I had no intention of blogging my way through a season of Doctor Who, but I’m enjoying it so much, I thought “Why not?”
This week, the Doctor takes Bill Potts to Regency England, and the show deals with some darker themes (sexism, racism, and slavery), while also presenting moral ambivalence and hypocrisy. The severe contrast between the Doctor and Bill is marvelous. She is an enthusiastic and moral youngster, he is a 2000-year-old cynic, who saves his screwdriver over a child, and doesn’t much seem to care that the kid just fell through the ice and died.
Because he is such a likable (albeit grouchy) protagonist, the temptation can be to overlook the Doctor’s darker nature; but past incarnations have dealt out ruthless “justice” on immoral adversaries. Ten drowned an entire civilization of spider-children (much to Donna’s horror) and encased screaming aliens inside mirrors for an eternal punishment. The less ruthless and moralizing Eleven still drew lines in the sand: you are with me, or against me, and I am here to protect earth, so if your intentions are to harm earth, leave now or die. Twelve displayed the most harrowing lack of concern for human welfare in his early Dalek episode where he ignores people’s deaths in favor of discovering the truth of the Dalek itself.
The Doctor transcends feeble human behaviors (he is so oblivious to understanding the human concept of slavery it never crosses his mind until Bill remarks that “slavery still exists” in Regency England) and is prone to the same failings, in his prideful belief he is a superior race, due to his lack of shared faults.
Yet, what struck me the most in this episode wasn’t the anti-capitalist premise (at the cost of human and animal life), or the marvelous scene where Bill confronts him as a “murderer” (“How many people have YOU killed, Doctor… or have you lost count?”), or even the horrific truth you cannot save people if you mourn too long the dead, but the underlining sense of the end justifies the means within the Doctor.
Last week, the Doctor tried to impress Bill by revealing he “stole” the TARDIS (or did she steal him?).This entire episode pivots off that remark, and revolves around his continued tendency toward theft. The Doctor steals meat pies from a hustler, with the subtle but effective message it is “okay, because he was a cheat.” That sets the stage for a later twist, when he steals a man’s fortune after his death… but that’s okay, because it is to feed orphans. The ends justify the means.
Yet, how is that philosophy different from the villain’s? The ends, in his mind, justified the means. The end was profit, the means was benefitting off the backs of an innocent sea creature, with occasional human sacrifices to sate its appetites. The only difference here is that he benefitted financially whereas the Doctor ensured others benefitted. But the idea is the same. The opinion is the same. The motives just differ.
Perspective and who benefits shifts our views, and jiggers with our moral opinions; if you steal from someone for self-benefit, you are wrong; if you steal to feed the poor, you are right. But who decides good causes from selfish ones? I’m not saying the Doctor wronged in saving the orphans, nor that the man responsible for the heinous events didn’t deserve to “pay” for his crimes, rather that morality is nebulous and I cannot define it in black and white. A human can do evil and good at the same time; few people are all bad, or all good. To define them as either one is wrong. The catch, at least in modern thinking, seems to be, “does this benefit society, or… me?” The villain is evil, because “the end justifies the means” only benefits him, while hurting other people; the Doctor good because “the end justifies the means” benefits humanity.
Humans are hardwired to prioritize self above others, yet no civilization admires a ruthless, selfless individual who profits off another’s suffering. This shows somewhere in our inner selves lies a moral compass that accepts good or evil exists, and we define it through how decisions impact innocent parties.
I enjoy moral complexities, and the Doctor leaving the decision to Bill what to do with the murderous sea creature (destroy it, or save it, and run the risk it might kill more people) compounds the subtle but profound lesson they have been hitting hard this season: nothing is as simple as it seems. Their initial fears about the monster eating people (evil monster!) shifted when they realized it was in chains (poor thing!), and had no other choice (this also ties into last week, when the Doctor said “many things are not evil, just hungry”).
Doctor Who illustrates how “evil” is sometimes nothing more than an illusion, unless deliberation exists behind it (purpose, intent, choice); there is a cause and effect to everything, and nothing is black and white. I have heard many good lines over the years, but none truer or more profound than the Doctor asserting, “I don’t have all the answers, and anyone who does is an idiot.”