At the end of the second episode of this season, The Doctor does something quite ruthless that, for a lot of newer fans, might seem disturbingly out of character. Fans wondered if this was a result of unchecked writing or a deliberate attempt to address the darkness growing within the character. The credits, at least, point to it being the latter.
The most recent episode, “A Town Called Mercy,” deftly addresses the issue of the previous week’s ending. The episode’s allegorical name, plus the Western theme, serve as the perfect backdrop to dissect the growing concern of The Doctor’s sudden eagerness to resort to violence and death.
In the three episodes of the current season shown so far, the credits have gotten darker with each episode, as shown in the below comparison image (with thanks to Reddit user jjd213). Whether or not it’s intentional, it does reflect where the character is headed.
The question is… Is it really all that sudden?
Doctor Who has always had a touch-and-go relationship with the character’s dark side, and its depiction of violence in general. The show was originally conceived in 1963 as a children’s educational program, with The Doctor taking his human companions on a travel through time and space in order to teach them about science and history. So it’s no surprise that the show’s producers originally mandated that they should not feature monsters for The Doctor to fight. Even his most well-known foe, the Daleks, were originally outright rejected. Scheduling issues, however, forced them to produce the only script available to them at the time, which happened to be the rejected script featuring the Daleks, and their ensuing popularity changed the direction of Who forever. There’s still time travel, historical moments and a lot of learning to be had, and it is definitely still trying to be an all-ages family show, but now there’s also freaky alien encounters and space-faring adventure, a model that it continued to improve upon for the next 50 years.
It’s this discrepancy that makes The Doctor, whether intentionally or inadvertantly, a fascinating study of pacifist ideals. Over the years, through various incarnations of The Doctor, we’ve seen him transform from an educator-like old man to a wandering scientist, then a swashbuckler, then a cosmic adventurer, a war veteran, and now fearsome protector of galaxies.
While the threat of violence has reared its head from the very beginning—drama, after all, is sustained by conflict—The Doctor didn’t really begin to add violence to his arsenal until actor Jon Pertwee took over as the Bond-like Third Doctor in 1970 and the show had him reluctantly join a global peacekeeping military outfit called UNIT, actively fighting threats to our planet. The Third Doctor belted out a new ability previously unseen: “Venusian Aikido.”
It’s slightly more effective than Rex Kwon Do.
With a more hands-on Doctor now firmly established, later Doctors show various degrees of willingness to use guns (and their somehow less objectionable futuristic counterparts), but he does make use of them from time to time, bluffing or not. 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.
When the show was essentially rebooted in 2005 after a long hiatus (but with its continuity intact), starring Christopher Eccleston as the Ninth Doctor, showrunner Russell T. Davies invented a clever premise that allowed The Doctor to be both peaceful and a force to be reckoned with.
The Doctor is now the last survivor of a never-seen Time War between his race, the Time Lords, and their greatest enemy the Daleks, that ended only when The Doctor made the hard choice of wiping out both sides. Scarred by his double genocide, Eccleston’s Doctor sported a black leather jacket, a departure from previous Doctors’ suits and coats, to mark a different attitude: dark, haunted, but no longer willing to harm another being (Spacetime PTSD, to put it bluntly). The attitude was tested in the last episode of Eccleston’s first and only season, when The Doctor is confronted once again with the option to save the universe by committing genocide.
It’s because of this that when David Tennant took over the role as the Tenth Doctor, he was more pacifist than ever, a stance made clear numerous times.
Rose: Doctor, they’ve got guns.
The Doctor: And I haven’t. Which makes me the better person, don’t you think? They can shoot me dead, but the moral high-ground is mine!
- “Army of Ghosts”
Colonel Mace: Sorry, have I done something wrong?
The Doctor: You’re carrying a gun. I don’t like people with guns hanging around me, all right?
Colonel Mace: If you insist.
The Doctor: Well, it’s true.
Martha: He’s a good man!
The Doctor: People with guns are usually the enemy in my books.
- “The Sontaran Stratagem”
Wilf: The Master is going to kill you.
The Doctor: Yeah.
Wilf: Then kill him first.
The Doctor: That’s how the Master started. It’s not like I’m an innocent. I’ve taken lives. And I got worse. I got clever. Manipulated people into taking their own. Sometimes I think a Timelord lives too long. I can’t. I just can’t.
Wilf: If The Master dies, what happens to all the people?
The Doctor: I don’t know.
Wilf: Doctor, what happens?
The Doctor: The template snaps.
Wilf: Will they go back to being human? They’re alive and human? Then don’t you dare, sir. Don’t you dare put him before them. Now you take this. That’s an order, Doctor. You take the gun. You take the gun and save your life.
[The Doctor shakes his head no.]
- “The End of Time”
The Doctor’s most famous anti-gun speech comes in “The Doctor’s Daughter.” The whole episode itself is an anti-war statement, with a very Star Trek premise of our heroes being caught in the middle of two warring factions, and The Doctor being imprisoned because of his weak pacifist attitude. When he finally solves the conflict, prompting the two sides to lay down arms, the General of the humans attempts to shoot him, only for Jenny—The Doctor’s cloned daughter introduced only in the episode who also questioned her father’s rejection of weapons—to take the bullet. The Doctor is tempted to return the favor, but delivers his now iconic “I never would” speech instead.
It’s not a shock that Doctor Who resonated with so many during the Tenth Doctor years, being so repelled by violence. It’s an incredibly unique trait for a science-fiction hero—some would even credit it to be the reason for its gigantic and loyal female fanbase. Plenty of superheroes abhor firearms and killing, but most of them still solve problems by throwing fists and boots. Perhaps that’s why the character is so fundamentally tied to its British roots and unlikely to work as an American show (FOX tried and failed, back in the mid-90s). The philosophy of it is as un-American as you can get: Doctor Who is the show where its hero defeats bad guys by being smart, and promotes the idea that running away from a fight is in fact heroic.
As comedian, talk show host and huge fan Craig Ferguson fantastically described it, Doctor Who is “the triumph of intellect and romance over brute force and cynicism.”
Which brings us to the current, Eleventh Doctor…
Tennant’s reign as The Doctor was defined by his humanity. Despite being a centuries-old alien, Tennant played him like a nerdy, cocky, lovelorn man who wears his heart on his sleeve and seems to take it upon himself to be a role model to his friends and others. The fact that he got angry and shouted a lot was also presented as a relatably human personality, prone to barks but rarely bites. Tennant left along with showrunner Russell T. Davies at the end of the fourth season to hand the show over to Steven Moffatt, whose take on The Doctor—now played by Matt Smith—is a little more alien, and as such, a little less burdened by responsibility. Almost an inverse of his predecessor, this version of The Doctor is capable of very questionable acts, yet behaves like a naive child playing with toys, which makes him all the more dangerous. His companions, married couple Amy and Rory Pond, are written to function as surrogate parents who are tasked to reign him in.
This new outlook is established in Smith’s very first episode. “Run” has been The Doctor’s catchphrase for a long time, which perfectly highlights his non-confrontational nature, always preferring flight over fight, but under Moffat’s pen, that one word has become a warning instead. The first time we see Smith’s Doctor in action, he turns away an entire alien fleet just by introducing himself.
The Doctor: But you’re not the first lot to have come here. Oh, there have been so many. And what you’ve got to ask is, what happened to them?
Hello. I’m The Doctor. Basically… Run.
- “The Eleventh Hour”
This sets a precedent for the two seasons that follow: The Eleventh Doctor is brash and overconfident, knowing that he’s able to scare thousands of his enemies simply by reputation.
Of course, the hubris also makes him more ruthless than the Tenth Doctor. Alarmingly so. The sixth season opening two-parter “The Impossible Astronaut / Day of the Moon” has him hypnotizing the whole world to subconsciously shoot the villains on sight for generations to come. The moment is presented as a triumphant victory for planet Earth, but it is essentially The Doctor forcing people to become killers in order to massacre an alien race, bad as they may be. A far cry from the guy who would seek a peaceful resolution even if it means his death.
He also doesn’t seem to mind people with guns anymore, or at least finds ways to justify them. He is friends with Winston Churchill and answered his call for help during World War II, upgrading British WWII fighter planes to be able to fight battles in space. The episode “A Good Man Goes to War” tried to address this directly. The Doctor enlisted the help of various warriors throughout time and space to wage a personal war against evil religious order The Silence after they had kidnapped Amy. He danced and whirled around joyously and victoriously even as people are dying and spaceships are exploding, only to insist differently at the end of the episode.
The Doctor: You think I wanted this? I didn’t do this! This — This wasn’t me!
River Song: This was exactly you. All this, all of it. You make them so afraid. When you began, all those years ago, sailing off to see the universe, did you ever think you’d become this? The man who can turn an army around at the mention of his name? Doctor: the word for healer and wise man throughout the universe. We get that word from you, you know. But if you carry on the way you are, what might that word come to mean? To the people of the Gamma Forests, the word “Doctor” means “mighty warrior.” How far you’ve come. And now they’ve taken a child. The child of your best friends. And they’re going to turn her into a weapon, just to bring you down. And all this, my love, in fear of you.
- “A Good Man Goes to War”
Though we are only three episodes into the 7th season, it doesn’t seem like The Doctor’s attitude has improved all that much, despite River’s reprimand.
Spoilers for current episodes ahead.
In “Asylum of the Daleks,” The Doctor doesn’t show any concern towards the Daleks destroying an entire asylum planet full of deficient versions of them, including ones converted from humans. In “Dinosaurs on a Spaceship,” he befriends a man with a big gun, seemingly for no reason other than because he’s a big game hunter-adventurer and he needs those skill-sets.
As mentioned at the beginning, the episode ended with a particularly nasty turn: The Doctor, repulsed by the villain’s cruel and lecherous actions, sentences him to death by diverting self-defense missiles to the villain’s ship, then saunters off happy as usual.
Though the episode doesn’t turn it into a big deal, this is a pretty huge turning point for The Doctor. This is him killing a man not via collateral damage, not in self-defense, not to save the universe, not to save anybody, and not even to make an example out of it. This is him deciding that this one lonely, disabled man who he has already beaten, who he can just as easily let go to wallow in defeat, deserves to be punished for his actions and that the fitting punishment is a violent death. This is The Doctor committing murder. This is The Doctor denying his enemy mercy.
Which, of course, is why the episode that follows it is “A Town Called Mercy.”
After condemning yet another criminal to his death and getting into an argument with Amy about it, The Doctor for the first time voices the reason for his new gladiatorial attitude.
Amy: This is not how we roll, and you know it. What’s happened to you, Doctor? When did killing someone become an option?
The Doctor: Jex has to answer for his crimes.
Amy: And what then? Are you going to hunt down everyone who’s made a gun, or a bullet, or a bomb?
The Doctor: But they keep coming back! Don’t you see? Every time I negotiate, I try to understand. Well, not today. No, today I honor the victims first. His, the Master’s, the Daleks’, and all the people who died because of my mercy!
- “A Town Called Mercy”
It was a risky thing to do. Steven Moffat, or the show, risked turning off fans by presenting The Doctor so disconcertingly and not explicitly let on that they did so for a purpose.
Doctor Who has done quite a number of complex characterizations before, but it’s primarily a family show that’s not usually the outlet for this kind of moral grey area examination (Russell T. Davies created the adult spin-off Torchwood for that reason). When it does, it’s usually a one-off episode, like the very Twilight Zone-inspired “Midnight.” What’s different about this is that it’s a multi-episode storyline focusing on a specific character development that’s being told gradually in chapters.
They’re basically addressing previous concerns for The Doctor’s inconsistent behavior not by dialing it back to acceptable levels, but by stretching it to breaking point. The Doctor is going to go to a very dark spot, before he can come back again. Despite the outright acknowledgement in this latest episode, the issue is far from resolved, and The Doctor is most likely still clinging onto his rebuttal to Amy’s scolding. His mercy is still missing, and what does that say about what the show is about now?
With only two episodes (plus a Christmas Special) left for this year, and the Ponds departing, it’s going to be interesting to see if a big change is coming for The Doctor. In “Mercy,” Amy points out that this is what happens when The Doctor is left alone for too long. Of course, there’s already a replacement companion waiting, as there always is with the show, but how will losing Amy and Rory—his parental figures, as previously mentioned—affect The Doctor? Will next year’s half of the season sees him radically reconsidering his violent outbursts, or will it be The Doctor fully unleashed, and it’s up to the new companion to subdue him?
Who will be the one to run?