This morning I read a post on Speculative Faith where the writer, Nicholas Tieman, examines a quote by G.K. Chesterton, how it’s paraphrased by Neil Gaiman in his book Coraline, and then how that applies to The Doctor from Doctor Who.
The quote from Chesterton is as follows:
What the fairy tale provides for him [the child] is a St. George to kill the dragon. Exactly what the fairy tale does is this: it accustoms him for a series of clear pictures to the idea that these limitless terrors had a limit, that these shapeless enemies have enemies in the knights of God, that there is something in the universe more mystical than darkness, and stronger than strong fear.
Gaiman paraphrases it this way: “Fairy tales are more than true – not because they tell us dragons exist, but because they tell us dragons can be beaten.”
I agree with both of these ideas (though I guess in a sense they are the same idea, expressed different ways). Fairy tales, in their earliest collected forms, and possibly in their oral forms as well, have always been intended to teach some kind of lesson. “Red Riding Hood” teaches children to be careful with strangers. “Beauty and the Beast” teaches children to not judge a book by its cover (especially in the original fairy tale version, where the Beast’s curse includes the fact that he has to hide his intelligence, which makes him seem even more like a brute beast). “Cinderella” teaches how good can come out of injustice. Most of all, though, they do teach that evil can be defeated by the forces of good, whether that be through magic or willpower or however the power of good is represented in the story. In my Realm Makers class on building a magic system, David Farland shared this quote from Algis Budrys: “Science fiction and fantasy are the last bastion of religious fiction in the United States. It’s the only genre where we can talk about Good and Evil definitively.” This is very true, especially in our world today where being morally grey is in vogue. Cause goodness gracious, we don’t want to offend anyone!
Tieman’s ideas about The Doctor I’m not so certain about, and that’s what I want to spend most of this post on. (Warning: Spoilers below if you’re not caught up on Doctor Who through Series 10).
Would The Doctor be a good god? No. He even admits it himself, in “Boom Town,” when Margaret Blaine (a.k.a. the evil Slitheen in the episode) first sees the TARDIS and remarks that it is the “technology of the gods”:
Well, don’t worship me, I’d make a very bad god. You wouldn’t get a day off, for starters.
This is coming from the Ninth Doctor. He’s fresh off the Time War — even pretty fresh off of destroying Gallifrey, if the 50th Anniversary Special is to be believed (although he actually saved it, but thanks to the Laws of Time and such the War Doctor didn’t get to remember that, which in retrospect makes the Ninth Doctor’s situation even more sad than it already is). He’s full of rage and suffering from PTSD. By this point in the season, he’s starting to heal, thanks to Rose’s influence, but that strong, complicated cocktail of feelings (which I can’t even begin to analyze) is still there. The last sentence almost sounds like a threat in context.
Years later, however, after seeing what having faith in him has done to his Companion Amy Pond, the Eleventh Doctor says this in “The God Complex”:
I can’t save you from this. There’s nothing I can do to stop this. I stole your childhood and now I’ve lead you by the hand to your death. But the worst thing is, I knew. I knew this would happen. This is what always happens. Forget your faith in me. I took you with me because I was vain. Because I wanted to be adored. Look at you. Glorious Pond. The girl who waited for me. I’m not a hero. I really am just a mad man in a box. And it’s time we saw each other as we really are. Amy Williams, it’s time to stop waiting.
The Doctor, confronted with how he has affected Amy’s life, recognizes that it is no one’s fault but his, and that he is not the amazing hero Amy grew up thinking he was. It’s also notable how he distances himself from her by calling her by her married name (which he never does). Also, in the 200 years he spends alone between the end of this episode and his death appointment at Silencio, he spends most of his time trying to erase evidence of his existence from the universe, even from databases, simply because he has realized he has gotten too big. I think realizing what he did to Amy was a big motivator for this mission of erasure, because it humbled him.
Then, of course, there’s the Twelfth Doctor’s famous line from “Death in Heaven”:
I am not a good man! And I’m not a bad man either. I’m not a hero. I’m definitely not a president, and no, I’m not an officer. You know who I am? I… am… an idiot! With a box and a screwdriver. Passing through. Helping out. Learning.
Over the course of time, The Doctor is gradually learning he is not as great as he thought he was. His goal in life is to help people, as his chosen name implies, but he doesn’t always get it right, and he’s not all-powerful. “Heaven Sent” — really the whole Series 9 finale storyline — is a big lesson in this for the Doctor, where he has to face his fears and confess things he’s held back, like that he left Gallifrey because he was scared (presumably because of the whole Hybrid thing). He uses Time Lord technology to bring Clara back to life in the following episode (“Hell Bent”), but in the end loses her too, after a fashion. The most recent series, Series 10, featured The Doctor committing himself to protecting a secret vault, in which is imprisoned his former friend (and now enemy — or maybe frenemy?) The Master (currently portrayed as a female named Missy), who he is trying to reform. He almost succeeds, too — but Missy ends up being lead back towards evil by John Simm’s Master, and even though she almost goes back to Twelve’s side at the end, her past self kills her before she has a chance. On top of this, The Doctor is on the verge of regeneration, trying to stop a massive Cyberman invasion, and dealing with the fact that his Companion Bill has been turned into a Cyberman. By the end of it all, he’s just so done, but still somehow finds the strength to confront both versions of The Master in “The Doctor Falls” with the reason why he does what he does:
Hey! I’m going to be dead in a few hours, so before I go, let’s have this out. You and me, once and for all. “Winning?” Is that what you think it’s about? I’m not trying to “win”. I’m not doing this because I want to beat someone — or because I hate someone, or because I want to blame someone. It’s not because it’s fun. God knows it’s not because it’s easy. It’s not even because it works because it hardly ever does. I do what I do because it’s right! Because it’s decent! And above all, it’s kind! It’s just that. Just kind. If I run away today, good people will die. If I stand and fight, some of them might live — maybe not many, maybe not for long. Hey — maybe there’s no point in any of this, at all, but it’s the best I can do, so I’m going to do it — and I will stand here doing it until it kills me. — You’re going to die, too —someday. When will that be? Have you thought about it? What would you die for? Who I am is where I stand. Where I stand is where I fall. Stand with me. These people are terrified. Maybe we can help a little. Why not, just at the end, just be kind?
So maybe The Doctor isn’t a knight of God — he mentions in “The Satan Pit” that he doesn’t believe in a deity — but he does stand for something.
One of my favorite quotes from the Chronicles of Narnia is when the kids ask the Beavers about Aslan, asking if he is quite safe, being that he is in the form of a lion. Mr. Beaver replies: “Safe?…don’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”
The Doctor is not safe. Not by any stretch of the imagination. I’ve been finally catching up on my huge stack of Titan Doctor Who comics lately, and at the end of the story “Revolving Doors,” after confronting the Tenth Doctor regarding the pain and rage she’s seen in him during this adventure — aspects of him she hasn’t really seen before — Companion Gabby Gonzalez writes in her diary: “Why do I trust him? Sometimes, he pushes me away. Very occasionally, he snaps. Never like that one time in London, though. What was that…a warning? Don’t get too comfortable. Don’t get too close. He’s right – he’s an alien. How much do I really know about him? Why do I feel so strongly that I do? Instinct doesn’t make much sense. It gives me stomach-butterflies.” Being confronted with how unsafe life with The Doctor is – or even how unsafe he is – gives most Companions pause (unless, like Rose and Amy, they’re just caught up in the thrill of it all).
But he is good…most of the time. The biggest problem for him, as it is with all Time Lords, is arrogance. He trusts too much in his intelligence, his technological prowess, his nigh-immortality. Every now and then, something happens to knock him down, to make him see he’s not as big a deal as he thinks he is. But he tries not to show it; he hides his vulnerability behind a guise of detachment (most of the Classic Who Doctors), a happy-go-lucky nature (Ten, and also Nine to an extent), childish immaturity (Eleven), or biting sarcasm (Twelve). Time Lords, the greater Doctor Who canon tells us, are taught to detach from emotion. Like the Vulcans in Star Trek, logic rules supreme in their world. In fact, if you look at the history of Gallifrey itself, they were once a people with a great empire, with a polytheistic religion and magic, but all of this was overthrown when Rassilon showed up, rejecting religion and magic and replacing it with pure, cold logic, and started the Time Lord society that Gallifrey would come to be known for. When you see Time Lords other than The Doctor in the series, they’re always pompous and arrogant. Gallifrey in Classic Who is shown to be in a state of cultural stagnation due to their policy not to interfere in others’ affairs or, it seems, to open themselves up to any cultural influences from elsewhere. Ultimately, their arrogance reaches new heights, until by the end of the Time War, the Lord President is prepared to destroy the universe, and all life in it, for the sake of winning the war — a fate the Time Lords will escape by becoming spirits of pure energy. With that sort of end, it’s no wonder they ran away after The Doctor saved Gallifrey — even if the truth about what President Rassilon was going to do isn’t widely known (which I’m guessing it isn’t), they had waged a disastrous war all across time and space, in which many worlds and peoples were lost and some others (such as the Gelth and the Zygons) made homeless. Not exactly the kind of people you want to share intergalactic real estate with.
Tieman brings up (and even includes a GIF of) the way The Doctor punishes the Family of Blood at the end of the Series 3 episode “The Family of Blood.” Son-Of-Mine’s description from the end of the episode suggests that this is unusual behavior on The Doctor’s part:
He never raised his voice. That was the worst thing — the fury of the Time Lord. And then we discovered why — why this Doctor, who had fought with gods and demons, why he had run away from us and hidden: he was being kind.
He wrapped my father in unbreakable chains forged in the heart of a dwarf star. He tricked my mother into the event horizon of a collapsing galaxy to be imprisoned there, forever. He still visits my sister once a year, every year. I wonder if one day he might forgive her, but there she is. Can you see? He trapped her inside a mirror. Every mirror. If ever you look at your reflection and see something move behind you just for a second, that’s her. That’s always her. As for me, I was suspended in time and the Doctor put me to work standing over the fields of England, as their protector. We wanted to live forever. So The Doctor made sure we did.
In a sense, The Doctor punished them by giving them exactly what they wanted — immortality. But he does it in a rather cruel way which is definitely unbecoming of him. The way he punishes them is, in a way, the very definition of how Timothy Latimer describes him: “He’s like fire and ice and rage. He’s like the night and the storm in the heart of the sun.” But it’s notable that Son-of-Mine says The Doctor was being kind by hiding from them. I think this means The Doctor knew what he might end up doing if they provoked his fury, and to avoid that happening, he hid instead. So The Doctor is very aware of what he is capable of, if he gets angry enough.
The Doctor is not someone you want to push to the breaking point, to be sure. As I said, he isn’t safe. Sometimes he isn’t even good. Sometimes he is downright frightening, and yes, he wouldn’t be able to fight like a knight devoted to God’s service would. But he is out there, fighting against the evil in the universe that his own people wouldn’t dirty their hands to deal with. As The Second Doctor says in “The War Games,” when charged by his own people with repeatedly violating the Law of Non-Interference, and whether he admits these actions to be true:
I not only admit them, I am proud of them. While you have been content merely to observe the evil in the galaxy, I have been fighting against it….You asked me to justify my actions, I am doing so. Let me show you the Ice Warriors, cruel Martian invaders, they tried to conquer the Earth too. So did the Cybermen, half creature, half machine. But worst of all were the Daleks, a pitiless race of conquerors exterminating all who came up against them. All these evils I have fought while you have done nothing but observe. True, I am guilty of interference, just as you are guilty of failing to use your great powers to help those in need!
I admit, as a Whovian, I am biased in making this argument. But I think that, while The Doctor may have moments of acting like a god (there’s a Tumblr post I often see pop up on Pinterest where people point out Eleven acted like a god, especially when he blew up a bunch of Cybermen in “A Good Man Goes to War” as a way to threaten them into giving up Amy’s location), he is learning just how much he isn’t one. It will be interesting to see how the current Doctor’s reign — and that of Steven Moffat, who took the show to some very dark places with The Doctor — ends come Christmas, and what this will mean for Jodie Whittaker’s Thirteenth Doctor.
Yes, in the end, in the Doctor Who universe, silence will fall. But the question that is asked at Trenzalore is what the Doctor’s name is — and it’s suggested he hides it for a reason. Maybe that reason is even more frightening than The Doctor himself. Perhaps it’s best if we never learn what it is. Because like him, it likely isn’t safe.
DW Quote Sources
Tenth Doctor Wikiquote
Eleventh Doctor Wikiquote
Twelfth Doctor Wikiquote
The Doctor Who Transcripts
“Revolving Doors” quote from my physical copy of The Tenth Doctor Adventures Year 3 #5
8 thoughts on “Not Safe, But He’s Good (Most of the Time) – A Response to “Abandoned by The Lonely God””
Thanks for reading and responding! I would certainly agree that The Doctor is an interesting and complicated protagonist (after this many decades, how could he be any less?) and as a story he is infinitely better for it. What fascinates me is that people don’t really seem to content to let him be just a character. Why does Craig feel compelled to sum up the theme in such grandiose terms rather than just saying that this show is really cool, interesting, and smart? Why does The Doctor need to become a mascot or totem, not just for the companions, but for real, living humans in our world? As I outlined, he doesn’t always fill this role so well (at least not as stated by Ferguson) and yet it’s so natural, even for me, to stuff him into it. This need fascinates me, and I hope I get the opportunity to write more about it later.
Sorry it took me a while to put up your comment. I have Akismet installed to filter spam, and then I forgot to go in and approve it.
I agree that The Doctor is a complicated protagonist – I think every actor has brought their own spin to the character. The show has also had a lot of writers over its 54-year existence, and they’ve probably all brought their own views and ideas to it.
I think people treat The Doctor like they treat a lot of fictional characters – they aren’t content to just let him be a fictional character, they have to analyze the heck out of him. I mean, a large part of literary analysis is built on analyzing characters, be they Harry Potter or Frodo or Darcy from Pride and Prejudice.
As far as him becoming a totem for the Companions, I think that happens for a couple reasons. First off, even though the show is named for The Doctor, he’s not the POV character. We’re experiencing him from the perspective of the Companion. It’s kinda like how it is with Sherlock Holmes, how we see him through Watson’s eyes. And I think it’s for the same reason, to make him relatable. I’ve heard it said that if Holmes was the narrator of the Sherlock Holmes stories, they wouldn’t be very interesting cause he’s kinda full of himself and has already got the cases all figured out pretty much from the beginning. It’s because Watson is around that he explains everything. With The Doctor, I think the same issue applies, because as I said in my post, he has an issue with arrogance and tends to hide his vulnerability. Secondly, he’s an alien. He may look like us, but he’s smarter and older and has powers we just don’t possess, like telepathy and the ability to see all of time at once and stuff. So we need a human perspective to make him relatable to us, and that’s where the Companion comes in (though to be fair, the Doctor has had Companions who weren’t human). He is more human in New Who certainly than in Classic Who (Tom Baker in particular played The Doctor as a detached alien, and Capaldi somewhat followed that model as well). But he’s still an “other” if you will.
If you write more about it later, I will try and check it out.
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