The War Doctor

Dr Who’s incoherent attitude to its protagonist’s pacifist tendencies is rapidly becoming one of its main weaknesses.

 

*Spoilers ahead*

“You can’t beat a Dalek by being a good soldier; it’s the perfect soldier!” warns Peter Capaldi’s Doctor in an episode in which soldiery was to the fore. Clara’s new flame turned out to be a PTSDy ex-soldier, the Doctor behaved contemptuously towards the soldiers and of course the universe’s most militarised upturned dustbins were back. And within its own confines, this episode handled the theme rather nicely. It was exciting and entertaining, and it was a smart and poignant twist to have the Doctor turn a Dalek against its own kind through the purity of his hatred for them. However, the way the show is dealing with wars and killing is incoherent and that undermining its moral core.

The Doctor’s loathing of these things is a consistent feature of his character. Over and over again we see his reluctance to end another creature’s existence. Yet he is not a character like Batman, who absolutely will not take a life and must have been depicted killing on hundreds of occasions during the show’s history. Now, it would be possible to hold these two elements in tension and derive drama from it but that requires us to believe in the Doctor’s dilemma. That in turn requires us to be clear about what the Doctor’s moral parameters are because if they constantly fluctuate that deprives them of credibility.

Rather unfortunately this is precisely what they are doing. For example, in last week’s episode we saw the Doctor agonising over killing the clockwork robot even though it had been murdering for millions of years. His reason was that its plundering had made it partially human. Which is fine until you remember that in the episode directly preceding it – the Christmas special – the Doctor blew up a cyberman without apparently giving it a second thought. Which is odd when you consider that cybermen are also partially human cyborgs.

Worse still are the episodes which try to have their sanctimonious cake and violently eat it. The worst offender here is probably Journey’s End, in which the Doctor laments that his double has destroyed an entire fleet of Daleks. That this action was morally apparently morally unacceptable did not of course prevent then showrunner Russell T. Davies using it as a way to hastily resolve a rather garbled plot.

My fundamental problem with this all this is that I don’t think it’s credible to ask us to believe that after two thousand years the Doctor is still on the fence about this question. What we’ve seen him do in countless episodes indicates that while he might regard the choice to take up arms to defend the innocent as a tragic one, it is one he has made. He might hate that decision but it doesn’t make sense to believe that he’s constantly teetering on the brink of reversing his position.

This matters because the ethics of being a soldier look set to central to this run of episodes. The Doctor’s refusal to take on a soldier as a companion is bound to run into Clara’s attachment to someone who’s come out of the forces. That can still work but not if the idea is that the Doctor stands opposed to those who wage wars as a profession. Rather it can have a psychological validity in the light of the Doctor himself becoming a soldier during the Time Wars. This is a part of his life he’s tried so hard to distance himself from that he refuses to even acknowledge that the “War Doctor” has any right to be referred to as the Doctor. In this context, it makes perfect sense that the Doctor would show a distaste for soldiers: it reflects his own self-loathing.

And making this story about psychology rather than ideology would be no bad thing. While the Doctor’s defining characteristic is his intelligence, Dr Who has always been more about the heart than the head. Sure the puzzle solving is fun (“the secret he will take to his grave…” 🙂 ) but it’s not really a cerebral show like Star Trek. It’s not plucking dilemmas from philosophy books and rigorously translating them into plots. It’s much more about characters and that’s why I like it better. So if we get less of Doctor wondering about whether he can take life and more of seeing what that choice does to him that will play to the show’s strength.

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One thought on “The War Doctor

  1. Some fair points there — the Doctor’s apparent blanket refusal to countenance taking on board a soldier seems out of kilter with, most strikingly, the fact that at one point a senior member of the armed forces, Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart, could have been described as his best friend. (Pertwee’s Doctor was rather incoherent on this, too, sometimes inveighing against “the limitations of the military mind”, but usually working quite happily hand-in-glove with UNIT, a military organisation). An excuse I’ve seen for the current incoherence, though you might feel it’s a cop-out, is that coherency just post-regeneration isn’t the Doctor’s strong point; and that a certain amount of contrast from incarnation to incarnation is perhaps permissible: this simply happens to be a more anti-militarist incarnation than most.

    Mind you, I’m not sure about ‘Who’ not being a cerebral show… You should try looking at the remarkably detailed and largely erudite (though often opinionated) ‘About Time’ series by Tat Wood and (sometimes) Lawrence Miles from Mad Norwegian Press: I suspect they sometimes read too much into any given story, but their work on sources and inspirations for the series is for the most part quite convincing.

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