Written for Time to celebrate last November’s 50th anniversary of Doctor Who, and left unpublished for reasons too ridiculous and complicated to get into.
At one point in Russell T. Davies’ wonderful The Writer’s Tale, a book about his creative process during his final two years as Doctor Who showrunner, he writes “Four years in, and I’ve rarely resorted to the Doctor or companion having to clobber someone unconscious. I’m sort of proud of that, though it does write me into corners. When trapped with a guard, I much prefer to write some sort of distraction – then run! Idiots punch. And punches can kill. Oh, listen to me.”
In that short excerpt lies the heart of Doctor Who in many ways (Not least of which the self-conscious “Oh, listen to me” after making the serious point about the unintended impact — pun not intended — that violence can have; Who has always been a show that undercut its potential preachiness with humor. How stereotypically British, some would say).
That pride in the show’s pacifist stance obviously continued after Davies left the show, if last weekend’s 50th anniversary episode, “The Day of the Doctor,” is anything to go by. That episode, after all, not only investigated what happened when the Doctor surrendered his pacifism in favor of a more violent solution — a final solution, if you will — to war, but the price paid for those actions and what it meant to him moving forward.
Pacifism has always been, after all, what separates the Doctor — and Doctor Who as a whole — from other fictional heroes and stories, especially in genre material. It makes sense why fighting is so common elsewhere; it’s externalizes the conflict necessary to good drama and is, ultimately, exciting to the viewer. Star Wars just sounds exciting from its title alone, and even on Star Trek, the viewer recognized the stakes were raised whenever the order was given to fire phasers.
The Doctor is different, and intentionally so. Throughout his many incarnations (Peter Capaldi, who takes over the role at Christmas will be the thirteenth actor to play the character), only one — the rogue “War Doctor” of the anniversary special, played by John Hurt — has preferred to engage violence directly as opposed to trying to outwit or simply run away from his enemies.
In part, I’ve always put that down to the series’ origins as children’s television, and the oft-repeated advice you receive as a child that bullies should be “stood up to” without violence per se, with the implied bravery in doing so forcing them to back down. The Doctor, then, becomes an analog for the viewer with the Daleks, Zygons or whatever other creature of the week transformed into whatever threat the audience requires them to be at the time. The unstated lesson being, You’re okay: If he can handle this, you can handle anything.
Other pop culture heroes fulfill some level of wish-fulfillment or another, but the Doctor is one of the few heroes who comes across as genuinely aspirational for viewers. Perhaps more importantly, he’s also one of very few characters specifically created with that goal in mind that ended up successful enough to stick around for decades. True, the Doctor may be an alien in the mythology of the series, but somehow he remains less “other” as, say, James Bond, Indiana Jones or even Batman, with his defining qualities being ones that can be more easily assumed by fans than any of those other heroes.
Admittedly, yes, Doctor Who is a sci-fi show that deals with all manner of fantastical elements on weekly basis, but the lead character’s identifying characteristics remain theoretically attainable for the audience: Curiosity, good humor, and intelligence. That’s it; that’s what “makes” the Doctor. You can take him out of the TARDIS and strip him of his sonic screwdriver, and he remains just as heroic — and, arguably, just as potent a character — as he would be otherwise. He doesn’t need a lifetime of training, any life-changing tragedy or a particular ability (or superpower!) to do what he does. He just needs to have the right attitude.
This is also the purpose of the companion, to an extent — more often than not, they’re everyday characters like the viewers who survive and thrive through the storylines because of sharing the Doctor’s attitude towards everything: Ask questions, remain open to possibilities and don’t give in to your worst instincts.
That optimism and embrace of what could be out there — instead of treating the same with fear or suspicion — is what has kept Doctor Who alive in the hearts of fans and viewers for five decades now. What “The Day of the Doctor” did was to spotlight the kindness and possibility at the heart of the character, and reinforce what makes him at once so unique within the fictional space and so inspirational out here in the real world. Happy Birthday, Doctor. May you keep inspiring for another 50 years.