Trial of a Timelord: Is the Doctor a Pacifist?

BBC’s top science fiction show has become more than just another television show to many people. Doctor Who, which details the travels of a renegade alien around the cosmos in his time machine, saving planets and delivering the innocent from the hands of mad dictators, inspires viewers worldwide. Most turn to it for entertainment, but others are taken on an emotional journey and watch it for more personal reasons; others still are inspired by the philosophy behind the Doctor’s actions, and yet still others care deeply about the characters themselves, so much so that their adoration transcends the medium and emerges in their personal lives in the form of cosplay, fan fiction, and even romantic relationships.

For those who care about the moral philosophy of the Doctor, he is generally placed on a pedestal of anti-violence, as the most well-known pacifist in the universe. He is a man, many say, who would never hurt someone unless it was the last option. There is a mass opinion that he never uses guns, that he is a man who actually despises the use of force, effectively rendering all sides of those in a conflict equally immoral. In fact, Arya Ponto states, quite correctly, that “For a lot of younger fans, the sight of The Doctor holding a gun might be as shocking as, say, Batman doing the same. This is a man who detests it, whose primary weapon of choice is a screwdriver.” This seems to be the attitude that the entire post-2005 run of Doctor Who has had, both in its writing and in its audience reaction. New fans, ones that came in either in 2005 or later, with little or no exposure to the original 1963-1989 (and 1996) show (or the Big Finish audio adventures), expect nothing more than the Doctor to use no violence, to rely on his sonic screwdriver rather than a weapon (arguably the sonic screwdriver could be used as a weapon).

Arguably, these fans might be appalled to know that the classic series Doctor, who was once an avid physical-fighting expert, also once carried guns, travelled with serial killers and ex-Nazis, and killed in cold blood to save his own life (and many others’). For a being who, in order to avert death, completely changes his physical appearance and personality—each incarnation referred to as a different “Doctor”, though of course it is more “the same software, different case” (“Day of the Doctor”)—he has remained quite consistent in his ethics. The interference of the Doctor in galactic wars, toppling dictators, and afflicting universal moral change has, as its real-world analogue, an overt expression of neo-conservative philosophy rather than of pacifism or of the anti-war movement.

It is perhaps best to define neo-conservatism in a way that it might not be defined traditionally, rather than allowing one to think that an unfair comparison between George W. Bush and the Doctor is made. Neo-conservatism, then, is when people with liberal values stand up for liberalism against its enemies. This differs from the usual definition of neo-conservatism in that it does not include reference to protecting American national interests (but only in that respect.) Liberal values, in this case, being a respect for individual freedoms, including a very generous freedom of expression, right to safety, right to privacy, and other such items (nearly all of which appear in the United Nation’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights). It is important to remember, though, that “Democracy has almost nothing to do with liberalism” (Miller 281) because the terms both answer different questions: how politicians attain their seat, and the values that a society has, respectively. In keeping with fairness, and so not to concentrate on the perceived link between neocons and imperialism, this attitude can also be defined by those who are called ‘liberal-hawks’ such as pundit Bill Maher, journalist Christopher Hitchens, and past United States presidents like Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry S. Truman, and John F. Kennedy.

As a show that was originally produced for children, it is surprising how quickly the show found its footing, and how quickly the Doctor’s character developed into a symbol of justice and freedom, and thereby became a neoconservative. As far back as 1967, in the fourth season (of 26 in the original run), there was a soliloquy where the Doctor put forward his morality as simply as it could possibly be expressed, by saying that “There are some corners of the universe which have bred the most terrible things. Things which act against everything we believe in. They must be fought” (“The Moonbase”). Though this view might be mocked in today’s world as naïve, too-simple, or just another product of the cold war, it is absolutely vital to understand that there are entities that do wish harm upon civilization, for one reason or another, and do not love liberal values.

The support of liberalism, world-wide, differs. Often the Doctor has encountered beings whose goals and ambitions are in direct contrast to liberalism. Author Francis Fukuyama argues that “Indeed, the effort to promote democracy around the world has been attacked as an illegitimate activity both by people on the left…and by traditional conservatives”. So there is an extensive amount of backlash against intervening in other cultures. To go through all of the ideologies which despise liberalism would be to insult the intelligence of any reader, so it is best to be avoided. In the Whoniverse, however, where the Doctor battles evil incarnate, it is not such a foolish venture to identify the types of evil he fights, and in what manner that fight is conducted.

In the second ever serial, “The Daleks”, the Doctor encounters a planet ravaged by over a thousand years of war and radiation. After half-a-millennia of silence and peace, small bands of survivors, the Thals, have forever renounced war and choose to live as simple farmers. Little do they know, or care, that they are the target of genocide when the Daleks reemerge from hiding. It is actually only when the Doctor intervenes to trick them into fighting for themselves that they then manage to win the war and live as peacefully as they can (being a television show the Daleks and Thals of course battle again in future episodes). There are some evils the TARDIS crew (what companions of the Doctor are called by fans, named after his time machine) find that cannot be lived alongside. Though it is rare, there are situations where it comes down to an us or them solution. The Daleks, with their cry of “Exterminate!” (“The Daleks”), are a perfect example of just such an evil.

The Doctor’s preference is usually always one of peace, but when a peace cannot be reached, the only option left is for the enemy to die or be incapacitated. In “The Daleks”, the Doctor confronts one of the Dalek leaders and tries to persuade it from murdering an entire race. After the Doctor argued that there has been enough violence and killing, with the Daleks responsible for all of it, he begs that they must have an interest in the lives of the Thals. The Dalek, cold and calculated, screeches “The only interest we have in the Thals is their total extermination!” (“The Daleks”). This leaves a liberal-hawk, or neocon, with no choice in the matter; the enemy must be destroyed, and whoever does so will have the higher moral standing—the Doctor sees this and acts accordingly.

Cries such as the Daleks bleat are seen in the real-world as well, and considering that the Daleks were based (according to the author that originally wrote them) on the National Socialists in Germany, it is not hard to see that certain evils cannot be reasoned with. The Nazis are always a go-to in science fiction, a cliché, and for good reason. They epitomize everything that goes against liberal values. The Dalek, in what it believes is a logical discussion, gives as its reasoning for genocide, that “Without radiation [that we wish to flood the planet with], the Dalek race is ended. We need it as you and the Thals need air” (“The Daleks”). This, in a way, predicted exactly the type of reasoning that the truly evil powers would use to justify their actions. One cannot help but think of the similarity of the Dalek reasoning to the infamous saying from terrorist-group Hamas: “[We] love death more than you love life” (The Blaze). It goes without saying that one of the aforementioned groups (Thals and Daleks) cannot peacefully coexist with the other, while the other group would have no issue if it were not for facing an existential threat. After all, it only serves to identify where the Thals would be were the Doctor not to intervene and pacifism in their ranks was allowed to win the argument.

The Thals knew what would happen to them should they not fight back, but insisted on pacifism. In a fit of anger over the Thals not wishing to fight Ian, a member of the TARDIS crew, summarized the stubbornness and simplicity of the Thal position: “The Thals won’t fight. They’re against war” (“The Daleks”). The Thals do, however, present an interesting case; they have lived for so long at peace and do not wish to ever again engage in violence. Their deliberations are symbolized by the seemingly complex dilemma they face; either fight for their lives and violate their oath against war, or die at the hands of an enemy who made no such oath and never would. Barbara, another member of the TARDIS crew, asks “But are they really pacifists…or is it a belief that’s become a reality because they’ve never had to prove it” (“The Daleks”). The Thals debate this before finally being convinced, almost too late, to fight. Though the pacifism versus interventionism seen in “The Daleks” is quite easily recognizable, the issues in other Doctor Who serials can sometimes be slightly more complex, and occasionally show how far that the Doctor is willing to go to in order to prevent evil.

The sixth incarnation of the Doctor is often called the most violent, and perhaps for good reason. In “Terror of the Vervoids”, his penultimate appearance on the show, the sixth Doctor eradicated an entire race of aliens. He was accused of being genocidal, and that was true, but that would not necessarily mean that his actions were unjust (being a science fiction show, morality is slightly less complex than in real life). The race he eliminated was literally genetically violent towards all beings—they wished the demise of all animal life, and had no other choice than to hate. The Doctor certainly saw his intervention as necessary, but others disagree because “The involvement of an intergovernmental organization or a liberal democracy as an intervener is unlikely to make any major difference in the…negative impact of [the] intervention” (Peksen). Those who accept that the Doctor is not a pacifist sometimes argue that he is actually a bad person. This reasoning centers on the fact that there was no trial given for these beings (plant based life forms known as Vervoids)—they were extra-judicial killings.

One attack on the idea of whether or not the Doctor is a pacifist is that the pacifism this essay assures the readers that he is not is not the real pacifism. The real kind of pacifism, it is said, that the Doctor has is an idea of pacifism where he strives for peace but will defend himself. It needs to be said, this is not pacifism. Pacifism can be called ideologically bankrupt precisely because its definition does not fit the liking of those who would call themselves pacifists, somewhat echoing Barbara’s statement about pacifism being tested in “The Daleks”. True pacifism is where one never attacks, it is the nonviolence of Jesus of Nazareth who is quoted as saying “do not resist an evil person; but whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also” and to “love your enemies” (Holy Bible). Clearly the Doctor does not ascribe to Jesus’ morals. But that need not be an attack on true pacifism or on Jesus, only a highlight that the Doctor is not such a person.

Accusations that the Doctor is actually wrong to be a liberal hawk can entirely be dismissed specifically because he is the central character on a science fiction show. His actions might actually be black and white, while in the real world they are occasionally muddled with shades of grey. There are certain situations though, in real life, that are very simple to solve. With the liberal value that murder is wrong it makes sense to do everything in your power to remove the threat of murder. This type of thinking of course calls for certain rules to be put forward—and they have. The United Nations has on several occasions voted to take action against a tyrant, and actually has a list of rules that detail when a country is to lose its sovereignty; (Saddam Hussein is an example of someone the UN agreed that force could be used against).

The Doctor, in his travels, constantly cites the rules of time and how evil must be fought. On occasion he also acts in ways that could be considered, as its real-life analogue, as “preemptive strikes” (see “The Genesis of the Daleks” where the Doctor creates a situation to destroy the future Daleks—genocide—before they are even created). In the real-world where neo-conservatism means to the layman that George Bush is involved (and therefore talked about negatively, or as if it were synonymous with American Republicanism) the idea of preventative war is perhaps best defined as thus: “Those who they [the United States and its allies] could not convince or who refused to play according to the rules were referred to as ‘rogue states` by the Bush administration which also found itself entitled, according to the preventive warfare doctrine, to attack them first” (Kurecic 7). Ignoring the specific references to modern day politics (which are not entirely true, as the United Nations had agreed to the use of force against Saddam Hussein as early as the middle of the 1990’s), it is easy to understand where preventative wartime comes into play: when there are entities that break the agreed upon rules.

In Doctor Who this sometimes-situation occurs much more abundantly, giving the show a very garish, over-the-top feel. The villains really are bad, the protagonists are usually naïve and innocent; put simply, every villain is comparable to Hitler and every hero is his opposite—the reemergence of the aforementioned Nazi cliché. Nevertheless, it is that campiness that allows the Doctor’s morals to be so easily defined: he is a hero.

As a quick note on the new series of Doctor Who, it is vital to understand that this is a show written for a much different audience than was the original ‘63-‘89 run. It can often be more defined by its romantic subplots that attract a new kind of soap-opera fan and its flashy special effects which emphasizes explosions and lasers than by the tele-play format of the original show. The original arguably had more to do with dialogue and story, perhaps precisely because of the low budget of effects and the bug-eyed-monster, rubber costumes. The classic series (and by extension the Big Finish audios which started in 1999 and still run today) has more to offer by way of exploring moral-philosophy because what screen time is not filled by lengthy kissing or melancholic orchestral music must be filled with monologues and debates. Of course the revived series has these traits, but much less so, and possibly because the show had to attract viewers using pre-determined standards, whereas the original run was viewed partly because there were not as many options from which to choose.

There is much evidence that the revived series as it currently stands is going to be a much different show than when it first aired in 2005. The head writer, Steven Moffat, claimed that “the last two Doctors have been brilliant, and have been your ‘good boyfriend’ Doctors. But the Doctor isn’t always like that. There is the…end of the spectrum, where he is mad and dangerous and difficult” (Cultbox). To many viewers this is seen as hinting towards a return of a ‘darker’ incarnation of the Doctor, one who, unlike two of his three contemporaries, is a ‘liberal hawk’.

The use of a bad tool for a good cause might be enough to make that tool good, or perhaps neutral. Violence does not necessarily have to be inherently bad, and the Doctor demonstrates this again and again throughout his travels. Surely there is no confusion as to whether or not his actions were justified and right, and if there is uncertainty about that, there is more uncertainty about what those assertions would be based on. The case is more or less obvious, either the use of force is sometimes justified or it is not. If not, then one must take into account that there are certain evils which would have been permitted; the anti-war position, if followed, would mean that the holocaust went unstopped, Kuwait would now be a part of Iraq, Slobodan Milošević, the genocidal head of a socialist party in the Balkans, would still be in power (Hitchens), and there would be no effort to put a stop to Hamas, ISIS, or any other persons or organizations with a similar savage nature.

It is quite evident, then, that the Doctor does express a neoconservative outlook on the world (or universe), interfering as often as possible. He is a liberal-hawk who would not allow the aforementioned atrocities to continue as long as they did. He may strive for peace wherever possible, but he is in no way a pacifist or an anti-war activist, and expressed this often. He holds peaceful values very highly, but feels no regret in having to use violence to deal with some of the more divisive evils when the need arises. The Whoniverse is very fortunate to have a being like the Doctor, who is willing to fight for liberalism anywhere it is threatened; the case in the real, Doctorless world is certainly bleaker.


Works Cited


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Macey, Jonathan R. and Miller, Geoffrey P., “The End of History and the New World Order: The

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Ponto, Arya. “The Role of Pacifism and Gun Violence on “Doctor Who”.” Artboiled. N.p., n.d.

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