Three Nonviolent Lessons from Doctor Who
By Andrew Hocking of asyourpoetshavesaid.com
While television, and especially science fiction, typically glamorizes violence as a solution to problems, the titular Doctor in Doctor Who continually seeks peaceful resolutions and guides others to do the same. Viewers committed to a consistent life ethic can find inspiration in him, and everyone can learn key principles of nonviolence though his moral successes and even his failures.
The Doctor, a time-traveling alien who routinely changes his physical appearance (allowing for cast changes), regrets his actions between the “Classic Who” series (which ran from 1963 to 1989) and the new series, or “Nu-Who” (resumed in 2005).
During the interval, he fought in the Time War between his species, the Time Lords, and the genocidal Daleks. To save the galaxy from ongoing war, he destroyed both races, killing 2.47 billion innocent children. Since then, he helps others (including the audience) choose the nonviolent path:
“Because I got it wrong, I’m going to make you get it right.”
This quote appears in the series’ 50th Anniversary Special, in which (Spoilers!) we return to the Time War and the moment when the incarnation of the Doctor that fought in that war (the “War Doctor”) chooses to use the weapon called the Moment to kill all Time Lords and Daleks. He finds however that the weapon itself attempts to change his mind, connecting him with two later incarnations, the Tenth and the Eleventh Doctors, and a high-ranking military official on Earth, Kate Stewart. They find Stewart faced with a similar decision: whether to set off a nuclear weapon to destroy London but save the Earth from invasion by aliens known as Zygons. Three central themes flow from this situation.
1) Identify with the Other
To foster peace, the Doctor(s) temporarily wipe Kate’s memory as well as the shapeshifting Zygon impersonating her. He comments, “The key to perfect negotiation… [is] not know which side you’re on.” Since neither knew if they are human or Zygon, they determine fair terms.
Doctor Who frequently emphasizes the message that we must identify with others and avoid an “us vs. them” mindset that dehumanizes people. The episodes “The Rebel Flesh” and “The Almost People” involve a corporation that, to save human lives while mining for acid, created “flesh” that can be reconstituted as avatar doppelgangers, or “gangers,” for the humans to control and work through. The Doctor believes the “flesh” might have awareness, and a solar storm removes any doubt, making the gangers completely autonomous.
As always, the Doctor exhorts everyone to work together, but they fear one another. The originals first refuse to acknowledge the personhood of the “flesh,” calling them monsters and mistakes that must be destroyed. While these episodes speak to peacemaking, they also reference abortion, as the originals dehumanize the gangers as only “flesh,” referring to individuals as “it” instead of “he” or “she.” Furthermore, they use a euphemism for killing, “decommission.” The Doctor rejects this: after one original kills a ganger, the outraged Doctor exclaims, “You stopped his heart. He had a heart! Aorta, valves, a real human heart!” Following his reasoning, the heartbeat of an unborn child is a powerful sign of life in the womb.
As the episodes continue, the originals and the gangers realize they think and feel like one another. One character laments the idiocy: “We’re at war with ourselves” (the realization we all need.) In seeing their common interests, they seek to help one another and find a win-win solution. In the end, the original who started the conflict seeks systemic change and justice for gangers.
In personal and political conflict, learn from the Doctor and seek to identify with others. Reject dehumanizing terms. How can you work towards the rights of others and yourself at the same time? Try the mental exercise of pretending your identity is wiped and you don’t know which side you are on. For instance, if you did not know if you would be the mother or the child, could you support legalized abortion?
2) Who do you want to be?
In the 50th Anniversary Special, the Moment asks the War Doctor if he’s willing to live with himself after killing two species and shows him his future regret. In this, we find a selfish but powerful reason for doing the right thing: to feel better about ourselves.
The question, “who do you want to be?”, however, asks more than “how do you want to feel about yourself?” Our choices transform us. In the episode “Dalek,” the Ninth Doctor discovers a Dalek who survived the Time War. In a panic, he immediately attempts to torture it to death. Later, even as the Dalek turns from violence, the Doctor still seeks to kill it. His companion asks, “What are you changing into?”
We must grasp the political ramifications of the question, “Who do you want to be?” because you are what you vote. The episode “Kill the Moon” addresses the topic of voting on matters of life or death. The Doctor’s companion learns Earth’s moon is actually an egg and the creature inside it is hatching, which might lead to the death of humanity. From the moon, the companion asks the world’s populace to vote—by turning their lights on or off—if she should kill the innocent life. While humanity unanimously votes to kill, she cannot do it herself. Our conscience appears more active in our direct actions than in our voting habits.
If you looked at your political stances, what kind of person are you? Could you personally do the actions you tell the government to do on your behalf?
3) Find the Nonviolent Choice
While people typically limit their options to passive surrender and proactive fighting, the Doctor exhorts us to proactively seek peace. In the two-part “Zygon Invasion / Zygon Inversion,” a splinter group of Zygons break the peace treaty signed in the 50th Anniversary Special. The Doctor gets Kate Stewart and the Zygon leader back at the negotiating table.
Is it naive to believe that peace is always possible? Though peacemaking is not guaranteed to succeed, neither is violence. At the negotiating table, both human and Zygon have boxes with two buttons that will either bring success to their race or destruction. They just need to press the right one. As the Doctor explains:
“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 much blood will spill before everyone does what they always were gonna have to do from the very beginning. Sit down and talk!”
He continues to expose the naiveté that violence brings peace:
Doctor: “When you’ve killed all the bad guys, and when it’s all perfect and just and fair, when you have finally got it exactly the way you want it, what are you going to do with the people like you? The troublemakers. How are you going to protect your glorious revolution from the next one?
Zygon: “We’ll win.”
Doctor: “Oh, will you? Well, maybe. Maybe you will win. But nobody wins for long. The wheel just keeps turning. So, come on. Break the cycle.”
Be a peacemaker in your personal and political lives. This requires hard work, determination, and creativity. Seek win-win solutions and support politicians willing to do the same. For instance, in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict we need leaders who will seek a just agreement that satisfies both sides. In responding to the violence of abortion, we can find policies that both support women in crisis pregnancies and their children.
Applying the Three Lessons
Returning to the Special, the three Doctors have the choice again: do they kill all Daleks and Time Lords? The Doctor’s companion, Clara, reminds him who he is, who he wants to be, and who he promised to be: a Doctor. They imagine the Time Lord children, afraid and suffering, and they choose to give those who they would kill a face. In hope, they determine to find a new path, rejecting violent or passive options. Working together, they save the Time Lords, and the aggressing Daleks destroy themselves.
How can you apply the three lessons in this essay to your political beliefs and actions? To personal interactions with others?
Let’s follow the Doctor’s example: identify with others, be the type of person you want to be, and strive for peace. Then, let’s help others do the same.
See the list of all our blog posts, put in categories.
For a short list of movies intentionally about nonviolence, see a past holiday issue of our weekly updates, Peace & Life Connections. Our Advisory Board member John Whitehead has written an article on movies with anti-war themes in Peacemaking for Life.
For more of our blog posts commenting on dramas, see:
Hollywood Movie Insights (The Giver, The Whistleblower, and The Ides of March)
Anyone who wants to offer a movie or book review from a consistent-life viewpoint for us to consider for publishing, see the guidelines at the bottom of the list of all our blog posts.