As an addendum to his Sounds of Silence article, Matthew Kilburn considers how religion is being used in a Good Man Goes to War.
Having promised a discussion of themes and symbols in my review of ‘A Good Man Goes to War’ and ‘Let’s Kill Hitler’, I barely mentioned Steven Moffat’s return to considering obsession and militarism through religion in Doctor Who. As well as enlarging upon a target of Russell T Davies’s Doctor Who, Moffat paints it with a shade of red which is both bloodier and more implicitly associable with Catholic Christian hierarchy.
Six years ago, in ‘Bad Wolf’/’The Parting of the Ways’, Russell T Davies depicted a Dalek theocracy. Daleks created from the reengineering of human DNA worshipped a Dalek Emperor convinced of its own divinity. Their extermination beams were doing God’s work; the undermining and destruction of humanity, redemptive. The depiction of the Daleks as religious fanatics was recognised as a satire on contemporary religious movements disruptive to secularism and pluralism, from various shades of militant Islam to fundamentalist evangelical Christianity. It was also understood as an identification of these Daleks as essentially human, rejecting a rigid rationalist survivalism in favour of deliverance through faith in a superior, supernatural authority. Human individuality and creativity, and the spirit of rebellion against social conformity which animates Rose in particular in the first series of Davies’s Doctor Who, are stifled by centralised uniformity.
‘A Good Man Goes to War’ returns to this theme in the portrayal of the Headless Monks, but intensifies it. Where the Daleks’ plan is cloaked by exploiting human credulity and laziness through the Game Station, the Monks’ inhumanity is cloaked literally as well as figuratively. Only the internal systems of Demons’ Run recognise that the Monks are not alive in a conventional sense. The Papal Mainframe imposes a single faith upon her acolytes and a single mind. The Headless Monks are presumably under the computer’s remote control. The faith of the Daleks has been superseded by the erasure of the individual’s ability to question, feel, communicate or interpret situations for themself. Colonel Manton presents the Monks to his army of clerics as models to be followed and envied; the pluralism of the force celebrated by the gay Anglican couple and Lorna Bucket from the ‘faith neutral’ Forest becomes another disguise for destructive religious mania.
The Doctor identifying himself as ‘a monk’, after he has allowed Manton to unveil him, seems out of step after the monastic state has been firmly associated with robotisation. Most simply, the Doctor is referring to his disguise; but he also contrasts it with two identities he denies – ‘a phantom’, and ‘a trickster’. The Doctor has never sat comfortably within archetypes, but he is arguably as much a phantom - materialising and dematerialising through a supernatural force impossible to distinguish from magic - or a trickster, breaking from the conformity of his own people to instruct them and others through imagination, story, and chaos. These labels reflect the Doctor’s methodology in this scene and more generally. Steven Moffat’s Doctor is more of a monk than that of Russell T Davies – it’s less certain whether the Doctor, in Matt Smith’s form, ‘dances’ so easily as Eccleston’s Doctor insisted he did or Tennant’s Doctor appeared to demonstrate he could in ‘The Girl in the Fireplace’. All the Doctors have had hermit-like potentials, but those since 2005 – since the Time War – have more explicitly embraced isolation.
Within the ongoing narrative of Doctor Who, though, being a monk is to identify oneself as a phantom and a trickster – or specifically the Monk, `The Time Meddler` himself. In ‘A Good Man Goes to War’, the identification is supported by the Doctor’s irresponsibility and lack of attention to detail, which (depending on one’s point of view) allows Madame Kovarian to make away with Melody, or expose how pointless the campaign was in the first place as through his interactions with River he had already confirmed the future being shaped by Madame Kovarian. If the Doctor is to reshape events, then he would have to embrace the methodology of his historic adversary; but perhaps he does so already, and knows that he deceives himself.
If the Silence is a religious order, then perhaps Madame Kovarian herself is a worthy opponent for the monk-Doctor, a priest of causality who – in contrast to the Doctor’s methods as defined in ‘The Girl Who Waited’ – has studied the history books and is engineering and protecting a chain of events which will lead to the Doctor’s death. For Kovarian it is the Doctor who is the meddler, frustrating the Silence’s desire to end the chatter of the cosmos by asking the oldest question in the universe. Yet for the Doctor, always talkative, silence can’t be an end, because he encourages asking questions by his very name. Perhaps the Doctor, the question who started this iteration of the universe, is by his very existence a challenge to the Silence’s faith.