Friday, 9 November 2012

Carl Sagan and the Doctor Who Helped Save Me From Religion

Carl Sagan (1934 - 1996)
I was an unusual kid from the start.  While my school friends watched the big US commercial networks and MTV, I watched PBS and CBC instead.  My young mind was hooked on NOVA3-2-1 Contact, The Edison Twins, Square One and my young soul was stirred, like so many, by COSMOS.

During precisely the same period in my youth, I would also stay up late into the night to watch Doctor Who every Sunday.  I would lie on the floor with bag of Thunder Crunch potato chips and a 24oz Slurpee.  I was in Geek Nirvana.

Every Doctor Who fan has their own Doctor.  It's usually the first they were exposed to.  My doctor was the curly-haired, big-toothed Tom Baker and his Jelly Babies and mile-long scarf.  My doctor was also Carl Sagan.

Today is Carl Sagan's birthday, which has been declared Carl Sagan Day.  Also, in a few weeks (November 23rd), it will be Doctor Who's 49th birthday.

It's a little strange to say, but looking back at my youth, it could very well have been an odd combination of this real-life astrophysicist and a fictional time-traveler that planted the seeds of skepticism into my childhood brain.  Its like they both teamed up in some kind of covert crossover special or fan fic story and buried away a baloney detection kit in some deep cache where the dogma could not reach it.  As a PBS television Science and Science-Fiction duo they engaged my imagination and somehow secured my way out of religion and into Freethought and Atheism.

It's an unlikely duo - more unusual than Batman and Robin, but the more I consider it, the more I believe that I may not be the only one who owes his escape from the bonds of religious dogma, in some part at least, to these television influences.

The Spaceship of Imagination.
Each week, both men took me on cosmic voyages through time and space in spaceships.  Sagan's was the Spaceship of the Imagination, which closely resembled the floating spores of a dandelion.  It was a beautiful and poetic idea introduced with sweeping emotion in the first episode of Cosmos.

Meanwhile, the Doctor traveled through his imaginary cosmos within a TARDIS.  It had a chameleon circuit, which should have allowed it to blend in with its environment but was perpetually broken so the TARDIS always resembled a 1960s English police call box! 

The special effects for both programs were somewhat lacking even for the time.  It's likely the BBC and PBS had comparable budgets.  But this was not a problem for either program.  Both strove to communicate an entertaining and compelling story: one of discovery and wonder, one of adventure.  And they both gave my mind alternate pictures from what my Baltimore Catholic Catechism would have me see.  Maybe there was much more out there in the Universe.  They both expanded my horizons to new and different possibilities and got me to ask questions.

As far as I can tell, there was no real god in Doctor Who.  Douglas Adams himself wrote some of the episodes I enjoyed on PBS during the 1980s.  Yes, there was some mind control and other woo, but on the whole there was a repeating message.  Very often villains who appeared to be gods or supernatural beings turned out to be alien beings with high technology.

Cosmos also had no god and it delivered a message as well - that the blind fearful superstitious theories about how the world works that were devised in the past, although sometimes beautiful and poetic had gradually yielded to the answers of Science.  Myth was being replaced with Scientific Knowledge.  The themes were very similar.

A Daemon from the 1970s
Doctor Who Episode The Daemons.
While Dr Sagan showed me an ever expanding picture that took me from the quaint yet sometimes stifling constraints of mythologies to the infinite broadness of space and time, Dr Who also worked hard in his own way.  He also exposed the mythologies contained within his fictional universe - mythologies that often bore striking resemblance to our own.

In the Horns of Nimon, I got to see the ancient Greek myth of the Minotaur of Crete reduced to an alien being.  In the story The Daemons, the Christian mythology of the Devil and Demons is explored.  The demon also turns out to be an alien.  As a special twist, the local village vicar turns out to be thoroughly evil.  And just to make things thoroughly interesting, one of the friendly protagonists in the story is a good witch.

It's interesting that while Doctor Who was explaining away superstition and mythology to my young mind, Carl Sagan was celebrating not only the scientific story of humanity but also the rich mythologies in Eastern and Western culture.  Sagan was an adept storyteller who himself loved the rich stories that form the very bedrock of our cultural make-up.

I recently watched a documentary on Sagan's life in which his wife Ann Druyan showed one of Carl's bookshelves.  It was full of Greek and Latin Mythology and Philosophy.  This has made me also question what influenced me to go back to school and get a full degree in Classical Languages and Literature!

He used these stories like the great repeating musical themes of Beethoven and Vangelis which so greatly enhanced Cosmos.  Music, legend and myth were summoned forth, like Sagan's own daemons, to stir my young heart and focus my mind to the size, majesty and awesome intricacy of a Universe who's own true stories far surpass any paltry myth or legend dreamed up by men.

It was as if the humor and myth of Doctor Who mixed with the beautifully-woven narrative of Humanity's own voyage of discovery told by Sagan - adorned with much that was inspiring about mythology and culture, - kindled something deep inside.  It's power to compel engaged me to learn more about the underlying Science, to become a seeker of truth.   Humans love a story and it was the stories presented by Doctor Who and Cosmos that guided this man in his childhood days towards a deeper love of Science and a more profound yearning for understanding.

I don't mean to trivialize the life and work of Carl Sagan by comparing him to a fictional character.  Quite the contrary.  As a child, he was one of my greatest heroes - he brought me to the most amazing places of awe and wonder.

But even more than the Doctor, Sagan stirred my imagination through an astonishing story that swept my soul along to marvel at space and time.

Carl's message was infinitely more valuable.  The many adventures I shared with him were more than fiction - they were a celebration of reality itself.

If I had a TARDIS, I think I would go back to meet Dr Sagan and explore the real universe with him at my side.  This is not the dream of a child, although it has been my dream since I first experienced COSMOS.  This is now the dream of an adult who has refused to let that childhood wonder at the Universe be snuffed out of him.  I believe this was also Sagan's dream - his passion to discover, to know and to wonder.


Happy Birthday, Carl.  I never knew you, but I miss you terribly.


  1. This post is great. I grew up watching Cosmos, and thanks to Carl Sagan, I chose the path of science as my lifestyle. I started watching Doctor Who 3 years ago, and I loved the show, so I decided to see Classic Who, and I fell in love of the Fourth Doctor, Tom Baker is splendid! Thanks for sharing this!

    Greetings from Mexico.

  2. Thanks for responding! I'm interested to know what its like to be an atheist or skeptic in Mexico. Feel free to e-mail me at and perhaps I could do an interview in the future?

    Sagan made me have "spiritual" experiences watching his Cosmos. Both programs made me think outside of my Catholic upbringing "box".


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