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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