Doctor Who: the Doctor's morality

Feature Andrew Blair 22 Jan 2014 - 07:00

Is the Doctor really "never cruel or cowardly"? Andrew ponders the Time Lord's morality...

Throughout fifty years of storytelling, the Doctor has emerged as an antidote to conventional heroism, using his wits and intelligence to find peaceful solutions, never using violence to save the day. Eschewing guns and fighting in favour of rhetoric and not fighting, in the words of Terrance Dicks, the Doctor is 'never cruel or cowardly'.

It's such a shame that this isn't true.

Still, it sounds better than 'The Doctor is sometimes cruel and cowardly but he means well'.

It's similar to the claims of a popular deity being omnipresent, omniscient and omnipotent when reality suggests that any godlike being up there is a bit ditzy, careless and sometimes miscalculates. Maybe the Doctor is a god for rational humanists? We know he isn't real, after all, so that'd save time.

The fact that the Doctor generally tries to find peaceful solutions is certainly laudable and distinctive, but on a purely practical level it's incredibly difficult to write new versions of this every single story for fifty years. It's further complicated by the fact that, because the production team changes every now and then, Doctor Who is essentially a series of distinctive and occasionally contradictory decisions made by different individuals over a long period of time (this is why I believe arguments about canon are borderline Dadaist).

Equally, in the short term writers will ignore established concepts if it benefits their stories. So, while it's a general trend for the Doctor to be non-violent, it's worth noting that the First Doctor laughed as Rome burned, the Second Doctor caused a Martian fleet to fly into the sun, the Third Doctor shot an Ogron, the Fourth blew up the Graff Vynda K, the Fifth Doctor smiled as London burned and Tereleptils melted, the Sixth Doctor used fatally poisonous vines as a trap, the Seventh refused to use guns but plotted genocide, the Eighth's determination to adhere to an absolute morality collapsed in the face of the Time War, the War Doctor almost committed genocide because he'd had enough, the Ninth Doctor watched as bitchy trampolines exploded, the Tenth wreaked terrible revenge on the Family of Blood, the Eleventh let Solomon die because he was angry.

For every Doctor, and every production team, there are examples of the Doctor causing or allowing harm to happen to another creature, even when the show has a Producer with strong opinions regarding ethics.

The Letts/Dicks and Russell T. Davies' eras of the show are those under the most rigorous moral codes, with real-world allegories and concerns reflected in the storylines, and yet even with an unwillingness to show violence the Third, Ninth and Tenth Doctors can't be said to be squeaky clean. This comes through both mistakes and fuller realisations of those characters. However, with these eras being two of the most popular ever, it's tempting to say that it's best to make Doctor Who with a strong governing morality behind it, and indeed that it should be the only way.

Or, of course, you could go for the Steve Moffat or Hinchcliffe/Holmes approaches which have no governing moralities whatsoever, being more in love with ideas and concepts.

Tom Baker's Fourth Doctor remains one of the most popular incarnations, yet he got away with being violent and aggressive. This is partly because he mixed it up with a benevolence and a righteous moral fury, and being that weird it was very easy to understand that he was an alien with a different sense of right and wrong to us. Mainly though, it's because he was very entertaining, and that gives you a lot of leeway in terms of how far you can push an anti-hero.

This is why we remember the 'Do I have the right?' speech from Genesis of the Daleks (and doesn't Harry Sullivan look like the Eighth Doctor in The Night of the Doctor during that scene?), but not the fact that the Doctor changes his mind completely and tries to destroy the Daleks as Sarah-Jane wanted him to originally (obviously that moral lesson didn't seep in for Sarah by the time of Journey's End).

With all this going on, you'd be forgiven for thinking the Doctor was actually a bit of a git. You certainly should be, as that's a consistent part of his character: the Doctor is annoying. He knows he's annoying. He uses this to make angry people angrier until they start making mistakes, but equally it's why he rubs a lot of people up the wrong way. The Doctor also knows that he's quite bad at adhering to a clear-cut 'This is right and that is wrong' morality, but the key thing is that he generally tries to do this.

If you can take any moral lesson from Doctor Who it's that adhering to a consistent and absolute morality is really, really difficult. The Doctor himself even abandons it and goes on an 'Ends justifying the means' killing spree in his Seventh incarnation. The Eighth Doctor sticks rigidly to his absolute morality and loads of people die as a result. No matter which of the two moral theories he picks, people die, but still he persists in trying to help. By this stage in the show's history, writers are reacting to previous Doctor's decisions and personalities; it's only when we look back at its entirety and try to rationalise it that Doctor Who becomes so complex, and so recent series have been able to examine the Doctor's morality more scrupulously.

In this respect, as a whole, the Doctor tries to adhere to an absolute morality, but fails. In order to excuse this you either have to allow for lapses, or plead that the consequences of him trying and failing are justified by his many victories. In other words, he sets out adhering to a clear notion of right and wrong, but ultimately the ends justify the means of his more morally dubious actions. It's tempting to read into it an underlying cynicism about clean-cut heroism in Doctor Who, even if this is more to do with the practical reality of such a long-lived TV show, being more to do with inconsistency than design.

The long term result of these changes in tone and style mean that we can go from the Sixth Doctor lambasting Davros for killing his friends to blinding a Dalek in the space of a few scenes, or the  Tenth Doctor being aggressively and obtusely anti-gun in a number of his stories to the Eleventh cheerfully watching River Song mow down a bunch of Silence in a slow motion laser fight. Steve Moffat and Matt Smith's version of the Doctor is differently alien to Tom Baker's, but they both have a morally distant quality that allows them to, say, slam a dying man into a Time Cabinet or gas a scientist to death.

It was something of a surprise then, for Steven Moffat to push the idealised version of the Doctor's heroism to the forefront in The Day of the Doctor, an amplified version of the 'Everybody lives' denouement in The Doctor Dances. But such clean-cut heroism is a rarity for the character, which is partly why it's so effective in the anniversary episode.

This is what makes the character interesting. No matter how it's arrived at, the Doctor is not the champion of virtue and moral fortitude that he's made out to be. That would be sanctimonious, cringeworthy, and dull. Instead he's an aspirational idealist, a realistically flawed and influential version of heroism.

Or, to put it another way: he's not John McClane in Die Hard 4.0, able to bring a fighter jet down by himself, but he's John McClane in Die Hard 2, right after Colm Meaney's just flown the most English plane in the world into America.

Really, I can't explain it any more clearly than that.

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Well put. Or in other words:
It's futile to expect anyone to adhere flawlessly to an absolute moral code, but an absolute necessity to have that code to set your moral compass by.

Everything I read has vanished from my head... I just have an image of Chief O'Brien as a timelord now... woops!

"We know he isn't real"
Oh Andrew, Andrew Andrew Andrew.
It's like that whole Santa thing again isn't it?
Consider my bubble burst.

Personally, I think it's what makes moments like "Colonel Runaway", arguably the ending of "The Girl Who Waited" and, as you mentioned, Solomon and the Family of Blood more powerful.

They should cast Colm Meaney as Omega.

Brilliant article. The Doctor's morality will always be a tricky thing. Crucially, he always tries to give people the opportunity to do the right thing, including himself. He will make mistakes, he will kill, but rarely unless he has to or feels it is justified. For every "Everybody lives!" story, there is the fury of the Time Lord and I think the ending to Human Nature/The Family of Blood and Dinosaurs on a Spaceship are perfect examples of this.

It is a promise he made to himself. Because in his heart he knows the world is terrible and that he can be corrupted, see Amy's Choice S5E7.
He is a character that aspires to be better in a terrible world. This is why he is so inspirational.

I think there's something wonderful about a character that has a moral stance, is challenged by it, sometimes breaks it but still strives to live by it, otherwise it all gets a bit dull.

It also recognises the world for what it is, not how we'd like it to be. There are shades of grey, there is such a thing as The Greater Good but that doesn't mean we should just give up and have no morals at all.

In many respects, that's the Doctor's greatest villain, he struggles to fight for the promise he made in a universe that opposes it.

This is what I love about the character, always feels compelled to do harm, but fights against it. That's why the ending of Family of Blood is so good. The Doctor runs not because he is afraid of what they will do to him, but what he will do to them

Don't listen to him, Richie.

So what you're basically saying is, Colm Meaney should replace Clara as companion for the Capaldi era?

Two grumpy old men rattling around time and space having adventures?

I'd watch the HECK out of that.

I think he would make a great Master, especially opposite Capaldi! He might not do it though as I think he is currently a regular on Hell on Wheels. He does make a very good villain!

I never do.

I feel it's best whenever the audience is reminded that the Doctor is not human, even if he looks like one and sometimes tries to be like one. It makes sense for an alien to have a very bizarre morality from our viewpoint, especially as morality is constantly changing with the times and varies greatly between different cultures.

It'd be like a sci-fi version of the film 'The Van'

I think it is more interesting to have a hero who tries to live up to a high morality even if he fails sometimes. But we see that these failures do weigh on the Doctor's conscience, especially in the 9th, 10th and 11th Doctors.

Ideals are like lights, shining so we know where to reach, but not in themselves guarantees that we can grasp them...
For all the examples named, there are very few where the Doctor has really been either cruel or cowardly. Many enemies such as the Graff Vynda K, Solomon, the Tereleptils and others tended to be hoisted on their own petards, having their own weapons and plans turned against them (the Doctor is not a policeman, after all, and there are rarely any authorities around to deal with such threats).
Some incidents can be explained (albeit with varying levels of difficulty).The Fourth Doctor didn't stop the Daleks outright, but did hinder their development enough to keep the future where they exterminated all other life from happening. The Seventh Doctor's destruction of Skaro and the Cyberfleet were more examples of enemies having their own plans turned against them. The Ninth tortured the first Dalek he'd found alive after the Time War, but later gave up the chance to shoot it dead. The Tenth Doctor's punishment of the Family of Blood came after being human for so long, and could be excused as a residual level of human righteous anger.
Were the Doctor really cowardly, he could avoid so much danger by not answering calls for help. Were the Doctor really cruel, every death would be accompanied by a James Bond style quip (the only instances I can recall off-hand of those occurred in the nadir of the Colin Baker era).

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That idea is so full of Awesome it wants to have sex with my brain...

I think the character of the Doctor as full on hero is really a RTD invention. The most full i on heroic version of the Dr from the original series is Pertwee. Much of the time he's a well meaning meddler who can barely control the Tardis. None of the first 8 would recognise the Uber version of the Dr we see now (the war doctor: ironically turned out to be the softest most cuddly Dr of all - with all of his war antics totally unmentioned). The first and seventh are the most morally ambiguous.

Davison is my Dr. And if I were the show runner I would have my new Dr far less confident and universe saving. He'd make more mistakes; he'd show his fear; he'd lose a few.

A very interesting article. I wonder how many of the Doctor's inconsistencies, could be explained by justifiable self-defence? I agree, not all the cases stand up, but sometimes it's clearly a shoot first or be killed situation. Only an insane pacifism would pick holes in that. Also it's very much within the conventions of the series that the Daleks (and most of the villains) are always ruthless psychopaths and we're not really in the position to lock them up for life. If they changed and showed a genuine willingness to peacefully coexist I think the character would have a problem. It's what made 'Victory to the Daleks' so interesting. For a few moments the Doctor seemed aggressive and vindictive, but as usual he was proved right about their nature. It's why I felt so disturbed by the end of 'Evil of the Daleks' when Troughton's Doctor left the sympathetic part-human Daleks to die
. So on balance, I'd say aspirational is fair comment. And I still started blubbing when David Tennant said 'Never cowardly, Never cruel'.

In reference to your "popular deity" statement above - God's character is currently being challenged. All beings have been bestowed with free will because he does not want robots but a willing heart. Once the ultimate reality show, that we are all part of is complete, God's character will be vindicated.

Exactly my opinion!

I'm reminded of an exchange from DC Comic's KINGDOM COME: Preparing for war, Wonder Woman dons her armor and magic sword. Superman says to her (about her aggressive attitude) "I'm uneasy with the blade." To which she replies, "Not all of us have heat vision."

Which points out the absurdity of trying to base human morality around supernatural beings, whether Christian, Kryptionian, or Gallifreyan.

Superman and Doctor Who are akin to Christ-like redeemers who can "resurrect" themselves. Humans cannot. For the Doctor to reprimand humans, as he often does, about the sanctity of all life, and to preach non-violence, "absolute morality", or whatever, when he has the power to regenerate, rings a bit hollow. (At least Jesus promised eternal life in the afterlife...)

Here's a thought: Why not base a morality on the requirements of human life, QUA human life?

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