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 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 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.
In “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”. In 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.”