Do super-heroic beings have to be “good” to be great? Who defines “good”? And is “good” a luxury for some?
I have explored my enormous love for science-fiction and fantasy elsewhere, in other meditations, and even specifically talked about my adoration for Doctor Who, both ancient (so to speak) and modern. It can’t help it, however, that this show is one of those gifts that keeps on giving and I find myself pondering, again, on questions, or at least one question, raised by the eighth series (since the revival, at least) of this seemingly indomitable journey into the far reaches of space and depths of the human soul.
It’s been a different turn, this time around, and a lot of the differing attitude can be traced to the different energy that Peter Capaldi brings to the role of the Doctor, as compared to Matt Smith or David Tennant, especially, but I find that he has an even gruffer, more irascible way about him than Chris Eccleston’s Ninth Doctor, already one of the harsher, less cuddly renditions of the character. Twelve is, in fact, nigh unto as difficult to deal with as the Sixth Doctor and he is widely—and perhaps rightly—regarded as an absolute bastard. Twelve is not quite so fiercely unpleasant but just as his face carries more lines than Eleven’s his soul seems to sag under the weight of his age and expectations. He wants to believe the best of humans, like the Doctor always has, but he has been disappointed so frequently that the eternal optimism is starting to get a little bit difficult.
The series’ central question, which the Doctor has asked Clara on more than one occasion, is a great one for this space. “Am I a good man?” It’s not rhetorical; for all his age, the universal knowledge swirling under those grey curls, the Doctor doesn’t seem to know. Clara doesn’t either—although she believes that he is trying and that this is the crux of the matter. The Doctor is not convinced and, late in the season, when Clara is forced to step into his role and she asks, afterward, if she was a good Doctor. He proclaims that she was an excellent Doctor but refuses to attach the label “good” to the title, believing perhaps that to be the Doctor one has to step beyond the binary categories of morality and into the grey, not in a Nietzschean sense, perhaps, but in that he (or she, when carrying the TARDIS around in her purse during this occasion when it was much bigger on the inside) and be willing to do the ruthless calculus which can make sacrifices even if one suffers for them. The Doctor, he seems to imply, has neither the luxury of being a good man nor the sense of satisfaction it bring; he must always, first and foremost, be the Doctor. It raises a good question about the morality of super-heroic beings in general and lingers now as much as it did when books like Watchmen were being published because it has not yet been answered.
Our hero, however, is not the only one who has asked this question of himself and others, this series, struggling with it. Although the Doctor constantly dismisses him as a P.E. teacher (he’s not one), and he’s used more as a plot device than anything else—which is sad considering how his relationship with the weird, secret life of the imperfect, interesting Impossible Girl could have been explored in the future—Danny Pink is a fascinating character in this regard. He provides a good contrast to the Doctor in that he does attempt, at least, to provide an answer for the morality of his actions and interior climate in a personal sense. When he hears, from Clara and others, the gossip about how he has killed an innocent person in Afghanistan, during an incident in the fog of war, he explodes that he also built twenty-three wells and that no one ever says anything about them. He may not consider this a completely valid counterbalance to the wrong he has done—the fatal mistake he made soured him on the military and led to him going to work as a maths teacher at Coal Hill School, instead, a signifier which could represent how an important part of him was severely damaged—but instead of allowing his wounds to paralyze him or simply ignoring them (as the Doctor has by pushing questions of morality aside as different from the needs, causes and effects of his actions) Danny has attempted to process the things that have happened to him, fuse them into a coherent view of the world and his self and move forward.
This is, I imagine, probably where most of us sit. We do not, if we are sound mind, dodge the question with quite the Doctor’s nimble panache. Nor are most of us as satisfied with ourselves as the face on Nelson’s statue, high up on his pole in Trafalgar Square. No, more of us are like poor Mr. Pink… we’ve all done things, maybe things we aren’t proud of or that we couldn’t avoid, or both, but we’ve usually done a bit of good, too, and the enduring struggle and hope is that we can manage a fusion of them into something called a functioning human. I don’t know if we’ll make it, but maybe a P.E. (er, maths) teacher can help show us the way.