Doctor Who’s “The Face of Evil,” the Nature of God, and the Role of Religion

Doctor Who is, in many ways, an inherently religious show.  At least according to Tom Baker, the Fourth Doctor himself, who’s played the Doctor longer than anyone else to date (a grand total of 172 episodes across eight seasons).  I agree.  In fact, I’d argue one of the many, many reasons Doctor Who has been around for nearly sixty years is because it does what religions often do and we, by nature, are drawn to such stories.  By this I mean it addresses the fundamental questions of human existence and invites viewers to dialogue with these questions of meaning, purpose, morality, and the like.  It offers hope, even when such stories are out of vogue.  Most of all, its central catechesis is to be kind.  Religions, when they are operating at their best, call us to do the same as they seek to connect us to the Divine and to each other.  However, religion doesn’t always operate at its best and this can lead to confusing conflations of our ideas of “good,” “evil,” and “God.”  “The Face of Evil,” the fourth serial of Series Fourteen of Classic Doctor Who, brilliantly explores the dangers of conflating the role of religion with the will of God.

At the end of Doctor Who: Scratchman, a novel written by Tom Baker based on a script he co-wrote for a Doctor Who movie that was never made where the Doctor battles the Devil, there’s a section titled, “Tom Baker’s Memories of Scratchman.”  In it he writes:

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Don’t worry Doctor, knotting my handkerchief never helps me remember to do anything either. / Photo Credit – BBC Studios’ Doctor Who

I don’t know how I came up with Scratchman.  It must have been because I’ve been interested in the Devil all my life because of my religious background – I was brought up with great drama and very conscious of Sin.  When you’re very ordinary in Liverpool in 1940 and you’re Working Class and have got nothing, you suddenly find an outlet – and in those days there was no other outlet than the Great Drama of religion.

I loved the Roman Catholic religion because I have a great sense of melodrama and it made me feel important.  I loved it because I was dressing up all the time in women’s clothes, really – cassocks and surplices and so on.  I loved it because, although I couldn’t do grammar and so on at school, I could learn Latin phrases.  I loved the drama, the lies, the anxiety of confession – that dramatized my life.  All that has never got away from me.

Doctor Who has got almost a religious connotation.  The fans of Doctor Who are not at all sceptical, and they believe in this Doctor character.  They’re Disciples of the Doctor, they believe in the improbability of it all.  Doctor Who isn’t rooted in science, it’s preposterous – with a bloody sonic screwdriver I can put a band around a bloody planet – that’s a big advantage isn’t it, if you’re in trouble?[1]

I love this frame – this idea that we Doctor Who fans are, in essence, Disciples of the Doctor (an idea echoed when, speaking to a young fan bullied online, Peter Capaldi (the Twelfth Doctor) said, “If they’re not kind, they’re not receiving the show in the proper way and they’re not really a fan of it.”[2]).  And I love how Tom Baker’s religious journey shaped his understanding of the Doctor.  Some of my favorite episodes of Doctor Who are the ones where they dive directly into “the religious” to examine and understand our sense of these concepts and challenge them when they need to be challenged.

“The Face of Evil” begins on an unnamed planet in the distant future with Leela (Louise Jameson) being banished from her tribe, the Sevateem, for heresy.  Andor (Victor Lucas), the tribe’s chief, sits in judgement as fellow tribesman Calib (Leslie Schofield) and their shaman Neeva (David Garfield) call for her banishment while Sole (Colin Thomas), her father, and Tomas (Brendon Price), her friend, plead on her behalf.

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Neeva and Andor debate. / Photo Credit – BBC Studios’ Doctor Who

Calib – “You are the leader, Andor.  It is for you to decide.  But there can be but one punishment for such a heresy. Banishment.”
Andor – “What say you, Sole?”
Sole – “You know you should not ask.”
Andor – [to Leela] “Then it is agreed.  You must be sent beyond.”
Tomas – “No!  She’s young, she spoke rashly.”
Leela – “Don’t beg, Tomas.  What I said was the truth.”

Neeva – “What she said profaned the holy purpose of the tribe of Sevateem.”
Leela – “Holy purpose?  To die in another useless attack?”
Neeva – “The great god Xoanon demands that she be cast out.  He told me this.”
Leela – “Liar!  There is no Xoanon.”
Neeva – “Blasphemy!”[3]

The framing of the episode immediately connects us to Leela.  We sympathize with this woman who committed “heresy” and “blasphemed” by trying to prevent senseless loss of life.  It should be noted Leela and all her people are fierce warriors (Leela immediately struck me as Doctor Who’s take on Sheena, Queen of the Jungle) so she isn’t protesting going into battle but rather entering a battle she knows they’ll lose in the service of a god she doesn’t believe exists.  How could any god call their people to fight a hopeless battle and thus die needlessly?  

Her blasphemy is denying the existence of their god, Xoanon.  Her father volunteers to take the test of The Horror for her and she begs Andor and Neeva, to spare him, “Andor, please, call them back.  What I said, I was wrong.  Forgive me, please.  Neeva, greatest shaman, Speaker of Law, forgive me, please.”  To save her father’s life, Leela willing recants but Andor rejects it, “Be silent, girl.  Your father was a warrior.  Do not shame him.”[4]  Her father dies in the trials and Leela is banished. 

The Doctor naturally can’t help but explore when the TARDIS materializes on this planet and Leela meets him as they both roam the jungles of her world.  If you’d like to watch Leela meeting the Doctor, here it is:

The Doctor – “Hello.  Hello, did I startle you?  Don’t be afraid.  I won’t hurt you.”

Leela – “The Evil One!”

The Doctor – “Well, nobody’s perfect, but that’s overstating it a little.  I’m the Doctor.  What’s your name?”

Leela – “Leela.”

The Doctor – “Leela.  A nice name, Leela.  I never met anyone called Leela.  Would you like a jelly baby?”

Leela – “It’s true, then.  They say the Evil One eats babies.”

The Doctor – “You mustn’t believe all they say.  No, these are sweets.  They’re rather good.  Go on, have one.”[5]

Despite what she believes him to be, Leela trusts the Doctor.  She takes a Jelly Baby too, albeit tentatively.  She trusts her gut and instinct over blindly following the dogma she was taught.  (If you’re curious, yes I do sometimes eat Jelly Babies when I watch Doctor Who and yes, I do sometimes try to eat the same color the characters do as they eat them because I am living my best possible life.)  As they talk, the Doctor asks Leela about Xoanon.

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The Doctor and Leela in the jungle. / Photo Credit – BBC Studios’ Doctor Who

The Doctor – “Xoanon?  What’s those?”
Leela – “He’s worshiped by the tribe.”
The Doctor – “What, he’s a god?”
Leela – “Yes.  I was cast out for speaking against him.”
The Doctor – “Really.”
Leela – “It’s said he’s held captive.”
The Doctor – “By whom?”
Leela – “By the Evil One and his followers, the Tesh.  Maybe there is a holy purpose.  I don’t know what to believe anymore.”
The Doctor – “Well, that sounds healthy anyway, Leela.  Never be certain of anything, it’s a sign of weakness.  Now, where’s this Xoanon held?”
Leela – “Within the Black Wall, wherein lies Paradise.”
The Doctor – “Is that just religious gobbledygook, or is that an actual place?”
Leela – “There is a Wall.”
The Doctor – “Is there?  Will you show me?”[6]

I love that line!  How important it is when we examine our religious ideas!  Never be certain of anything, it’s a sign of weakness.  Amen!  Can you imagine what our world would be like if we all had the humility and the courage to do so?? 

As the novelist, memoirist, and theologian Anne Lamott writes, “The opposite of faith is not doubt, but certainty.  Certainty is missing the point entirely.  Faith includes noticing the mess, the emptiness and discomfort, and letting it be there until some light returns.  Faith also means reaching deeply within, for the sense one was born with, the sense, for example, to go for a walk.”[7]  Or to put a finer point on it, she writes of the advice “my priest friend Tom” gave, “you can safely assume you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.”[8]  Borrowing Chuck Klosterman’s idea which grounds his text (and slightly modifying the title by making the “we’re” an “I’m”), I constantly tell my students the five most important words we can ask ourselves about our knowledge, our faith, our politics, our fandoms, our sense of the world – about everything! – are: But what if I’m wrong?  Only by truly opening the space to interrogate our beliefs and being willing and able to see when we’re wrong can we create the space to grow and change.

Over the course of the serial, the Doctor realizes Leela and her people, the Sevateem, as well as their adversaries, the Tesh, as descendants of space-exploring humans from long ago.  The survey team which left the ship to explore the planet became her tribe and the technicians who stayed behind on the ship, now locked behind a primitive time barrier, became their adversaries.  Finding his face carved into the mountain which holds the ship, the Doctor realizes he must’ve met these people before and become wrapped in their mythology.  He eventually remembers he once helped repair this ship’s A.I. but it all went horribly wrong.  The A.I. – Xoanon (Rob Edwards, Pamela Salem, Anthony Frieze, Roy Herrick, and Tom Baker) – was a new sentience just born and the Doctor’s repairs left his consciousness imprinted on this confused and muddled mind as well.  This mix of a newly sentient program and the overlay of the Doctor’s mind created the mercurial god who both the Sevateem and Tesh serve.

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Leela shows the Doctor the face of the Evil One, carved into the mountain where Xoanon is supposedly trapped. / Photo Credit – BBC Studios’ Doctor Who

The Doctor pieces their history together from noticing the gesture Leela’s people perform to ward off evil is the same as the sequence for checking the seals on a Starfall Seven spacesuit[9] and the holy relics Neeva wears are the remnants of an armored space glove.[10]  In the Sevateem’s shrine to Xoanon, the Doctor hears the voice of Xoanon for the very first time.  He tells Leela, “Don’t be afraid.  It’s only a machine for sending voices over long distances.  That may be Xoanon speaking, but it’s not God.  Gods don’t use transceivers.”  Leela asks, “Are you certain?”  The Doctor asks, “Aren’t you?”  Leela pauses and when she says, “Yes,” the Doctor says, “That’s better.”[11]  He is proud of Leela for seeing beyond her indoctrinated beliefs.  Leela will come to travel with the Doctor and this, I feel, is one of those “tests” which show she has what it takes to be his companion.  Despite her “savage” nature, she is willing to think and able to interrogate her own beliefs and leave aside those which she sees are wrong (at best) and dangerous (at worst).

Once the Doctor and Leela get beyond the boundary and inside the ship, they discover another shrine.  When the Doctor meets Jabel (Leon Eagles), the High Priest of the Tesh, he learns they’ve their own religion, too.  As Jabel kneels in his presence the Doctor asks:

The Doctor – “Have you dropped something?”
Jabel – “I do you honor, Lord of Time.  We’ve waited long for your return.”
The Doctor – “Yes, well, I’m very grateful about the honor, but it’s really information I need.  Please get up.  What’s your name?”
Jabel – “I am Jabel, Captain of the people of Tesh.”
The Doctor – “Ah.” [the Doctor kneels next to Jabel] Jabel, do your people have a holy purpose?”
Jabel – “We serve Xoanon and tend the holy places.  We guard his tower against the savage.  We deny the flesh so that our minds may find communion with Xoanon.”
The Doctor – “Ah, well, it has a sort of logic.  Outside the barrier, physical courage and strength, inside the barrier, paraphysical achievement and the sort of psi power you used against Leela.  It’s an experiment in eugenics.”
Jabel – “Yes, Lord.”
The Doctor – “Shall we get up?  The floor’s very hard.  Didn’t anyone ever tell you kneeling stunts the growth?”[12]

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The Doctor in the Tesh’s shrine. / Photo Credit – BBC Studios’ Doctor Who

It’s a great gag line but also a wonderful reflection on needless indoctrination of religious ritual.  When we give our lives to the service of a god or a church, performing rituals and accepting doctrines without thinking and understanding for ourselves we stunt our intellectual, emotional, and spiritual growth! 

None of this is to say religion specifically or seeking a relationship with God (or whatever name we give to the Divine, the transcendent Ground of all Being) in general is foolish.  It isn’t.  History of religion scholar Karen Armstrong makes clear, “Religion was not something tacked on to the human condition, an optional extra imposed on people by some unscrupulous priest.  The desire to cultivate a sense of the transcendent may be the defining human characteristic.”[13]  She further elaborates:

Indeed, there is a case for arguing that Homo sapiens is also Homo religiosus.  Men and women started to worship gods as soon as they became recognizably human; they created religions at the same time as they created works of art.  This was not simply because they wanted to propitiate powerful forces; these early faiths expressed the wonder and mystery that seem always to have been an essential component of the human experience of this beautiful yet terrifying world.  Like art, religion has been an attempt to find meaning and value in life, despite the suffering the flesh is heir to.  Like any other human activity, religion can be abused, but it seems to have been something that we have always done…Indeed, our current secularism is an entirely new experiment, unprecedented in human history.  We have yet to see how it will work.[14]

I use these quotes to ground all my classes, to show my students whether they are theist, atheist, or agnostic, how central religion is to our humanity.  Anyone may choose not to believe.  That’s fine!  It’s a free choice.  But to say we’ve outgrown religion or we don’t need it anymore now that we have science is the same as saying we’ve outgrown or no longer need art.  Religion, at its core, is about the why not the how.  It is about meaning and purpose and connection – within ourselves, between ourselves and others, between ourselves and all of creation, and between ourselves and whatever Divine Being/Energy/Essence grounds all of existence.  We’ve been seeking that connection for over 70,000 years![15]  As Armstrong makes clear, the problem comes with religion’s abuse.

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Leela and the Doctor move through the mirrored halls of the Tesh’s ship, a nice trick for making a smaller set look larger but also a brilliant way to illustrate how our places of worship can become an endless reflection of us as opposed to something which points us to the Divine. / Photo Credit – BBC Studio’s Doctor Who

The serial doesn’t treat religion or the religious as foolish either.  Neither Neeva nor Jabel, while frustrating at times, are presented as villains or evil in anyway.  In fact, it is Neeva who ultimately frees everyone for good by blasting Xoanon and allowing everyone’s minds to come back to them as the Doctor purges his personality from the fractured mess of Xoanon’s consciousness.  It is the act of the priest who has seen the error of his ways, striking down his unholy image of God that opens the door for the Doctor to save the day, repair Xoanon, and begin to broker peace between the Sevateem and the Tesh.[16]  It is not God or religion as a concept that created the mess between the Sevateem and the Tesh but rather a corrupted religion, where misconceptions and intolerances were enshrined.

As the Doctor and Leela speak with the newly repaired and reoriented Xoanon, we see a nuanced exploration of totemism or the idea of our making God in our image:

The Doctor – “How do you feel?”
Xoanon – “I am whole.  And you?”
The Doctor – “Oh, I’m fine now, thanks.  Can’t complain.”
Xoanon – “Good, good.  I’m glad.”
Leela – “Why did you do all that?”
Xoanon – “Could you be more specific?”
Leela – “Keep us ignorant and afraid.  Make us hate one another.”
Xoanon – “I created a world in my own image.  I made your people act out my torment.  I made my madness reality.”
The Doctor – “But you told yourself you were breeding a race of superhumans.”
Xoanon – “Independence, strength, boldness and courage in one tribe.  Self-denial, control, telepathy in the other.”
The Doctor – “Hostility and conflict to speed up the process until you were ready to select the best of both.”
Leela – “It’s horrible.”
The Doctor – “Yes, it is horrible.  Isn’t it horrible?”
Xoanon – “But it’s over now.  We are all free, thanks to you, Doctor.”
The Doctor – “Oh, well, it was the least I could do in the circumstances.  After all, I did start the trouble in the first place.”[17]

This computer-which-became-god was once a reflection of the people and then, through the Doctor’s intervention, it became a fractured reflection of him and the people who made it.  Xoanon then made the people a reflection of itself.  What the humans created became their god and this god then led the people to nurture animosity, fear, ignorance, and hate.  There is this delicate balance between us, religion, and the Divine.  We must always be mindful of this balance lest we create a God in our image who tears down and divides as opposed to serving a God who welcomes and loves.

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The Doctor and Leela investigate the transceiver through which Xoanon speaks to Neeva. / Photo Credit – BBC Studios’ Doctor Who

If, as Disciples of the Doctor, we are called to be kind then we are also called to think.  I’d argue, even if you’re not a fan of Doctor Who we are still called to be kind and to think – even and especially if we identify as religious or spiritual.  If, as Karen Armstrong states, human existence has always been a quest “to find meaning and value in life, despite the suffering the flesh is heir to,” then I doubt we can find any meaning or value worthy of the name without kindness and a willingness to think and to change our mind.  We have sought a relationship with the transcendent for 70,000+ years.  The majority of our religions and rituals are forever lost to time.  But what remains constant is our seeking paths to relationship with the invisible reality behind our visible world.

Our religions – all religions – are fallible and imperfect paths to the Divine because we are fallible and imperfect beings.  But that doesn’t mean they aren’t important.  As Leela does with the Doctor as her guide, it is our job to be mindful of the roots of our religious behavior, to honor what works and to lay aside that which no longer serves the cause of kindness and inclusion.  We must be mindful of Anne Lamott’s words as we understand all the doctrines and dogmas of any religion, especially the religion we choose as our own, aren’t a direct line from God. 

They are our attempt to express the inexpressible, to put into language and ritual glimpses and understandings of the Divine.  And should our religions call us to be unkind or to stop thinking and blindly accept, well then the odds are good we’re worshipping a Xoanon made in our own image.  In this serial the Doctor teaches Leela, to my mind, one of the most important truths Doctor Who has conveyed in its near sixty year history.  He tells her, “You know, the very powerful and the very stupid have one thing in common.  They don’t alter their views to fit the facts.  They alter the facts to fit the view.  Which can be uncomfortable, if you happen to be one of the facts that needs altering.”[18]  To avoid creating and serving a Xoanon, to honor the Divine we seek to know, we must always be willing and able to ask ourselves But what if I’m wrong? and we must remember to Never be certain of anything, it’s a sign of weakness.  Most of all, we must always remember to be kind.  Amen.

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Photo Credit – BBC Studios’ Doctor Who

[1] Tom Baker, Doctor Who: Scratchman. (London: BBC Books, 2019), 301.

[2] “Peter Capaldi had this to say to the cyberbullies targeting a Doctor Who fan,” RadioTimes, Published April 11, 2017.  Accessed May 1, 2021.

[3] Pennant Roberts, dir. “The Face of Evil: Part One,” Doctor Who, season 14, episode 13, BBC, 1977.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Anne Lamott, Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith, (New York: Riverhead Books, 20

[8] Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life (New York: Anchor Books, 1994), 22.

[9] Pennant Roberts, dir. “The Face of Evil: Part One,” Doctor Who, season 14, episode 13, BBC, 1977.

[10] Pennant Roberts, dir. “The Face of Evil: Part One,” Doctor Who, season 14, episode 14, BBC, 1977.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Pennant Roberts, dir. “The Face of Evil: Part One,” Doctor Who, season 14, episode 15, BBC, 1977.

[13] Karen Armstrong, The Case for God (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2009), 9.

[14] Karen Armstrong, A History of God: The 4,000-Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam (New York: Ballantine Books, 1993), xix.

[15] Joseph Campbell and Bill Moyer, The Power of Myth. (New York: Anchor Books, 1991), 89-90.

[16] Pennant Roberts, dir. “The Face of Evil: Part One,” Doctor Who, season 14, episode 16, BBC, 1977.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid.


5 thoughts on “Doctor Who’s “The Face of Evil,” the Nature of God, and the Role of Religion

  1. The Face of Evil is something of an underrated classic, it addressed some powerful themes, and provides a fantastic introduction to the new companion Leela. This is one of my favourite 4th Doctor stories, it highlights the impact the Doctor’s adventures can have on a society, even though unwittingly, and how Leela’s tribe devote themselves to Xoanon is a clever way to explore religious themes in sci-fi – especially if compared to say Captain Kirk’s lamentable encounter with “God” in Star Trek V. I think The Face of Evil is an incredibly well produced adventure as well, and certainly helped establish such a memorable character as Leela.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I agree! This is one of my favorite Fourth Doctor adventures and I return to it often. I have a piece I’m working on about ‘The Genesis of the Daleks’ but I was having fun finishing this one first and I especially enjoyed posting this first as it is a bit underrated. The dynamic between Leela and her “savage,” instinct-driven nature and the Doctor’s logical, rational approach make for one of my favorite Doctor/companion interactions. I also love how different (though on the surface it may look similar) it is than the relationship the Second Doctor had with Jamie.

      Would you believe I’ve never seen any of the ‘Star Trek’ movies?? But now I really want to watch them! I used to teach a class about theology and pop culture in general and so many of the best (and worst) examples of using God and religious ideas/themes came in sci-fi stories. It’s one of the reasons I love the genre – you can do so much with it.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I’d highly recommend the Star Trek movies, especially the films that feature the original cast. The STTNG movies were ok, but I wasn’t a fan of the JJ Abrams reboot films. Star Trek V is the one where they meet “God” as it were, although ST The Motion Picture, the original crews first outing, is also a meeting with a God of sorts, with a very Trek / spin on the theme. Genesis of the Daleks is a classic, I remember writing apiece on that one a long time ago. Great story. I think the Face of Evil is very underrated by Dr Who fans, and often gets overlooked by the bigger stories either side of it.


  2. This is a fascinating story. I really enjoyed your analysis of it. I love the quote “Never be certain of anything – it’s a sign of weakness.” – I’m going to remember that one!


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