DrewBackWhen continues his religious reading of Doctor Who with a broader look at the Doctor’s ethics and thoughts on gun control.
“… he that hath no sword, let him sell his cloak, and buy one.” (Luke 22:36)
Last time, I argued that Doctor Who’s procession of self-sacrifices made the Doctor a poor stand-in for a messiah. Here, on the other hand, I posit that Doc has to be – not to avoid offending, not because of any atheist influence from the production team, but because this is actually far better for the series. We all know there’s more mileage in a complex character. And I discuss the second big, persistent issue raised by A Town Called Mercy: the Doctor’s tortuous, torturous stance on guns, and what it leads to.
The Doctor, despite being a role model, despite the writing staff’s messianic cherry-picking, doesn’t have to be a wholly good person. He can scheme and manipulate – bring it on, you clever git. Sometimes, he still does: recall his treatment of Flesh Amy in The Almost People. We love an anti-hero, for a while, although perhaps they have to be less haughty about it than the Sixth Doctor was. But one problem is that such an attitude complicates every good action subsequently taken; we (and Doc’s companions) would always be asking, why did The Doctor do things this way, given his Machiavellian personality? And why am I still risking my life in a mercurial alien vagrant’s snog box?
So basically all of the time these days, we accept The Doctor is broadly good. This default setting lets us escape an ordinary 45-minute episode without the need for regular additional set-up or call-backs, nor for the Doctor to provide an explanation or undertake a thorough self-analysis. Moral quandaries are more suitable for extended formats like Classic serials, books, or comics.
But if The Doctor were too good, too messianic, too Christ-like, there’d be no tension, no questions of an inner darkness to explore. Look at all the emotional baggage given to Superman in the latest films, to try to squeeze some ambiguity out of that once (second?) most uncomplicated pillar of good. The story of Jesus similarly lacks uncertainty, it being the plan of the Almighty established before the formation of the world. In another, less theological sense, it’s all in the past and the same Bible passages get repeated in church every year. Any drama to be mined from it, to stop it becoming dead to the ears, comes from bringing back to life the human elements, such as the torments Jesus experienced, both on the cross and as an unfathomable integration of divine and human nature in one body. Or we’re exhorted to imagine the heartbreak and surprise of his friends and his mother Mary recreated in the present, somehow making fresh and feeling for ourselves their discovery of the truth.
The Doctor’s situation is often eerily similar to another year’s Easter readings. We know, whereas Doc doesn’t, when it’s the series finale, plus, every few years, even whom Doc’s turning into next. The only frisson comes from experiencing the particulars and the panache with which they’re staged.
So much for the macrostructure: the best storylines we’d get from a truly messianic Doctor would be the occasional angry kerfuffle at the money-changing tables, as per Jesus at the Temple. Perhaps Doc would take down some loan sharks, or maybe he’d just set up a few quiet credit unions. Actually, why not do away with capitalism in toto as President of Earth, and give us an example of Utopia to emulate? You could bring back Derek Jacobi just so The Master could ruin it, or just so we could see more Derek Jacobi.
No, what we need is dubiety: either dubious morals or dubious choices. To that end, we require at least two different kinds of unknowability: that of the rules or virtues by which an alien other or a messiah operates, and that of the actions they’ll take which may or may not depart from these rules or virtues. Then we get to discover what the ideals are, whether they can live up to them, why not, and what we can learn from a space-god’s vagaries of character. In Death in Blackpool, The Eighth Doctor tells Lucie Miller he’s fallible: “I’m no superhero.” Sounds crunchy; great, let’s get on to it.
The problem is, this most obviously manifests in the last temptation of Doc, his wavering obsession with guns, another trope that’s been shot to pieces over 50+ years. Turns out that walking the exact same mile in another man’s shoes every couple of years for a lifetime leaves one with swollen feet, resentment, and the lingering stench of the overripe. It starts as far back as The Gunfighters, when the First Doctor says: “People keep giving me guns, I do wish they wouldn’t.” The list since then has grown rather (although this list includes “uses of guns” such as brandishing, threatening, and shooting inanimate objects). TV Tropes reliably provides another good summary. In New Who at least, the Doctor shoots off at the mouth to anyone within earshot about his bulletproof aversion to firearms, to the point where it’s taken as a moral injunction constitutive of Doc’s character (which makes sense when The War Doctor provides the contrast).
I’ll examine just the two most salient examples next. In summary, the interminable will-he-won’t-he finally get together with a gun is an obvious touchstone in a universe filled with villains and monsters, but did you elsewhere in the audience also feel the mania creep over you over the years, compelling you to scream at the screen, “Just fire off a load already!” Was that really the aim?
David Tennant’s defining moment to crown many prior near-misses comes in The Doctor’s Daughter. Jenny, being Doc’s clone, obeys what we all know is her prime directive of taking the Doctor’s bullet for him. Ten’s response is to grab the gun, get as angry as he possibly can (just look at that neck work! That’s pure talent, they can’t teach that in drama school), but he finally pulls himself back from the brink (while Martha and Donna remain silent – yes, even Donna!). He’ll provide a foundational example for a civilisation to follow but not do the hard work of leading it (anyone want to write an essay on free will?). And worse, he still won’t bring back Derek Jacobi.
Our hero’s heroism heroically proven heroic, you’d think that’d be the end of the conversation, but no, come The End Of Time: Part 2, he’s pointing the shooty finger again. Same dilemma, bigger peril in the shape of the Time Lords is the sole motivation for this restaging – this time he really will need a gun because the universe is under threat from tyrants he knows. But isn’t it always in Doctor Who?
Max Bazerman and Ann Tenbrunsel, authors of Blind Spots: Why We Fail to Do What’s Right and What to Do about It, suggest that we all possess ethical blind spots that usually exist in the “gap between how ethical we think we are and how ethical we truly are”. Better yet, they have a term “bounded ethicality” for “the psychological processes that lead even good people to engage in ethically questionable behavior that contradicts their own preferred ethics”. A Town Called Mercy actually does better at realizing this than many other episodes. Eleven gets his own Mexican standoff with the audience, poking his weapon right in Kahler-Jex’s face. Rather than the set-up being the tired standard of catching The Doctor in a dilemma between his pacifist principles and need to save the day, possibly being forced to compromise his heroic virtue, we get a rare coherent alternative argument for how to act morally. The Doctor recalls all the victims who suffered at the hands of his various foes because of his prior mercy – in ethical terms, his inability to sacrifice his virtue ethics or deontology for the utilitarian option – and we see the anguish or guilt that causes.
But just to be on the safe side, he’s also angry, as he always seems to be in Smith’s run. This is the simplest justification for a blind spot or a moment of confusion or indecision. Nevertheless it’s also a reaction befitting someone at least a millennium younger than The Doctor. It gets samey. Yet what are the alternatives to blustering rage, the heat of the moment? We see one in Dinosaurs On A Spaceship, where the Doctor coolly dispatches Solomon. This calculated act isn’t excusable in the same way as an apoplectic lapse; it verges on malice aforethought, and we reacted with disgust in our review.
A lesser example which we still deemed unworthy of The Doctor came in The Bells Of Saint John, when Eleven cared naught for the thousands of souls expropriated by The Great Intelligence. His actions have no obvious moral or ethical justification; they don’t seem to fulfil the consequentialist/utilitarian objective of saving as many souls as he possibly can, and it’s problematic deontologically and in the context of virtue ethics because, contrary to what we perceive as his inherent Doctor-ness, he’s sacrificing any number of innocent souls for the purpose of pursuing this mystery that’s consuming him. The Silence I’ll come back to in a future instalment; suffice it to remind you of Doc’s firefight with the Silence beside his psychopath wife in Day Of The Moon.
The gospel injunction to turn the other cheek and the commandment “Thou shalt not kill” are constantly breached. Why, then, do we keep putting up with, or even idolizing, this clearly unsuitable character? Because whatever his defects, we end up arcing back to the Doctor’s superior virtue or moral code to ground our generalized conception of him. We tune in every week not knowing what to expect in this sci-fi compendium. Perhaps we put our hopes in The Doctor in a similar fashion.
Overall, it gets fuzzy in the same way I conceptualize God fuzzily. Sometimes I’m nothing but angry with God, as the sum total of human suffering seems impossible to square away with a loving motivation for our frequently painful existence. But most of the time I can accept that humans and their outsourcing of caring and responsibility are mostly to blame, while He’s got it all in hand and with divine wisdom is ultimately making the best of all possible existences. Somehow it all fits together. Although it’s always worth interrogating where the inconsistency lies: in ourselves, in our perception, or in our object?
To fuzziness in-show: at the beginning of a Doctor’s run, we’ll sometimes get something really edgy, usually depicted by a Scotsman because they’re such exotic, outlandish mavericks, marauding their way in from the edge of the world for freedom or to defy stereotypes and be treated as people. In The Christmas Invasion, David Tennant dispatches the Sycorax leader with a carefully thrown satsuma, because he’s “that sort of a man” – the kind who will spare a combatant for shoddy swordsmanship but not for shoddy honour.
Moffat needs Capaldi to be edgy in Deep Breath after softie Sassenach Smith turns out not to be a war criminal and makes up with the Silence, so Twelve tells us not to make assumptions about how far he’ll go to protect others, just before a balloon maybe-murder positively encouraging fuzziness. Then we’ll get blips mid-run, and plenty of them, where The Doctor falls short of how we perceive he should have acted. We might have a whole series where he’s moodier or more tormented than usual, and acts out accordingly.
Yet despite all of this, we know what The Doctor stands for. And the expectation of Doc adhering to that moral code is so ingrained in us viewers that when The Doctor deviates from it without a perfectly good reason, we chalk it up as a failure of the writing. We expect The Doctor, and therefore the writers, to have outdone anything we could have, if we’re to see something elevated to a truly otherworldly plane. Not only that, but the reasons for shortcomings that we’re sometimes given also have to measure up. OK, Doc’s sometimes a bit lonely without a companion, needs to regain some perspective, but getting your friends to do the bloody work, or simply forgetting, isn’t good enough. And if this happens across consecutive episodes, so much the worse.
So, The Doctor must be flawed, but I for one hang around because sometimes we can glimpse something better. There’s wanting a character to show some consistency as one or the other, but also wanting variety. Can the show please everyone? Perhaps only in the moment. Quite apart from everyone’s individual ethical idiosyncrasies, if we don’t suspend our running tally of what The Doctor can and can’t do, after 2000 years, thirteen regenerations, and a multitude of writers, we can never be happy. To some extent, we have to dwell in the present and appreciate what makes for a good scene of telly. We can pick holes later, if the weekly bread is stale enough.
On David Tennant Does a Podcast With…, Jodie Whittaker says, at 29:30, “Young people should have many different types of people to look up to and none of that should be perfection. And, y’know, The Doctor certainly has flaws.” After a morally very unproblematic series 11 for her (where “brains beat bullets”), I’m very much looking forward to Whittaker’s Doctor potentially showing her darker sides. Because last year the phallus of death was once again given to the boys to wield, in Graham’s determination to kill Tim Shaw.
Don’t give Doc yet another gun, please, but more psychological depth and complexity. Show her manipulating, or bullying, or alienated – or better yet, don’t listen to me, how about I shut up and let you wow me? The gendered discussion will be a b…astard, but Jodie’s up for it and we can come out of it better (free will essay still going cheap to anyone who wants it). Less Jammie Dodgers, more Crunchies. And if Chibbers missteps, eh, he’ll be doing nothing that hasn’t been done before.
So my conclusion this time is different, one I perhaps concede too rarely: the writers for Doctor Who have a nearly impossible task. Sometimes their blunders are comically clumsy, but even the most able must balance precariously at the nexus of several intersecting tightropes, some of which are tugging at the others, like crossing Niagara Falls in the middle of a thunderstorm, as the waters roar like fifty million irritable fans beneath them. The Doctor must be interesting and also virtuous; she must be unpredictable and also our Doctor; she must be superior and also flawed – and all these before anything else. Well played to anyone who can pull some or all of that off. Let’s leave the perfect models for church, have Thirteen give us something to really chew over, and change the image that pops into our minds whenever anyone says the words “naughty girl”.
Next time on Pew Pew Pew: whatever The Rings of Akhaten throws up. Haven’t re-watched it yet. Stay tuned.
Side note: The Doctor’s pronouns. I find it most natural to use “he/his” when discussing periods where The Doctor was a man, and “she/her” when Jodie Whittaker is involved or when talking about our (present) future. No offence intended.