What is redemption? And can the most evil, vile creatures be redeemed? In the episode, Into the Dalek the Doctor meets a Dalek (that he later nicknames Rusty) who seems to be repentant and in agony over the actions of his species. “Daleks must be destroyed!” He insists. Of course the Doctor’s interest is piqued. Daleks are ruthless creatures, unable to experience empathy or compassion. They are callous and never waiver in their quest to dominant the universe and destroy all inferior life forms (ie every other life form). So to be confronted by a Dalek who seems to have developed a conscious activates the Doctor’s curiosity.
Of course the Doctor does not believe that Rusty has actually had a conversion experience. The Dalek is damaged and he seeks to understand how and why this damage resulted in a complete personality change. As he explicates to Clara and the soldiers:
DOCTOR: Now, this is the cortex vault, a supplementary electronic brain. Memory banks, but more than that. This is what keeps the Dalek pure.
GRETCHEN: How are Daleks pure?
DOCTOR: Dalek mutants are born hating. This is what stokes the fire, extinguishes even the tiniest glimmer of kindness or compassion. Imagine the worst possible thing in the universe, then don’t bother, because you’re looking at it right now. This is evil refined as engineering.
The Daleks are intrinsically evil-their whole purpose is to kill and annihilate. How can you redeem a being that has evil encoded into its DNA?
When the Doctor discovers a breach in Rusty that is poisoning him with radiation, the Doctor fixes him and Rusty goes back to his “normal” self. He becomes what he always was-destructive and consumed with hate.
It seems as if the Doctor was right. There are no such thing as “good” Daleks. Rusty’s brief flash of humanity is the result of an injury. Clara, however, as a teacher, is intent on getting the Doctor to look beyond surface evidence that confirm his biases. What did they learn? She asks. He insists that they learned that there are no good Daleks, She rejects his answer. What did they learn?
The Doctor’s numerous experiences with the Daleks as well as his knowledge of their anatomy assures him that the Daleks are unwaveringly wicked. As a result, he can’t see any other way of dealing with them. He will forever be locked into a never ending battle with the Daleks as they continue with their attempts to annihilate the universe, and he attempts to stop them by killing as many as possible. Yet Clara’s insistence that he look past his own prejudices enables the Doctor to have a shift in perspective. Maybe things can be different.
DOCTOR: The Dalek isn’t just some angry blob in a Dalekanium tank. If it was, the radiation would have turned it into a raging lunatic.
JOURNEY: It is a raging lunatic, it’s a Dalek.
DOCTOR: But for a moment, it wasn’t. The radiation allowed it to expand its consciousness, to consider things beyond its natural terms of reference. It became good. That means a good Dalek is possible.
Clara restores Rusty’s memories of death and new life: universes being destroyed and new stars being born, and the Doctor links Rusty to his own mind, and exposes Rusty to the universe. At first it seems to be working, perhaps a new way of interacting with the Daleks is possible-one that does not rely on death and destruction. However, the link with the Doctor exposes Rusty to the Doctor’s deep and justified hatred of the Daleks and Rusty goes on a rampage to destroy his peers.
RUSTY: The Daleks are exterminated
DOCTOR: Of course they are. That’s what you do, isn’t it?
RUSTY: I must go with them.
DOCTOR: Of course you must. You’ve unfinished work, haven’t you?
The Doctor is disappointed. He wanted to save Rusty’s “soul.” He wanted to believe that redemption for the Dalek species was possible, putting an end to needless fighting and destruction. In addition, the Doctor is unsure of who he is. “Am I good man?” He asks Clara earlier in the episode. Perhaps in redeeming Rusty, he would be redeeming himself.
It is easy to look at this episode and extrapolate that the ultimate meaning is that redemption is impossible-at least for some. Pure evil exists and is embodied by some groups and there is no reasoning with them. They will default, eventually, to their intrinsic nature. We see this type of thinking in the way that countries describe their enemies. To be sure, there are terrorist groups, such as ISIS that would make the Daleks cower in fear. And the temptation is to dehumanize them. Their blind hatred and their blasé attitude toward killing innocent people-not just journalists, but also scores of their own people, justifiably causes us to recoil in horror. Groups that will massacre untold number of people just to make a point, are extremely dangerous. The temptation is to dismiss them as intrinsically evil and as unreasonable. And as a result, government leaders rehash the same old strategy to get rid of those who they claim embody evil: death and destruction. Any other response is immediately off the tables. You can’t redeem evil doers. Even though, the very people we dehumanize, often serve as a reflection of the evil that lurks within us and they often serve as a condemnation for our (or our government’s) failures and atrocities. When we reject the humanity of our enemies, we diminish our own.
The Doctor has moments of ruthlessness in this episode. He doesn’t care that Journey lost her brother, and he cracks jokes about Ross’ death. Not to mention that throughout the show’s history, he has had moments where his hatred and thirst for vengeance leads him to act callously. When we view others as irredeemable, we begin to justify taking them out, using whatever means possible and the line between those who are “good” and those who are “evil” begins to blur. Yet in a world marred by violence and brokenness, and sin, what other options do we have?
To be honest, I struggle to find an adequate answer. I can’t tie this post up in a neat little bow, (believe me, I’ve tried. I’ve re-written this final paragraph a number of times). The reality is that in a world filled with war and destruction easy answers are inadequate. For instance, Christians often talk about loving our enemies, but what does that mean? Sometimes the phrase “loving our enemies” sounds like nothing more than a pat answer that one says to avoid doing the hard and difficult work of trying to transform the world. That phrase often becomes an excuse to not take any action. And for those of us in relatively privileged conditions, we can simply tout the phrase love our enemies and walk away without engaging in the difficult work of deciphering what that looks like in a hurting world. How do we love our enemies and espouse justice? In addition, Christians often hold up Christ as the ultimate figure of redemption, but what does redemption mean? Is it simply about avoiding hell? Can redemption occur in this world? And how do we work towards said redemption? How do we join with God in the work of transforming the world?
In this episode, the Doctor ultimately fails. Yet the adventure continues. In the real world, such failure is devastating. How many people have died struggling to advocate for justice and equality? How many people have been crushed by the prevailing forces that endorse the status quo? How many times can one “enemy” be defeated, only for more to rise up or even worse, for us to find ourselves as the perpetrators of violence, inequality, and injustice? Why not just give up on this world and turn our back on the idea of redemption? Yet, God seems to be infinitely more annoying than Clara in asking us to rethink what we think we know. What have we learned? That life is hopeless, that violence and death will always win? Is that all we have learned? Or do we have to look a little bit harder to find hope and courage to do things differently, even in the midst of failure? At the end of the episode Clara states:
You asked me if you’re a good man and the answer is, I don’t know. But I think you try to be and I think that’s probably the point.
We live in a world where despair and hopelessness reign. Systematic change and long standing peace seems impossible to accomplish and attempts to bring about radical change-sometimes, if not often fail. Maybe the point of life and of saying we have faith is that we continually try to aid in God’s transforming work in the world. Maybe the point is that we continue to work as co-redeemers with Christ, in the midst of a hurting world.