In March, an article of mine was published at the online science fiction magazine Strange Horizons. I’m reprinting it here.
In the last scene of the Doctor Who episode “The Waters of Mars,” the Doctor’s TARDIS lands in a picturesque neighborhood, with a lamp post shining through the gently falling snow. The Doctor emerges from the TARDIS with Captain Adelaide and her assistants Mia and Yuri, having just saved them from an explosive and fiery death.
“Isn’t anyone going to thank me?” he asks.
It’s just like every other happy ending, except they are all staring at him with shock and horror. Mia cries, “Who the hell are you?” and then turns and flees.
They’re looking at a superhero who has just tossed aside humanity in order to pursue ultimate power, making the choice of evil over good. This is a first for the Doctor. In all his years on television, while the Doctor has been occasionally possessed, sometimes mistaken, sometimes too greedy or too eager to sacrifice somebody else for the greater good, he has never been evil.
Can the Doctor be saved?
The Myth of the Hero
This question goes beyond Doctor Who, because the story of the Doctor is an expression of the universal hero myth. This myth, explored by Carl Jung and his colleagues and students such as Joseph L. Henderson and Joseph Campbell, is based on an “archetype”—a pattern hard-coded into the unconscious parts of our minds. The archetype is the same for everyone, identical across time and space, but it gives rise to dreams and myths that are specific to every culture.
The superhero story is a myth for our time, for a world threatened by war, nuclear devastation, climate change, and species extinction. We need the superhero to give us hope, to bring out the best in ourselves, and to change the world for the better.
And the Doctor is an extremely compelling superhero. Doctor Who has been capturing the imagination of millions of viewers since its beginnings in 1963 as a children’s show. Kids watched the show from behind the couch, clinging to their beloved Doctor to save them from the monsters. When they grew up, they found the real monsters to be more terrifying than the make-believe ones, and they needed the archetype of the hero even more.
In 1989, when the BBC canceled the show, the Doctor Who mythos changed and grew. Fans took matters into their own hands and kept the Doctor Who universe going in fanzines, novels, and audio plays, and then in 2005, they brought the show back and became its writers, producers, and directors. The Doctor had entered their dreams, and they brought their dreams back to the show, along with six years’ worth of stories. Now it is watched by more than ten million people in forty-two countries, it has secured a number of Hugo nominations and awards, and it has been named by the Guinness Book of World Records as “the most successful science fiction series.”
Another generation of children will grow up with the Doctor. The show has remained faithful to its younger viewers, being careful not to terrify them too much. But at the same time, the show has begun to explore the demonic side of the hero myth, in which the hero succumbs to hubris and becomes a danger to the whole universe (Henderson 101-107). It is asking the grown-up questions that need to be asked. Can we really count on our superheroes? We need them to be powerful enough to fight our villains and win, but what do we do if our heroes become villains themselves?
ere is an inherent contradiction in superhero fiction. The stronger the villains are, the more powerful the superhero must become. And the worse the situation, the more serious the consequences of the superhero’s actions. Unless stopped, the superhero crosses a line and becomes not our protector but our villain.
The original Doctor Who show, which ran from 1963 to 1989, largely dodged the superhero contradiction, focusing on the bright side of hero mythos. The new show, however, has been exploring it since the very first episode, “Rose.” In this episode, we learn that he is the last of the Time Lords, a race of people with the ability to manipulate time. His heritage leaves him with abilities far greater than those of his human traveling companions, and he uses these abilities for the greater good. When the last member of an alien species threatens all life on earth, the Doctor must kill it, thus completing the extinction of a species.
In the eye of the viewer, he keeps his “good guy” status because he had no choice; he is a savior of Earth and not a destroyer. We all want our heroes to be good, and we are willing to cut them some slack if the enemy threat is great enough. So the danger to the universe has to be upped. In “Forest of the Dead,” his companion-to-be River Song sings his praises:
“Everybody knows that everybody dies, and nobody knows it like the Doctor. But I do think that all the skies of all the worlds might just turn dark if he ever for one minute accepts it.”
If he’s the only one who can save the universe, he must be good, right?
We also cut him some slack when there are casualties. Often in Doctor Who, the only way to stop the bad guy is through a sacrifice. And it isn’t often the Doctor who makes it. He is always ready to lay down his life to save the universe, but luckily someone always jumps in his way and dies instead. But is it luck? As the Doctor grows more powerful, we begin to wonder whether he has set up this “sacrifice” in some way.
In “Journey’s End” his archenemy Davros brings the question out in the open.
“How many more? Just think—how many have died in your name?” he asks.
Davros is the creator of a race of genetically modified, emotionless lumps of flesh who travel inside robotic killing machines. They’re called the Daleks, and they have been scaring Doctor Who fans since 1963. The Daleks are treated as the ultimate evil, and Davros as one of the Doctor’s worst villains. But it takes one to know one. As a villain, Davros understands the side of the Doctor that has abused his power.
Even worse, the Doctor often lets other people do his dirty work. In “Journey’s End,” the Daleks have built an empire, moved the planet Earth halfway across the galaxy, and used it to fashion a “reality bomb,” which will annihilate this universe and every other. They have seemingly destroyed the Doctor’s TARDIS and have trapped him and his companion within their vault. All hope seems to be lost. But wait! His past companions, who have been molded by their time with the Doctor, turn up with various tools of mass destruction to stop the Daleks, including a detonator switch for a set of nuclear explosives buried under the Earth’s crust.
Davros points out that the Doctor has made this happen. He says:
“The man who abhors violence, never carrying a gun, but this is the truth, Doctor: you take ordinary people and you fashion them into weapons. Behold your children of time, transformed into murderers.”
At this, the Doctor bows his head in shame. Because it’s true.
Lonely at the Top
This accusation is a turning point for the Doctor. He now knows that he is capable of using people as tools, if a villain pushes him to the edge. Superheroes must have human connectedness in order to stay grounded, and to stay involved with the people they are saving. Unfortunately, if a superhero is more powerful than anyone or anything, it is impossible to have a relationship of equals, and this means the superhero must be fundamentally alone and perpetually lonely.
The Doctor has always traveled with companions, but he’s lost them all, usually as a consequence of his adventures. Donna Noble is the latest of his companions, and her loss is one of the saddest. After showing the Doctor his “children of time, transformed into murderers,” Davros begins to detonate the reality bomb. But even trapped, the Doctor is more powerful than ever. His unseen hand has been hard at work—literally, a disembodied extra hand, kept in a vat in his TARDIS. The hand gives Time Lord powers to Donna, which she uses to stop the Daleks. And it creates a human Doctor, who ends up killing the Daleks. This proves Davros right: the hand of the Doctor did indeed fashion people into weapons.
As a result, Donna suffers a tragedy. The Doctor’s superpowers are too much for her human body. In order to prevent her death, the Doctor must erase all memories of their time together.
As they have many times before, his superhero powers hurt his friends and cost him their companionship. He’s in a double bind: he needs people to keep him sane, but he can’t have a lasting relationship with any of them.
So, two episodes later, in “Planet of the Dead,” he decides never to have another companion. Lady Christina, who has just helped him save the earth from a swarm of metallic locusts, says, “Right then. Off we go. Come on, Doctor, show me the stars!”
But he refuses. “People have traveled with me and I’ve lost them. Lost them all. Never again.”
But this, as we learn in “The Waters of Mars,” is not a possibility. The Doctor is too dangerous to be left alone.
A Hero’s Fall from Grace
The fall of the Doctor in “The Waters of Mars” comes from a combination of his being all-powerful and having no connection to people. Having lost all his companions, he goes to Mars and meets up with the first colonists, a group of people he has always revered. But he knows their future: they must die in order to ensure the survival of the human race. Captain Adelaide’s granddaughter, inspired by her brave sacrifice, is meant to lead humanity to the stars. So the Doctor leaves the colonists to their deaths, walking out of their dome as explosions and fire destroy the colony. A blast knocks him down to the ground. It’s the last straw. The grief over the loss of his people, the Time Lords, finally breaks him.
He marches back into the dome to save the day, but it’s all wrong. The more desperately he tries to save the colonists, the more berserk he becomes. Adelaide asks him why he’s saving them right after he said he couldn’t.
In a fit of hysteria and rage, he explains:
“There are laws of time. And once upon a time there were people in charge of those laws, but they died, they all died. Do you know who that leaves? Me! It’s taken me all these years to realize the laws of time are mine. And they will obey me!”
That’s it. He’s lost his grounding in his connections to others, and he realizes he no longer has to follow the Time Lords’ rules; they’re all dead. All he has left is power. And, being the one and only Time Lord, he knows that he has no one to contend with for power over time. He sees himself in a battle against time itself, and he thinks he can win. But what happens if he does? The more he tries to rewrite history, the more the timelines will break, until, like a little boy knocking down a tower of blocks in a fit of frustration, he will annihilate the universe.
So he has (or thinks he has) ultimate power, but it turns out to be a double edged sword. Those whom he saves perish; those whom he loves break from him; and no one remains to save him from his own chthonic urges. What good is it, then?
This question has great implications for our world. Over the last century, those in power in our world have started wars, built nuclear weapons, and resisted attempts to slow global warming. Is that strength, or is it weakness?
Once the Doctor decides that he alone owns the laws of time, he cannot stop himself from using his power and becoming his own worst villain.
Who Can Stop the Superhero?
He’s got to be stopped. But if he’s the most powerful man in the universe, who can do it?
Adelaide. Where he has power, she has strength. When he crosses the line and intentionally endangers the human race, she destroys his legitimacy as a superhero, withdraws her consent for him to act on her behalf, and backs up her lack of consent with direct action.
Adelaide is puzzled by his change of heart. After the Doctor brings the colonists back to Earth and Mia runs off, Adelaide questions him until she understands his motivations. Why did he save her, knowing it might endanger the human race?
He brushes her off. “Different details, but the story’s the same.”
“You can’t know that! And if my family changes, the whole of history could change! The future of the human race! No one should have that much power!”
Where before the Doctor acted in a panic, now he is cool and collected. This is more frightening than his previous hysteria. He gazes at her with utter confidence and says, “Tough.”
Adelaide backs away, thus exposing to the viewing audience his loss of superhero status. Although he doesn’t know it yet, she has just taken away some of his power. Adelaide, the true hero of this episode, refuses to recognize the Doctor’s actions as good.
“You should have left us there,” she says.
“Adelaide, I’ve done this sort of thing before. In small ways, saved some little people. But never someone as important as you. Oh, I’m good!”
This is another turning point for the Doctor. He’s fallen to the sin of pride, which, according to Carl Jung’s associate Joseph L. Henderson, dooms the hero to death. Henderson found a universal pattern in the myths he studied: the hero’s “triumphant struggle with the forces of evil, his fallibility to the sin of pride (hybris), and his fall through betrayal or a ‘heroic’ sacrifice that ends in his death” (Henderson 101). The Doctor is going to pay, not for saving Adelaide, but for calling people unimportant.
In outrage, Adelaide roars, “Little people! What, like Mia and Yuri? Who decides they’re so unimportant—you?” It is Adelaide’s connection to the other colonists that gives her the emotional strength and the strength of conscience that the Doctor is lacking.
As she continues to question him, she becomes more and more convinced that she must stop him at all costs.
“Is there nothing you can’t do?” she asks.
He stares her down. “Not any more.”
She responds to his dominating gaze by turning her head away, and then she walks into the house, where she shoots herself.
In one way, her death is a loss of power. Too often in movies and books, women kill themselves because they have run out of other options. But here, this sacrifice is highly powerful. Acting on the strength of her convictions and especially her connections to her daughter and granddaughter and the members of her team, she defeats the most powerful man in the universe by reminding him of his own mortal fallibility. She has become a hero in her own right. This sacrifice completes her heroic cycle, which began when she first dared to reach for the stars and ended when she gave her life so her granddaughter could do the same.
And in so doing, she also saves the Doctor from himself. When he realizes that she has foiled his attempts to meddle with the timeline, her accusations echo in his head. “I’ve gone too far,” he says in horror, and then drops to his knees.
“Is this it—my death? Is it time?”
Can We Save the Superhero?
The superhero outreached, became a villain, and was defeated. Does he have to die now?
That’s one end to the hero cycle, and it’s the one Adelaide took. But there’s another according to Campbell: transformation. In the Doctor Who universe, the Doctor never dies for good. When the actor leaves, the Doctor goes through a kind of rebirth, called regeneration. He is still the Doctor, and he still travels in his TARDIS, but he is played by a new actor, with an entirely different personality, and often different companions as well. That’s why the Doctor has stayed fresh and relevant for forty-six years.
But this time, the transformation isn’t easy. Now that the Doctor has shown the worst side of himself, he must battle his personal demons, suffer the consequences of his actions, and redeem himself. In the two-part special “The End of Time,” he comes face to face with his worst enemies: the Master and the Time Lords. They exist on the physical plane, threatening the universe with annihilation, but also represent his personal demons. The Master is the Doctor’s shadow, while the Time Lords personify the Doctor at the height of his hubris.
We all know the motif of the hero battling personal demons and performing a heroic sacrifice to stop them, so we expect the Doctor to die gloriously while fighting the Master and the Time Lords. But that isn’t quite what happens. The Doctor does have a spectacular battle with his foes. But in the middle of the dramatic action, the Doctor’s companion Wilfred quietly performs a small heroic act. He sees a man trapped in a chamber that will later fill with deadly radiation, screaming for help. Wilfred knows he can release the man by entering an adjacent chamber and locking himself in, and he does it without a second thought.
When the Doctor’s battle is over and his foes defeated, it’s almost as if he has vanquished his personal demons. But he hasn’t. He’s still suffering from hubris, and he still has to pay the price for calling Mia and Yuri “little people.”
So he sees Wilfred trapped in the chamber. He immediately understands the price for saving Wilfred: entering an adjacent chamber and taking the radiation into his own body. He was prepared to sacrifice himself in glorious battle, but this is different.
“Look at you,” he rages, still in thrall to pride and ambition, “not remotely important. But me—I could do so much more!”
But then he collects himself and understands what he has lost over the course of his recent adventures: his respect for humanity. “Lived too long,” the Doctor whispers. Choosing to save Wilfred’s life rather than his own, he steps into the chamber to be flooded with radiation.
With this sacrifice, the Doctor redeems himself. But it wouldn’t have been possible without Wilfred’s help. Just as Adelaide saves the Doctor from power, Wilfred saves the Doctor from his own hubris.
This regeneration is more final than any other. Previous regenerations have often been mere changes of body, but earlier in “The End of Time,” the Doctor describes it as death. “Even if I change, it feels like dying. Everything I am dies, some new man goes sauntering away, and I’m dead.” In this regeneration, the Doctor makes a clean break with his past self and bids farewell to all the companions he’s known. Even the TARDIS begins to break apart and crash. He dies and is reborn as a whole new Doctor.
The Hero Cycle Begins Anew
When the Doctor returns in the spring of 2010, the hero myth will begin anew. Doctor Who will have a brand new showrunner, Hugo award-winning Stephen Moffat, who brings his own vision of the hero myth to Doctor Who. And the Doctor will be played by Matt Smith, who is the youngest Doctor in the show’s history.
Because he’s regenerated, he no longer has to be consumed by a desire for power or wracked with grief over his lost companions and Time Lords.
How will the new writers handle the superhero contradiction? Stephen Moffat hints at his vision for the Doctor in an interview for the science fiction blog io9. The Doctor, he says, doesn’t really have godlike powers. “Underneath it all, he’s a bloke. He ‘s a man. He’s just a man with a time machine who is brilliant at convincing people of things. . . . He’s the man who never gives up, and that’s his super-power.”
Moffat’s vision of the Doctor suggests that he won’t push the superhero contradiction to its limit by giving the Doctor absolute power. Even so, the contradiction won’t go away—the fall to hubris is always part of the heroic cycle—and how the Doctor escapes its fatal conclusion will be a continuing source of suspense. Yet the writers and producers will need to be careful to maintain the balance between power and powerlessness, strength and weakness. How can they do this?
First, they’ll need to resist the temptation to expand the Doctor’s superpowers to defeat ever more terrible monsters. It’s just as thrilling to see him win in his moments of powerlessness. When he’s running for his life, begging for mercy, putting his life in the hands of his friends, and even breaking down in tears, that’s when he becomes, paradoxically, the strongest.
Second, they’ll have to prove that the Doctor is not, as Davros claims, responsible for all the deaths and sacrifices around him. That’s only possible when there is a more powerful entity capable of influencing events. There’s plenty of precedent for that—the original series had the Chronovores, the Eternals, and the Guardians, and the new series has the Reapers. More importantly, time itself has often been a force to be reckoned with, surprising even the Doctor.
And third, they can give the Doctor a relationship of greater equality with his companions, so that he won’t be capable of manipulating them and so that the job of saving the universe will never fall on his shoulders alone. There’s precedent for this as well. Doctor Who has had a long history of strong companions, both male and female, who provide a counterbalance to his power and who reveal the Doctor’s emotional vulnerability. They have their own hero cycles and their own heroic acts. They are almost always active participants in the action, and sometimes, like Adelaide, they steal the show, taking the mantle of the hero and wearing it when he can’t.
So yes, the superhero can be saved. But only when we are able to stop him (or her). Only when we are in a relationship of equals with our superhero.
This won’t take as much effort as we may think. It is not a change in the material conditions of our lives, so much as a change in how we view our heroes. As we discovered, in the moment of the Doctor’s greatest power, he was at the same time the very weakest. His companion was stronger than him then, just as we can be stronger than the heroes we revere—so long as we remember that the hero myth isn’t about someone “out there” who’s going to save us, but about ourselves. It’s about relying on our own connections to our friends and families instead of “going it alone” or depending on someone else’s power and influence. And it’s about listening to members of our own community for a voice of conscience in order to forestall our own descent into hubris.
Which makes us the superheroes. It’s not about the Doctor, not really. It’s not about the Doctor saving us. It’s about us becoming the heroes, us saving the Doctor, us saving the world.
Once we understand the nature of power, we’ll have our superheroes. For keeps.
List of Works Cited
Anders, Charlie Jane. “Exclusive Interview With Doctor Who’s Steven Moffat.” io9. 24 Jul 2008. Retrieved 6 Jan 2010.
Campbell, Joseph and Bill Moyers. The Power of Myth. New York: Doubleday. 1988. 123-163.
“The End of Time.” Doctor Who. Two-part special. Broadcast 25 Dec 2009 and 1 Jan 2010.
Henderson, Joseph L. “Ancient Myths and Modern Man.” Man and His Symbols. Ed. Carl G. Jung. Aldus Books, Limited. 1964.
“Journey’s End.” Doctor Who. Broadcast 5 Jul 2008.
Jung, Carl G. “Approaching the Unconscious.” Man and His Symbols. Ed. Carl G. Jung. Aldus Books, Limited. 1964.
“Rose.” Doctor Who. Broadcast 26 Mar 2005.
Copyright © 2010 Kristin King