Written by David Holland
On November 22, 1963, the United States changed forever when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas. This event screwed up the news that day and really took everybody’s mind off of ordinary television. So when a television show about a grumpy alien, his granddaughter, and their phone booth spaceship aired for the first time, not a ton of people paid attention. It seemed as if Doctor Who might die before it really got a chance to take off. After all, how could a show this eclectic actually attract an audience?
And let’s be honest: on its face Doctor Who is ridiculous. It’s a television show about an alien who looks like a human but has two hearts and who travels through space and time in a spaceship disguised as an old British police telephone box with various human companions. What’s that? The actor playing the main character wants to leave the show? No problem, it just happens to be part of his alien physiology that every time that character “dies”, they “regenerate” into a different physical form of the same character. This works out for production reasons because actors have this nasty habit of leaving roles. Instead of trying to find actors who look roughly the same as each other and have to continually try to imitate each other (the “James Bond Problem”), Doctor Who embraces this by telling us that we are watching the same character but with slight variations in personality. This saved the first Doctor, played by William Hartnell, from having to play the role since 1963, which is especially helpful since he recently celebrated his 112th birthday and times have changed a bit since he was in the role.
Science fiction is a crowded world. What makes Doctor Who special? Like I said above, it’s a weird premise. It’s not as easily summarized as Star Trek (“William Shatner leads future humans to explore the galaxy”) or Battlestar Galactica (“Future humans fight future robots) or Terminator (“Future humans fight future robots”) or the Matrix (“Future humans fight future robots”). Even Firefly (“Space cowboys”) has a simpler premise.
Doctor Who sets itself apart for many reasons, but I’d like to focus on one. If we want a hero, we have a lot of options these days. Which heroes are captivating people right now? Geralt of Rivia, the Mandalorian, the Avengers, Jon Snow, and John Wick, just to name a few. All of them swing swords, shoot guns, and/or blast their opponents. They resort to violence and their stories usually end with climactic battles. But if there’s one thing I love about the Doctor, it’s the commitment to nonviolence.
I hope I don’t sound like a ridiculous curmudgeon who is worried about “kids these days” and their violent movies and video games. I’ve consumed and enjoyed the movies/shows of all of the heroes I listed above. But in an era where gunfights are commonplace, nonviolence is brave. It’s easy to give a hero Liam-Neeson-in-Taken level skills and then turn them loose on the bad guys. It’s more difficult to fill a hero with compassion for their enemies and then give them a problem to solve.
This manifests in different ways for different incarnations of the Doctor. David Tennant’s Tenth Doctor, for example, pointedly refuses to use a gun against his enemies and at one point attempts to sacrifice himself with a Rube Goldberg style teleport-bomb that would unnecessarily end in his death because it would give him an opportunity to attempt one final negotiation with his enemies. When asked why he doesn’t simply send the bomb by itself he replies, “This is how it works. I have to give them a chance.” In a recent episode, a French spy during World War II told Jodie Whitaker’s Thirteenth Doctor that she had no gun or cyanide capsule because she was a pacifist. The Doctor replied “Snap! Pacifism! Strong stance during wartime.” A commitment to the virtue of peace doesn’t do us any credit during peacetime, only during conflict when peace is actually difficult. Peter Capaldi’s Twelfth Doctor set up a delicate peace between humans and an alien race called Zygons living on Earth disguised as humans. When tensions between the two neared a boiling point, the Doctor arranged a meeting which would bring a human leader and an extremist Zygon rebel into the same room with him so that he could emotionally implore them not to go to war. When the human leader asked how he knew the meeting would work, the Doctor revealed that it had worked the previous fifteen times they’d had the meeting, when he’d erased their memories after each time they chose the peaceful outcome. When most heroes would treat the Zygons as a threat to be eliminated, the Doctor treated them as refugees who needed a home. And he did the hard work of peace instead of the easy work of violence.
Again, I’m not saying that shows or movies with shootouts and magic and sword fights don’t have their place. And sure, the Doctor usually has to end up fighting back in some way, or at least letting other characters engage in violence, but I think it’s worth celebrating a hero whose defining characteristic is seeing beauty in the universe. The Doctor is sort of what the original Star Trek (which first aired only a few years later) was supposed to be – an explorer of the universe captivated by wonder and new experiences, with a desire not to conquer, take vengeance, or harm others but to share that wonder and joy with companions. There’s a quotation floating around the internet that is attributed to Steven Moffat, the Doctor Who showrunner for a few years. Moffat is a divisive figure among Doctor Who fans, but this at least drives home the point I want to make and, honestly, it comes from the internet so who knows if he really even said it:
“Heroes are important. Heroes tell us who we want to be but when they made this particular hero they didn’t give him a gun, they gave him a screwdriver to fix things. They didn’t give him a tank or a warship or an X-Wing, they gave him a call box from which you can call for help and they didn’t give him a superpower or a heat-ray, they gave him an extra heart. And that’s extraordinary. There will never come a time when we don’t need a hero like the Doctor.”
The Doctor has been around in one form or another since the 60’s. Some iterations have been better than others, but these days the Doctor pushes back against the idea of the warrior-hero. Instead, the Doctor simply lives up to the name – fixer, expert, healer, and above all one who shows up in times of trouble not to bring violence, but to bring peace.