I admire the Muslim man kneeling down in the quad to salah at the public university near my community house, and the same reason I respect the Hindu women who prominently display their bindi on the campus of Loyola University of Chicago. It’s the same respect I feel for the Orthodox Jews and the Amish of Northeast Ohio who travel wearing their distinctive clothing. Even the Christian fundamentalist preaching on the street corner in San Francisco shows some courage (albeit coupled with some ignorance regarding what makes for effective evangelization). All of these people remind me that there exists something more important and lasting than current fads and fashions.
In this age of clergy abuse, Catholics face what I think is a similar challenge. A recent Pew Forum survey notes a disturbing trend among Catholics: “while nearly one-in-three Americans (31%) were raised in the Catholic faith, today fewer than one-in-four (24%) describe themselves as Catholic.”
I’ll be honest. Such statistics raise alarms in my head. It seems like stuff that we in the Church ought to pay attention to. But those stats can also lead to the perception that faith is something like a popularity contest, and that I can’t agree with. Adherence to the Catholic faith is not about following the hip crowd or the latest trend. Catholicism is about following Jesus.
Witnessing to Jesus’ love for others is not easy and it may be unpopular at times. Jesus even reminds us of the cost of following him: “If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters – yes, even their own life – such a person cannot be my disciple. And whoever does not carry their cross and follow me cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26-27). Now let me be clear, the word “hate” I take as hyperbolic; Jesus clearly does not advocate hating anyone. But it does mean something. Jesus uses this kind of powerful language to emphasize how becoming his disciple will entail great sacrifice, including being unpopular with our family and friends.
Most of us have experienced being a fan of a television show, movie, song, celebrity or sports team that others have despised. Maybe we’ve “revised” some of our opinions in the face of opposition from family or friends. But if we persist in our fandom, we strengthen our ability to remain loyal to something or someone more important than a passing fad.