The writers at Doctor Who have reminded us repeatedly that the Doctor is capable of ferocious violence when provoked and that this capacity is held in check only by strict adherence to clear, absolute moral rules. As he told Madame Kovarian in A Good Man Goes to War, “Good men don’t need rules. Today is not the day to find out why I have so many.”
The Doctor’s faith in that check on his power was shaken last season as he realized, Batman-like, that his legendary battles against the malevolent forces in the universe have encouraged his foes to become more powerful and his allies to become more violent.
This crisis of faith in his own inherent goodness explains why the Doctor said little and did less in last night’s episode.
The story begins with the Doctor, Amy and Rory arriving in a tiny town—Mercy, population 81—on the American frontier five years after the end of the Civil War. The town is being held hostage by an alien cyborg, a casualty of another recently ended civil war on a distant planet. The cyborg demands that the settlers turn over Kahler-Jax, a scientist whose cruel experiments on his countrymen, the cyborg included, led to the end of the brutal conflict. Jax doesn’t just take cover in Mercy, he uses his advanced technology to introduce electricity and cure disease, creating a sense of obligation among several of the settlers who refuse to turn him over.
Players and backstory in place, the story becomes an extended meditation on competing conceptions of justice and morality. The cyborg seeks old testament style eye-for-an-eye justice; the town marshal, war-weary and grateful for Jax’ help, seeks to prevent any further violence; and Jax argues both that his actions during the war have to be judged by the desperate circumstances in which he took them and that his post-war good works should be sufficient penance even if his actions were wrong.
An earlier Doctor would have dismissed the cyborg’s mission as vengeance and demanded that he relent. This Doctor is not so sure. The cyborg responds to the Doctor’s tepid plea that Jax be allowed to stand trial by telling him to mind his own business: “When he starts killing your people, you can use your justice.” Instead of offering a counter-argument, the Doctor walks away.
He approaches Jax enraged, but draws back in confusion when the scientist begins to make his own case, describing 9 years of violence and destruction that ended one week after his ethically-challenged experiments proved successful.
A moment later, in his first and only decisive act of the episode, the Doctor begins to hurl Jax at the cyborg, having decided that the life of someone responsible for so much suffering is not worth the lives of the innocents in town. Amy and the marshal succeed in throwing the Doctor back into a state of confusion, pressing him to adhere to his own strict rules of forgiveness and mercy, no matter the cost.
For the first time, the Doctor must act without the security of knowing that his actions, however difficult, are just. Instead of clear moral choices, he must choose between different mixes of pleasant and unpleasant consequences, each with nothing more than an abstract imperative to recommend them. Faced with the necessity of taking responsibility for his choices, rather than relying on a rulebook to justify himself, the Doctor chokes.
Rather than act, the Doctor chooses to avoid, helping Jax escape to another planet where the cyborg will follow him and the entire drama will repeat itself. In doing so, the Doctor jeopardizes the people unlucky enough to be in Jax’ path, seemingly unconcerned with the safety of those not immediately in front of him. In the end, it’s Jax who makes the hard choice, removing himself from the picture; releasing the Doctor from his dilemma; and saving the cyborg from a life of blood-thirst.
For long time fans of the show (I should say that for me “long time” means since 2005), all of this soul-searching is building to the resolution of a couple centuries’ worth of lessons for the Doctor in how to interact with people as something other than a playful demigod. The Eleventh Doctor’s companions have served not just to stave off loneliness, but to force him to move out of his self-imposed exile and into a life of lasting relationships with mutual obligations. At 1200 years old, the Doctor is finally growing up.