3. YOU AND YOUR LITTLE BLUE BOX
I feel slightly guilty at confessing that two of the best punch-the-air moments for me in recent seasons have been the Doctor finding himself on the receiving end of a bitchy put-down by a gun-toting soldier.
I know that we’re supposed to be 100% behind the Doctor’s aversion to guns but there have been several occasions in New Who where this supposed pacifism has verged on moral cowardice. The Doctor telling a bunch of horribly-beweaponed invading aliens that he refuses to fire back even if he loses his life as a result is an admirable example of the Doctor standing up for his principles. Unfortunately, it usually ends up being the Doctor telling the bunch of horribly-beweaponed aliens that he refuses to fire back, no matter how many other people lose their lives as a result.
The first time this happens in New Who, I’m all in favour of it. The Ninth Doctor’s line “Coward, any day” in Parting of the Ways is one of the best bits of Series One. Indeed, it could be seen as the climax of the Doctor’s emotional journey in Series One out of the trauma resulting from having taken the “killer” decision once already at the end of the Time War. Admittedly, it’s not a choice between saving humanity or allowing it to be wiped out, but a choice between wiping out humanity or allowing them to be turned into Daleks which isn’t quite so clear cut a choice. But, even if he is allowing his personal doubts to prevent him making the best decision here, who cares? The moment itself is so great that who cares if it doesn’t stand up to deep scrutiny. That moment is redolent of so much of the emotion of that season and so much of a stand against the “look what huge guns we have” solutions of Battlenoir Galactica and its ilk that the act of “cowardice” itself becomes a punch-the-air moment.
Things start to go downhill in David Tennant’s era. Let’s leave aside all the posturing nonsense in The Doctor’s Daughter where the Time Lord who habitually strews death left, right and centre as he strolls through the cosmos has the nerve to describe himself as “a man who never would” on the basis that, while he may well wipe out your civilisation by taking out your sun, at least he never carries a revolver.
In The Sontaran Stratagem, I was pretty appalled by the Tenth Doctor’s hysterical snarling at UNIT’s inoffensive (almost limp-wristedly so) Colonel Mace within five minutes of meeting him to “gerraway from me, you dirty gun-carrying gun-carrier, you” (I may be paraphrasing his exact words). At least when the Third Doctor made anti-militaristic points (usually while UNIT troops were being slaughtered to protect him), he restricted himself to being amusedly patronising: “Well, Brigadier, are you ready to play at soldiers again?” In the pre-1989 days, there seemed to be a recognition that non-violence may be the Doctor’s preference but that, as he ended most stories by killing the baddies, it would be silly to push it further than that.
When did the Doctor’s distaste for violence get reduced to the level of student agitprop? It probably dates from the end of The Christmas Invasion where RTD’s attempt at a Belgrano analogy had all the subtlety and historical understanding of a Sun editorial. Despite having worn a gun all his career, poor Colonel Mace, like most soldiers, may never have shot or killed anybody in his life. And he’s being treated like dirt by Doctor Ten-Genocides-A-Year.
Maybe this is what’s truly questionable about the modern Doctor’s attitude to violence. In what we’ve been shown of the Doctor’s moral code since 2005, it’s not that killing aliens is banned, it’s just that only the Doctor is allowed to do it. So, when a fleet of alien battleships appears in the sky, humanity must lay down its arms, bend over and spread its bumcheeks in trusting welcome on the off-chance that this latest visitor might be the first alien race in forty-odd years to be visiting Earth purely for tourism. If this ends in the deaths of lots of those humans, then the Doctor may deign to step in. Apart from the godlike arrogance of this, it presents a plotting problem as it draws unwelcome attention to the remarkable coincidence of the Doctor always being there to save the Earth from alien invasion, a glaring plot device which is much better glossed over lightly. A gag about milk makes a great perception filter.
Luckily, the good colonel gets to fight back with a rousing lock-n-load speech in The Poison Sky about humanity not surrendering to any passing alien with a grudge. Is this meant to be in part a dig at the Doctor who is, after all, the alien with an inexplicable grudge against UNIT?
This curious moral arrogance on the Doctor’s part rears its head again in the Human Nature/Family of Blood two-parter. The whole plot rests on the Doctor’s motives for hiding from the Family. It can’t be fear as the story ends with the Doctor doing his “Look at me, I’m a vengeful god in trainers” thing while imprisoning the Family for eternity. What a pity that he couldn’t have imprisoned them somewhere nice at the start until they were no longer a danger. His decision to hide can only be that he didn’t want to kill them. And look how many people have to die as a result.
Then we come to the Time of Angels/Flesh and Stone two-parter. I’d expected that Matt Smith’s Doctor would be less arrogant than his predecessor. Interestingly, many have commented how quickly Matt Smith slipped into the role, given that this was the first story he shot. Maybe the writing team didn’t slip quite as quickly into things because his initial series of catty digs at the Church in the hearing of a group of men who are braving danger in a good cause just as much as he is seems both uncalled for and very un-Eleventh Doctorish. Unless it was intentionally a hangover from the Tenth Doctor’s character. Or, even worse, maybe all the anti-Church digs were scripted for no other reason than to allow the put-down. If so, that’s not my favourite sort of writing, creating situations purely to allow a good line of dialogue.
The Doctor may have a problem with the institution of the 51st century Church but Father Octavian and his merry men are clearly goodies here. What exactly has Octavian done to deserve being called an idiot in front of his men by someone too busy making cracks about Virginia Woolf’s bowling team to notice the blindingly obvious issue of the one-headed statues?
The brilliant Octavian fares much better than Colonel Mace at the hands of the scriptwriters and gets to deliver a really crushing and well-deserved put-down: “And when you’ve flown away in your little blue box, I’ll explain that to their families.” A hit. A very palpable hit.
Seriously, how many people have to die to facilitate the post-2005 Doctor’s need to posture as “the man who never would”? A pose somewhat at odds with his actual kill total over the years. How many alien invasions does the Earth have to endure before the Doctor accepts that maybe, just maybe, we might have the right to shoot back at aliens shooting as us? I have no problem at all with the Doctor refusing to have anything to do with guns – it’s always been one of the best aspects of the show – I do have a problem with the superior lectures to lesser breeds without a sonic screwdriver to save their day.
I should perhaps close by pointing out that I’ve never actually punched-the-air at anything in my life. My usual reaction to a deeply satisfying emotional moment is to raise one eyebrow a quarter-inch and take a restorative sip of the Vital Oolong. But then I am British.