So…I may have a problem buying sonic screwdrivers. I’m not going to say how much I’ve spent but I will openly say I’ve purchased eight. But they’re worth it because I almost always have one on me and I almost always point them at any light as I turn it on or off. Regardless of the financial cost, my life is obviously immeasurably better being able to do this. On more than one occasion, while waving a sonic around at work, a student has asked if it was a lightsaber (an understandable mistake as a) Doctor Who isn’t as big in America as Star Wars and b) they know I love Star Wars). I explain that, no, it isn’t a lightsaber. It’s much better. A lightsaber is a weapon, the sonic screwdriver a tool. One has the potential to dismember and kill (which it’s often used for); the other to analyze, augment, and repair (which it’s always used for). When it comes to heroes, I’ll take the Doctor over the Jedi ten times out of ten. Early this schoolyear a student posed a question – If I had to pick just one fictional universe to enjoy for the rest of my life would I choose Marvel, Star Wars, or Doctor Who? The answer was surprisingly simple. There are many reasons I’d choose Doctor Who but the most important is the way the Doctor moves through space and time, always modeling an ethic of kindness and sowing the seeds of hope across creation.
Lots of our heroes can be kind and lots of our heroes can bring hope. I’d argue all our best ones do in their better moments. But the Doctor is unique. Steven Moffatt, the Doctor Who showrunner for Series 5-10, frames it like this:
“When they made this particular hero, they didn’t give him a gun — they gave him a screwdriver to fix things. They didn’t give him a tank or a warship or an X-wing fighter — they gave him a call box from which you can call for help. And they didn’t give him a superpower or pointy ears or a heat ray — they gave him an extra heart. They gave him two hearts. And that’s an extraordinary thing. There will never come a time when we don’t need a hero like the Doctor.”
While Doctor Who first aired 23 November 1963, the Doctor has always moved outside the traditional postmodern paradigm. Postmodernity arose in the wake of World War II, an intellectual framework characterized by skepticism, irony, and a deep mistrust of metanarratives (any large, overarching story that explains how things are). This led to a sharp challenge to any claim of objective/universal truth, morality, human nature, etc. based on the understanding that all knowledge claims and value systems are wholly contingent on the social structures that birthed and shaped them. While scholars have yet to settle on a name (is it Post-Postmodernism? Metamodernism? Digimodernism?), the general agreement is that we’ve moved beyond the Postmodern Age. Cultural theorists Timotheus Vermeulen and Robin van den Akker, who coined the term “Metamodernism,” assert this era’s left postmodern relativism behind for, “a post-ideological condition that stresses engagement, affect, and storytelling…[embracing] doubt, as well as hope and melancholy, sincerity and irony, affect and apathy, the personal and the political, and technology and…knowingness.” It should be no surprise a character who travels in time fits more comfortably in the philosophical era after their creation ;D.
Far from embracing a moral relativism, the Doctor adheres to the same ethic no matter where they land in all of space and time. Granted, there are times they must violate their ethic, but those moments are few and far between, leaving the Doctor haunted by regret long after those actions have been taken. A quick note on terms, an ethic is when one’s decisions are shaped by personal reflection and born of their values, principles, and process while morality is a system one relies on, shaped by family and/or community and/or culture to guide what one should do. As the Doctor’s actions are guided by their own values, principles, and process over and above any communal system – Gallifrey’s included – I’ll speak of the Doctor’s ethic and not their morals. Wherever the Doctor goes, whatever they may encounter when they arrive, the Doctor operates within the same universally applied ethic. I’d define the cornerstones of the Doctor’s ethic as follows:
1) Celebrate the beauty of all creation.
2) Honor all life by operating with nonviolence.
3) Offer forgiveness.
4) See potential.
5) Be kind.
To live this way the Doctor must be grounded in hope. Discussing the erosion of our “deep symbols” in postmodern society, theologian Edward Farley writes, “Hope has little place in the way postmodern society confronts problems or understands the world. What makes more sense in such a world is planning, organizing, and predicting….[yet my] act of hope, my hopeful disposition, so orients me to action that my future is reshaped, and in some sense the kingdom of God comes. For only acting changes the future, and to act, one must hope.” It should be no surprise then, when questioned by the Tsuranga’s medic Mabli whether or not she’s a doctor of medicine, the Thirteenth Doctor replies, “Well medicine, science, engineering, candyfloss, LEGO, philosophy, music, problems, people, hope. Mostly hope.” Fearful of the situation they’re in, Mabli replies, “I’m struggling to see much hope here.” The Doctor tells her, “It doesn’t just offer itself up you have to use your imagination. Imagine the solution and work to make it reality. Whole worlds pivot on acts of imagination.” She gets it. The Doctor understands. Only acting changes the future, and to act, one must hope.
The Doctor is certainly a being of action :). As Donna explains to Jenny, the daughter spontaneously created from the Doctor via genetic transfer on Messaline, “He saves planets, rescues civilizations, defeats terrible creatures. And runs a lot. Seriously, there is an outrageous amount of running involved.” Wherever the Doctor runs, through all 695 classic episodes and all 166 (and counting!) current episodes of Doctor Who (not to mention hundreds of audio dramas, novels, comics, cartoons and specials), their ethic guides their actions – and that is as beautiful as it is inspiring.
Celebrate the beauty of all creation.
No matter where they are, no matter what they are facing, no matter how many ways an individual creature or organism or machine may be able to eat, destroy, or dismember them, the Doctor always marvels at its beauty. The Doctor’s first glimpse of something new never yields fear or disgust or even trepidation. When the Doctor encounters menacing Clockwork Droids, for example, from the year 5,037 stalking Jeanne-Antoinette Poisson (Reinette, to her friends) the Madame de Pompadour through the 1700s, he tells them, “Oh, you are beautiful. No, really, you are. You’re gorgeous! Look at that – space age clockwork. I love it. I’ve got chills! Listen, seriously, I mean this from the heart and, by the way, count those, it would be a crime, it would be an act of vandalism to disassemble you…but that won’t stop me.” It’s always love and joy. Everything is deserving of respect and protection. But the protection swings both ways and if whatever the Doctor encounters is threatening innocent lives, they’ll sort it.
If what is threatening innocent lives is doing so without choosing to, the Doctor will do everything in their power to protect it, too. My favorite example of this, I think, comes from “Dead Planet.” The Doctor finds himself on the barren, desert planet San Helios. When it becomes apparent San Helios was once lush and teeming with life and that that life was consumed by a massive swarm of Stingray creatures circling the planet and that they are planning to follow the Doctor back to Earth for another meal, UNIT (Unified Intelligence Taskforce, the Earth’s international group tasked with protecting the planet from alien threats) wants to destroy them. The Doctor intervenes to protect the Stingrays, too, as well as saving Earth. When asked if they are safe from the Stingrays he tells UNIT, “They’ll start again. Generate a new doorway. It’s not their fault, it’s their natural life cycle. But I’ll see if I can nudge the wormholes on to uninhabited planets.” This force capable of destroying an entire planet – something which would easily have been fodder for a large, third act CGI battle in countless other stories – are treated with as much love and respect by the Doctor as the human lives he was protecting.
It’s the chance to marvel at the endless beauty of creation, to celebrate all the universe has to offer, that keeps the Doctor travelling. Shortly after regenerating from the Ninth to the Tenth Doctor, he tells Jackie Tyler, “Trouble’s just the bits in between. It’s all waiting out there, Jackie, and it’s all brand new to me. All those planets and creatures and horizons. I haven’t seen them yet! Not with these eyes. And it is going to be fantastic.”
Honor all life by practicing nonviolence.
One of the first things you notice about Doctor Who is it’s a different kind of show. One of it’s most marked differences from the hero/exploration/adventure stories we find all around us is there’s no punching or kicking. The Doctor carries no gun or sword or weapon of any kind. The Doctor thinks their way out of problems. All the running – the “outrageous amount of running involved,” as Donna puts it – is done to protect life. The Doctor runs to protect those they’re with and to gain the time they need to think of a solution that doesn’t involve taking life. The Doctor’s running isn’t just a bit for the show nor just a regular action set piece. It’s their ethic on display whenever they encounter something angry, dangerous, and threatening.
On The Late, Late Show with James Cordon, David Tennant explained why the Doctor resonated with him:
“When I was a kid, why the show meant so much to me is the Doctor was the hero but he was never the jock. And I certainly wasn’t, I was in Paisley with my National Health Service glasses that were balanced on because I broke them every couple a days. You know I was never that kind of sporty, kind of virile type so the Doctor was someone I could aspire to be. And he was celebrated because he’s clever, because he’s clever and kind. And that’s such wonderful things for a character to represent.”
Imagine our world if that was the sort of hero we all looked up to, what we all aspired to be – clever and kind. Trapped in a library with a werewolf-like-Haemovariform clawing at the doors, the Doctor tells Rose, “You want weapons? We’re in a library! Books! Best weapons in the world! This room’s the greatest arsenal we could have. [tossing her a book] Arm yourself.” On the day India was partitioned in 1947, standing with Umbreen (a Muslim) and Prem (a Hindu) who are about to marry, the Doctor tells them, “Love, in all its forms, is the most powerful weapon we have. Because love is a form of hope, and like hope, love abides in the face of everything.” What are our greatest weapons? Books and love. Clever and kind. Those are the tools of a hero.
Yet the Doctor can’t always win. There isn’t always a solution. Sometimes life has to be lost and impossible decisions have to be made. The Doctor reminds Yaz, Ryan, and Graham of just this when they find themselves between the Lone Cyberman and Percy Shelly in 1816. Captain Jack warned the fam to give the Lone Cyberman what it wants is to doom the future – so do they let Percy Shelly die? Or risk everyone’s life centuries later? As they remind the Doctor of Jack’s warning, she shows a side of herself they’d yet to see. “If he dies now,” the Doctor tells them, “who knows what damage that will have on future history? Words matter. One death, one ripple, and history will change in a blink. The future will not be the world you know. It’s not just his life at stake, it’s yours. You wanna sacrifice yourself for this? You want me to sacrifice you? You wanna call it, do it now – all of ya. [no one replies] Yeah, ‘cause sometimes this team structure isn’t flat – it’s mountainous, with me at the summit in the stratosphere left alone to choose. Save the poet. Save the universe.”
But the times the Doctor can’t win, the lives the Doctor must sacrifice, are how and why they so passionately do everything in their power to prevent violence. They understand it’s true cost. As the human and Zygon races stand poised on the brink of pushing a button to detonate a weapon that has a 50% chance of wiping out the other species or their own, the Doctor opens his soul in a desperate attempt to get them to understand what they refuse to see. It’s one of Doctor Who’s best speeches. It moves me to tears every time I watch it. If you’ve never watched a video imbedded in a piece of mine before, watch this:
Bonnie, in the form of Clara, asks the Doctor, “Then why are you still talking?” The Doctor tells her, “Because I want to get you to see and I’m almost there!” He continues, “Because it’s not a game. This is a scale model of war. Every war ever fought right there in front of you! Because it’s always the same, when you fire that first shot, no matter how right you feel you have no idea who’s going to die. You don’t know whose children are going to scream and burn! How many hearts will be broken?! How many lives shattered?! How much blood will spill until everybody does what they were always going to have to do from the very beginning SIT. DOWN. AND. TALK?!?”
The Doctor understands what happens when the nonviolent road isn’t taken. The Doctor is haunted by the times they’ve had to walk that path. And because of that, they know it is always unacceptable to take another life, no matter what justification may be offered.
If you won’t fight with violence, if you won’t kill, than forgiveness must be central to how you move through life. To leave aside the drives for “vengeance” and “justice” and “winning” in favor of compromise, compassion, and the desire to honor all life necessitates your needing to be able to forgive. When we forgive, we can change everything.
When Bonnie tells the Doctor, “I’m not stopping this Doctor. I started this I will not stop it. You think they’ll let me go after all I’ve done?!,” the Doctor replies, “You’re all the same, you screaming kids, you know that? ‘Look at me! I’m unforgivable!’ Well here’s the unforeseeable – I forgive you. After all you’ve done, I forgive you.” What happens after the Doctor offers forgiveness? Kate stands down. Bonnie stands down. Discussions begin.
After the Master has spent a year subjugating the Earth and torturing the Doctor for his own pleasure, Martha Jones is able to unite the whole planet in her faith in the Doctor and, tuned into the psychic network the Master used to help takeover, the Doctor is able to use the people’s belief to heal himself. Rising once more he tells the Master, “And you know what happens now.” The Master frantically cries, “No! No! No! No!” The Doctor continues, “You wouldn’t listen.” The Master shouts, “NO!” Despite his screams the Doctor takes the Master in his arms and hugs him, “But you know what I’m gonna say. I forgive you.”
Bonnie and Kate accept the forgiveness offered and a new path forward, with new opportunities, is born. The Master refuses and ultimately falls into old habits. As novelist Terry Goodkind captured so perfectly, “There is magic in forgiveness. Magic to heal. In forgiveness you grant, and more so in the forgiveness you receive.”
When the Doctor, Martha, and Captain Jack end up at the end of the universe in the year 100,000,000,000,000, they find a group of humans hidden together as the universe goes dark around them. Martha observes, “It’s like a refugee camp” and Jack comments on the smell. Beaming, the Doctor says, “Don’t you see that? The ripe ol’ smell of humans! You survived! Oh, you mighta spent a million years evolving into clouds of gas and another million as downloads but you always revert to the same basic shape – the fundamental human. End of the universe, and here you are. Indomitable – that’s the word! Indomitable! Ha!” We spend so much time thinking of how we’re destroying the world and killing each other (with good reason – those are things we need to change) but to consider we might survive? That leaves me ringing with hope!
Aboard his spaceship in the distant future, the old god Zellin tells the Doctor, “I’ve seen many races, Doctor. And the humans are infinitely fascinating, infinitely pathetic….You know the best part of humanity? The thing that truly sets them apart? The cruelty of their own minds directed towards themselves. The doubt, fear. The endless voices telling themselves they’re incapable and unworthy. Such an exquisite animal, built in pain. And the repository of that pain, their nightmares.” When she’s again face to face with Zellin and his mate Rayaka in Aleppo in 1380, the Doctor tells them, “You’re wrong about humans. They’re not pathetic. They’re magnificent. They live with their fears, doubts, guilt. They face them down every day and they prevail. That’s not weakness. That’s strength. That’s what humanity is.”
When a paradox unleashes creatures known as Reapers to “sterilize” a wound in time by killing the humans who are part of it, the Doctor and Rose find themselves barricaded in St. Christopher’s Parish Church in London in 1987. The bride, Sarah Clarke, and the groom, Stuart Hoskins, who were to be married there that day ask if the Doctor can save them. Sarah says, “I don’t know what this is all about. And I know we’re not important…” The Doctor stops her, “Who said you’re not important? I’ve travelled to all sorts of places, done things you couldn’t even imagine, but you two – street corner, two in the morning, gettin’ a taxi home. I’ve never had a life like that. Yes, I’ll try an’ save you.” The Doctor continually reaffirms how special we all are, even in our presumed ordinariness.
It feels so good! Perhaps most directly of all, we have the Doctor’s meeting with Kazran Sardick. When Kazran tells the Doctor a woman in a cryo-chamber is “Nobody important,” the Doctor replies, “Nobody important?? Blimey, that’s amazing. Did ya know, in 900 years of time and space I’ve never met anyone who wasn’t important before.”
This, I think, is one of the most inspiring things about Doctor Who. I can’t watch this show without feeling better about myself and about life! The Doctor elevates you. If we all saw each other – let alone ourselves! – as the Doctor sees us, our world would be so much brighter.
The Doctor’s entire ethic can be summed up here – Be kind. Everything before flows from it. Everything before are dimensions of this one fundamental rule. More than anything else, this is who the Doctor is.
Personally, the way the Doctor expresses this to Missy and the Master – two versions of his childhood best friend-turned-archenemy – on the eve of a Cyberman attack that will destroy an entire village drives this home. It’s a quote I turn to often in my own life for strength and guidance. In the context of watching the scene, it reminds me of who the Doctor is. In the context of reading it, it is a call, explaining how we’re to live our lives. The difference being, I think, when I watch the scene I see him talking to Missy and the Master. When I read it, it feels as though he’s talking to me. However we approach this (and I offer both avenues below), this is who the Doctor is:
“Winning? Is that what you think it’s about? I’m not trying to win. I’m not doing this because I wanna beat someone. Or because I hate someone or because…because I wanna blame someone. It’s not because it’s fun. God knows it’s not because it’s easy. It’s not even because it works because it hardly ever does. I do what I do because it’s right! Because it’s decent! And above all, it’s kind. It’s just that. Just kind. If I run away today, good people will die. If I stand and fight some of them might live – maybe not many, maybe not for long. Hey, you know, maybe there’s no point in any of this at all but it’s the best I can do. So I’m gonna do it. And I will stand here, doing it, ‘til it kills me. You’re going to die too! Some day. How will that be? Have you thought about it? What would you die for? Who I am is where I stand. Where I stand…is where I fall. Stand with me. These people are terrified. Maybe we can help – a little. Why not? Just ‘til the end, just be kind.”
To love this show is to love a hero who constantly reminds us to be kind. At the end of the day, everything else aside, what can be more important than that? Just as the Doctor models this ethic universally across all of time and space, the show itself is meant to call its viewers and its fans to do the same.
During the Doctor Who session at the 2017 BFI & Radio Times Television Festival, a fan revealed they had been the victim of cyberbullying in a Doctor Who forum. Peter Capaldi, the Twelfth Doctor himself, expressed in no uncertain terms how that sort of action is mutually exclusive with being a fan of the show:
“The essence of Doctor Who is kindness; that is what really is underneath all of this. This is a person who moves through time and space and history, and all kinds of situations, and reacts to them, ultimately – despite the way the different versions of him may appear – he reacts with kindness. And that is how everyone involved with Doctor Who should be and how everyone who is a fan of it should be. If they’re not kind, they’re not receiving the show in the proper way and they’re not really a fan of it.”
It’s just that. Just be kind.
While I will always love Marvel and Star Wars – and I am SO thankful I don’t live in a world where I have to choose only one of these universes for the rest of my life – neither of them come anywhere close to offering what Doctor Who does nor offering it as consistently as Doctor Who does.
What this show means to me was made starkly clear over the course of the past year. For reasons discussed in other pieces (pandemic life, pandemic teaching, a few significant personal losses), July through November of 2020 were the worst months of my life. I’m not being hyperbolic. There was so much darkness, so much sadness, in my world, in my heart, and in my soul. While it wasn’t a conscious thought, Doctor Who was the only – and I mean only – thing I watched from July until I tried a Christmas movie in early December. The only books I could finish were Doctor Who novels as well. I needed the Doctor. I needed their light. I needed their hope. In my time of greatest trial, the Doctor was a very real source of peace and strength alongside my brilliant therapist, Katherine, and my loving natural supports.
Part of the beauty of Doctor Who’s rejection of the postmodern relativism which refutes any universal claim to truth is that it gives us nearly sixty years of the Doctor applying their own ethic universally, no matter the time or planet or culture they find themselves in, no matter the threat they may face. Just be kind. This means we have nearly sixty years of stories – from television episodes to specials to novels to audio dramas to comics and beyond – which help us feel this. No matter how dark it becomes, the Doctor assures us, “I am and always will be the optimist. The hoper of far-flung hopes and dreamer of improbable dreams.” The Doctor invites us to be the same. The Doctor inspires. The Doctor elevates. The Doctor heals. My heart is always full after time with Doctor Who.
In a piece discussing both how much Doctor Who means to me as well as the universal ethic the Doctor applies through all of time and space, it seems fitting to let the Doctor themself have the last word. As the Twelfth Doctor prepares to regenerate into the Thirteenth, he has some advice for his future self. Better words to live by I’ve not found. “Never be cruel. Never be cowardly. Remember, hate is always foolish and love is always wise. Always try to be nice but never fail to be kind. Laugh hard. Run fast. Be kind.”
 Mark Brake, The Science of Doctor Who: The Scientific Facts Behind the Time Warps and Space Travels of the Doctor, (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2021).
 Kim Levine, “How PoMo Can You Go?,” ARTnews, Published October 15, 2012. Accessed May 1, 2021. https://www.artnews.com/art-news/news/how-pomo-can-you-go-2108/
 The Ethics Centre, “Ethics, morality, law – what’s the difference?,” The Ethics Centre. Published September 27, 2016. Accessed May 1, 2021. https://ethics.org.au/ethics-morality-law-whats-the-difference/
 Edward Farley, Deep Symbols: Their Postmodern Effacement and Reclamation, (Valley Forge, Pennsylvania: Trinity Press International, 1996), 96-7.
 Jennifer Perrott, dir. “The Tsuranga Conundrum.” Doctor Who, season 11, episode 3, BBC, 2018.
 Alice Troughton, dir. “The Doctor’s Daughter.” Doctor Who, season 4, episode 6, BBC, 2008.
 Euros Lyn, dir. “The Girl in the Fireplace.” Doctor Who, season 2, episode 4, BBC, 2006.
 James Strong, dir. “Planet of the Dead.” Doctor Who, Easter Special, BBC, 2009.
 James Hawes, dir. “The Christmas Invasion.” Doctor Who, Christmas Special, BBC, 2005.
 “Jodie Whittaker and David Tennant: Doctors Stick Together.” The Late, Late Show with James Corden, season 2020, episode 783, June 18, 2020.
 Euros Lyn, dir. “Tooth and Claw.” Doctor Who, season 2, episode 2, BBC, 2006.
 Jamie Childs, dir. “Demons of the Punjab.” Doctor Who, season 11, episode 6, BBC, 2018.
 Emma Sullivan, dir. “The Haunting of Villa Diodati.” Doctor Who, season 12, episode 8, BBC, 2020.
 Daniel Nettheim, dir. “The Zygon Inversion.” Doctor Who, season 9, episode 8, BBC, 2015.
 Colin Teague and Graham Harper, dir. “Last of the Time Lords.” Doctor Who, season 3, episode 13, BBC, 2007.
 Terry Goodkind, Temple of the Winds (New York: Tor Fantasy, 1997), 487.
 Phil Collinson, dir. “Utopia.” Doctor Who, season 3, episode 11, BBC, 2007.
 Emma Sullivan, dir. “Can You Hear Me?” Doctor Who, season 12, episode 7, BBC, 2020.
 Joe Ahearne, dir. “Father’s Day.” Doctor Who, season 1, episode 8, BBC, 2005.
 Toby Haynes, dir. “A Christmas Carol.” Doctor Who, Christmas Special, BBC, 2010.
 Rachel Talalay, dir. “The Doctor Falls.” Doctor Who, season 10, episode 12, BBC, 2017.
 “Peter Capaldi had this to say to the cyberbullies targeting a Doctor Who fan,” RadioTimes, Published April 11, 2017. Accessed May 1, 2021. https://www.radiotimes.com/tv/sci-fi/peter-capaldi-had-this-to-say-to-the-cyberbullies-targeting-a-doctor-who-fan/
 Julian Simpson, dir. “The Almost People.” Doctor Who, season 6, episode 6, BBC, 2011.
 Rachel Talalay, dir. “Twice Upon A Time.” Doctor Who, Christmas Special, BBC, 2017.
2 thoughts on “A Doctor of Kindness: Doctor Who and a Universal Ethic”
You forgot the most important universe of all…Star Trek! But you did make some good arguments for Doctor Who…
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I thought about you and Star Trek as I wrote this! But my student who posed the question knows I don’t have any Star Trek cred. Maybe someday though…
I consider it a huge honor to have made “some good arguments” for you! Huzzah! I can also say Jeff’s started and loves it. My brother’s started and loves it. Kalie’s started and loves it. The TARDIS is always open for you when you wanna give it a spin ;).
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