Few television shows could ever dream of living up to the ongoing legacy of the BBC’s Doctor Who. The children’s-program-turned-international-phenomenon has been delighting audiences around the world for over 50 years, with fans spanning generations. But Doctor Who hasn’t shied away from pushing cultural envelopes, featuring strong female characters that challenge sexist norms and frequently introducing characters at various points on the sexuality spectrum. Without calling great attention to deviations from other mainstream representations, Doctor Who has managed to walk a fine line between challenging society and not alienating viewers.
One such issue on which Doctor Who walks that fine line is the role of war and the military in creating peace. For The Doctor, the military is almost without exception a negative force, feeding into us vs them dichotomies that make his own efforts to save the world much more difficult. The Doctor and his companions are often at odds with armies and those who lead the troops, sometimes due to conflicting ideas of best practices and other times due to the military targeting The Doctor himself. The hero of the series and military personnel are always distant, often antagonistic, and never fully comfortable in each other’s presence. Given the often reflexive acceptance of defense organizations in media, The Doctor’s resistance to joining forces with those who make war is a strong repudiation of the necessity of violent conflict.
In “Into The Dalek,” the second episode of Peter Capaldi’s first series as The Doctor, viewers were shown a much more explicit rejection of the military than before. When faced with working alongside a soldier and introduced to companion Clara’s new ex-military love interest, The Doctor’s stance was made unequivocally clear. The military are the ones with the guns, the ones to whom all others are expected to defer, and the ones who react with brute strength rather than logic. Danny Pink, a soldier-turned-math teacher, is a constant target for The Doctor’s own biases towards military personnel. Even after Journey Blue proves herself by helping The Doctor, he refuses to take her with him because she is a soldier.
I think you’re probably nice. Underneath it all I think you’re kind and definitely brave. I just wish you hadn’t been a soldier. - The Doctor in Into The Dalek
But the ways in which the show casts the military as a morally ambiguous (at best) force is often less explicit. Many of the villains faced by The Doctor and his companions share key characteristics with military organisations. The often large numbers of troops, uniformity of appearance, and well-organised formations in movement all create the immediate impression of armies, a word that is often invoked when describing masses of Daleks or Cybermen. The behaviour of these villains is also military-esque, with an emphasis on moral rigidity, the absolute authority of leaders, and a total lack of flexibility to deviate from the intended mission. This is in contrast to The Doctor’s own lightning-fast reactions and changes in plan, and differentiate the power of human emotion from the machine-like violence that defines The Doctor’s most prominent nemeses.
Earth’s armies, thus, are immediately tainted by these similarities. Even before they argue with The Doctor or attempt to use weapons of mass destruction due to protocol, soldiers and the hierarchy that guides them are cast as less flexible and less human than The Doctor and his allies. The Doctor is always faster and cleverer than any given military leader, including Winston Churchill. In “Victory of the Daleks”, The Doctor shows up the legendary Churchill by immediately recognising the Daleks as a threat, seeing through their overtures to the British government. Churchill, blinded by the chance of an advantage, resists The Doctor’s advice until the last possible moment.
It’s not just the military that catches The Doctor’s continued ire. Religious organisations are often linked with the military, making them either complicit or active participants in warfare. The Silence, the Headless Monks, the Church of the Papal Mainframe — all explore the link between religion and war, and suggest that The Doctor finds contempt in any organisation that relies on unquestioned faith to a hierarchical order. In “The God Complex” and “The Doctor’s Daughter”, religion is portrayed as an overwhelming force that can lead to death if unquestioned and unchallenged. The latest series goes a step further, building commentary on military and featuring teases at a subplot including heaven and a God figure, until bringing the plotlines together into a vicious and destructive war.
The futility of war is a central theme in some of the most powerful episodes of the series reboot. In “The Doctor’s Daughter”, The Doctor, Martha, and Donna visit Messaline, where entire generations are killed each day in the name of a pointless (as both sides learn) war. In the two-part “Human Nature” and “Family of Blood”, a battle at a rural all-boys school in 1913 is juxtaposed against the First World War. In “The Hungry Earth” and “Cold Blood”, The Doctor goes to great lengths to ensure the Silurians and the humans avoid entering a needless war. In these episodes, The Doctor acts as a catalyst trying to save warring species from themselves.
But The Doctor’s desired role of saviour is often tarnished by his own history and actions. A far cry from the hyper-logical and peaceful hero he may wish he is, The Doctor’s complex relationship with warfare is a source of guilt, self-doubt, and regret. Although the fate of Gallifrey is currently unknown following the 50th anniversary episode, The Doctor’s hand in killing his own people in order to end a larger war is a defining character point since the reboot. He also rejects the use of weaponry associated with the military, particularly guns, perhaps in part due to a moral obligation following his own use of a weapon of mass destruction.
For all the good The Doctor has done, his legacy across time and space was called into question during Matt Smith’s tenure. In “A Good Man Goes To War,” many of The Doctor’s assumed virtues are challenged as his friends and allies rally around him to save Amy Pond. While The Doctor has always eschewed weapons in favour of clever tricks and negotiation, his friends are often willing to step in when brute strength is needed and many die as a result. He often demands unquestioning loyalty from companions, instructing them to “do as they are told” when they challenge his authority. The aftermath of The Doctor’s visits to various planets is invoked by the many places recruits have come from to fight him. River Song challenges The Doctor directly on his legacy, pointing out that the very meaning of the word “doctor” is tied to him, but means “warrior” on some planets. Even The Doctor’s iconic move of choice — running away — is turned on its head as he ridicules an officer as “Colonel Runaway,” casting a negative light on something that is often treated with humour and brevity when undertaken by The Doctor himself. Rather than being the antithesis of an organised military, The Doctor has morphed into an army in his own right.
When you began all those years ago, sailing off to see the Universe, did you ever think you’d become this? The man who can turn an army around at the mention of his name. - River Song in A Good Man Goes To War
As much commentary on the nature of war as the complex nature of personal morality, the relationship between The Doctor and the military is a nuanced shade of grey rather than black-and-white. The Doctor, who prides himself on split-second decisions and an almost non-human level of humanity, is unbending in his rejection of the military. Haunted by his own past, his sense of wonder and awe at the universe does not extend to those with whom he associates wanton and unnecessary destruction, even as he travels through time and space leaving a legacy marred by death. The military is both a simplification of the moral conundrum of war facing modern society, and a mirror in which The Doctor is forced to confront his own failings. This ability to push cultural envelopes while providing regular opportunities for reflection on deeper linkages and meanings is the incomparable power of Doctor Who.