Genocide and the Doctor

UPDATED BELOW, JANUARY 6, 2013

Genocide and Doctor Who. Two of my favorite subjects of conversation, now in one chewy blog post.

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I have long maintained that The Trial of a Time Lord is the thematic cornerstone of Doctor Who. Say what you will about Colin Baker’s acting abilities or Eric Saward’s rather terrible stint as script editor, but this season-long storyline hits the mark.

You see, Doctor Who had long taught the value of a hearty mistrust of authority as an existential stance. Oh, you say, yes, the Third Doctor was always going on about the limitation of military thinking and always saying that any new invention which seemed too good to be true was doubtless the product of evil. (“But Doctor, with this simple pill, people can now have all the sex they want without fear of infection or pregnancy.” “Yes, Jo, that’s what worries me. This medicine is not of this earth—I know it. Perhaps the Master is behind this all.”) It’s deeper than that, though. For example, The Sun Makers operates like a retelling of The Wizard of Oz, except that the man behind the curtain is actually a bit of sentient seaweed who has been running the government to line his own pockets. How many governments has the Doctor overthrown? The Doctor has even battled his fellow Time Lords when the need has arisen—and even the Guardians.

Though the Marine Corps chain of command might be “Unit, Corps, God, Country,” most people probably reverse those last two. The Doctor, however, has overthrown his fair share of gods, such as Weng-Chiang or Cailleach, both revealed, in fact, to be aliens from another world. (Or as Neitzche would say, once the credits started rolling, “God is dead, again.”) Perhaps more importantly, he even seeks to overthrow the gods human beings and others worship in the privacy of their own little heads. As Leela remarked in The Horror of Fang Rock, “The Doctor has taught me about science.” She has left behind savage superstition bequeathed her by the authorities of her tribe and embraced the world of reality.

What other authorities must we mistrust? This is the question that The Trial of a Time Lord answers so brilliantly. After all, by this point in his story line, it seems to us that the Doctor himself must be the final authority on everything. But then what do we find out in those last two episodes? Somewhere in his future timeline, between his twelfth and final incarnation, he would become the being known as the Valeyard, a being which embodied all of his darker impulses. So much for our hero. (Mind you, up to this point, Colin Baker’s Doctor had been acting pretty crazy, so perhaps the fact that he was going to end up some kind of villain wasn’t that far off the mark.) It doesn’t take Sigmund Freud to remind us that what we repress comes back in spades, and when you are perhaps hundreds of years old and determined to see yourself a hero, well, then you’ve got a lot tucked away back there.

It’s easy to mistrust governments or gods, anyone higher up than you are. But to take an honest look inward and overthrow your own worst selves—that’s a far harder task. Most of our lives are spent avoiding that kind of thing. As the man filing for divorce number five says, “I just don’t know what’s wrong with all the women I meet.” This is what makes The Trial of a Time Lord the cornerstone of the classic Doctor Who canon. We’ve long known that he relies upon his campions as moral compasses, grounding him in the here and now. But now we’ve learned that it’s not enough.

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Before continuing, remember back in that room on Skaro, where the Doctor is rigging the bomb that will destroy all the Daleks in their infancy. He does this with the blessing of the Time Lords. But then, before he can trip the explosive, he asks himself, “Have I the right?” He know that it’s genocide he’s being asked to commit, and when the chance presents itself, he’s more than happy to lay down the wire and pursue some other option.

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Is genocide ever justified? “This question is not often posed in genocide studies; it may provoke a collective intake of breath,” writes Adam Jones in Genocide: A Comprehensive Introduction (2006). “Examining ourselves honestly, though, most people have probably experienced a twinge of sympathy with those who commit acts that some people consider genocidal.” Many American writers, including L. Frank Baum, creator of the Wizard of Oz stories, considered the elimination of the Native Americans to be for their own good. Allied forces rather turned a blind eye to a variety of depredations against German populations—some of them native to the countries in which they were living—after World War II, cases dubbed “subaltern genocide.” Rather difficult to sympathize with Germans at the time. Though international law allows the use of force for self-defense, the requirement that reprisals be in proportion to the original act would seem to make genocide a non-defensive, and therefore non-defensible, act.

So what do we make of the fact that the good Doctor himself committed genocide? Well, he’s done so twice, now hasn’t he? That was part of the Valeyard’s accusation against him—the genocide of the Vervoids, though the Doctor held it the lesser of two evils, the risk to earth being too great if even a leaf of the Vervoids had landed there. However, the trial of the Doctor ends up being abbreviated, there being shenanigans in the court, behind which is eventually found the Master. A bit of confusing stuff follows, the charges are apparently dismissed, and the Doctor goes off with Mel, perhaps as penance for his crimes. “The charge must now be genocide!” yells the Valeyard, but this particular case of mass murder does not form a part of the Doctor’s consciousness, at least not so far as we viewers can determine.

The second case of genocide only comes to light with the series reboot starting in 2005. We learn that all of the Doctor’s people are dead, killed in the Time War. We learn that the Daleks, too, are supposedly dead, killed in the same war. And we eventually learn that the Doctor is responsible for both of these cases of mass slaughter, having killed his own people, and the Daleks with them, in order to protect the existence of the universe. This deed has so scarred the Doctor that he has by and large repressed the memory of the incarnation responsible for these things, called in the episode credits the War Doctor. “What I did, I did without choice,” says the War Doctor, to which number Eleven responds, “But not in the name of the Doctor.” Had the Doctor not previously taken responsibility, admitted culpability, for his role in ending the Time War, this would come off as part and parcel of that classic dodge: “I wasn’t myself when I did that. I may do the occasional bad thing, but I’m not a bad person.” Not in the name of the Doctor indeed.

And so the more important question comes to the fore—what do we make of the later incarnations of the Doctor essentially blessing his deed by showing up, in The Day of the Doctor, in his personal moment of trial for purposes of committing it with him?

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So I’ve read a lot of books on genocide. Violence is one of my preoccupations. However, I always find explanatory volumes, such as Why Not Kill Them All? The Logic and Prevention of Mass Political Murder (2010) somewhat lacking, in part because it seems that many of the explanations or motives we want to throw at the “crime of crimes” are also those we like to throw at the “smaller” crimes—greed, fear, narcissism, revenge of perceived wrongs or a feeling of humiliation. Granted, it’s a bit harder to get masses of people to kill another mass of people (or is it?) to the extent of exterminating them entirely, but aren’t some of the same basic mechanisms at work? Much of the German work of exterminating the Jews pertained to a sincere belief in their culpability behind Germany’s loss in the first world war. The Kaiser was spouting off on the perfidy of the Jews before the ink was dry on the treaty ending the war. The point is that people sincerely believed that eliminating the Jews was a just enterprise. I won’t side with Daniel Goldhagen’s laughable thesis and claim that all Germans believed it, but for a sizable number of German citizens, actions against the Jews were premised upon the wrongs they felt the Jews had done. Why Not Kill Them All? Let’s switch around a few words: Why Not All Kill Them? That’s what the passengers of the Orient Express decided to do—to take in hand the murder of a man who, they believed, had wronged them all in the past. Is the only difference one of scale? Which brings us to the next question—if genocide can never be justified, what about simple murder?

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There is a point to shame.

No doubt most of us have those memories that wake us up at four o’clock in the morning and make us wish we could travel back in time to throttle that twelve-year-old, sixteen-year-old, eighteen-year-old version of ourselves—or even yesterday’s. Sometimes, maybe, you don’t know how you’ve managed to keep going, how you’ve not gotten around to offing yourself for the betterment of humanity, sinner that you are. The girl whose heart you broke. The friend you betrayed. The words you spoke far too quickly.

But shame is not a bad thing. “Whoever strives increasingly upward can be saved.” Or so wrote Goethe. Shame is what keeps us striving ever upward, away from the past in which we did those terrible things. Now, I am, of course, speaking of shame in its proper sense, not its “Christian” sense of “and they saw that they were naked and were ashamed”—not shame for being what you are, but rather shame for our failings in the past. Shame is useful because, through it, we avoid telling ourselves that “I wasn’t myself when I did that.” If you weren’t yourself, then you wouldn’t feel any shame, eh? No, shame tells us that we were ourselves when we did those things and that our selves of the future need to be better people, starting here and now.

Shame owns who we were, doesn’t pawn it off on “bad things I did, but I’m not a bad person.” And so when Doctors Ten and Eleven show up just when the War Doctor is about to press that big red button and blow shit up, it seems that they are integrating him into their own selves now, that they are acknowledging him as a part of who they are. But this is only a mask. Instead, they end up endorsing his action by both placing their hands on the detonator, and though Clara ends up saving the day by having them round up all the Doctors, past and future, and make with the fuzzy deus ex machina, the fact that the two Doctors were willing to stand there with the War Doctor and commit and act of genocide should be chilling, for it makes a mockery of those words, Never Again. It becomes less a matter of “I did a bad thing” and more of “The bad thing I did was actually good.”

But, of course, through the power and time travel and techno-speak, Gallifrey was saved and the threat of genocide averted, even if for some reason the Doctor’s previous incarnations will not remember any of this. “The bad thing I did I didn’t actually do but instead did a good thing in its place.”

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The Doctor committed genocide for the second time, this time against his own people and against the Daleks. But might we count the Silence as a third case? After all, through his machinations, human beings everywhere were instructed to kill them all on sight, and though we know that the population of the Silence on Planet Earth did not encompass the whole population, the Doctor’s actions would qualify under the 1948 UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide, since he masterminded the targeting of a specific group.

Let’s go back to The Trial of a Time Lord. The charge was genocide, and according to the testimony of companion Mel, the Doctor was culpable. So what does it tell us that the Doctor is perfectly capable of committing genocide—at least twice—while remaining “the Doctor,” and yet the Valeyard embodies his darker self let loose upon the world?

Every genocide is committed for ostensible purposes of self-defense. We must defend ourselves against the predation of the Jews, the Hutus, the bourgeois, the heretics, the enemy within. But instead of refuting this patent absurdity, Doctor Who has valorized the act of genocide. More than that, even, it has told the story by focusing upon the heartache and the heroism of the person who, by golly, just finds himself with no other pathway out than killing all these folks, with very little thought to the countless victims of his deeds, save for how the numbers of dead tend to keep him awake at night. Moreover, our Eleventh Doctor ends up revealing that he’s rather stopped keeping track of all the corpses on Gallifrey, ever since he happened upon the site of his own death, which troubles his conscience all the more, driving out thought of everything else.

“The charge must now be narcissism!” Which means that the Doctor, though a creature from another time and place, now represents our time and place perfectly.

UPDATE:

Let’s reinforce this charge of narcissism a bit by casting ourselves back to “The Beast Below.” Remember how, when the Doctor discovered that the source of Starship UK’s power was a star whale that had been corralled and forced to carry civilization on its back, with regular bits of torture, he went absolutely spare? As he was preparing a pulse that would essentially lobotomize the creature, he shouted, “Nobody human can talk to me!!!” And he says that he’s going to go somewhere else, change his name, because he won’t be the Doctor anymore, not after having done that.

Isn’t that a bit rich for a man who, up to this point, has committed two acts of genocide? And again, it’s all about his feelings, the burden that he will suffer, and not about those around him. He is mad, furious, that these living beings have put him in a position where he cannot take a perfectly heroic way out, and because they have done so, he’s going to scamper off and not talk to anybody for a while.

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