Retreating into mercy

"The Doctor - Painting" | Art by Lasse17. Used with permission.

One of the main characteristics that makes the Doctor a unique sci-fi hero is his non-violence in the face of danger. Whereas Han Solo prefers a good blaster (and shoots first!) and Mal reckons a good ol’ punch in the face will resolve a problem better than yammering ever could, the Doctor uses intelligence and reasoning, luck and audacity (and sonic devices) to vanquish his often brutal enemies—the Daleks, Cybermen, and even the Master. Since the show’s original premiere on November 23, 1963 (a day after the assassination of US president John F. Kennedy shocked the world), there has been much made of the Doctor’s refusal to meet violence with violence like a more traditional “heroic” character.

The two-part episode, “Human Nature/ The Family of Blood” from the third series of the reboot offers a deep reflection on the Doctor’s non-violence. Here the Doctor is merciful, while John Smith (the human he transforms into in order to hide from the Family of Blood, an alien race hunting his life essence), is not. As a human, John Smith is a “good man” but flawed, predictably returning violence for violence—like so many of us do. 

The Doctor knows he can win, but opts to lose himself in order to avoid destroying his “enemies.”

At the beginning of the episode (written by Paul Cornell and based on his own Seventh Doctor novel, Human Nature), we find the Tenth Doctor living as a teacher in an early Edwardian British public school under his well-worn alias, John Smith. He has repressed his Time Lord identity into a fob watch, forgotten all but dreams of his adventures. He and his companion Martha are in hiding, on the run from the Family.

It is not until the end of the episode, after the Doctor returns to his Gallifreyan form, that the Son of the Family, having been defeated and locked in time by the Doctor, recognizes the reason for the Doctor’s retreat into hiding: “… and then we discovered why, why this Doctor, who had fought with gods and demons, why he’d run away from us and hidden: he was being kind.” The Doctor runs away because he knows he will have to destroy the Family when they catch up to him. He knows he can defeat them, but rather than destroying them, he hides.

The kind retreat of the Doctor contrasts with John Smith’s response to the Family, which is informed by his human circumstances and accepted conventions. Once the Family smells the Time Lord essence and begins killing local villagers, Smith leads his students in a full on military response, complete with sandbag blockades, rifles, and machine guns. Set only a few short months from the outbreak of World War I—a reality the show reminds us of through flash forwards—watching schoolboys acting as soldiers is unnerving.

With the trenches never far from the viewer’s mind, John Smith’s actions are an understandable cultural response in the wake of the murderous Family. However, when the school’s headmaster is killed by the youngest Family member, Smith refuses to endanger his students further. Recognizing how outmatched they are, he demands the students set down their weapons and retreat. Unlike the Doctor’s retreat, Smith’s retreat is made out of fear. He knows the school cannot defend itself against the superior weapons of the aliens. Smith retreats in an attempt to save as many of the boys’ lives as he can because he knows all hope is lost.

John Smith is a “good man” but flawed, predictably returning violence for violence—like so many of us do.

The Doctor’s retreat is characterized by self-sacrifice: he knows he can win, but opts to lose himself in order to avoid destroying his “enemies.” Even after defeating the Family, the Doctor shows mercy and avoids typical “heroics,” which demand an eye for an eye. Rather than killing them, and exacting “vengeance” the Doctor brings “justice,” imprisoning each member of the family separately for eternity—one in unbreakable chains; one in an event horizon of a collapsing galaxy; one in a mirror, every mirror; one frozen in time as a scarecrow watching over the fields.

In rejecting violence and retribution, the Doctor’s actions defy accepted conventions of heroic behaviour. It is ironic that the Doctor is only able to react this way as a Time Lord, and not as a human. His actions point to a better way of living and conflict resolution, one just beyond our “human nature,” but one we should be continually reaching for.

Michael Boyce

Michael Boyce

Contributing Writer at Area of Effect
Michael W. Boyce is afflicted with severe boredom because he has a brain the size of a planet and he seldom gets the chance to use it at its full capacity. He boasts of a Ravenclaw education and we consider him to be our Yoda.

Michael teaches English Literature and Film Studies. He is a professor at Booth University College in Winnipeg and his other publications are scholarly works. He's published on Hitchcock, Alec Guinness and James Bond. He likes coffee. A lot. And Jonah Ray follows him on Twitter.
Michael Boyce