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Accompanying the Doctor on his incredible travels involves a good dose of bug-eyed monsters, a helping of companions and a sprinkling of suspense, all fused together in a thick stew of time travelling mystery. This wholesome feast of science fiction also includes a certain something which invariably strikes the curious mind and sets it whirring. This added extra brings a new dimension to the Doctor Who experience, lending substance to a story and credibility to a character. The secret ingredient in question is the gleaming, resplendent moral lens; the unique instrument which enables the audience to watch an adventure, gather the evidence and then judge for themselves whether an action was right or wrong.

Exploring Doctor Who through a moral lens may sound like a pretty dry business, lacking in the excitement that comes from watching an action sequence or the nerve-jangling suspense entailed in witnessing the unmasking of an alien. However, such a conclusion would be in error. The moral lens may require a little patience in its use but it does reap its own reward, delivering a distinct edge to a story or scene and revamping a tired plot line or predictable climax. By loading Doctor Who with gritty questions and awkward queries the moral lens helps to take the series beyond the limits of two dimensional action adventure and into realms of timeless folklore and myth.

When first unleashing the moral lens the sheer wealth of examples to which it can be applied leaves the novice scrutineer spoilt for choice, making for a decidedly difficult selection. So many ethical puzzles are tied up with those moments which give Doctor Who its status – moments which sum up a Doctor or a companion, a monster or a villain. The Sixth Doctor’s decision to let Orcini sacrifice himself in order to destroy Davros’ new generation of Daleks in ‘Revelation of the Daleks’ or the Fifth Doctor’s agonised choice to help the eternally damned Mawdryn in ‘Mawdryn Undead’ are just two possible examples, each presenting a wide panorama of issues and questions for the moral lens to uncover.

Examining an event in isolation is one way of using the moral lens; comparing instances of moral uncertainty throughout the series is another. Consider, for example, the Sixth Doctor’s decision to wipe out the Vervoid race in ‘Terror of the Vervoids’ with the Fourth Doctor’s refusal to destroy the Dalek incubation room in ‘Genesis of the Daleks’. Was the Fourth Doctor’s choice right and the Sixth Doctor’s wrong? Or were the circumstances of each case so different that any comparison between the two is merely superficial, perhaps leading to a mistaken conclusion?

Clearly the number of questions which the moral lens can raise is almost endless, and its answers are far from certain – qualities which make for a fascinating tool. Further still, its flexible nature enables it to consider the fate of a single person or the lot of an entire planetary system with equal competence – a priceless trait in the field of story analysis.

It is said that the proof of the pudding is in the eating, so let us learn how a few of the series’ moral conundrums were solved, and if their solutions stand up to the unblinking gaze of the moral lens. First in line for some serious moral scrutiny is the art of self-sacrifice, a theme which has appeared with frequency throughout the series.

From the almost forgettable to the indisputably iconic, the great and the good have all turned their hand at playing the martyr. The Doctor himself is no exception, being forced to regenerate on two occasions in order to save the life of another character. ‘The Caves of Androzani’ saw the Doctor surrender his fifth incarnation to save the life of his assistant Peri. The courage of his sacrifice was emphasised by the understated manner in which he gave up the remaining spectrox toxæmia antidote for Peri, simply observing that there was “Only enough for you.”

In possibly as dramatic a finish, the Ninth Doctor saved his companion Rose in the 2005 finale ‘The Parting of the Ways’ by drawing the energy of the Time Vortex out of her body, only to absorb its fatal consequences himself. Again, the Doctor was unflinching in his decision to rescue his companion, reflecting the value he placed upon individual life. Most fans would argue that both choices were morally right. In each instance his companion’s life had become endangered, and not by conscious thought but by ignorance – a point on which the Doctor was well aware, arguably making him in part responsible for their predicament. As a hero and as a force for good the Doctor’s actions in each case expressed his moral thinking, revealing that the care and protection he afforded to his respective companions were far stronger factors in his moral decision-making than his own personal safety.

The Doctor has not been the only character to sacrifice his life for others. The canon of Doctor Who contains countless individuals who have given up their lives for a greater good. Take, for example, Rogin’s death in the 1975 story ‘The Ark in Space’. The recently revived space technician was confronted with the possibility of survival or certain death: he chose the latter, helping to thwart the threat of the swarming Wirrn and saving the Doctor’s life in the process. Rogin’s options were patently limited and all of them entailed a fatal conclusion for someone. His final choice displayed a quality of character which makes him stand out in the context of that adventure, revealing an individual prepared to put the needs of the many ahead of the needs of the few, or more precisely, himself.

Although self-sacrifice is shown as a positive moral position in many of the Doctor’s adventures it is certainly not without its ethical problems. Maintaining the moral strength of sacrificing the one, or the few, for the sake of the many means negotiating some very icy ground, none more so than the notion that the value of life is all bound up with quantity. The moral lens reveals that the ethical substance behind this stance could be brought into question with queries such as “Are two lives more valuable than one?” This debate is so wide and murky it is without doubt not for the faint of argument. Having said that, for those who support the concept and seek to justify it, Doctor Who is brimming with examples, any of which could be used to scaffold the principle of self-sacrifice: the quietly stated figure of Gwyneth in ‘The Unquiet Dead’, the sophisticated Jabe in ‘The End of the World’, Pete Tyler in ‘Father’s Day’ and the redemption-seeking Sir Robert in ‘Tooth and Claw’ are all suitable candidates, each one newly arrived to the ranks of those who gave up their lives for the sake of others.

Unpacking the ethical ins and outs of self-sacrifice is just one challenge raised by the moral lens. The concept of duty is another. Duty (i.e. what a person ought to do according to an agreed set of laws or principles) can protect the weak and guard the innocent, without doubt giving it its fair share of supporters. However, sticking rigidly to what duty dictates is all well and good until it comes into conflict with itself, and therein lies the moral muddle. The tragic figure of Tremas in ‘The Keeper of Traken’ perfectly illustrates this ethical problem which is, incidentally, known as a “conflict of duties”. As one of its five Consuls, Tremas had a duty to protect the Traken Union; part of his allotted duty involved guarding the plans of the Source Manipulator, a crucial element in maintaining harmony across the Union. When Tremas was faced with the possibility of disabling the Source Manipulator, in order to protect the Traken Union from an alien threat, the two duties (guardianship of the Source Manipulator plans versus the protection of Traken) collided, creating a moral dilemma.

It might seem easy to argue that Tremas should have quickly recognised the gravity of the threat facing his beloved Union, and given up the plans to the Doctor without hesitating. Yet in breaking a sacred duty Tremas was putting at risk the very principles and laws which had safeguarded the Traken Union for millennia. His resistance, albeit brief, to the Doctor’s request for the plans, revealed his moral indecision over which course of action to take, creating a scene thick with tension. Tremas’ final decision to break his sacred Consular oath was not an easy one to make, revealing the difficulties created by a conflict of duties. Although his choice helped to save Traken its consequences were far from being completely clear, prompting some moral scrutineers to argue that breaking a sacred oath is always wrong, regardless of the results. On the other hand, a more flexible moral approach might claim that Tremas’ decision was, in light of the circumstances surrounding it, the right one – there is no definitive answer.

A more recent example of following duty to the letter and confronting some awkward conflictions is demonstrated by the case of the Torchwood Institute’s Yvonne Hartman, who appeared in the Tenth Doctor’s episodes ‘Army of Ghosts’ and ‘Doomsday’. Yvonne’s narrow minded and ambitious intentions were fed by her strict approach to duty. She firmly believed that her work was helping to expand and strengthen the British Empire; work which blindly involved tampering with alien technology and that ultimately threatened the whole of planet Earth. Her eventual fall from grace was not, however, without self-recognition, and her indomitable will enabled her to retain some vestige of her humanity when she was later converted into a Cyberman (evidenced by Yvonne clearly breaking her cybernetic conditioning and shooting down several Cybermen). Yvonne’s attachment to duty could be furnished with all the trappings and moral dignity possessed by Tremas, but that argument would require some serious thought to sustain it. The more credible and convincing conclusion is that Yvonne misused and misinterpreted the nature of duty for her own purposes and paid for her tunnel vision perspective with her own life.

Before packing away the moral lens until the next time it is worth presenting it with one final landscape to survey, and perhaps the most knotty spectacle of them all. Namely, is the Doctor morally right to interfere in the affairs of other peoples, times and places? The Doctor’s extraordinary lifestyle has brought him into contact with a vast array of cultures, races and planets; from the beginning of the universe to the end of the world. To date, the Doctor has witnessed almost every civilisation and society worth seeing and on numerous occasions freely given up his skills and expertise to assist others – but is this interference right?

Twice in the series’ history it was made clear that the Doctor’s people, the Time Lords, condemned and discouraged his interventionist approach, on an official level at least. The episodic marathon ‘The War Games’ saw the Second Doctor punished by the Time Lords for his meddling, whilst the even more lengthy ‘The Trial of a Timelord witnessed the Sixth Doctor being tried by his superiors for the same alleged offence. In each instance the Doctor was forced to explain his actions – essentially justifying the very workings of his life. These occasions of public scrutiny allowed the viewer the rare opportunity to reconsider the nature of Doctor’s motives, actions and consequences. No longer could his involvement in the concerns of others be seen as nothing more than innocent altruism. It was obvious, for example, that apart from the Doctor’s personal sense of right and wrong there was very little in the way of limits or restraints on what he could or could not do. By itself this point gives the question of interference a more weighty appearance, revealing that the moral questions surrounding the Doctor’s chosen lifestyle are far from cut and dried.

In the Ninth Doctor’s penultimate story ‘Bad Wolf’, for example, the Doctor learns that his intervention in the affairs of Earth (see ‘The Long Game’) led to an even more damaged world than the one he first encountered. The Doctor was forced to accept that his actions were not wholly good in terms of their more distant, less foreseeable, consequences. Persuading Gwyneth to help the apparently benign and desperate Gelth in ‘The Unquiet Dead’ was another, far more personal example. Gwyneth accepted the Doctor’s call to help the Gelth but died as a result. Was the Doctor right to interfere in her life, presenting her with a choice, the full consequences of which neither the Doctor nor Gwyneth could properly gauge?

In each of the above cases the Doctor’s motives were undeniably good: saving the Earth from the machinations of the abominable Jagrafess and rescuing a race left desolated and marooned by the Time War each present morally sound intentions – surely to cry ‘interference!’ would be unjust? In fact, some would go further still and claim that the intentions or reasons behind an action are more important than the results, therefore labelling the Doctor’s actions right and proper.

‘Ghost Light’, the controversial second instalment of season twenty-six, is a particularly thorny example of interference to inspect. In this instance the Doctor used nothing short of shock therapy to heal the mental wounds evident in the young mind of his companion Ace. This was no case of thoughtless dabbling in the histories of others; rather it was a conscious decision to present his companion with her deepest fears in order to release her from her innermost demons. The process was successful, if not highly stressful, and ultimately delivered up a mature and confident young woman, cleansed of at least one element her dark past.

Observing the above example through the moral lens reveals an ambiguous morality. Risking the mental health of an individual without their consent breaks every rule in the physician’s handbook, thereby rendering the Doctor’s conduct unquestionably wrong, despite its positive results. On the other hand, had he sought Ace’s consent she may not have accepted his so-called “therapy”, thus leaving her mental wounds unhealed that much longer, perhaps indefinitely.

Interestingly, in some ethical circles the amount of pleasure or pain created by the consequences of an action takes priority over the nature of the action itself. In this case the moral lens would find that since the effects of the Doctor’s actions seemingly created more pleasure than pain he was within his moral limits to rescue the uninformed Ace from her personal nightmares.

Last, but by no means least, the following illustration of the Doctor’s interference is also, arguably, the prime example. In his very first televised adventure ‘An Unearthly Child’, the Doctor inadvertently acquired two new travelling companions in the form of history teacher Barbara Wright and science teacher Ian Chesterton. These two unsuspecting humans were effectively abducted by the Doctor with a view to stopping them from compromising his anonymity. However, his decision to take them with him was made in the full knowledge that his unreliable TARDIS could not guarantee returning them to their correct time and place, never mind the likelihood of their being exposed to any number of unforeseeable dangers in the course of their time with him.

In weighing up the Doctor’s actions in this instance it is easy to view his behaviour as unreasonable and immoral: wanton and deliberate kidnapping, coupled with indifferent attitude to their safety all make for what seems like an open and shut case. Yet if the moral lens is dusted off and this case is given another, more scrutinising look, the Doctor’s decision begins to appear in a different light.

The Doctor was well aware that the slightest discovery of the TARDIS and its technology, or even his own strikingly alien physiology, by Earth authorities could lead to all manner of dangerous consequences. Further to his defence, he had taken the measure of camouflaging the TARDIS and locating it in a quiet, out-of-the-way place. Perhaps allowing his granddaughter Susan to attend a local school, attracting unwanted attention in the process, was a imprudent choice, but having recognised that his position was compromised the Doctor took the only option available to him. To have left Barbara and Ian on Earth might have created future problems and an even more serious state of affairs than taking them with him. Careless kidnapper or guardian of history, the moral lens leaves its confused user to come to their own conclusion.

Despite conflicting claims and arguments to the contrary, the Doctor’s interfering actions were almost always for the best of reasons and for the best of consequences, thus linking together more than one moral position. In summary, therefore, the Doctor would appear to be morally right to interfere in the affairs of other peoples, times and places. Of course it could be argued that this conclusion is both hasty and wrong, and that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. In this sense there is no final, lasting answer, revealing how befogged and obscured the vision of the moral lens can become, and why it is perhaps such a perplexing and yet beguiling instrument.

Self-sacrifice, duty and the right to interfere barely scratch the surface of the ethical issues available to the moral lens. It is a multi-directional device, enabling its user to survey no end of moral vistas, whether broad or narrow, with a keen eye. It is also quite capable of supplying some much needed depth to those narratives which feel humdrum and routine. Undoubtedly its use is in no way essential to the enjoyment of Doctor Who, but without it the probing of a plot or analysis of an adventure would be that little bit less intriguing. So why not unpack the moral lens and take another look at one of the Doctor’s many exploits. You might just find that this uncommon tool raises the odd question you’ve never asked yourself before, and if it only manages to succeed in performing this small task its use will have not been in vain.

© Copyright Jez Strickley & Doctor Who Online, 2007.
 Page Last Updated: 29/1/2009

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Written by:
Jez Strickley



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