Oh, My Pop Culture Religion: Authenticity and Doctor Who’s Papal Mainframe

We’ve lamented the downward spiral of Doctor Who’s general quality here before, but one thing that’s annoyed me throughout Moffat’s run is his treatment of religious institutions. More specifically, I’m talking about the fictional Church of the Papal Mainframe, which, it seems, he created more as a foil to the Doctor than as any sort of genuine religious organization.

The-Time-of-the-Doctor-The-Silence

The Church is so inconsistently portrayed throughout the show that I honestly didn’t realize that the churches from “The Time of the Angels”/”Flesh and Stone”, “A Good Man Goes to War”, and “The Time of the Doctor” were all the same organization until I started doing research for this post.

The-Time-of-Angels-father-octavianThe one thing that does remain consistent is this: each time the Church appears, they act as the antithesis of the Doctor. After all, the Doctor is capricious, agnostic if not atheist, strongly humanist, and massively pacifist: who better to act as foils and rivals than a regimented, military-religious organization? To me it seems less like an interesting exploration of the potential of human folly to warp a beneficent organization into the worst sort of lawful good, and more like a lazy, vaguely insulting gimmick.

In “The Time of the Angels”/“Flesh and Stone”, a platoon of Church military clerics escorts River Song (and later the Doctor and Amy) into the Weeping Angel-filled ruins, led by a Father Octavian. They are there for an ostensibly noble purpose—they want to protect the planet’s human colony from the threat of the Weeping Angels—but they seem to be religious merely by afterthought. That is to say, they act much more like military figures than ecumenical ones, and they’re portrayed as, not villains, but antagonists to the Doctor at least.

thin fat gay married anglican marinesIn “A Good Man Goes to War”, we have the Thin/Fat Gay Married Anglican Marines, part of a Church squadron who have been called on to defend Demon’s Run from the Doctor and Rory. The pair’s entire existence is a gimmick—they don’t actually have names, for cripe’s sake, they’re just the Thin/Fat Gay Married Anglican Marines. They never really show their religiosity, and I’m not sure what about the story would have changed if they had been just Marines instead of Anglican Marines. Furthermore, if they identify as Anglican, why are they also considered part of the Church of the Mainframe? Especially if it’s a Papal Mainframe, since the whole reason Anglicanism was founded was because Henry VIII disagreed with the Catholic Pope? The Church, from what I can tell, does not even profess a Christian faith. The Marines are only there for the jokes and to provide some continuity of Church resistance to what the Doctor is doing.

The Church also changes dramatically whenever the plot calls for it. I could almost forgive this if the Church was something that spanned thousands of years—after all, the Catholic Church of today is a very different institution structurally and dogmatically than the early Church of the first century C.E.; even religious organizations change over time. But we’re specifically given the timeframe of a mere two centuries for the Church’s existence—from the 51st–52nd century—and so instead the changes are yet another reason that the Church doesn’t seem authentic.

Changes in or additions to religious doctrine are weighty and divisive and take time for people to accept—unless you’re a poorly-thought-out fake religion on a once-well-written British sci-fi show. From a chronological standpoint within the series, the first time we meet a representative of the Church is in their most recent appearance in “The Time of the Doctor”. time-of-the-doctor-tashaIn that episode, Mother Superious Tasha Lem completely changes the whole (unspecified) belief system of the Church so that its entire purpose is to to keep the First Question from being spread throughout the universe. Just… like that, on a whim. And the whole Church kind of shrugs and goes with it. Meanwhile there are still Catholics who would rather believe that the Second Vatican Council never happened.

Here’s the thing: there’s no harm in creating villainous organizations to provide a counterpoint to your hero’s actions. It’s even okay to make that organization religious, as long as its adherents display authentic devotion to their belief system. But making an evil religious institution, and then refusing to supply any consistent information about their beliefs? That comes off as the writer saying “I personally dislike religion and I want religious people to be the bad guys, just because.”


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13 thoughts on “Oh, My Pop Culture Religion: Authenticity and Doctor Who’s Papal Mainframe

  1. This Church of the Papal Mainframe seems like a straw figure that can be knocked over easily. It just uses religion to try to justify its existence.
    As for fictional religions, I’ve always preferred the Orange Catholic Church in the ” Dune ” novel series by Frank Herbert. Females play prominent roles in that faith, if memory serves me correctly. ( It’s been a long time since I picked up one of the ” Dune ” novels, especially after moving 3 times ) The OCC is a melange of different teachings, but it seems to represent the relative best of human religious thought.

      • The Orange Catholic Church seemed somewhat more substantial than any ” Church of the Papal Mainframe “. You don’t often see ” religion done right ” in science fiction. The premise, of course, was that after leaving Earth, a lot of philosophies & creeds would become somewhat jumbled together,( Zen – Sunni ) which seems rather realistic.

  2. Yes to all of this! I’m bothered by DW’s portrayal of religion so much. The worst thing was when they suddenly revealed that the Silence are priests and that they’re the best to take confession because people can confess everything and not remember having done so and what they confessed afterwards – I don’t think that’s the point of confession at all, what is the point of doing it if you can’t remember having done it? Like, one of the parts to confession is the promise to try and not repeat your sins and make amends and, like, receiving God’s forgiveness – and like, if you don’t remember that, what’s the point of doing it at all? And, after building up the Silence as these terrible villains who have invaded the earth, making them church just makes no sense to me, especially since I don’t remember any explanation given on how they went from point A to B.

    • YES! I wanted to mention that somewhere in this post but I wasn’t sure where – the Silence as confessors makes absolutely no sense. If you don’t remember confessing, where does the reconciliation come from? *shakes fist at Moffat*

  3. Ugh, yes. Even without the specific flaws of it as a religion, it’s just another example of Moffat’s extreme superficiality. “Morally questionable religious body? Yeah, that sounds like something people put in science fiction.” Not because of anything about its morals or its religion. It’s this dim awareness of tropes without realizing what they’re for.

    And for real: what the zip are Anglicans in this context? There’s a Church of England in space? That raises questions the show doesn’t even care to think are mysteries. And if they’re in an organization of Anglican marines, then those aren’t notable facts about them for their friends to identify them. So they’re just the gay ones. Thanks Moffat.

    • “It’s this dim awareness of tropes without realizing what they’re for.”

      YES YES EXACTLY. So many episodes are just a bunch of empty tropes mashed together.

      I have many complaints about the current iteration of Doctor Who, and they basically all boil down to “Could you write this WELL, please?”

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