Warning, this column has spoilers for Doctor Who season 4, including the two final episodes.
This year at WisCon, the feminist science fiction convention, I was on a panel called Martha Jones: Made of Awesome or Disappointing Stereotype? I had hoped we would explore the different fan reactions to the way the writers handled Martha’s character, story arcs, and race. The panel didn’t turn out as I expected, but something Chris Hill said sparked a thought. He mentioned feeling that the Doctor’s character was uneven–sometimes he’s incredibly cruel and judgmental and other times he’s compassionate and reluctant to do harm. My response was that I didn’t see this as unevenness, I saw it as purposeful part of his character. I truly feel, particularly after the events of Season 4, that the writers want us to think that the Doctor is a complicated and deeply flawed person. He is, to be blunt, a jerk.
The Doctor may not recognize this about himself, but judging from the interviews contained in the Doctor Who: Confidential episodes, the writers and the actor do. I’d go so far as to say that they expect the audience to feel this way, too. Not that they want the viewers to hate the Doctor, but to understand that, for all his running around the universe and time making things ‘better’, he isn’t always right. That’s what makes him such a great character and hero–he’s as flawed as we are and has just as much trouble admitting that to himself and others.
In Season 3, the Doctor sometimes acts horribly to Martha. Fans pointed out his propensity to yell at or speak harshly to her, his initial “just one trip” nonsense, and the complete thoughtlessness in bringing her to pre-WWI England (where her life would be far more complicated by her race) when he was hiding in “Human Nature”. In the last episode, he recognizes that but never verbally acknowledges it. It isn’t until Season 4 when he tells Donna how things went wrong with Martha and that it was all his fault that the viewers get solid confirmation that he understood that at all. Unfortunately, he didn’t say it to the person it affected.
He fixes Jack’s wristband so he can hop through time and teleport in “The Sound of Drums”, but in the end of season 3 (and again in season 4) he takes that ability away claiming that “I can’t have you running around with a teleporting time machine.” Why not, exactly? Why is the Doctor the only one allowed to travel through time at will? There he goes being a jerk again.
In the very first episode after the Doctor’s regeneration into #10 (David Tennant) he accuses Harriet Jones of committing genocide as if that’s something he would never do. We know better. Even Rose knows better, though she gives Harriet an evil look, too. And for a moment, even I was tisking her. But just for a moment.
My initial instinct to side with the Doctor (before realizing he was being a huge hypocrite) is probably shared with many viewers. He is, after all, the hero of the show. He, very often, is an exemplar of what we should aspire to–bravery, intelligence, compassion, willing to do and stand up for what is right. American audiences, especially, are used to feeling that whatever the hero/heroine or protagonist of a story feels is right and correct, the writers are saying we should also feel is right and correct. However, what if that wasn’t the case? What if, instead, the writers are presenting us with a character that we aren’t always meant to agree with? Perhaps I’m giving the Who team too much credit, but I think they are trying to create a character that has depth and flaws but is not all flaw and wrongness. That would be too easy and not nearly as interesting.
Look at the scene in “Journey’s End” (Season 4 finale) when Davros points out that the Doctor has turned all of his companions into weapons. “They’re trying to help,” the Doctor said, weakly defending himself, but he knew Davros was right. That countless people had died, sacrificed, and killed in his name. Yes, many of them were better people because of it. Rose realized a potential she might never have if not for her traveling; Jack was a coward and a con artist, now he’s a hero of a different mold; Martha was already going places, but her experiences opened up avenues she would never have known existed. But still, when Davros called him “the man who keeps running, never looking back, because he dare not. Out of shame,” he wasn’t wrong. When Russell T Davies wrote that, he wasn’t just creating some standard villain-speak. He was showing viewers the kind of character he (and the other creative team) created and saying: I meant to do that.
And even though the Doctor’s soul is laid bare by one of his greatest enemies so that he can’t help but face it, he keeps on being who he is. Doctor-clone has to go off to an alternate universe because “he’s too dangerous to be left on his own.” And who would know better? Passing judgment on himself is so meta, and yet oddly appropriate. It could be said that the Doctor was so tired of seeing the truths about himself that having a mirror of that around would have driven him off the deep end. But what he does next is, to many fans, inexcusable.
He takes away Donna’s memories of him and everything she’s done since she landed in the TARDIS on her wedding day in order to ‘save’ her. And he does this against her stated will. No matter how much the Doctor might say that he did it for her own good so that she wouldn’t die, Donna said ‘no’ knowing that it meant her death. Anything was better, she felt, than going back to the way she was before. And the Doctor did it anyway. Because that’s the kind of man he is.
It was a selfish thing to do. And confirms that, despite everything else that happened in the episode, he would remain who he was: a wonderful, amazing, selfish, thoughtless man burdened by survivor’s guilt and crushing loneliness. The destroyer of worlds. It’s no excuse for acting like a jerk, sometimes, but it’s certainly a reason.