Doctor Who: the Doctor’s most callous moments

From The Visitation to Into The Dalek, here's a potted history of the Doctor at his least compassionate and most callous...

“Never cruel or cowardly.”

That’s the Terrance Dicks line that Steven Moffat referenced in The Day of the Doctor.

“He’s on the top layer if you want to say a few words.”

That’s a line that either Steven Moffat or Phil Ford wrote for Into The Dalek. It’s pretty hard to interpret that as a non-cruel statement, but then asking for consistency from Doctor Who is a vague question at best (what people regard as good Doctor Who isn’t going to make for a simple Venn diagram).

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For the hero of a family show, the Doctor is able to get away with some stupendously caustic and callous deeds. He’s an alien genius, he grew up on planet Oxbridge, and he gets stuck into difficut situations. It’s not a total shock, therefore, to see him be an aloof death-monger with a superiority complex. As illustrated in Into The Dalek, the Doctor also has some subconscious hatred issues going on. Combine this with his background, and you can see how he might end up racially insulting other aliens. E.g. Strax, whom he insults with regards to his appearance, his appearance being an aspect of his high-gravity planet clone species that the Doctor has defeated time and time again. There’s still an elitist streak in him, but then you are supposed to get more right wing as you get older.

Except that the Doctor’s always had this morbid streak, an element of being more excited by history and ideas than actual people. In recent years he’s certainly claimed the opposite, to the extent that it might be a case of protesting too much. Certainly, he seemed pretty pleased at starting the Great Fire of London in The Visitation, despite the unknowable death toll and estimated loss of housing for seven eighths of the city’s inhabitants. That’s before we consider the Terileptils burning, their skin bubbling onscreen before the Doctor runs away, finger to his lips, smiling. Mind you, in The Romans as Nero burned the city, the First Doctor cackled away to himself. Maybe he just likes starting fires.

Another aspect of the Doctor’s lifestyle touched on in Into The Dalek was the amount of self-sacrifice that goes on around him. For someone who makes so many mistakes himself (and also has plenty in common with a soldier) he doesn’t half chastise people who do likewise. Consider Tooth And Claw, the episode with the polite warrior monks who just wander away offscreen once they realise they aren’t making the final edit. In it, Sir Robert MacLeish – a man whose wife is being held hostage – is forced into an impossible situation, while the Doctor and Rose turn up and have a whale of a time as a werewolf shreds up those around them. Arguably, the Doctor and Rose should be feeling more ashamed (and as punishment they are ultimately split apart), but it’s Sir Robert who sacrifices himself to give the Doctor time to save the day. The Doctor smiles and says ‘Good man’, which is probably an okay thing to say to someone about to be torn apart, but it’s still not technically helpful.

The undisputed master of the disinterested alien remark was Tom Baker, and it’s hard to beat the moment in Pyramids Of Mars where he doesn’t seem to notice the corpse in the room because he’s bothered by other things, even though the corpse used to be a very nice and helpful man who was a tad upset at his brother’s corpse being possessed by Sutekh the Destroyer (As I think we all would be in those circumstances). The Doctor is, as he confirms to Sarah Jane Smith, looking at the bigger picture, which means it’s fine for him to dismiss the death about a bit before muttering about the design of a robot. This is a long way from “They’re never small to me”.

Who is the Doctor trying to kid? Himself, mainly, but also his companion. His behaviour towards Peri is wildly inconsistent. His Fifth incarnation, before they both got a near-fatal illness, was wryly mocking her, and his Sixth attacks her, ignores her, and belittles her. When Peri is confronted with the fate of her planet, the Doctor isn’t unsympathetic, but he cares more about the mystery than the people who died here long ago. When the Rani chastises Peri as useless the Doctor responds “Not to me she isn’t,” which normally you could take as affection, but the word choice is interesting. Peri is useful to the Doctor, and as we’ve seen from recent companions one of their main jobs is to stop him from becoming too callous and harsh, lest he commits genocide or goes all impassive and stony-faced. Imagine the Sixth Doctor bombarding around the universe without Peri to explain him to other people.

The phrase “There’s no such thing as a selfless good deed” ties in with this. The Doctor’s companions are now like his carers. He needs them for their utility as well as the usual anti-loneliness reasons. I can’t really imagine Leela making it on board now, as presumably the Doctor attempting genocide would be met with “Yes! Let us feast on the death cries of our enemies!” and the denouement would be somewhat jarring with the timeslot. Leela would also see through any attempt at self-deception and announce some wisdom from the elders of her tribe along the lines of “The ends justify the means. Like at the end of Watchmen, even though they sort of don’t there. Okay, bad example”.

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Overall, though, even if attempting to justify himself is a recent development (The Third Doctor simply said ‘What’s wrong with being childish? I like being childish’), being grouchy, bad-tempered and brittle is not. Into The Dalek might have been trying to show off the new Twelfth Doctor, having him ask Clara whether he was a good man or not, but the answer – that he tries to be – is true of all the Doctors. From the scheming, deception-based plans of the Second and Seventh to the First’s very patriarchal superiority complex over Ian and Barbara, he’s always been a little bit of a dick, and he knows that.

So he probably should have been less surprised that the big speech thing in Rings Of Akhaten didn’t work.

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