As a quick review of Doctor Who’s history will remind us, the Doctor has made a habit of getting involved in events which might be termed “apocalyptic”. Whether the destruction of the Universe or another invasion of the Home Counties, the Doctor has repeatedly intervened to stop “the end of the world”; as he recently reminded us he “hates endings!”
We often use “apocalypse” to mean some form of catastrophic destruction, but this is not the technical meaning of the word. An “apocalypse” is simply a revelation (or unveiling) of how the world really is. In religious thought, an “apocalyptic” text might tell us about why we suffer, or give us hope by showing us that our deity of choice is in control of the chaos that seems to surround us. At times, “apocalypse” can be linked to the idea of a “millennial” period – a time of perfection on Earth (the word “millennium” comes from the thousand years Satan is chained for in Revelation 20, but millennialism is not a uniquely Christian concept). While most millennial groups are peaceful, some – such as the Münster Anabaptists of the 1530s or the Taiping in 1850s China – believed that the millennium wouldn’t suddenly appear by supernatural intervention, but instead that they had to act to bring it about themselves. Of course, for those who opposed their vision of a perfect world, or didn’t meet the millenarian group’s vision of perfection, this often meant violence and destruction.
It is this form of apocalyptic thought that the Doctor has been consistently opposed to, with his enemies often adopting self-consciously religious language to describe their hopes and dreams. At different times in its history, Doctor Who has deconstructed the way in which different movements made use of apocalyptic rhetoric to advance their causes. For example, Jon Pertwee’s 1974 adventure ‘Invasion of the Dinosaurs’ found the Doctor and Sarah-Jane facing down not only the eponymous reptiles, but also the apocalyptic “Save Earth” group, who shifted from trying to convert others to their viewpoint to attempting to literally reverse time and return Earth to a prehistoric golden age. The group saw destruction as their only option. As they anticipated the cataclysmic judgement that would lead to their millennium, all ties outside of the group become unimportant. Even a series regular, UNIT Captain Mike Yates, submitted to the power of this apocalyptic moment. Holding the Doctor and Brigadier hostage, Yates revealed that the group’s goal of millennial renovation trumped any concern for personal safety: ‘I’m not important. The others will get there’.
This same pattern was demonstrated within an explicitly Christian apocalyptic context in 2013’s ‘The Crimson Horror’. Here the Victorian scientist/preacher Mrs Gillyflower warned her audiences about imminent judgement: ‘Will you be found wanting when the End of Days is come, when judgement rains down on us all? Or will you be preserved against the coming apocalypse?’ She aimed to destroy the majority of imperfect humanity so as to establish the “New Jerusalem” in which true perfection was to be achieved: “My new Adam and Eves will sleep, but for a few months, before stepping out into a golden dawn”.
This kind of zero-sum logic is a common feature of apocalyptic rhetoric. As Catherine Wessinger pointed out in her examinations of millennial movements, when such groups face a combination of internal and external challenges they can respond by resorting to destructive violence. This sort of millennial logic, which has been dubbed by Robert J. Lifton as ‘destroying the world in order to save it’, can be found repeatedly amongst the Doctor’s enemies. So Davros initiates the apocalyptic destruction of his own Kaled race in the hope of creating millennial perfection: ‘Today, the Kaled race is ended, consumed in a fire of war. But, from its ashes will rise a new race. The supreme creature…The Dalek!’ (“Genesis of the Daleks”). Similarly, the plant-obsessed Harrison Chase in ‘The Seeds of Doom’ (1976) imagines a planet reclaimed by vegetation as producing a nature-based millennium. ‘We shall have perfection. The world will be as it should have been from the beginning, a green paradise’, he comments, noting that such a world will of course necessitate the destruction of humanity.
By the time of the revived series, the Doctor’s foes were becoming more overtly religious in their language. The resurgence of both Christian and Islamic fundamentalism meant viewers understood all too well what the Dalek Emperor meant when he expressed his vision of apocalypse: “Purify the Earth with fire. This will be our paradise… I have created heaven on earth!” Likewise, by 2008’s “Journey’s End”, Davros was portrayed as a millenarian radical who was ready to destroy all non-Dalek lifeforms. Describing himself as ‘Lord and Creator’ of the Daleks, and flanked by his “prophet” Dalek Caan, Davros adopted an apocalyptic view of history in which all loose ends were neatly tied up. Sarah Jane Smith’s presence meant that the end of history neatly mirrored its beginning: “You were there, on Skaro, at the very beginning of my creation… The prophecy unfolds”.
The Doctor’s role is to remind us that this form of apocalyptic rhetoric is inherently flawed. His reply to Yates’ fervour in “Invasion of the Dinosaurs” can be taken as representative for the series as a whole. “There never was a Golden Age’”, he tells the radicalised UNIT man. The vision of perfection on earth will always be false; and this message echoes throughout the series into its latest episodes, as his slightly less sympathetic reply to Gillyflower in “The Crimson Horror” shows: “I’m the Doctor, you’re nuts, and I’m going to stop you”.
The Doctor’s warning is valuable. While the vast majority of millenarian groups remain peaceful, apocalyptic rhetoric has the potential to lead us into zero-sum thinking; to dismiss the “other” and see our own religious, ethnic or political group as those who deserve to inherit the Earth. When politicians speak in terms borrowed from the book of Revelation, or religious groups imagine a spectacular violence against their enemies, the reminder that the “Golden Age” that these groups see as both past and future is an illusion is an important one.
Yet we must be careful that we don’t limit ourselves to the negative visions of apocalypse I have been talking about here. Apocalypse has also been a positive and creative force throughout history, and it continues to inspire and enchant us. We live in a society in which films such as This is the End and The World’s End can top the box office; in which popular children’s’ television shows build plots around the central millennial myth of a primal evil bound for 1000 years; where our great pieces of music and art are inspired by the visions of Daniel and Revelation. Whatever we think about it, apocalypse is part of our culture; it does not just lead to destruction, but to artistic creation, renegotiation and adaptation. Doctor Who takes its place within that tradition, responding to the apocalyptic impulse that drives so much of our society. And perhaps it fulfils a traditional apocalyptic role, as it “unveils” the reality of the world to us and strips back the fictions of violent millenarian groups to reveal that the complexity and diversity of human life is a wonderful thing. This, surely, is a revelation worth celebrating.
Andrew Crome is co-author of Time and Relative Dimensions in Faith published later this month on October 29.