Imagining Non-Violence: Doctor Who

[Content Warning: Spoilers!]

“Never cruel, never cowardly. Never give up, never give in.”

-The Doctor (The Day of the Doctor)

This is the commitment that defines the Doctor, the titular protagonist of the long-running British sci-fi serial drama, “Doctor Who.” While the Doctor has changed over his half-century run on television, with the character literally transforming through “regeneration” each time a new actor takes on the role, the Doctor has continued to be an advocate for non-violence and an ethic of care. A hero who strives to resolve conflict and problems without using weapons or other forms of direct violence is, unfortunately, rare among action-oriented television and cinema. While Batman beats his enemies into submission and James bond uses bullets and explosions, the Doctor often confronts entire armies bent on genocide with little more than a screwdriver and his wits.

Vincent: You’re not armed.  The Doctor: I am…with overconfidence and a small screwdriver. I’m absolutely sorted. (Vincent and the Doctor)

Before we shout “allons-y” and jump into Doctor Who further, let’s take a step back for a moment to consider why having stories with pacifist heroes might be important.

The Subjugated Knowledge of Pacifism

Tilly Reeves-O’Toole, one of my colleagues at the National Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies, recently presented a paper detailing her analysis of the 2015 British House of Commons debate concerning military intervention in Syria (“The Subjugation of Pacifism in Parliamentary Discourse,” 2018). Despite decades of failed military intervention in the Middle-East, political debates about how to respond to conflict and violence persist in framing these debates as a false dilemma between inaction or violent military intervention. Reeves-O’Toole identifies this problem as being representative of what Richard Jackson theorizes as the subjugation of pacifism in public discourse. This means that pacifist alternatives to military violence are not considered, as they are imagined or described as unacceptable or unthinkable (Jackson, 2017).

Interestingly, as Reeves-O’Toole explains, the way we tell the story of pacifism in our discussions often has very little to do with what pacifists actually advocate. Instead, pacifists are portrayed as passive, self-righteous, or extreme in ways that somehow makes them dangerous or threatening. Upon reflection, this image is an oxymoron and incoherent; pacifists are both radically dangerous and passively weak. This actually embodies a common way we perceive a group that has been made into an unfamiliar other, as they become a foil for the virtues we believe ourselves to embody they transform into something both more and less than ourselves. Many things inform this narrative, but it isn’t hard to see that many of the stories we tell ourselves center heroes that are able to use violence to resolve a problem or defeat the bad guy. If we want to make non-violence something we can think in response to the conflicts in our world, we need stories that make it possible for us to imagine it. This is why the Doctor, as a fictional hero in an action-oriented series, is interesting and worth conversation.

The Doctor: I think we should try much older weapons…Speech. Diplomacy…Conversation. (The Hand of Fear)

1: I am the Doctor. 2: Doctor? Doctor who?

First appearing on television screens in 1963, “Doctor Who” follows the adventures of the Doctor, an alien with a human appearance from the planet of Gallifrey. He has a vessel, known as the T.A.R.D.I.S. (Time And Relative Dimension In Space), which can travel in both time and space. The TARDIS also happens to look like an old, blue British Police Box due to a malfunctioning camouflage circuit. The Doctor often travels through time and space with companions, who often serve as an audience stand-in to ask the questions that allow the Doctor to explain what is going on whenever they encounter some new alien or monster. During these adventures, they inevitably stumble upon some form of trouble or danger, which then helps drive the plot as we uncover a new mystery or watch as the Doctor struggles to save those endangered by a conflict.

A madman in a blue box

A unique ability that the Doctor has as a Time Lord / Time Lady, the name for the people of Gallifrey, is the capacity to “regenerate” when facing imminent death. Instead of dying, a Time Lord releases a special energy that transforms their cellular structure, helping them recover from fatal injuries and disease, while also undergoing a change in appearance and personality. In the case of the Doctor, this has allowed for at least 14 different actors and actresses to play the character, with the Doctor regenerating into a new appearance each time. Most recently, after Peter Capaldi stepped down from the role, the Doctor regenerated into a Time Lady, with Jodie Whittaker now playing the role and using she / her pronouns. To clarify, I will mostly continue using he / him pronouns in this essay to refer to the Doctor, but only because the specific stories I’ll be referencing occurred during periods where men played the role and the Doctor identified with male pronouns. All that said, despite changes in gender, wardrobe, food preferences, and personality characteristics, the Doctor’s pacifist principles, lust for adventure, and intelligence remain a constant.

“Legs. Still got legs, good!! Arms. Hands. Ooh, fingers. Lots of fingers. Ears, yes. Eyes, two. Nose, I’ve had worse. Chin, blimey. Hair. I’m a girl! No. No, I’m not a girl. And still not a ginger!” The 11th Doctor after regeneration (The End of Time)

An important thing to consider when discussing fictional characters as “pacifists” is to recognize that non-violence, like violence, can be a matter of degree and may be portrayed differently by different characters. The idea that there are diverse ways for a person to pursue non-violence may be hard to picture, but consider that we already recognize the complexities and subtle differences between the ways violence might be used. Consider one of the main conflicts in Netflix’s Daredevil series during the second season, when Daredevil and the Punisher encounter each other. The Punisher uses ruthless, extreme, lethal violence to address problems, often employing guns and explosives. Daredevil, on the other hand, only uses martial arts to incapacitate his opponents, refusing to kill even the most dangerous people. Both of these heroes use violence, but they use different degrees of violence and in different ways to engage with the conflicts they face. And both of them are further differentiated from the indiscriminate violence of the enemies faced during that season.

For this same reason, keep in mind that the examples discussed show us specific, but different ways that the Doctor has performed pacifism at different times. The various incarnations of the Doctor have pursued this in different and sometimes inconsistent ways, so each version is not supposed to represent a single, monolithic ideology of “pacifism,” but rather the diversity of pacifisms that we can imagine in our stories.

Is Pacifism a Passivism?

A common misrepresentation of pacifism and non-violence is that it is equivalent to being passive, or not taking action, in the face of violence and conflict. This is deeply misleading, as pacifism is actually a mode of action defined by employing non-violent forms of activism rather than the absence of action. This is obvious if we consider two of the world’s most famous non-violence practitioners, Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. We see that their entire careers were defined by finding ways to resist and end violence and oppression through methods that refused to propagate further violence.

This idea is embedded in the very meaning of the Doctor’s name. It has been revealed that “the Doctor” was not his given name, but a name he took for himself in the form of a promise. The commitment it embodied was finally explained during the 50th anniversary special, “The Day of the Doctor,” by the quote at the top of this essay, “Never cruel, never cowardly. Never give up, never give in.” These principles are on full display in one of my favorite episodes, “The Doctor’s Daughter.”

In this episode, the Doctor and his companions find themselves in the middle of a war between humans and an alien race of fish-people, the Hath. Rather than stand by as these two groups fight and kill each other, the Doctor responds in a number of ways. We see in the first battle that he tries to provide medical attention to a fallen soldier. Later on, he searches for ways to understand the causes driving the battle between these two groups which originally came to the planet they are on in order to colonize it together. Throughout the episode, he continues time and time again to persuade the soldiers to stop fighting and creates opportunities to bring the two sides together to figure out a way to make peace. He is never passive throughout the episode, and finds ways to be pro-active in preventing further violence when he can.

The Doctor: “We’re unarmed. Look, no weapons, never any weapons. We’re safe.” (The Doctor’s Daughter)

This is brought out fully into the open as the Doctor discusses what it means to be a pacifist, rather than a militarist, with his eponymous daughter. His daughter is born during this episode after the human army takes a tissue sample from the doctor and uses a machine that recombines the DNA to form a new genetic code, accelerates the growth of the lifeform that develops, and imprints them with military knowledge and skills. The Doctor’s daughter emerges already a young woman from the machine, a soldier ready to fight on the side of the humans. The Doctor, though hesitant at first, gradually helps persuade her to see that there are more options for responding to a problem than just violence, and even inspires her to find non-violent ways to collaborate with the two sides to build a better world.

The conflict of the episode comes to a head when the Doctor brings the humans and the Hath together at “the Source,” a lost piece of terraforming technology that the ancestors of both sides brought with them in order to colonize the planet together. While the soldier of both sides had presumed it was a weapon they could use to defeat the other side, the Doctor explains that it is the opposite of a weapon – bringing life instead of killing life – and that by working together they can build a vibrant world that can support all of them. The general of the humans, who refuses to make peace with the Hath, attempts to shoot the Doctor. The Doctor’s daughter jumps in front of the bullet, dying in the Doctor’s arms. Furious, the Doctor charges up to the general, who has now been detained by the other soldiers. He picks up the gun and points it at the general’s face, then flips it around and tosses it to the side, declaring, “I never would, you got that? I never would. When you start this new world, this world of human and Hath, remember that! Make the foundation of this society a man that never would!”

This story shows us a way that the Doctor practices pacifism according to his promise. We see him choose to act, facing down a battlefield without picking up a single weapon, and yet striving to understand and make peace between the two sides of this war. In this, he refuses to act in a way that is cruel, by being violent, or cowardly, by not helping. And despite how hopeless things appear at times, such as when he is locked in a jail cell by the human general because he views the Doctor as a dangerous pacifist, he doesn’t give up in his quest to save his friends’ lives or to resolve the conflict. Lastly, he never gives in to the temptation to respond with violence or to give in to the false dilemma those around him try to force him to accept. Instead, he shows a new world that there are ways to create peace by peaceful means and ends a war with a single act.

The Doctor: “I declare that this war is over!” (The Doctor’s Daughter)

Is Pacifism an Extreme?

“I will do everything I can to stop my party becoming the vanguard of an angry, intolerant pacifism which…will ultimately say no to any military intervention.”

-John Woodcock during 2015 parliamentary debate (As quoted in Reeves-O’Toole, 2018)

Reeves-O’Toole drew my attention to this quote by a British member of parliament that really draws out the silliness of the rhetoric used to describe pacifism as something “extreme” or radical (2018). It’s hard to wrap one’s head around what he could even mean by a “vanguard of an angry, intolerant pacifism.” It does illustrate a broader theme that often emerges in these discussions: the idea that pacifists are extreme in the sense that they are inflexible or absolutist in their positions. This means they have already prejudged the situation, and will refuse to act, even if it allows others to die or suffer.

The Doctor’s practice of pacifism is interesting in this respect, because he is definitely not an absolutist despite his strong pacifist commitments. One way we see this play out repeatedly is his refusal to carry or use guns. Instead, the Doctor usually relies upon his cleverness and his trusty sonic screwdriver to solve problems. This means that rather than respond to his opponents with violence, he often works to out-think and out-tinker them to foil their schemes. For those unfamiliar, the sonic screwdriver functions almost like a magic wand, allowing the Doctor to pick locks or modify a device simply by pointing the sonic screwdriver at it. That is, unless the lock or device is made of wood, because the sonic still doesn’t have a “wood” setting after all these years.

War Doctor to 10th and 11th Doctors: “Why are you pointing your screwdrivers like that? They’re scientific instruments, not water pistols.” (The Day of the Doctor)

While the sonic is handy, it can’t solve all problems, unfortunately. A situation where it sometimes comes up short is when he is facing the Daleks, an alien race that is as powerful as the Time Lords, but has a genocidal ideology of eliminating any non-Dalek species. In one of the earliest adventures of the Doctor, we encounter the Daleks for the first time and discover that they have been genetically engineered and encased in robotic battle armor to survive their war with fellow inhabitants on their home-planet of Skaro. Over the course of the show’s history though, the Daleks grow in power and violence, eventually going to war with the Time Lords and invading any planet where they can find an alien species to “EXTERMINATE.”

Dalek: “Pity? I have no understanding of the word. It is not registered in my vocabulary bank. EXTERMINATE!” (Genesis of the Daleks)

This often leaves the Doctor with few options. He always begins by trying to persuade the Daleks not to pursue violence, and tries to help them find another course of action. Trying to persuade a genocidal species that has been genetically engineered not to understand empathy, compassion, or humor is challenging, but not always impossible. In the two-episode story, “Daleks in Manhattan” and “Evolution of the Daleks,” the Daleks realize that their rigid, authoritarian, hateful ideology has limited them, making it impossible for them to adapt and survive. Even though the Time War between the Daleks and the Time Lords led to the destruction of the Doctor’s entire home planet, and the death of every other Time Lord, he accepts the offer they give him to try to help their species have a another chance. They are engaged in a genetic experiment to create Dalek-human hybrids to help restore individuality and empathy to their species. By helping them, the Doctor even manages to convince their leader, Dalek Sec, to create a new Dalek society capable of living in peace with the rest of the species in the universe. Unfortunately, the other Daleks turn against their leader, believing that his new hybrid “impurities” have made him inferior, and they turn on the Doctor.

Unfortunately, there have been many times when the Doctor has been left with few options when faced with an army of Daleks. In “The Parting of the Ways,” the Doctor is trapped in a space station with an entire Dalek army approaching Earth with the goal of killing every human being on the planet. He first attempts every non-violent and less violent option he can think of to stop them, but they all fail and he is left with only one plan he can think of. This plan is to create a device out of the technology on the space station to send out a special wave that will kill every sentient being in the blast radius, including the Daleks, himself, and millions of humans. It appears though that he has been left with a choice between either letting the Daleks commit genocide against every human on Earth or saving billions by killing millions. We see here that though the Doctor’s commitments are still his guiding principle, he is not absolute or inflexible, and believes there might be times when there are no “good” choices left when passivity in the face of genocide is the only choice left. Admittedly, despite preparing this weapon, when the Dalek army finally arrives and the device is ready, the Doctor realizes that by committing genocide himself he will become like the Daleks, and refuses to trigger the device.

Luckily, we learn that there were options that even the Doctor didn’t think of, and this is why part of his strength as a hero comes from the friends he travels with. His companion at the time, Rose, has been inspired by the Doctor to never give up and never give in, and she thinks of something completely different – she convinces the TARDIS to let her look into the Time Vortex, the source of its ability to travel in time. Infused with its power, she travels back to the time when the Doctor is fighting the Dalek army, and saves the lives of every person on the space station while disintegrating the Dalek army. Though she still uses violence in this moment, we are shown that there are always more options availabel to us, and that we should at least search for the less extreme and less violent options whenever we can.

Beware the big, Bad Wolf

Is Pacifism only for the perfect?

The last theme that Reeve-O’Toole identifies that I would like to examine is the misconception that pacifism is unrealistically idealistic or self-righteous and judgmental (2018). A key element of the Doctor as a character is his commitment to helping everyone realize their potential to be better, representing a belief that non-violence is something anyone is capable of. There are entire years within the story that he sacrifices in order to try to persuade and save even his most dangerous and violent antagonists, hoping to still inspire them to pursue a different course. The reason he probably believes this is because he recognizes he is far from perfect and has failed to live up to his own standards at times, yet still think it’s worth re-committing himself to them every time.

A good example of the humbleness of the Doctor’s pacifism comes from the episode, “A Good Man Goes to War.” The Doctor is attempting to rescue his friend Amy Pond and her daughter from a militaristic religious group known as the Silence. They are being held on a well-armed space station by Madame Kovarian, one of the leaders of the Silence. With the help of a diverse group of allies he has befriended, and some careful planning, the Doctor is able to capture the entire space station in three minutes and forty-two seconds without killing a single person. This leads to a confrontation with Madame Kovarian saying, in response to the Doctor’s demand that she order her army to stand down, “The anger of a good man is not a problem. Good men have too many rules.” The Doctor replies, “Good men don’t need rules. Today is not the day to find out why I have so many.”

This sums up nicely this often misunderstood aspect of non-violence. People don’t need to promise not to do something they are not capable of. After all, since I am not a bird, I don’t need to promise that I won’t fly away by flapping my wings. Pacifism is not a personality type, but a commitment, a promise that recognizes we are all capable of violence, but that we should strive to find ways to non-violently resolve our conflicts. The Doctor has at times failed to live up to his promise and recognizes that he is as capable as anyone of violence. Despite this, he commits himself over and over to non-violence, striving to be better. As the 12th Doctor said on many occasions, the problem with violence is that it is “easy,” and it is much harder to be kind in the face of conflict. The Doctor doesn’t choose his actions based on whether they are hard or easy though, he chooses his actions because they are kind, inspiring us to imagine that we too are capable of the hard choices because they are the right ones.

The Doctor: Nothing’s impossible. There’s always an answer if you can find it.  Jo: Yeah, such as?  The Doctor: Well, that’s the trouble, finding it.

Finding Inspiration in Doctor Who

Doctor Who has captured audiences for generations now, in part because it empowers us to imagine that we are capable of so much more. This is the ultimate power of the Doctor, as he journeys through the universe, he inspires his companions and the people he encounters to think bigger and realize that life is never so small as small-minded people say it is. These stories help us see that kindness can be brought to bear even in the middle of a war and that bravery doesn’t mean shooting a gun. Instead, we are left knowing that maybe we too, some day, might be capable of winning the day through wits and compassion, rather than violence and cruelty.

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Works Cited

[All photos are owned by the BBC and Doctor Who, and are borrowed for fair use educational purposes from the BBC and TARDIS Data Core Wiki project.]

Reeves-O’Toole, T. 2018, The Subjugation of Pacifism in Parliamentary Discourse, Dunedin: NCPACS Centre Research Seminar, 2018

Jackson, R. 2017, Pacifism: the anatomy of a subjugated knowledge, Taylor & Francis

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