“Coward, Any Day”: The Humanism of Doctor Who

“Why are Earth people so parochial?” –The Doctor

I first saw an episode of Doctor Who in September of 1999 (“Four to Doomsday” in case you were wondering). I was ten years old. Being an American, I didn’t come across many people who had heard of Doctor Who, let alone anyone who was a fan (Doctor Who had a number of positive influences on me- helping me make friends in middle school was not one of them). Thanks to my aunt, who had taped episodes when it aired in the United States during the ‘80s, I had access to this wonderful, inventive, at times awful, but usually brilliant, show. I count myself as damn lucky.

The success of Doctor Who, which began in 1963, is fascinating. It appeals to all sorts of people of all different ages from multiple countries. It’s not exactly inappropriate to wonder why. I mean, we’re not talking about a show that can produce spectacle on the level of Star Wars nor is it one that can repeat the exact formula each week like long running procedural dramas that can act as comfort food. So, then, what exactly is Doctor Who, and what has led to its lasting appeal?

Our lead character is known only as the Doctor. The Doctor is not a human, although he has a special love for humanity; he’s a Time Lord from the planet of Gallifrey. Time Lords have 13 lives; when one life ends they regenerate into a new incarnation, one that looks different and represents a different shade of their personality while still being the same person at heart (or hearts, plural, as they have two).

Each actor who has played The Doctor to date (prior to the 50th Anniversary Special)

Each actor who has played The Doctor to date (prior to the 50th Anniversary Special)

The Doctor is currently in his eleventh body although the events of the 50th anniversary might put this into question. He has so far been played by: William Hartnell, Patrick Troughton, Jon Pertwee, Tom Baker (the most famous Doctor before the show started up again in 2005), Peter Davison (my favorite Doctor), Colin Baker, Sylvester McCoy, Paul McGann, Christopher Eccleston (my favorite of the Doctors in the 2005 series and on), David Tennant, Matt Smith, and, starting this Christmas, Peter Capaldi. He travels through space and time in a machine known as the TARDIS which is supposed to be able to camouflage itself when arriving in a new place, but became stuck in the form of an English police box. He has various companions, usually humans but not always, that travel with him for a time before departing (or, occasionally, meeting a tragic fate) and being replaced by someone new.

This format has allowed Doctor Who to last for 50 years, because the audience follows the same character but the show isn’t forced to keep the same actor. In some cases, it didn’t need any actors at all. For about 18 years the show wasn’t airing and continued in novel format. It’s easy, and often correct, to write off fiction based on a television or movie series as bad, but the Doctor Who novels are a rare exception. The format of the program allows for stories to take place virtually anywhere. In the 1990s and the early 2000s authors took advantage of this and played around with how the mythos of Doctor Who would exist in novel format. Doctor Who also exists in audio format. A series of audio plays, which are often played on BBC radio, are done with a full cast that consists of the actual actors who played the Doctor. I can’t think of any other series that has had its hands in so many formats and has received acclaim for all of them. So what, exactly, has led to this continued success in television, audio, and novel format?

Doctor Who has long been a proponent of the inherent decency of the individual, that the use of violence does not make someone brave.

There’s a very heavy theme that runs through Doctor Who, be it the Doctor Who of the 1960s or the Doctor Who of today: respect of life. Doctor Who has long been a proponent of the inherent decency of the individual, the belief that violence is not always appropriate and the use of violence does not make someone brave, and that people need to branch out in thought and deed (hence the quote that opened this article). One of the best examples of this viewpoint is in the 2005 episode “The Parting of the Ways:” the Doctor, then played by Christopher Eccleston, is asked, “What are you, Doctor? Coward or killer?” Before the Doctor stands the choice of wiping out the Daleks, a race of organisms that reside inside deadly machines, while also killing a large number of humans in the process. After a moment’s hesitation, the Doctor says, “Coward, any day.”

It’s quite a loaded response. We’re not usually ready to embrace a protagonist who describes himself as a coward, yet in that moment the Doctor says it with pride and we love him for it. The Doctor simply can’t live with the responsibility of killing people, even if the end is one that would be incredibly fruitful for humanity.

That’s not to say the Doctor has always acts in this fashion; if he did the show wouldn’t be as effective as we’d not see the Doctor struggle with his decisions and the consequences of them. He’s presented as an incredibly flawed character at times, capable of losing his temper and turning very, very cold. At the start of the program, way back in 1963, the Doctor was more dangerous and unpredictable and over the course of the first three seasons became more and more invested in helping others as opposed to hopping around in time and space and seeing what he could fool around with.

In the upcoming 50th anniversary special, “The Day of the Doctor,” writer Stephan Moffat plans to explore a very dark side of the Doctor, to examine how his moral compass functions and what could happen if he discarded it, by taking a look at a darker, more violent incarnation of the Doctor. From what we were told at the tail end of last season, this incarnation became a warrior and behaved in a fashion that caused the other Doctors to reject him.

The various locations of the story have also proved useful when it comes to expressing this humanist viewpoint. Since the Doctor can time travel in his TARDIS, we’re constantly introduced to people of different cultures and even different species. In the ‘60s, the Doctor visited both the Aztecs and the Romans (in episodes rather unoriginally titled “The Romans” and “The Aztecs”) and neither episode contained a “look at these idiots” point-of-view. For a show made in the 1960s, it was remarkably progressive when you consider that England’s colonialism wasn’t all that far in the past.

Now the show was far from perfect in this regard. It didn’t feature non-Caucasians all that often in the 60s and 70s and when it did it would sometimes give in to the “noble savage” cliché. Yet the show often relied on allegory to discuss racism and imperialism and tended to be very successful with this approach. Take a ‘70s episode called “The Silurians” which featured an aquatic race called the Silurians (again, the episode titles could use some work). The plot revolved around the discovery of the Silurians in a cave and the revelation that they are an ancient race which existed on Earth long before humanity and went into hibernation due to a global environmental catastrophe. They’ve now woken up and don’t understand why their world is no longer theirs and why they aren’t welcome on the surface. Some of the Silurians clash with the humans and some of the humans clash with the Silurians, but through it all the Doctor contends peace is possible and just because the humans are currently the prominent presence on Earth doesn’t mean they have a right to it when there’s another race that is intelligent and needs to live on Earth to survive.

The Silurians (Image © BBC)

The Silurians (Image © BBC)

The Silurians break into two groups, one that wants to take back the planet violently and one that desires peace. Eventually, circumstances require them to hibernate once more and the Doctor proposes waking them up one by one and integrating them into society once humanity comes up with a reasonable plan; he doesn’t think it’s ideal, but it’s the most workable plan he can come up with.

In one of the shows darkest moments, the military instead kills all the hibernating Silurians. The episode ends with the Doctor’s fury at this course of action. It’s easy to see this as an allegory for European colonialism and the way Native Americans, Indians, Africans, and Asians were treated (and, in some cases, continue to be treated) or just as a warning for how we should treat such interactions in the future. However, the show doesn’t just damn us for past sins; it also encourages us to do better in the future. It’s easy to say humanity is capable of evil, but it’s much more poignant to say humanity has done wrong and needs to be challenged to do better.

Modern Doctor Who has its progressive values on full display, as well. Introducing homosexual, transsexual, and bisexual characters, the modern show includes people of all types. It even goes so far as to say that the Doctor is bisexual (which makes complete sense—he’s an alien, so why would he be following our social norms and dear God have you seen some of the outfits he wears?) and he exchanges a kiss with a fellow bisexual character named Captain Jack (an aside here—John Barrowman, who played Captain Jack and went on to be the star of the spin-off show Torchwood, was originally up for the part of Will in the NBC show Will and Grace but was told he came across as “too straight” for the part; John Barrowman has long been out of the closet as a gay man. The part would go to the heterosexual Eric McCormack).

It was imperative for the modern version of Doctor Who to address sexuality and normalize all sorts of sexual orientations because the executive producer and head writer for its return was Russell T. Davies, the writer and creator of Queer as Folk. There were, depressingly, some complaints from the Doctor Who fan community about what a gay man who writes about gay characters was doing becoming the head of Doctor Who. Never mind that Davies had written a Doctor Who novel and had Doctor Who references in many of the shows he wrote. Thankfully, Davies showed how Doctor Who was a great vehicle to discuss sexuality and a wider audience was ready to embrace people of various orientations.

Old Doctor Who touched on this issue, too, although not as obviously. While not outright discussing sexuality, the 80s episode “The Happiness Patrol” alluded to people’s sexuality being repressed and featured a leader who behaved almost exactly as the socially conservative Prime Minister of the time: Margaret Thatcher (Thatcher is the ultimate Doctor Who villain come to life). As a matter of fact, this was just one of many instances Doctor Who took aim at Thatcherism. The episode “Ghost Light” was a direct repudiation of social conservatives who denied evolution as “Ghost Light” made it clear that without change humanity will fail. A hilarious moment comes when a reverend denies humanity could be at all similar to monkeys while he’s biting into a banana. One of my favorite episodes, “The Greatest Show in the Galaxy,” included a takedown of libertarianism, a prime part of Thatcherism, by showing how dangerous it is to take an “every man for himself” stance (of all the older episodes of Doctor Who, this one is probably most acceptable to newcomers so if you want to dip into the old show this isn’t a bad place to start).

Perhaps no episode addressed contemporary issues more than 1988’s “Remembrance of the Daleks.” Before going any further, it’s worth taking a look at a key scene of the episode and one of the best scenes of the show’s run:

The Doctor’s analysis of how the decision of one person or one country creates ripple effects that change the course of others’ lives is both a political point, once which refers to England’s history of imperialism, and a personal point, referring to the effects of the small interactions we have in everyday life. It’s an appropriate scene for this episode in particular as the plot revolves around two factions of Daleks, each faction believing the other is “impure” and not worthy of survival. To further drive the point home each faction is colored differently: one white and one grey.

Okay, yeah, subtly isn’t Doctor Who’s strong suit. But it doesn’t need to be for a show like this. Doctor Who has always been loud and in your face. It’s a show about time travel, aliens, danger, and wit; it’s a show that can be farcical, dramatic, comedic, tragic, and terrifying, sometimes within the same moment, often to excellent thematic effect. Take a look at this scene, from the same episode:

We get what’s initially a humorous moment with the rather unflappable Doctor, but it quickly turns as the Doctor walks through just what pulling a trigger on someone means. It’s a dark, yet beautiful moment as the Doctor convinces through words alone that a man should rethink his violent impulses.

At other times, the scenes are smaller, with but a line of dialogue revealing the Doctor’s inner love and respect for life. In 1982’s “Earthshock” he snaps at an emotionless Cyberman “For some people small, beautiful events is what life is all about!”

More recently, this year’s “Cold War” is structured in a way that shows Doctor Who’s approach towards conflict and how the same themes of the old show are just as ingrained in the new one. The Doctor, played by our current actor, Matt Smith, is aboard a Russian submarine with a crew that has located an alien from Mars called an Ice Warrior. Initially, the episode plays out similar to a sci-fi horror story a la Alien, but what makes the story Doctor Who is the end solution: the Doctor doesn’t kill the Ice Warrior; he contacts its people to come and take him home. The ending is no less effective because the Doctor doesn’t gun down the Ice Warrior. On the contrary, it’s inspiring because he goes out of his way to make sure everyone, even the story’s “monster,” gets out alive.

Matt Smith as the 11th Doctor in the episode "Cold War" (Image © BBC)

Matt Smith as the 11th Doctor in the episode “Cold War” (Image © BBC)

Another recent outing, “Hide,” takes a somewhat similar twist. The episode begins in a fashion that reminds the viewer of a haunted house tale, but the monster of the story ends up not being a monster at all, but a creature from a separate dimension that has arrived and lost its lover. The episode concludes with the Doctor and his current companion, Clara, reuniting the two creatures in their proper dimension. It’s the unique format of Doctor Who that allows a ghost story to still be scary while also being movingly human.

The infectious optimism and wonder of his character make Doctor Who an addictive epic.

Outside of the Doctor’s morality, there’s an inspiring quality to the enthusiasm he shows whenever he meets new people and explores new cultures. For the Doctor, people are fascinating, full of interesting ideas and loveable personalities despite their flaws. In one of his first scenes, the Eighth Doctor, played by the wonderful Paul McGann (who should be ten times more famous than he is), grows excited as he talks with an awestruck woman about the meteors you can see in the night sky and then, just as excitedly, declares his new shoes fit perfectly. His love for the grand and the simple is contained all in one scene. The infectious optimism and wonder of his character make Doctor Who an addictive epic. It’s a remarkable feat considering the show, especially the older episodes, looks like it was made for about three bucks.

As a young person, the humanism of Doctor Who had a profound effect on me. I embraced his ethics, never much caring for violence or abusive authority, and tried my best to develop the attitude towards others that he has (on a slightly more dour comparison I can also be rather judgmental and dismissive like him, but I’ve had that quality since birth!). Oddly enough, I find that much of the ethics of Doctor Who has affected me in part of my professional life: teaching. When I’m optimistic about the students, when I display a sense of wonder about reading and writing, when I show that I have a legitimate respect for my students, I find that I get excellent results in return. Weird as it might sound, the way the Doctor greets people and accepts all kinds is by and large the way I behave when interacting with students, some of whom come from remarkably different backgrounds. I’m far from the only person to say this about Doctor Who, too. There are people from all areas of fandom who talk about how much the show has touched them. Even notorious grumpy uncle sci-fi writer Harlan Ellison embraces Doctor Who.

So it’s no surprise Doctor Who is currently celebrating its 50th year; the show reminds us that, as humans, there’s so much good we can do even if we’ve made tons of mistakes. And for that, let’s hope for at least another 50 years of the Doctor.

Donald McCarthy is a teacher and writer. His fiction has appeared with KZine, Cover of Darkness, and The Washington Pastime. His non-fiction has been featured in The Progressive Populist, Screen Spy, and AOL Patch News. And here, too, but that was probably obvious. His twitter is @donaldtmccarthy and his website is donaldmccarthy.com.