Doctor Hu-manist?

the tardis

Can an “alien” hero be a humanist?

Guest blog by Paul F Cockburn @paulfcockburn

More than half a century after first appearing on our television screens, “The Doctor” has become as iconic a character in British culture as Sherlock Holmes, James Bond, and Robin Hood.

However, given the thousands of people who have worked on Doctor Who since 1963, consistency isn’t exactly one of the show’s strong points. Forget at least two conflicting explanations of the Loch Ness Monster; Doctor Who’s Baker’s Dozen of incarnations have brought down oppressive totalitarian regimes one year and then stood side-by-side with absolute monarchies the next.

They have thwarted the machinations of cybernetic despots and free-market corporations, of alien thugs and self-described freedom fighters with equal vigour. Yes, many of the Doctors have stood firm against the brutal social oppression arising from the imposition of religious dogmas, but they have also fought just as strongly against the most perverse extrapolations of scientific research.

Jodie Whittaker, who will play the 13th Doctor in the series

But does this mean that, despite the Doctor’s supposedly non-terrestrial origins, he—soon to be she—could be called a humanist? Even, potentially, a humanist hero?

Certainly, the Doctor is someone who prizes knowledge and individuality in thought and action, and abhors the brutal imposition of control—be that on a planet, a people or a single mind. The enslavement of human imagination and creativity—for example, by a Dalek war computer (in Remembrance of the Daleks, 1988)—is something the Doctor views as “obscene”.

Peter Capaldi’s version may have sometimes dismissed human beings as ignorant “pudding brains”, but its clear this particular Doctor feels that our “worth, dignity and autonomy” must be defended. “I do what I do because it’s right! Because it’s decent. And, above all, it’s kind!” he tells his “arch enemies”, the Master and Missy, at the close of the Series 10 finale (The Doctor Falls, 2017). “These people are terrified. Maybe we can help a little. Why not, at the end, just be kind?” No external sanction required, unless you mean the Doctors themselves.

A common feature of most religions is their claim to be based on revelations fixed for all time; the Doctor, however, travels the universe in an attempt to constantly rediscover it through a continuing process of observation and evaluation.

Scottish actors David Tennant & John Barrowman co-starred in the series

The Doctor may occasionally speak of “fixed points” in the universe, but even these can seemingly be “rewritten”; interestingly, when David Tennant’s version meets up again with John Barrowman’s now-immortal Captain Jack Harkness (Utopia, 2007), it leads to the highlighting of prejudice. “It’s not easy looking at you, Jack, because you’re wrong,” the Doctor says to his former travelling companion. “I’m a Time Lord. It’s instinct. It’s in my guts. You’re a fixed point in Time and Space. You’re a Fact! That’s never meant to happen.” Nor is it just him—turns out the Tardis had spun herself to the end of the universe in a desperate attempt to shake Jack off too!

This is, admittedly, an interesting example of irrational behaviour on the part of the Doctor, although he’s clearly able to both recognise and overcome it—given how Jack continues to travel with him for a short while. If the Doctor appears to be a bastion of rationalism, though, it’s hardly surprising that 20th century Doctor Who often described the shift from superstitious belief to rational scientific inquiry in positive terms of progress, growth and advancement (not least in The Masque of Mandragora, 1976). No wonder the writer and academic Una McCormack highlighted what she described as the show’s innate “technocratic humanism”.

21st century Doctor Who has continued this: religions are included in a space station’s list of forbidden items (The End of the World, 2005) while, by the 51st century, we’re shown they have evolved into impressive military machines (The Time of Angels/Flesh and Stone, 2010, A Good Man Goes To War, 2011, The Time of the Doctor, 2013).

In Gridlock (2007), self-described atheist Russell T Davies wrote an episode in which a shared religious belief— expressed through communal hymn-singing—while helping bond and comfort thousands of people trapped in an endless traffic jam, also ensures that nothing changes. It takes the arrival of the rational, questioning Doctor to trigger a resolution which sees everyone escape.

All of which suggests that the Doctor is the kind of hero humanists might appreciate. Admittedly, some could be concerned by many writers’ habit of applying the iconography and narrative templates of religion and belief directly on to the Doctor. No more so than at Christmas, when—according to showrunner Steven Moffat, its wider audiences requires Doctor Who to be the “simpler … more sentimental … most iconic” version of the show, in which the Doctor is “like an angel who comes to help”.

Even the Loch Ness Monster has made appearances on the show

Certainly, more recent writers have given the Doctor his own disciples, be they departing “companions” or “fans” like the members of LINDA (Love & Monsters, 2006). Arguably the quintessential Doctor Who companion—20th and 21st centuries alike—Sarah Jane Smith (played by the late Elisabeth Sladen) even explained her post-Doctor life as being “left behind with his legacy… to help and to protect, to make a stand and to never give up”. (The Sarah Jane Adventures: Revenge of the Slitheen, 2007.) Remind you of anything?

Meanwhile Davros, creator of the Daleks, accused the Doctor of being the man “who abhors violence, never carrying a gun,” but who nevertheless takes “ordinary people and […] fashions them into weapons”.

But if the Doctor does appear god-like on occasions—especially when he’s angry with someone—it’s a god who is far from above criticism. The harsh words may be mostly placed in the mouths of the show’s “villains”, but the Doctor does occasionally show self-awareness. Peter Capaldi’s Doctor was initially unsure if he was “a good man”, eventually deciding he was neither good nor bad, just “an idiot! With a box and a screwdriver. Passing through.”

That said, his previous incarnation had also denied it. “Good men don’t need rules,” Matt Smith’s Doctor had explained to one enemy (A Good Man Goes to War, 2011). “Today is not the day to find out why I have so many.”

Viewers with long memories of the “scary” David Tennant episode The Waters of Mars, (2009) would well remember the genuinely worrying spectacle of the Doctor beginning to believe he was the ultimate authority over history itself, the “Time Lord Victorious”. It took the noble sacrifice of one human being to bring him back to his senses; to remind him (and us) of the dangers of absolute power and an abandonment of responsibility.

A humanist hero, or what?

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