I Got Soul But I’m Not A Soldier – Violence and Morality in Doctor Who

The Tenth Doctor grandstands like crazy in The Doctor's Daughter
The Tenth Doctor grandstands like crazy in The Doctor’s Daughter

Many years ago (well, it wasn’t really, but it feels that way) I toyed with the idea of writing a Doctor Who fanfic called The Moral High Ground, centred around the Doctor’s discomfort when a reformed Dalek rocks up and asks for asylum in the TARDIS. It never get written, which is rather a shame.

Primarily it would have been a response to a theme that was clumsily raised and inadequately explored in David Tennant’s last (2008) series – his extreme repudiation of all kinds of violence, accompanied by a visceral disgust towards anyone in military clothing, when in fact he was steeped in sufficient blood to make Macbeth look like a dolls’ tea party. Beginning with his self-promotion as “the man who never would” in The Doctor’s Daughter, it reached a typically RTD melodramatic full expression in Journey’s End, when Davros taunted him with a roll-call of the many people who had sacrificed their lives while he maintained his illusion of moral purity:

Davros: The man who abhors violence. Never carrying a gun. But this is the truth, Doctor. You take ordinary people and you fashion them into weapons. Behold your Children of Time transformed into murderers. I made the Daleks, Doctor. You made this.

It’s always the people from way back who know how to deliver the killer blow. It’s a melodramatic and simplistic moment, and it generates a simplistic solution; the Doctor transfers all his shadow self onto his doppelgänger and locks him away in a parallel world. Even before what happened with Donna, that was the moment I started despising Ten, and I don’t think I was alone.

Daleks are a constant of Doctor Who, the stuff of a whole generation’s childhood memories, which they (we?) transfer onto their own children. Daleks are a nostalgic throwback to the binary moral judgements of our early years. If the Daleks go, then with them goes the charming illusion that Doctor Who is a kids’ show, the stuff of playground battles (it’s a truth beautifully realised in Mark Gatiss’s Adventure in Space and Time, when Verity Lambert is overjoyed to hear kids yelling “Exterminate!” on a bus). But it’s more complicated than simply recalling the certainties of childhood. There’s a part of every adult, even the most liberal, that craves an unredeemable, totally merciless enemy that deserves nothing short of our guiltless annihilation. Because life is so bloody complicated, and sometimes we just want a break from reading The Guardian and agonising over the least worst solution.

So the Daleks persist in the DW universe, while the Doctor develops, matures and nudges towards moral accountability. The Time War, originally conceived as remaining entirely offscreen and unimaginable, pushes its way up the agenda and is eventually realised, at least in part, in the 50th Anniversary special. Moffatt openly articulates his uneasiness at the Doctor committing genocide and, being Moffatt, retcons it – because he can. The Doctor is reborn, with a second set of regenerations, grey hairs, a frowny face and the ability to confront at least some of his past.

"Am I a good man?"
“Am I a good man?”

Can anyone seriously imagine the Tenth, or even the Eleventh, Doctor, looking his companion in the eye and asking her to tell him, honestly, if he is a good man? Heck, Ten spent an entire series not looking Rose in the eye, and she was meant to be the love of his life. He turned lack of meaningful eye contact into an art form. But Twelve is made of sterner stuff. Clara’s final rejoinder that he is a man that tries to be good – or at least one that recognises the necessity of trying, and can accept the need to up his game, is a sign of Doctor Who‘s new moral sensibility. Morality is too important to be presented as melodrama, which is what RTD’s Who largely was, even if Tennant had the skill to spin it into Shakespearian tragedy. The shades of grey are not only visible in Capaldi’s curly hair; they are the foundation of a grown-up moral consciousness. And very welcome they are.

The moral sucker-punch delivered by Into The Dalek – that the Doctor is capable of mindless, prejudiced and irrational hatred –  is familiar enough to followers of the show. But what is refreshing is that it is restrained and low-key, and nevertheless powerful. It makes a welcome contrast, perhaps even a kind of companion piece, to The Waters of Mars, the last Phil Ford-authored DW episode, which showed the Doctor at his most dangerous, deluded and narcissistic. And there are intriguing signs that we’re building up to a meaningful interrogation of the Doctor’s inconsistent posturing on the subject of violence. Danny Pink is presented to us as a soldier, bruised by his experience in battle but still prepared to drill the school cadet force (just as the Tenth Doctor was as John Smith, in a story that revealed him at his cruellest and most vengeful). It seems more than likely that there will be some grown-up discussion of the ethics of putting boots on ground within the TARDIS before too long. More than that, it seems that some malign intelligence is plucking the Doctor’s victims (or collateral damage) from their deaths and saving them to put the Timelord on Trial at some future date – the taunts of Davros made flesh.

And I, for one, welcome our new morally nuanced overlords. It’s about time.

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2 thoughts on “I Got Soul But I’m Not A Soldier – Violence and Morality in Doctor Who

  1. While sheltering in your porch today, I was dying to ask what you thought of the finale, but thought I’d better not interrupt. But that reminded me I’d been meaning to come and look at the blog to see… Did you like it? Hate it? Were you disappointed, or did it live up to your hopes of moral nuance?

  2. Hello, Harriet, I take it you were canvassing for the Labour party?

    I was underwhelmed by the finale, I’m afraid. It was pretty difficult to make any coherent message out of all that bombast. Gosh, where do you start? Are we really to believe that all the dead people there ever were became Cybermen? I was really hoping the Doctor was going to have to meet some of his cannon fodder from previous episodes and justify sacrificing them – it looked like the Orient Express story, in particular, could be going there.

    Most of my serious issues were with the first part of the Finale. There are times when I think DW crosses a bad taste line – Amy’s abduction and birth come to mind – and I felt very uneasy about the suggestion that dead people continue to suffer physical agonies. Sorry if I sound like Mary Whitehouse but there are vulnerable people out there who would really have issues with that idea. And we have enough problems getting people to donate their organs as it is. The line about “oh dear, that one was left to medical science” almost had me tweeting the BBC.

    As so often with Moffat’s showpiece scripts, there were some great ideas never fully developed. Such as the idea of the Master giving the Doctor his own army – that could have been brilliant in the right hands. And Danny’s redemption – of a sort – nicely done, but rather spoilt by the fact that he’s never quite gelled as a character for me.

    I’m still positive about Capaldi and think this was the strongest series for a while, regardless of its faults. There were some strong episodes with meaty moral dilemmas – “Kill the Moon” stood out for me, and “Flatline” did some interesting stuff with people who are usually socially excluded, as well as being genuinely scary. I’m relieved that the Doctor is conflicted about his morality and needs affirmation from Clara, without wallowing in crippling self-hatred as Ten was inclined to do. And I hope Twelve returns to Gallifrey – we need the new issues and dilemmas that would raise. I could go on for longer than you’d care to listen, probably, about DW as an analogue of Britain’s decline as a colonial power.

    One thing I would really like to see the end of is the part-time companion. I’d like someone – Clara or otherwise – to really commit to the TARDIS, not so the Doctor could fall in love again, but so we can have a break from all that plate-spinning companion plot.

    The blog has been a bit neglected of late but it’s nice to know someone’s out there! Feel free to make yourself known – I’m always up for a bit of Whovian chat in The Art of Tea, or wherever.

    PS – John says hello – he is finally on the Conclusion of Piketty’s “Capital” – “the past devours the future…”

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