Doctor Who: What Is the Power of the Doctor?

Never cruel or cowardly, a madman in a box, an alien with two hearts...? Exactly what is it about the Doctor that makes the character mean so much to us?

Doctor Who - The Power of the Doctor
Photo: BBC

The title of Jodie Whittaker’s swan song as the Doctor has been announced: ‘The Power of the Doctor’. Presumably it will line events up for Russell T Davies’ 60th anniversary specials, ‘Remembrance of the Doctor’, ‘Resurrection of the Doctor’, ‘The Doctor’s Master Plan’ and, of course, ‘The Doctor Invasion of Earth’.

It is a story that will be many things – it will reintroduce Ace and Tegan (and potentially play merry Hell with canon as it does so), it will conclude the tenures of both the Thirteenth Doctor and Chris Chibnall, wrap up the Thasmin romance arc (our money’s on ‘It ends tragically’) and conclude whatever Dan’s arc is. Some are still holding onto an outlying chance that it might end the universe. People are going to have strong opinions about it, many ones that you can probably guess in advance.

However, before we dive back into the perilous waters of Doctor Who discourse, let’s take a moment to ask, “What is The Power of the Doctor?”

Maybe Jodie Whittaker’s your favourite Doctor, maybe you miss the cutting political commentary of the Cartmel era, or think the show has gone downhill since it veered off its original mission of doing educational pure historical stories and running off to fight something called “Daleks”. Maybe you really likeLove and Monsters’. Doctor Who fandom is a broad church, and like any religious sect our biggest battles are usually with those whose beliefs most closely (but don’t quite) match our own.

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But whatever your particular denomination of fandom, we all love the Doctor for one reason or another, so at this turning point in the show’s history it’s worth asking why that is. What makes the Doctor special?

Never Cruel or Cowardly?

When trying to define the essence of the character, fans often turn to the famous description in Malcolm Hulke and Terrance Dicks’ The Making of Doctor Who (Second Edition):

“He is impulsive, idealistic, ready to risk his life for a worthy cause. He hates tyranny and oppression and anything that is anti-life. He never gives in and he never gives up, however overwhelming the odds against him. The Doctor believes in good and fights evil. Though often caught up in violent situations, he is a man of peace. He is never cruel or cowardly. In fact, to put it simply, the Doctor is a hero.”

Malcolm Hulke, Terrence Dicks ‘The Making of Doctor Who’ 2nd Ed

This simple paragraph has had a big impact. The line “never cruel or cowardly” has turned up twice in the Virgin New Adventures series of Doctor Who adventures, “Timewyrm: Revelation” and “Human Nature”, as well as the latter-day TV adaptation of “Human Nature”, the 50th anniversary special ‘The Day of the Doctor’, and the episode ‘Listen’. For many fans it is the benchmark by which the Doctor is measured.

But it’s also bollocks, isn’t it?

You want cruelty? At various times the Doctor has grinned with glee while electrocuting a Dalek to death, sentenced an entirely family to an eternal life of constant torture (in the same episode that quoted the “never cruel” line, incidentally), abandoned an ordinary human to a life of having to avoid people clicking their fingers under the threat of being dissected, and let a woman dry out to death, to pick a few examples.

You want cowardly? The same Doctor that said they promised to be “never cowardly” also proudly announced he would be “a coward, every time” when dooming the universe to a rapidly expanding Dalek invasion rather than wipe them out (alongside the planet Earth). Many would argue that the Doctor’s entire story is defined by running away – from his responsibility, his fate, his people, and whatever the monster of the week is. Yes, sometimes running away requires a bravery all of its own, but we are talking about the person who, when told by the Ood his time had finally arrived, decided to go on holiday long enough for an as-yet undisclosed number of Big Finish adventures and future crossover appearances in the TV show.

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Now in all of these cases, the Doctor had their reasons – often really, really good reasons. But everyone who ever did something crappy would have said they had a good reason at the time.

Even Once and Future Showrunner, Russell T Davies has said, “I don’t have much time for character descriptions like ‘never cruel or cowardly.’” And Davies is only one of many, many writers, and creators of the Doctor’s story, all with their own agendas, politics, and perspectives, over (nearly) sixty years. Is a consistent character even possible over that time?

Yes. Or at least, roughly as consistent as most real people manage to be over 60 years. But the character that started it all, the character that everyone from Jo Martin and Jodie Whittaker to John Hurt and Paul McGann and beyond played, was originated by William Hartnell playing an utter bastard of a man, who kidnapped schoolteachers, threatened to bludgeon cavemen to death and lied and cheated to get what he wanted. The monster fighting hero evolves during his run, but as Moffat’s Twelve and First Doctor crossover, ‘Twice Upon a Time’ shows, it was a role that had not even fully solidified when he regenerated.

The Alien Behind the Mask

If we aren’t going with “never cruel or cowardly”, another apt description of the Doctor and their appeal comes from former showrunner Steven Moffat, in a panel during the 50th Anniversary celebrations. In this speech Moffat crystallises the appeal of the character:

“When they made this particular hero they didn’t give him a gun, they gave him a screwdriver to fix things. They didn’t give him a tank or a warship or an X-Wing fighter, they gave him a call box from which you can call for help and they didn’t give him a superpower or pointy ears, a heat-ray, they gave him an extra heart. They gave him two hearts. And that’s an extraordinary thing. There will never come a time when we don’t need a hero like the Doctor.”

Steven Moffat, former Doctor Who Executive Producer

Of course the gun thing is more of a guideline than a rule, as this handy compilation shows (and no, Tenth Doctor, shooting a water pistol at aliens to whom water is deadly still counts as firing a gun). But the core of the message still stands. The Doctor wins not by being stronger, but by being cleverer, by talking, by caring more where so often their enemies are all about caring less.

The Doctor lacks the punching, shooting and flying powers of most action heroes (apart from the odd occasion when some Venusian Aikido or good old Glaswegian Punch To The Face are necessary) but also, he doesn’t want them. And this brings us back to Moffat’s use of “Never cruel or cowardly” in the anniversary special. It’s a promise the Doctor makes, it is what the Doctor’s name means.

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Moffat builds on this further in his novelization of ‘The Day of the Doctor’, the narration switches between the third and first person. The third person is used to describe the Doctor, hero of time and space, friend to children everywhere and clownish idiot. But when the Doctor does something un-Doctorish, or doubts themselves, or makes a big mistake, that is when the narrator switches to the first person, the unnamed “I” who is the ancient, immortal alien who has known incalculable sorrow and rage, who pretends to be the fictional character “the Doctor” to scare monsters and comfort children. The unnamed “I” might be cruel or cowardly, might do it all the time, really, but the Doctor never would.

A Madman With a Box

Whatever you think of the Doctor today, there is no denying that the character’s status has become, let’s say ‘elevated’ over the last six decades. The first three Doctors were, in turn, a weird old man, a weird hobo, and a dandy-ish science hero not unprone to teenage sulks with his employer.

It is hard to imagine any of these Doctors saving the world by using the power of human belief to turn them into a glowy space Jesus, or scaring the monsters away only by telling them to look them up, twice. Armies don’t turn and run at the mention of the Second Doctor’s name. The First Doctor is, perhaps rightly, embarrassed to see that twelve or thirteen (hard to keep count) regenerations along, he’s going to try and scare evil plans away with speeches.

It’s a change that has happened in parallel between the fiction and the metafiction. Doctor Who, the franchise, has existed for nearly 60 years. Millennials’ parents and grandparents watched it, and now they too must suffer the agonies of meeting actual legal adults who grew up on David Tennant’s Doctor. As the show and the fandom have continued and grown, so has the legend of the character.

Meanwhile, within the confines of the show’s fiction, the Doctor has spent far longer than 60 years since leaving Foreman’s Scrapyard, bouncing backwards and forwards through time and across space, meeting every single historically significant figure, being present at every single notable historical event (some of which have occurred since the show began airing), as well as stopping alien invasions of a global or even galactic scale. Word is going to get about. The word “Doctor” is going to be inspired by the Doctor (creating a bit of a bootstrap paradox), which is also going to mean warrior. Six different secret organisations are going to be founded with the sole purpose of tracking them down. Every fairytale, myth and legend will retroactively turn out to be about a weirdo with a blue box and a glowing screwdriver.

It’s an understandable evolution of the character, metafictionally and fictionally. It’s one that the New Series (if we can still call it that) has flirted with and pushed against. Barely halfway into Christopher Eccleston’s turn as the Doctor, he hands Mickey a CD with a virus that will wipe every mention of him from the internet (it doesn’t work). The Eleventh Doctor fakes his death and goes on an epic mission through time, space, and DVD extras to delete every reference of himself in history, going to the point of making the Daleks themselves forget about him (it doesn’t stick).

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Indeed, Chibnall seems to have, largely intentionally, ditched the Doctor-as-legend-messiah version of the character, which is a solid decision to make, if one that’s a bit unfortunate to make at the same time as debuting the first incarnation of the character as a woman.

The beginning of the Eleventh Doctor’s first season and the end of the Twelfth Doctor’s first season are both marked by the Doctor referring to himself as “a madman with a box”. It is the most minimalist description of the character you could manage (“mad person with a box” is now a more accurate, if less pithy description). It cuts away all the canon and lore and history to get to the meat of what the Doctor, and more importantly, a Doctor Who story is.

Because while the Doctor is as clever as the plot needs them to be at any given point, and has a magic wand that can open any door the plot requires them to open, they are largely devoid of superpowers.

Stories where the Doctor’s actions create a paradox that cause the Master to team up with the Daleks and assemble a fleet of battle TARDISes to kill the Doctor’s previous companions who need the work right now are the best fun, let nobody say we don’t need those. Let’s do at least two of them next year.

But the best Doctor Who stories, the real timeless whoppers, are the ones where a completely unrelated Hammer horror film, or murder mystery, or space opera or disaster movie or ghost story is going on and then this idiot in a costume that doesn’t quite fit shows up and starts not taking anything seriously enough. And they’ll argue with whoever is supposed to be in charge and make the story not go the way that sort of story is supposed to go.

Personally, that’s what I think the “power of the Doctor” is. The power to derail the story that would happen if they weren’t there.

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