“It’s a bit dodgy, this process. You never know what you’re going to end up with.” -The Doctor
It’s summertime, which means it’s the perfect occasion to do things like introduce one’s significant other to Doctor Who, starting with the rather nifty arc of the Ninth Doctor, played with melancholy charm by Christopher Eccleston, and overseen by Russell T. Davies. And when we came to the end of “The Parting Of The Ways,” the climactic episode in which the Doctor sacrifices his ninth incarnation to save Rose Tyler (Billie Piper), the shopgirl turned galactic traveler who seized his offer of a different kind of life and endangered herself to keep the example he set for herself alive, I realized precisely why I was so disappointed by the selection of another white guy as the Twelfth Doctor, and showrunner Steven Moffat’s comment to those who would have liked to see a female Doctor that “I would like to go on record and say that the Queen should be played by a man,” a slap at Helen Mirren’s expression of interest in the role.
Earlier this year, Slate’s Laura Helmuth wrote that “The Doctor’s essential characteristics, the ones that show up in every reincarnation, are intelligence, courage, cleverness, adventurousness to the point of recklessness, and a sentimental affection for humans.” But there’s another characteristic that’s deeply embedded in the Ninth Doctor’s stint on Doctor Who: a suspicion of conformity, particularly when it’s in the name of manufactured tradition or enforced by the media, and a celebration of individuality and curiosity. It’s a critique that could easily be applied to Moffat’s dismissive insistence that the Doctor is as inherently white and male as Elizabeth Windsor, whose job doesn’t happen to involve reincarnation, is white and female.
One of the things that brings the Ninth Doctor the most joy and excitement is the prospect that human beings as a whole are opening up to a wider world, or showing themselves to be brave enough to stand against an overwhelming tide that threatens to swamp them. When it appears that aliens have crash-landed in London, he tells Rose, “So maybe this is it! First contact! The day mankind officially comes into contact with an alien race. I’m not interfering because you’ve GOT to handle this on your own. That’s when the human race finally grows up. Just this morning you were all tiny and small and made of clay! Now you can expand! You don’t need me — go and celebrate history.” Even if the Doctor’s happiness doesn’t last — the spaceship proves to be a decoy planted by an alien family known as the Slitheen who are planning on burning the planet down to its minerals and selling it off as scrap and an energy source — it’s an extraordinary moment of faith in humans to react well to something profoundly beyond the limits of their experience.
Later, in a plot arc set in London during World War II, in which the Doctor and Rose investigate an alien force that is turning Britons into horrifying simulacra of each other, their features replaced by biological gas masks, the Doctor finds something marvelous in the midst of the horror. “Right now, not very far from here, the German war machine is rolling up the map of Europe. Country after country, falling like dominoes. Nothing can stop it, nothing. Until one tiny, damp little island says ‘No. No, not here,’” he reflects, drawing a vision of the future that’s a wonderful gift for people who have been subject to constant bombardment. “A mouse in front of a lion. You’re amazing, the lot of you. I don’t know what you did to Hitler, but you frighten the hell out of me, go on, do what you’ve got to do, save the world.” The thing he’s doing for beat-down Londoners isn’t just telling them that everything will turn out all right. He’s explaining that their will to survive isn’t just prolonging their suffering: it’s an act of admirable defiance and refusal to submit that will quite literally change the world.
It’s no mistake, I think, that these moments of joy come in a series with two very different alien antagonists: the Slitheen, who are a family with a specific culture that one of their number ends up longing to escape, and the Daleks, whose drive to cleanse the universe makes Hitler look like a piker. When the Doctor first encounters a Dalek in the museum of a wealthy collector (who, not coincidentally, privately owns the internet), he explains to the man that if the creature gets loose, it’ll start by exterminating Salt Lake City and head on to the rest of the world. The mogul’s aghast, but the Doctor tells him “it honestly believes they should die. Human beings are different, and anything different is wrong. It’s the ultimate in racial cleansing, and you, Van Statten, you’ve let it loose!” When the Dalek is accidentally contaminated by Rose’s touch, it asks to be ordered to die rather than live as a debased creature that’s capable of feeling empathy.
Later, the Doctor and Rose encounter a resurrected Dalek fleet that’s put human bodies to grotesque use, pulping them and reconstituting the material into new Daleks under the control of an Emperor who’s declared himself a deity. Then Dalek Emperor doesn’t just want to exterminate different life forms: he wants to make them bow to his worldview first. And it seems he’ll get the chance when the Doctor declares himself willing to destroy Earth and the inhabitants of Satellite 5, an enormous orbital station, rather than see them turned physically and mentally into Daleks, if it’s the only way to eliminate the Dalek fleet. “I want to see you become like me. Hail, the Doctor, the Great Exterminator!” the Dalek Emperor goads him when the Doctor puts his hands on the trigger of a weapon that could do precisely that. The Doctor ultimately refuses, choosing what might appear to be weakness but is actually decency, rather than commit genocide. And in a nice little reversal of gender roles it’s Rose who saves him by looking into the Heart of the Tardis and acquiring unimaginable power.
When they met, the Doctor told Rose “I can feel it. The turn of the Earth. The ground beneath our feet is spinnin’ at 1,000 miles an hour and the entire planet is hurtling around the sun at 67,000 miles an hour, and I can feel it. We’re fallin’ through space, you and me, clinging to the skin of this tiny little world, and if we let go… That’s who I am.” Rose, in taking on the power of the time vortex, experiences the same thing. “I can see everything. All that is, all that was, all that ever could be,” she tells the Doctor, coming as close as we’ve ever gotten to being a female incarnation of the Doctor, before he takes on the vortex to save her life, sacrificing his present body with it.
A very different thing happens in the Doctor’s dealings with Margaret Blaine, the alias of an alien who first plans to burn Earth to a crisp along with the other members of her family, and who, after escaping the Doctor’s wrath, resurfaces as Lord Mayor of Cardiff, where she’s hoping to set off a rift that might allow her to escape Earth at last. Margaret’s not a good person — in fact, she’s more than willing to commit genocide in the name of business or self-preservation. But she has at least some lingering potential to be a good person. “There was this girl, just today, young thing,” Margaret tells the Doctor over dinner. “And something of a danger. She was getting too close. I felt the bloodlust rising, just as the family taught me. I was going to kill her without a thought. And then… I stopped. She’s alive somewhere right now. She’s walking around this city because I can change!” Margaret proves personally incapable of throwing off the culture of blood-lust and self-interest in which she was raised (she tells the Doctor she had to kill her first member of a number of a species at 13 at her family’s orders). But she’s willing enough to consider a different life that that the Tardis pushes the reset button on her, reducing her to an egg that the Doctor vows to place with a different family. The desire to do better, and to throw off the worst parts of your culture and your upbringing, is a very powerful thing.
As if this wasn’t enough message, the Ninth Doctor’s stint on Doctor Who includes a very sly riff on the power of culture to reduce humanity to its worst instincts. When Rose and the Doctor first visit what they think is a golden age of humanity, they find instead an Earth that’s been made docile by the programming from Satellite 5. Ultimately, they discover a man called The Editor (Simon Pegg), who explains to them that a large alien embedded in the ceiling of the satellite’s top floor “is in charge of the human race. For almost a hundred years, mankind has been guided and shaped. Its knowledge and ambition strictly controlled, through its broadcast news — edited by my superior, your master, and humanity’s guiding light: The Mighty Jagrafess of the Holy Hadrojassic Maxarodenfoe! I call him Max.”
The Doctor and an employee of Satellite 5 manage to take out the Jagrafess, but when he and Rose return later, they find the station has been re-appropriated after the cessation of broadcasting plunged humans into turmoil and now transmits a variety of extreme game shows in which losing means death. And they’re being distracted away from an even more extreme threat than an alien who wants a cool satellite in which to hang his mass. Humanity, it seems, needs stories. And in the absence of good ones, bad stories can do a great deal of damage indeed.
In this sense, Moffat’s quickness to dismiss the idea that the Doctor could look very different is a similar limit on knowledge and creative ambition. If the big changes the Doctor notes when he regenerates are that he’s got new teeth, that he’s “rude and not ginger,” that “New mouth, new rules. Its like eating after cleaning your teeth. Everything tastes WROOOONNNNG!” then it’s not really true that “You never know what you’re going to end up with.” And in a show dedicated to exploring the whole of space and time with a sense of wonder and openness to the seemingly impossible, that’s a sad limitation.