A darker doctor

This Easter, Doctor Who will be back on our screens, promising to be bigger, better and scarier than ever before. Head producer and writer Stephen Moffat has spoken out about what we can expect from the forthcoming run of episodes, making no bones about this series’ darker tone. "Last year, we reassured you – this year, we’re going to worry the hell out of you."

When it comes to scares, Moffat isn’t bluffing. He’s responsible for creating the two most iconic monsters featured by the show since its re-launch in 2005: the gas-mask children (‘Where’s my mummy?’) and the weeping angels. Unlike many of Doctor Who’s beasts, these were frightening not because they were overtly grotesque or outlandish. Their power to terrify lay in their very ordinariness, their almost-plausibility. By taking the familiar and giving it a sinister twist, the show sent even the bravest children – and adults – scurrying behind the sofa.

Other Doctor Who stories in recent years have also come with a particularly weighty fear-factor. In 2006, The Impossible Planet and The Satan Pit featured an adversary who, it was implied, could be the devil himself. These episodes in particular might have proved problematic for some viewers, especially parents. If we engage with portrayals of certain kinds of darkness, do we allow it space in our hearts and minds? Or can a scary story, told within the limiting confines of a television screen, become a valid exercise in dealing with our fears?

There’s no simple answer, though Paul’s guidelines in 1 Corinthians 10 give some helpful principles. Like the meat sacrificed to idols in ancient Corinth, television has no true power over us – though that doesn’t mean we should consume it thoughtlessly.

Judging by clues being dropped by those involved, the monsters aren’t even our biggest worry this time. It’s the Doctor’s own darker side that we’ve got to watch out for. "How well do we really know that man, or what he’s capable of?" warns Moffat. "We’re putting the ‘Who?’ back in the Doctor."

Previous storylines have also hinted at the character’s shadowy past, causing us to wonder whether our hero is really so heroic after all. It’s a question which inevitably comes into play in any such tale: a slew of superhero sequels see their protagonists at risk of being corrupted or compromised. The only thing scarier than a villain, it would seem, is the idea that there’s nobody who can truly be trusted to save us.

"I learnt life's most valuable lesson," said one embittered character in last year’s Christmas special. "Nobody comes." Is there anything more frightening to any human being than the prospect of total abandonment? And yet, even as it plays on this fear, Doctor Who alleviates it. Ultimately the viewer can be sure that however flawed he might be and however great the dangers he faces, the Doctor will come and win the day. It’s a thrilling echo of a greater reality. There are times when the Doctor serves as a shadow of the only flawless hero, who came ‘at just the right time’ to save those who were completely helpless (Romans 5:6).

For the time being, darkness and evil are part of our reality. As such, it would be dishonest if they didn’t feature in the stories that we tell. But to portray darkness, or to engage with these portrayals, isn’t necessarily to glorify it. Knowing as we do that the real battle has already been won, we can watch good combat evil on our television screens from an entirely different perspective. Each time we see the hero overcome in fiction, it reinforces a universal intuition which is made certain only in Christ: good triumphs. Our rescuer has not abandoned us after all.

Sophie Lister is a writer for the Damaris Trust www.damaris.org