Doctor Who, Genesis Of The Daleks and ethics
What did revisiting Genesis Of The Daleks' ethical dilemma in The Magician's Apprentice tell us about Peter Capaldi's Doctor? Spoilers...
Contains spoilers for The Magician’s Apprentice, The Witch’s Familiar and Genesis Of The Daleks. And Watchmen.
‘Do I have the right?’
There was no queue of assassins outside baby Hitler’s house in Braunau am Inn in 1899 for the fairly obvious reason that people can’t see into the future or travel backwards through time, but then that’s one of the things Science Fiction and Fantasy is good for: taking the impossible and using it as commentary, to pose moral dilemmas such as ‘If someone who knew the future pointed out a child to you and told you that that child would grow up totally evil, to be a ruthless dictator who would destroy millions of lives, could you then kill that child?’
That’s dialogue from a rightly celebrated scene in a similarly popular Doctor Who story: Genesis Of The Daleks. It’s often held up as a pinnacle of Doctor Who at its most interesting and cerebral; the kind of thing fans use to highlight Doctor Who as a show that debates moral dilemmas rather than resorting to shoot-outs and explosions. Of course, now Doctor Who has the budget for those, the temptation is to use them more often, but the show can’t resist revisiting the oldest ethical dilemma of them all. Indeed, nor can a lot of fiction. Normally, though, it comes up with new ways to frame the choice, so it’s something of a risk to explicitly revisit a fan-favourite like Genesis Of The Daleks in this way, then.
It risks both fan ire and making the ethical dilemma sound like a tired trope, but it’s something people always want to poke at, because it’s an excellent way of showing a character’s range: their ability to be heroic and morally dubious while still being consistent. This was the crux of the Fiftieth Anniversary special, the ability of the Doctor to destroy his own people and to save them, and you bought both versions of the character. Doctor Who is rare in that it can have the one character occupy these different moral standpoints. Watchmen, for example, uses different characters to examine different perspectives, and has different monsters and races involved but is essentially the same dilemma: is it okay to kill innocent people to save lots of lives? Do the ends justify the means?
In Genesis Of The Daleks the Doctor decides that it doesn’t, that it would make him no better than the Daleks, and asks Sarah Jane Smith if she could kill a child to save the future.
It’s worth noting that Sarah Jane Smith avoids the question somewhat, ignoring the child and focusing on the adult dictator. The Doctor, approximately 1300 years later/several decades earlier, does the same when confronted with a young boy called Davros trapped in a minefield on Skaro. He leaves Davros to his fate, which is an ambiguous act.
Does the Doctor think through his actions? Does he just flee instinctively? If he thinks about it, what is he hoping to achieve? There is an ethical distinction between killing someone – as the Doctor seems set to do in the cliffhanger – and letting them die. Perhaps the Doctor, notoriously the universe’s most blood soaked pacifist, was unwilling to get his hands dirty.
Alternately, does he leave the boy knowing that he will survive? He is Davros and the Doctor knows he will survive, somehow. Possibly the motivational speech the Doctor gave, buoyed by positive results in Listen, is what gives Davros the strength to continually survive against such overwhelming odds, and this is the source of the Doctor’s shame. He had to preserve the timelines, but couldn’t bring himself to ensure that they stayed the same, leaving a boy to fend for himself. One can only imagine that this didn’t give the young Davros an especially sunny disposition in the midst of a constant war.
So, what The Magician’s Apprentice does is muddy the already opaque waters further by nudging the viewer and the Doctor towards the course of action he seems ready to embark on by the episode’s end: killing a child who will destroy millions of lives. Of course, this isn’t the first time he’s done that. After the ‘Have I the right?’ speech, summarising the ethical dilemma beautifully and rejecting an Ends Justify the Means morality, the Doctor then changes his mind and blows up the Incubation room anyway. Sometimes, as stressed in Mummy On The Orient Express, the Doctor only has bad choices left, and sometimes he becomes desperate. Hence: the cliffhanger to The Magician’s Apprentice, and the implication that the Doctor is willing to reverse the timelines.
Admittedly, though, this is less about millions of lives, and more about the lives of two people who happen to be the Doctor’s friends, followed by the blurring of that divide as two arch-enemies start seeming less aggressive. When it transpires that the Doctor goes back and saves the young Davros, he’s both saving his friend’s life and consigning millions of people to their deaths. He isn’t killing or letting die with regards to what’s in front of him, but is reinforcing a timeline full of remote and distant death.
The Doctor’s actions don’t fit neatly into an absolute morality where right and wrong are clear cut, because his position as a time-traveller grants him extra knowledge to inform his decisions. He knows letting this child live is the right thing to do in so far as killing is wrong, but if he lives then millions of people will die, but this is the correct timeline and altering this would presumably have huge repercussions. And yet what motivates him to do the right thing is concern for one person, rather than the idea that saving Davros is good in and of itself. He’s simultaneously heroic, selfish, right, wrong, and foolish. If he is on a pedestal, then its plinth probably has something of a slope on it.
While no hero is ever truly clean-cut, finding an intriguing shade of grey is no easy task, and ultimately it can’t provide interest forever. Overall, revisiting the territory of Genesis Of The Daleks and offering an insight into how the same man can ask ‘Have I the right?’ and then immediately jettison those beliefs was worth the risk. These episodes pushed ‘the Doctor’ further into the realms of abstraction, comparing the man with the ideals he struggles to live up to, and finding within the flaws both heroism and nobility.
The Witch’s Familiar airs on BBC One on Saturday the 26th of September at 7.45pm.
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