Doctor Who: When the Doctor Fails

Followed by sacrifice, redemption and a return to fun adventure, the Doctor’s failures work for the show; without that catharsis, they can hurt it.

When the Doctor Fails - Doctor Who
Photo: BBC

Doctor Who has a reputation as teatime horror designed to scare children, but a safe scare because ultimately the Doctor will win. Or at least that’s what usually happens. From time to time the Doctor doesn’t save the day, or their victory is tarnished somehow. Sometimes there’ll be a run of stories where this happens before Doctor Who reverts back to its format: the Doctor and friends having fun adventures. How the Doctor fails, and how the character responds to that failure, are key to the success of Doctor Who’s ongoing story.

The most obvious example of failure is the Doctor not ‘winning’, or doing so in a way that doesn’t meet their ideals (say, the story’s antagonist(s) succeeding in some way, or the Doctor only defeating them through violence). It’s rare that an antagonist will completely achieve their aims (Rasmussen in ‘Sleep No More’, for example, whose Sandmen-enabling Morpheus process was still broadcast despite the Doctor’s interventions), but there are several victories that feel hollow or partial.

The Doctor’s Death Tolls

In ‘Warriors of the Deep’ the Doctor manages to avert a nuclear war ending life on Earth, but achieves this by killing all the Silurians and Sea Devils on an undersea base. He is visibly shaken by this at the end of the story, as he is at the end of ‘Midnight’ where an entity on board a tourist bus defeats him and is only beaten by the unnamed hostess’ sacrifice. Partial victories include ‘Arachnids in the UK’, ‘Spyfall Part Two’, and ‘Revolution of the Daleks’. In each of these the Doctor stops a greater death toll but the antagonists (Jack Robertson and Daniel Barton) both finish the story free and without any suggestion of changing as people.  

Outgoing showrunner Chris Chibnall has also written a few stories where the denouement involves colossal death tolls (largely off screen) that seem irreversible. Take ‘Flux’, where most of the universe is seemingly destroyed and even the initially surviving Lupari race is killed offscreen, leaving Karvanista – an old friend of the Doctor – their sole survivor with a lethal device in his head. There’s no sacrifice from the Doctor for Karvanista, but she enables his revenge with a counter-genocide. It feels like the end of ‘Warriors of the Deep’ with less focus on the emotional toll involved.

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Most Silurian or Sea Devil stories are examples of the Doctor attempting to resolve things peacefully only to fail and ultimately resort to violence. This is a common failure – although many stories don’t frame it as one. ‘Warriors of the Deep’ flags it up, especially compared to, say, ‘The Brain of Morbius’ where the Doctor spends absolutely no time pondering the morality of trying to poison the antagonists to death (and succeeding with one).

There’s a contextual element to consider. For example, in ‘The Caves of Androzani’ nearly every character dies, but because the Doctor isn’t fighting to prevent that violence but to save his companion’s life, we don’t regard that as a failure. So we can see that the Doctor’s failing isn’t necessarily down to author intention, or whether everybody lives or not. The character’s aims change from story to story.

What the Doctor Leaves Behind

Stories where there’s an unease in their denouement, a sense that all the knots haven’t been untangled, can feel like failures. There are unanswered questions and a lack of cathartic release for the viewer. Doctor Who often leaves stories in a situation where a civilisation has to be rebuilt but the main characters have already moved on (‘Vengeance on Varos’ is a great example of deliberately and provocatively letting this thread dangle, making the viewer consider what happens after the Doctor has gone, leaving a regime change behind him).

Season 11’s ‘Kerblam!’, set in a largely automated online shopping service has the tone of a story with a cathartic defeat of the antagonist (the bubble wrap-based terrorist attack is thwarted), but the substance is similar to the disquieting last scene of ‘Sleep No More’ (an antagonist remains at large and the Doctor hasn’t reversed the problems they’ve caused). It remains to be seen if this is down to authorial intention or another example of partial failure without cathartic release – a recurring feature of Thirteenth Doctor stories.

Sacrifice and Redemption

You can write failure that’s cathartic by introducing or revisiting a character’s flaws before redeeming them through learning and/or sacrifice. It’s a common story arc. ‘The Caves of Androzani’ is one example. Another is the Ninth Doctor’s post-Time-War trauma leading to his refusal to sacrifice humanity, only for Rose to return to save him because of what she’s learned from him. This is followed in turn by the Doctor sacrificing a regeneration to save Rose (possibly from deadly vortex energy, possibly from being like him). You see the Ninth Doctor’s pain and rage but also his ideals being reflected back to him through Rose.

The Tenth Doctor’s flaws are redeemed through sacrifice in ‘The Waters of Mars’, but not through his own: in ‘The Waters of Mars’ Martian colony captain Adelaide Brooke, whose death is supposed to be a fixed point in time that sparks intergalactic human exploration, commits suicide after the Doctor saves her rather than allow the Doctor control over time and her fate.

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The Doctor’s arrogance is a consistent story-generating problem: think of that moment in ‘The Pandorica Opens’ when Matt Smith’s Eleventh Doctor climbs up onto the altar stone and delivers a bombastic speech to the assembled aliens in their spaceships above, except that he’s about to walk into a trap that’s been laid by the aforementioned aliens and this speech is a colossal act of hubris. The Doctor fails, the universe ends and he has to sacrifice himself to save it. After the crescendo of Twelve’s ‘Heaven Sent’, the Doctor acts so unlike himself he acknowledges that he’s not exactly the Doctor right now (with the script for ‘Hell Bent’ indicating that he’s becoming more like the War Doctor the soldiers on Gallifrey knew). The redemption comes when he realises he’s gone too far and is willing to put himself through what he’d intended for others.

With Clara and Bill, the Doctor ends up taking over their loss, so that there’s been some form of sacrifice to restore them from death. It’s a riff on a very old story, that of the journey to the Underworld to retrieve something lost (so established that there is a word for it – katabasis).  It’s the sacrifice element that enabled former showrunner Steven Moffat to get away with a temporary loss, usually represented by the death/fridging of the companion, because he ultimately substitutes a story where the companion gets to live and the Doctor falls.

Reverting to Format

This substitution happens partly because Moffat prefers a happy ending, but also because Doctor Who cannot sustain the kind of storytelling where companions die for very long (The Doctor though? They can take it, we can put all this loss onto them and they will always come back from it). This is simply because the format of the show dictates it – if the Doctor’s friends died all the time or if it wasn’t fun for them then why would they travel with the Doctor? This is a story arc in the very first series: the Doctor’s behaviour is initially off-putting to potential companions, the first cases of the character’s failings generating stories.

However, if the Doctor fails consistently, the show can stretch credulity (especially if it doesn’t address the resulting change in mood). Crucially Doctor Who quickly realised it couldn’t sustain the abrasive relationship between the Doctor, Ian and Barbara at its very beginning because it would become increasingly implausible that the latter would remain on board: Doctor Who would be a show about people torn between wanting to return home and wanting to escape their kidnapper.

Once established, the format of the show always snapped back into place after sustained periods of the Doctor failing – the trick is to make this reset feel satisfying. When the show fails to revert to format it runs into trouble. The cumulative effect of several stories with high death tolls and grim, dirty climaxes gave the Fifth Doctor stories a loose arc which concluded with his regeneration (where he manages to save his companion Peri in the process). Again there’s an element of sacrifice involved that makes this feel like redemption.

It was a strange choice, then, to follow this natural stopping point in the Doctor’s failures by aggressively ramping them up, not least by having him strangle Peri and generally treat her terribly. It makes Peri’s continued travelling with the Doctor seem like she’s trapped. Compare this to the Twelfth Doctor’s tragic ‘duty of care’ reasoning for trying to save Clara.

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The Need to Reset

1980s Doctor Who script editor Eric Saward realised that critiquing the show and its title character was a potential source of drama, but without an obvious endpoint this became a slog. Doctor Who can withstand failure in as a feature of a story, or an occasional endpoint, but when it becomes pointedly about the Doctor’s limitations there’s only so far the format can stretch before needing a reset.

When the Doctor fails, it goes against the legend that the Doctor always wins and that they’re never cruel or cowardly (to the point where Moffat addressed this discrepancy by having the Doctor acknowledge the gap between the ideal and reality). While the occasional failure and subversion of expectations is good and to be encouraged (‘Midnight’, for example works especially well for the Tenth Doctor), it’s a difficult skill to pull off. There’s a question of balance, of not going too far towards a version of the show where the Doctor fails regularly, because it’s unsustainable. For all that Doctor Who is lauded as the show that can do anything and go anywhere, within this scope for experimenting is a formula that it always needs to return to: the Doctor and their friends going on adventures and having fun.