DOCTOR: If someone who knew the future pointed out a child to you, and told you that that child would grow up totally evil, to be a ruthless dictator who would destroy millions of lives, could you then kill that child?
In Genesis of the Daleks, the Fourth Doctor struggles with whether or not to destroy Davros and the Daleks. The Daleks have contributed to the deaths of millions of species and they are consumed by hate and the need to destroy. Why not avoid the whole mess by killing them before they have the opportunity to rise and become the murderous class that they were created to be? While in general, mass genocide is rightfully condemned, surely an exception can be made for the Daleks. Likewise, in the real world, assassinations and torture are generally denounced, but surely they are permissible in the name of national security and in the hopes of avoiding another 9/11?
In The Magician’s Apprentice, the Doctor is forced to confront this ethical dilemma once again. At the beginning of the episode, we see the good ole’ Doctor, who shows up just in time to help a child who is living in the midst of a long battle and risks being killed by “hand mines.”
But then the boy mentions his name. And the atmosphere changes.
As the viewers, we are left wondering about the Doctor’s final choice. He couldn’t have just left Davros could he, not when he was just a helpless kid, traumatized by war? But then again, if the Doctor did leave him to his fate, who could blame him? Technically he didn’t actively kill the child, he just appears to not have intervened when the kid’s life was in danger. Throughout the episode the Doctor’s “shame” is mentioned quite a bit. And the question is, was the Doctor ashamed for having left Davros to possibly die or did he help the boy, knowing full well that he would go on to create a race of mass murderers? The thought of the Doctor leaving a helpless boy to his fate, makes one uncomfortable, since it seems to go against the values and the very core of the Doctor. Yet, on the other hand, such a choice would be understandable. At least it is a choice that I understand. I mean, to be quite honest, as I was watching the episode and trying to determine whether the Doctor actually left Davros to his fate or somehow came back to help him, I thought to myself that letting Davros save himself was the right choice. In fact, in that situation I wonder, if perhaps actively killing him would have been the more morally right choice. Leaving Davros to his fate still left a “one in a thousand chance of survival” and would have done nothing but fueled any hatred he had developed thorough the trauma of war. (I’m not sure such an action, in and of itself would have turned Davros into the diabolical murderer he would become as an adult, but certainly in combination with an ongoing war, would not have helped matters).
Killing Davros as a boy, would ensure that the Daleks would never be created. It would save the lives of millions of species, and it would prevent the time war from occurring, meaning the Doctor would never have to even be in a position of having to choose whether to massacre his own people in order to save the universe. So much future heartache and pain could be avoided if he just killed Davros.
YOUNG DAVROS: Who are you? I don’t get it. How did you get there?
DOCTOR: From the future.
YOUNG DAVROS: Are you going to save me?
DOCTOR: I’m going to save my friend the only way I can.
I have to admit during that scene, in the spilt second before the “to be continued” sign flashed, I wanted the Doctor to kill Davros. Yes he was a child, but look who he grew up to be. When the fourth doctor asks about whether one would kill a child who one knew could grow up to be a dictator, my impulse is to answer yes. If I could stop Hitler’s genocide of millions of people, (which in turn led to a war which killed millions more and to later political actions that have led to the oppression of people in Palestine) I would do it. Even if it met killing a young Hitler. Or the same could be said of other people guilty of horrible offenses, Osama bin laden, Syrian President Assad, etc. If one person, even a child has to die in order for millions to live, isn’t it worth it? It’s not like I would be killing a random child, no but rather the child that would go on to oppress and/kill thousands or even millions of other people.
And for the Doctor, the matter isn’t just about an abstract number of millions of lives that could be saved if Davros died young, but in this episode it ostensibly appears as if Missy and Clara have been killed. Clara, his companion, the one who convinced him not to destroy the Time Lords in the Time War and the one who comforted him as a child afraid of the dark. When a loved one is killed, how many times have people said, “I wish I could have prevented that from happening? If I could go back in time I would…” well the Doctor can go back in time. He could prevent his friends’ death from occurring, as well as the millions of other deaths that would take place over the centuries, if he only killed Davros.
I frame it as such an easy solution. Kill the kid who would grow up to be a murderer and everything will be ok. But in the real world, such calculations rarely work out so cleanly. For example, since 9/11, the United States has taken an aggressive “anti-terrorism” stance that involves “prevention” as well as eradication. Now, the US can’t go back in time and prevent 9/11 from occurring or go back in time and kill Osama bin laden in the 1990s, but what the US can do is erode civil liberties in the name of national security. I mean, it’s worth it if another 9/11 could be prevented right? Who cares if the FBI intentionally targets Muslim communities, looking for its most vulnerable members and essentially entraps them into making terroristic plans/and statements? Why should the average citizen worry about massive data collection by intelligence communities, if one is not doing anything wrong, then one has nothing to hide, right? Who cares if one could be put under government surveillance simply for being critical of governmental policies? The government is doing this in order to keep American citizens safe, and if some individuals are hounded and their lives destroyed by the FBI, so be it. If in order to avoid another 9/11 attack, we need to monitor and track our citizens phone calls, web purchases, political statements, what’s the loss of a few liberties in the grand scheme of national security? Who cares if our government tortures a few people or keeps some people indefinitely detained for decades, what’s the lives of a few dozen or hundreds of people when we could be protecting thousands of Americans from a future attack?
Or for a slightly closer analogy of government policy and The Magician’s Apprentice, let’s discuss the CIA’s kill list and targeted assassination program. Should American citizens really be bothered by the fact that our government routinely kills suspected terrorists in other nations, through drone strikes without as much as a trial? Yeah sure, civilians die, including young children, and that is a tragedy, but if we hadn’t killed (name of person) then more deaths would have occurred!
In Doctor Who, the payoff seems clear. Kill young Davros and future pain and suffering can be avoided. But even in the show, the future isn’t completely manipulable. Yes the universe could be made a better place without Davros and the Daleks, or some other destructive power could be unleashed. In that case, the Doctor would have betrayed his values only to have created something worse. In the years since 9/11, the United States government has defended torture, massive government surveillance, the targeting of Muslims and people of color has necessary for protecting America and ending terrorism. Yet are Americans really safer now than they were 14 years ago? And has terrorism in anyway been massively impacted by US counter terrorism policies? Or in all these years, do all we have to show for compromising our values is an increase in the number of lives destroyed both domestically and abroad by our counter terrorism strategies? Millions of Afghans and Iraqis dead, thousands of American service members dead or injured, hundreds of people tortured and detained without trial, and thousands of Americans who identify as Muslim or middle eastern (or who simply “look” Muslim or middle eastern, whatever that means) have been criminalized and denied their constitutional rights, for what? Davros believed that he had to create the Daleks for the good of the universe. Is he really anymore delusional then the advocates of current American domestic and foreign counter-terrorism policies?