13 Days of Doctor Who: The Doctor as an Anti-hero

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Welcome to the 13 Days of Doctor Who, a blog tour counting down the days until both Santa and the Doctor make their annual Christmas appearances! I’m so psyched to take part in this Whovian celebration. Be sure to check Clara Kensie’s tumblr blog tomorrow for the next stop in the tour–and the bottom of this post for not one, but two Doctor Who giveaways!

And now for the pseudo-Academic Whovian wankery!


I did quite a bit of complaining this past season about the sexism of Moffat’s Who. Although certain characters were eventually redeemed for me, I remained unmoved particularly by Amy Pond’s  story arc, which saw every small movement of growth retconned out of existence in favor of reiteration of the primacy of her marriage, appearance, and sexuality. Amy is shown as a wife first and an individual second; when she finally does get a career, it’s one capitalizes on her looks (and not, say, the hints of tremendous artistic ability that we’ve seen). Even her individuation from the Doctor is marked by her being called by her “married name.”

Nowhere did this seem more clear to me than in “The Girl Who Waited,” in which the Doctor and Rory choose to wipe an older, more independent Amy out of existence in favor of a young Amy more dependent on the two of them. If you sympathize with Older!Amy at all, their actions look monstrous, not heroic–though I thought it clear that we’re meant to sympathize, instead, with the Doctor when he lies to Older!Amy, locks her out of the TARDIS, and essentially kills her. Certainly, the rest of the viewing audience seemed to understand the episode in this way, that the Doctor was just making a difficult, but necessary choice, sacrificing one woman so that the other could continue in her young, married life.

But maybe we’re all reading this episode wrong.

What if the Doctor’s actions weren’t meant to be heroic, in the traditional, morally upstanding sense? What if the characters’ actions aren’t some show of latent sexism on the part of the writers, but rather an astute display of our hero’s very flawed personality? What if Older!Amy’s pronouncements about the Doctor are, rather than the realizations of a broken woman, meant to be right?

[quote]Blue Box Man, flying through time and space on whimsy. All I’ve got, all I’ve had for thirty-six years is cold hard reality. So, no, I don’t have a sonic screwdriver because it’s not. Call it what it is. A probe.[/quote]

“The Woman Who Waited” isn’t the first episode of Who to view the Doctor’s actions or persona as less than heroic. In fact, there’s solid grounding to read the Doctor as an anti-hero, rather than a straight hero, going way back to the Hartnell days.

In the very very first episode of Doctor Who, “An Unearthly Child,” we don’t meet the Doctor himself until the thirteen minute mark. The narrative instead focuses on his granddaughter’s human teachers, Barbara and Ian, as they investigate Susan, their troubled but brilliant student who seems to have a unique understanding of both science and history. The reason for this narrative focus becomes clear when we at long last meet the Doctor. This is not the attractive young rogue we later come to now. The Doctor isn’t even particularly grandfatherly. He is, instead, an old man with a gnarly temper. He hurls insults. He grapples with Ian. He blames his granddaughter for even wanting to intend school, chastising her in front of her teachers. And then, rather then giving in to her impassioned pleas to let her teachers go, he kidnaps Barbara and Ian to keep his secrets safe.


These aren’t the actions of a purely self-sacrificing hero, someone who eschews guns and violence, someone whose story has been described as “the triumph of intellect and understanding over brute force and cynicism.” And this dark Doctor wasn’t seen only in the Hartnell years. In fact, the Sixth Doctor, played by Colin Baker, was widely disdained largely for traits he shared with the First Doctor (well, that and his ridiculous outfit): he was smug, insulting, temperamental, full of himself . . . and terrifyingly violent.


Audiences didn’t react so well to this new Doctor, who referred to his previous, mild-mannered incarnation as having a sort of “feckless charm”–so perhaps it’s surprising to see hints of his darkness in his new regenerations. But each Doctor since the ninth has shown a bit of darkness, his actions suggesting that he’s not the bastion of goodness and light that he purports to be.

In the case of the ninth Doctor, his emotional reactions often seem out-of-proportion to the “crimes” committed by those he punishes. In “Dalek,” he taunts the lone surviving member of the dalek race to commit suicide:

[quote]If you want orders, then follow this one: kill yourself. . . . The Daleks have failed! Why don’t you finish the job, and make the daleks extinct? Rid the universe of your filth! Why don’t you just die?[/quote]

(To this, the dalek appropriately replies, “You would make a good dalek.”)

Just one episode later, one of the Doctor’s traveling companions feels the heat of the Doctor’s wrath. Sure, Adam Mitchell’s betrayal to the Doctor is clear, but Adam apologizes and begs for his forgiveness. In return, the Doctor dumps him at home with an infospike embedded in his head.

The lesson of the ninth Doctor seems clear: don’t piss off the Doctor. He’s a lonely god, but also a vengeful god, one who does not hesitate to punish those who wrong him, even if they ask him for mercy.

This pattern remains through his tenth incarnation. When Harriet Jones (prime minister) destroys a Sycorax ship, he gets so angry with her that he destroys her career–a career that was meant to bring about a Golden Age of Earth. Later, somewhat hypocritically, he destroys the Racnoss species–and gets so wrapped up in the act that his companion has to call him off.

Finally, in “The Family of Blood,” the Doctor doles out punishments right out of Greek mythology: one enemy is transformed into a scarecrow, another trapped in every mirror in all of time and space, another imprisoned in chains forged at the heart of a dwarf star, the last stranded at the edge of a collapsing galaxy.

Ten’s initial dark acts are all like this–perhaps disproportionate, but still made under a certain veil of righteousness. The Doctor is dark, but not altogether wrong. That might not the case by the end of his run.

For example, we now know that the end of the Time Lords was brought about by the Doctor himself, when he learned that his people planned to destroy all of time and space so that they could shed their corporeal bodies and essentially become gods. Yet what does the Doctor himself decide when removed from the Time Lord’s strictures?

[quote]Yes, because there are laws. There are laws of time. Once upon a time there were people in charge of those laws but they died. They all died. Do you know who that leaves? Me! It’s taken me all these years to realize that the laws of time are mine and they will obey me![/quote]

(This godlike, willful bending of the laws of time eventually leads to one woman’s suicide!)

And so perhaps we can view the eleventh Doctor’s actions through this sort of lens as well; rather than a hero, whose goodness always prevails, the Doctor is, instead, a violent, self-satisfied, temperamental anti-hero. He expects obedience from his companions (“We’re his friends,” says River Song, “we do as we’re told”) and his enemies. Yet this faith that he demands from them makes them vulnerable–he’s lost Adric and Rose and Donna and so many others. He doesn’t want us to like him; he doesn’t even like himself. In this light, we can view his speech to Amy in the appropriately titled “God Complex” not as a noble act of heroism but instead as a rare show of honesty:

[quote]I stole your childhood and now I’ve led you by the hand to your death. But the worst thing is I knew. I knew this would happen. This is what always happens. Forget your faith in me. I took you with me because I was vain. Because I wanted to be adored. Look at you, glorious Pond. The girl who waited for me. I’m not a hero. I really am just a madman in a box. [/quote]

What if, likewise, we viewed the Doctor’s actions in “The Girl Who Waited” not as noble, but rather as the selfish actions of a man who can’t stand to face his own darkness? Older!Amy is dangerous not because she’s old, or because her existence means that she’ll miss growing old with Rory. Instead, she must be stopped because she does not like the Doctor. And he won’t–can’t–stand for it. It’s the love and adoration of his human friends that convinces the Doctor, over and over again, that he’s in the right.

Even if he’s not so sure of it himself.


Now for the contests!

Since this is part of the #13DoDW tour, every comment here will be entered to win a series 6 boxset. Here are the official guidelines:

To enter the grand prize giveaway, please leave a comment with your name and email address. You may enter once at every stop on the blog tour for a total of thirteen chances. The Grand Prize giveaway is limited to the US and Canada, due to regional restrictions on the DVD. Individual contest will close at the discretion of the author, but the Grand Prize contest will accept entries on any site until midnight CST on December 24th. We will post the winner on December 25th, and notify the winner via email.

But, since I love you guys (and Who) so much, every comment will also be entered to win an official eleventh Doctor sonic screwdriver–or is it a probe?–fresh from the fields of amazon. I’ll be doing my drawing on the 25th as well, with entrants also limited to North America due to amazon restrictions (I’m sorry! I’m so sorry!).

Best of luck to you, and have a very Who holiday season!