10:5 Our True Faces

Season 10, episode 5: Oxygen

ELLIE: Everything’s so messed up. The trivial stuff just falls away. You realise life can be so brief and so, I just want to tell you, if we do get through this, I want to have a baby! With you! And as soon as my radio’s fixed I’m going to tell you just that. 

I’m tired. Not so much physically tired as emotionally, mentally, and spiritually tired. I don’t know if I am burnt out or if I am just going through a phase. But being awake…is a chore. Communicating is difficult. I just…want out. I can’t imagine it getting any better-in fact, I only see it getting worse. Life has never been peaceful or tranquil-as long as life has existed and competition for resources was a requirement of survival we have had violence and bloodshed. And while some scholars argue that numerically speaking violence and death have decreased as a result of technological, societal, and medical advances, these improvements mean very little to the millions of people throughout the world who are dying from human greed and selfishness.

At earlier points in human history one could argue that we didn’t know better. The notion that there are universal human rights that should be applicable to every person regardless of their gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, religion is relatively new and evidently isn’t universally practiced. But in theory, most countries, including some of the most vicious dictatorships often at least give enough lip service to the notion of human rights that they take great pains to hide, deny or minimize acts of torture and injustice. I can imagine that if we were to bring someone from the late 1400s or 1500s to see the modern world they would be confused, impressed and maybe even frightened by the medical and technological advancements we have made.  And perhaps they would find the large-scale discussion of human rights and democracy to be strange. Though of course once they scratch the surface they would find how for all of our talk about democracy, equality, and human rights and for our vast medical and technological resource that human cruelty continues unabated.

In this episode of Doctor Who, Bill, Nardole, and the Doctor come face to face with the outer limits of late stage capitalism. Initially, Bill is, of course, enthralled with being in space, especially when she is able to look out a window and see a section of the vast universe before her. But this awe is quickly forgotten as she, the Doctor and Nardole, become aware of the danger they are in; a danger not the result of a weird alien creature but a danger created by human greed.  In this stage of capitalism everything is commodified-including the very air that those on the ship need in order to survive let alone work their jobs. That’s what unchecked greed does-it zaps the wonder of life

SUIT: Oxygen is available for personal use only, at competitive prices. 
DOCTOR: It’s only in the suits. Personal use. They only have oxygen in the suits themselves. 
SUIT: Any unlicensed oxygen will be automatically expelled to protect market value. 

In order to survive those on the ship need to have access to air-and in this case that means they need to buy it. The notion that air-a basic human need can be commodified and sold seems not only ridiculous but cruel and raises certain questions about the morality of such a society. What is it like back on the planet where the crew comes from? Is air sold there? What happens to the poor in such a society? Do they even get to exist? They would have to, since capitalism, as practiced seems to rely on a steady stream of poor bodies that can be used and discarded at will. But while the notion that air can be sold appears ridiculous and cruel-it is of course but an extreme version of what already occurs on a daily basis. In the US for instance, medical care, housing, and food are treated as privileges not rights. Both the poor and increasingly the “middle class” are finding themselves struggling to survive.  Medical bills not only devastate people economically-destroying credit and eating up any savings a person may have been able to put away-but it kills.  The medicine individuals need to live often costs hundreds or thousands of dollars. In one of the most technologically advanced nation in the world, who boosts of being the “oldest democracy” people are dying because insurance companies and the multi-billion dollar health industry, to say nothing of the government, have determined that the lives of individuals are not as important as profit.

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While Bill and Nardole initially want to leave and go back to the Tardis at the first hint of danger, the Doctor pushes back against such a sentiment. In this case, he doesn’t exactly lecture them on the virtues of helping others, but he provides a light rebuke. by running away and hiding from danger, knowing that there are four survivors somewhere on the ship, what would they be revealing about themselves? When as a society we allow people to die from lack of medical care, or when we demand that access to guns is more important than the lives of elementary and high school students, what are revealing about ourselves? When we turn a blind eye to the atrocities in Syria, which despite the near defeat of ISIS appears to be getting worse  what are we saying about ourselves? What are we saying about humanity? When we ignore the cries of black and brown bodies demanding that we hold the state accountable for their violence, what are we saying?

DOCTOR: There was no hacking, no malfunction. The suits are doing exactly what they were designed to do. What your employers are telling them to do. 
IVAN: And what would that be? 
DOCTOR: Save the oxygen that you are wasting. You’ve become inefficient. You even told me. Your conveyors were down. 
ABBY: So everyone had to die? 

We are saying that certain lives don’t matter. When we claim that healthcare is not a “right” we are saying that we don’t give a damn about those who struggle with physical or mental disabilities. We are saying that we don’t care if people who are sick-die. We are in essence practicing a form of survival of the fittest-where only the healthiest or wealthiest survive. When we demand action after a puppy dies after being placed into an overhead bin for a three hour flight but we ridicule children and adults who demand gun control measures after every mass shooting, we are saying that a puppy’s life is worth more than that of children gunned down in school or adults slaughtered at a concert. (Not saying what happened to the puppy was correct-it should not have happened. But neither should mass shootings.) We are saying that damn it MY GUN is more important than the lives of other people.  And I’m tired. I’m tired of living in a world where my life is worthless because of my lack of wealth, my skin color and sexual orientation. I’m tired of living in a world where I need to explain to people why we need to care about how state violence perpetrates non-state violence beyond issues such as “terrorism.”

DOCTOR: They’re not your rescuers. They’re your replacements. The end point of capitalism. A bottom line where human life has no value at all. We’re fighting an algorithm, a spreadsheet. Like every worker, everywhere, we’re fighting the suits.
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Towards the end of the episode the Doctor talks about a ‘good death”-which he and the others do manage to avoid-this time. But I find myself attracted to the notion of a “good” death, whatever that means. Can suicide ever be considered a “good death?” I don’t know-perhaps not-but at this point I just want to say, “fuck you” to a society that will continue to devalue life and put profit over compassion. To me, telling society, to go to hell, seems like a good death. It won’t change anything, but damn it, at least I won’t have to be so tired anymore.

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10:3 Thin Ice

Doctor:… if your future is built on the suffering of that creature, what’s your future worth?

Current US President Donald Trump ran on the platform, “Make America Great Again.” His campaign attracted swaths of the population that felt as if the global economy had left them to behind. However, instead of blaming those with power, these voters blamed the vulnerable: people of color, immigrants, children, and refugees. In the minds of some voters, making America great again apparently meant making America white again. And instead of ushering in a new economic utopia where the heyday of industrialization reaps benefits on factor workers, coal miners, etc and other blue-collar workers, the beneficiaries have been the economic and political elite-from both parties. Republicans leaders get to try and shove their racist, poverty hating political agenda through and Democrats have the opportunity to reinvent themselves as heroes of the vulnerable and marginalized, although in reality Democrats have been all to happy to use marginalized groups for votes and then ignore them when in power. Both Republican and Democrats claim to want to create a more prosperous country, but what does this country look like and is it a country worth serving let alone fighting for?

Which lives matter?

In the episode, “Thin Ice” the Doctor berates Bill for being upset about that a child is killed.  I, for one, do believe rage has a time and place, and I view Bill’s rage as justified, it must also be acknowledged that rage instead of being an impassioned cry for justice can be used to mask hypocrisy and a thirst for power.

BILL: Save him. 
DOCTOR: I can’t. He’s gone. 
BILL: Do something and save him. 

Bill watches helplessly as a child is killed right before her eyes. The fact that the death is bloodless one does nothing to eliminate the fact that the child’s life is snuffed out.  Bill begs the Doctor to do something and is angry when he nonchalantly responds that he is unable too. If I am not mistaken, every companion, at least in Nuwho has expressed some sort of disgust and shock at the amount of lives lost during the Doctor’s journeys. They often serve as the Doctor’s conscious, reminding him that the people and/or creates slaughtered often had hopes, dreams, etc. In other words, the companions, at least at the start of their adventures with the Doctor, serve to remind him that those killed shouldn’t just be another number added to a long list of those killed. I empathize with Bill in this scene. I believe that her outrage at the child’s death and the Doctor’s seemingly uncaring attitude is genuine. I do think that the Doctor dismisses her anger all to quickly. However, the Doctor also provides numerous thought provoking arguments when he tries to counter Bill’s rage. His arguments can be applied to those who are relatively privileged and hold a measure of power.

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Understandably, a good portion of Americans find themselves angry and powerless in the face of the Trump administration. As a result, many people, particularly those who may have been politically indifferent now find themselves politically engaged. I am not trying to knock those people or their new-found activism. I am however positing a question that I think needs to be taken seriously: is this new-found activism based on a passion for justice or simply on a fear that the current administration’s policies will negatively impact their lives and their families? In other words, will this sense of rage continue whenever President Trump is no longer in office?

Let’s be honest, it is human nature means to care predominately about issues that directly impact our lives. Moreover, there are so many cases of injustice that it would be impossible for any one individual to adequately deal with them all. It is ok to hold some causes dearer to the heart then others. But the reality is, that many issues are intersectional-meaning they do not just stand alone. And my fear is that the focus only on events that impact our own personal lives means that the marginalized who are often screwed over regardless of who is in power are overlooked. For example, the women’s march in which women of all races, ethnicity, etc participated is great. But where were the white women when black and brown lives were protesting the deaths of unarmed and mentally ill people at the hands of the state? Where were the protests against the Obama administration’s increased use of drone strikes, which murdered numerous innocent civilians? Yes, some argue that the Trump administration presents a much direr existential threat than previous administrations. I am not here to debate whether or not that is true. But I argue that his administration didn’t simply come out of thin air. His election was the result of numerous political, social, and economic factors conflating. In other words, ignoring the plight of others because their pain does not directly impact us-eventually comes back to bite us in the ass. Injustice builds upon injustice.  It is easy to look at the suffering of others and believe, “that will never happen to me.” History demonstrates again and again that such an attitude is fool hardy. The distinction between oppression that directly impacts us and oppression that does not, is a useless and arbitrary one.

DOCTOR: You know what happens if I don’t move on? More people die. There are kids living rough near here. They may well be next on the menu. Do you want to help me? Do you want to stand here stamping your foot? Because let me tell you something. I’m two thousand years old, and I have never had the time for the luxury of outrage. 

Like I said before, I believe outrage has a vital place in social justice movements. I especially believe that those who are part of groups that have historically been the victims of state oppression deserve to have their outrage acknowledged. Far too often, their outrage is suppressed in the name of “peace.” But it is important to acknowledge that outrage, especially on the part of those with privilege, can serve as a way to avoid taking concrete action and making difficult decisions. Outrage that doesn’t lead to action is useless. I mean, many Americans are outraged at the horrific treatment Native Americans underwent during European colonialism and the beginnings of the American empire, yet these very same people ignore or downplay the continued suffering of native Americans. Or, many Americans condemn the slave trade and express anger that many of America’s founding fathers supported such a horrific system yet they show a shocking apathy towards state sanctioned murder of people of color at the hands of police.

A worthy future?

DOCTOR:… What makes you so sure that your life is worth more than those people out there on the ice? Is it the money? The accident of birth that puts you inside the big, fancy house? 
SUTCLIFFE: I help move this country forward. I move this Empire forward. 

There is no denying that Trump and the current Republican Party express a blatant disregard for the well being of those who do not look like them or have their vast resources. In this context it is easy to want to view the established Democratic Party as saviors. But rhetoric needs to be matched by actions. The Republican Party has made it clear that they do not value the lives of immigrants, children, or the poor. They are willing to hold hostage or completely cut the already inadequate American safety net. Democrats have capitalized on this by giving the appearance of standing up for justice. No, they claim, they won’t give up on DACA recipients. They will fight for healthcare for children. Yet their actions have been less than stellar. I would argue that the Republican Party represents the Sutecliffe that the Doctor and Billy see-openly arrogant and racist. While the Democrats represent the popular image of Sutecliffe and the one he holds of himself: charming, advocating progress, etc. But the empire that both parties endorse is one that views certain lives as expendable. The current Republican Party-especially the far-right branch openly admit their disdain for people of color, women, LGBTQ, people from “shithole countries” (aka non-western ones). While the Democrats are subtler: they will stand up for DACA recipients until it no longer benefits them. They will listen to Black Lives Matter advocates, at least until the election season is over.

I think it’s time that Americans-regardless of their political leanings really consider the type of country they want to be a part of. What values should we hold dear? How do we define progress? Because right now, the United sates views the suffering and deaths of the “nobodies” as a necessary price to pay for progress.  And the result is a country not worth boasting about, much less fighting for.

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Before the Flood: A Reflection on Breaking the Rules and Questions of Power

DOCTOR: I thought perhaps, because her ghost wasn’t there in the future, like Prentis’s was, I thought maybe, maybe it wouldn’t happen. Maybe she stood a chance. 
BENNETT: Yeah, but you didn’t try very hard to stop her, though, did you? It was almost like you wanted to test your theory. So who’s next? 
DOCTOR: Clara. 
BENNETT: Yeah. Yeah. Except now you’re going to do something about it, aren’t you? Yeah, because it’s getting closer to you. You change history to save yourself but not to save O’Donnell. You wouldn’t save her. 
DOCTOR: This isn’t about saving me. I’m a dead man walking. I’m changing history to save Clara. 

Rules.  Laws. Regulations. They help individuals, communities, and societies have a bit of order, especially during moments of chaos. And despite what many of us may think-especially those of us who are able to live a life of routine and comfort-life is always chaotic and fragile. We aren’t as in control as we like to think. But rules, laws, regulations as well as the punishments that arise when said regulations are broken provide us with the illusion of control. Not saying laws, rules, regulations are good or bad in and of themselves, what matters is asking who benefits from following certain laws? Who benefits from breaking them? Who gets punished for breaking them? In general those who create the laws, etc and enforce them often have more leeway in disregarding them and often suffer very little punishment. They do not have to think about those who are oppressed by certain laws/regulations, let alone about how they are able to carelessly disregard laws with no consequence.

Fans of Doctor Who know that despite the many good qualities of the Doctor-he is caring, he defends the world, he repeatedly tries to come up with solutions that do not entail violence-we also know that he can be manipulative, he has no qualms about breaking the very rules he states that others must follow, and he eschews his values when they are necessary (or convenient). For example, there are times when avoiding the death of others is not possible.  In those scenarios his reaction to their deaths can verge edge on the crassness and carelessness.

Despite the cliff hanger in Under the Lake, we knew that somehow the Doctor would survive. It was just a matter of figuring out how he would get out of this mess.  Despite the Doctor’s insistence on the importance of following the rules of time, we knew-or maybe I should just speak for myself-I knew that the rules don’t always apply to the Doctor and that chances are he would somehow break the very rules he claims to defend.

CLARA: What does it mean? 
DOCTOR: It means I die. 
CLARA: No, not necessarily. We can change the sequence of events so… 
DOCTOR: This isn’t a potential future. This is the future now.  It’s already happened. The proof is right there in front of you. I have to die. 
CLARA: No. You can change things. 

DOCTOR: I can’t. Even the tiniest change, the ramifications could be catastrophic. It could spread carnage and chaos across the universe like ripples on a pond. Oh, well, I’ve had a good innings. This regeneration, it’s a bit of a clerical error anyway. (to Clara) I’ve got to go sometime. 
CLARA: Not with me! Die with whoever comes after me. You do not leave me
DOCTOR: Clara, I need to talk to you just on your own. 
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Clara, at least is very open with her feelings: she doesn’t give a damn about any rules or the consequences. If the rules would cause her to lose the Doctor, then the rules should be discarded. Sometimes rules are unfair and in those cases they should be broken-well at least when they benefit her.  But who wouldn’t feel a similar way? In fact, what I consider heart-wrenching about this episode is that I think most of us would break any rules that would prevent us from saving a loved one, everyone else be damned. And of course in the real world, I fully believe that are situations when rules and laws should be broken. But in determining when that should occur, it is important to return to some questions I asked earlier: who benefits from the rules? Who benefits from breaking them? And who gets punished from breaking them? In other words, questions of power and oppression are central in determining whether an individual or a society should follow a rule/law or disregard said rule/law.

American law enforcement needs to change. In other blog entries (click here or here) I’ve touched on structural racism as well as the stated purpose of the institution as reasons for change. Another reason law enforcement must reform is the fact that the very ones called to enforce the laws are often given extreme leeway when breaking them. The policies on the use of force (which varies on the federal level, as well as on a state and local level) are ostensibly meant to protect both civilians and law enforcement.  However, when a civilian is shot and killed by a police officer the benefit of the doubt is automatically given to the police officer. Especially when no video camera footage is involved. Investigations are handled “internally” or by “outside” law enforcement. The ones who are responsible for deciding whether or not to bring charges against the officer often have a close relationship with law enforcement.  Unlike in situations in which a civilian kills another person, officers are allowed a ‘cooling off’ period after a shooting. Grand juries are shrouded in secrecy, which makes understanding why many officers are not charged extremely difficult to understand and when the whole judicial system is under suspicion, it makes it difficult to trust that the grand jury is seeking to ensure the rights of both the accused and the victims.  Civilian review boards are often nothing more than a public relations move-they are given little power to actually implement recommendations and simply must rely on the police department, its union, or politicians to make much needed change.  Covering up and lying about the circumstances of shooting would justifiably bring charges against a civilian but the two officers who lied about the Sam Dubose shooting in order to back up their colleague, did not face criminal charges. In officer involved shootings, the officer is more often than not given the benefit of the doubt, which turns the notion of justice into a joke.

The United States rightfully condemns other countries whose human rights violations are well known. Yet, at the same time, it remains silent not only about the atrocities committed by allies such as Saudi Arabia, Israel, and Egypt but the United states defends its own atrocious actions in the name of national security. Despite the senate intelligence committee’s report on the CIA’s “enhanced interrogation” program, no CIA official has been held responsible for torture.  Although CIA whistle blower John Kirakou spent time in prison for detailing the agency’s use of waterboarding.Torture occurred in Abu Ghraib though not many, if any, people in the upper levels of the government were held responsible, and justice on Guantanamo Bay continues to be nonexistent.

In Before the Flood the Doctor eloquently describes why this particular situation is a time where rules can be broken:

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And the Doctor is right. There are occasions in which breaking the law and disregarding the rules is the right thing to do. But there are also occasions when the Doctor is working out of pure selfishness, and Bennett is right to call him out on that.  Likewise, it is vital that when institutions of power argue that there are “good” reasons for breaking certain laws, questions about motive and power need to be asked. Those who participated in the civil rights movement, broke the law. They were willing to be arrested. But they fought to overturn unjust laws that were oppressing and killing black people. Conversely, the United States uses the justification of “national” security to justify torture, the denial of due process, and giving police officers impunity to kill. In this case, the justification of national security is a farce to allow the state to get away with murder and torture.

The Witch’s Familiar: A reflection on justice, mercy, compassion and the War on Terror

DAVROS: Compassion then.
DOCTOR: Always.
DAVROS: It grows strong and fierce in you, like a cancer.
DOCTOR: I hope so.
DAVROS: It will kill you in the end.
DOCTOR: I wouldn’t die of anything else.
DAVROS: You may rely on it.

After 9/11, George W Bush promised that those responsible would be brought to justice, “The search is underway for those who were behind these evil acts. I have directed the full resources of our intelligence and law enforcement communities to find those responsible and to bring them to justice. We will make no distinction between the terrorists who committed these acts and those who harbor them.”

And to be sure, those who participate in a crime should be held accountable. Of course, in the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the actual hijackers were killed. But those who helped plan and train the hijackers as well as provide funding could be held responsible. But in this case justice was equated to American military might. While the American approach to justice is ostensibly about prevention, in reality it is about punishment and revenge. Those in the highest levels of the government were embarrassed by 9/11. How could a group of terrorists, no matter how well organized or funded, manage to attack the world’s only super power? Those in the intelligence agencies were embarrassed. The FBI, The CIA, The NSA, etc. the very ones charged with protecting the nation failed. And as a result, they vowed, “never again.” The nation embarked on a path that led to two failed wars, to massive government surveillance with very little oversight, to the scapegoating and vilification of American Muslims, to the stripping away of civil liberties and in a twist of fate: the very actions the American government took to eradicate terrorism simply created a power vacuum which enabled new terrorist groups, such as ISIS to thrive. And of course, in an attempt to defeat the new terror threat, the US government provided aid and/or weapons to Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, two nations well known for funding various terrorist groups throughout the world.

The United States, in a quest for revenge and punishment, has killed hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of Iraq and Afghan civilians. Some wonder if one could claim that the United States committed genocide.

In Witch’s Familiar the Doctor is supposedly provided with the opportunity to destroy the Daleks. If there were any group in the universe that should be destroyed without a second thought, the Daleks would be it. They are hell bent on dominating the universe and are intent on creating a pure species. They are based on the Nazis who have to be one of the most hated villains in the world. In fact, the term genocide was coined after the Holocaust and the Holocaust stands as a marker of injustice and oppression. Who wouldn’t want to be able to go back in time and destroy the Nazis? Yet the Doctor refuses to destroy the Daleks. (Of course, he also knew that Davros was trying to trick him. But genocide isn’t an action that the Doctor takes lightly so I can’t imagine his response would be different if Davros had not been tricking him.)

DAVROS: The cables, Doctor. Touch them. Imagine, to hold in your hand the heartbeat of every Dalek on Skaro. They send me life. Is it beyond the wit of a Time Lord to send them death? A little work and it could be done.
DOCTOR: Er, why would you be telling me this?
DAVROS: Genocide in a moment. Such slaughter, not in self-defence. Not as a simple act of war. Genocide as a choice. Are you ready, Doctor? So many backs with a single knife. Are you ready to be a god? 

It is a bit intoxicating to imagine that one has the power to eradicate an embodiment of evil. I, know that if given the option to destroy the Daleks, the Nazis, the Islamic state, etc. I would have a difficult time passing up the opportunity.  The United States, after 9/11 believed it had the power to destroy terrorism. Not just Al Qaeda, the engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan were not called “the war on al Qaeda” or “the war on Saddam Hussain” but the US launched a “War on Terror.” And this war continues not just in Afghanistan and Iraq (despite the official “end” of the Iraqi war) but also in Yemen, Syria, and Pakistan. Not to mention the hundreds of countries that US Special Forces are in. Even now, even as Iraq is falling to pieces and the Islamic state continues to advance in Syria, the United States continues to at least publicly push the idea that it can eradicate terrorism.

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The United States government did not hesitant to deploy its military force into Afghanistan on the wake of September 11. And it even attempted to use 9/11 as a justification in Iraq.  The desire to eradicate terrorism is used to explain the US involvement in Syria and Yemen, even as it is forced to join forces with Al Nusra front in and other terrorist groups in Syria-the very ones they are fighting in Iraq!

For the Doctor genocide is not even an option.

DAVROS: Compassion then.
DOCTOR: Always.
DAVROS: It grows strong and fierce in you, like a cancer.
DOCTOR: I hope so.
DAVROS: It will kill you in the end.
DOCTOR: I wouldn’t die of anything else.
DAVROS: You may rely on it.

Davros viewed the Doctor’s compassion as a sign of weakness and stupidity. In fact, that would be Davros’ undoing. The Doctor recognizes that Davros is using him and when the Doctor’s regeneration energy flows to the Daleks, the he knows that it would also strengthen the Daleks in the sewers who would then rise up against the “living” Daleks. Now one wonders, isn’t the Doctor being unjust when he leaves the Daleks and Davros to be killed by the sewer Daleks? Isn’t the Doctor being unmerciful? I’m not sure. I struggle with that question. On the one hand, part of me wonders, “Well isn’t he just leaving Davros to die? How is that merciful?” Yet on the other hand, I can also see Davros’ fate as the result of his own actions. Davros continued to try to manipulate the Doctor and he tried to use the Doctor’s regeneration energy for his own purposes. If Davros hadn’t been so blinded by his desire for immortality and his corruption, if he had thought about his actions a bit harder, he might have realized that the Doctor’s energy would spread to ALL the Daleks on Skaro. Not just the ones directly under his control.  This brings up the question of justice and mercy/compassion. Are those concepts incompatible with one another? Does justice negate the possibility of mercy and compassion or vice versa. If the answer is yes, then the Doctor was behaving unjustly. But if justice and mercy/compassion can coincide, I wonder if it is possible to state that justice was served yet the Doctor was able to also show mercy/compassion? And what his actions toward Missy? He tells her to run and refuses to take her with them on the TARDIS to safety, after he discovers that she was trying to get him to kill Clara. Though perhaps he knew that she would somehow escape? She always does.

In regards to American domestic and foreign policy after September 11th: there was no discussion, at least publicly on what justice and compassion/mercy would mean in this context. Justice was immediately equated with punishment and American military might. Very little thought, if any, was given to alternative reactions to Afghanistan. What if the United States, in an attempt to truly get serious about ending terrorism, decided to stop sponsoring terrorist states? For example, Saudi Arabia was not condemned for its endorsement and spreading of Wahhabism, which can be argued is the underlying theology of many terrorist organizations. What if the United States decided it was going to stop supporting authoritarian regimes that oppress its people? What if instead of invading Afghanistan (and later Iraq) the United states decided to up its humanitarian aid and send an “army” of diplomats, activists, nonprofits,  who would work with the civilians there in an attempt to make joining terrorist organizations less applying. Even if all the aforementioned suggestions sound horrible, what if the government spent the same amount of money trying to think of nonmilitary options as it does on expanding the military?

The Doctor, who is by no means perfect, is at least willing to entertain questions of mercy, compassion and justice. The Doctor is willing to entertain the idea that sometimes mercy and compassion should hold sway rather than a desire for punishment and revenge.

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The Magician’s Apprentice: For the Greater Good?

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.”

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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.
Exterminate!

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.

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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?

Small Worlds

As I delve deeper and deeper into trying to understand the roots of injustice and to uncover various avenues to try and promote social justice, I am left pondering if in order for progress to be made, whether some people need to die? In order for the wickedness and tragedy of a situation to become evident, do lives need to be extinguished so that the rest of humanity can finally get the message that if we don’t care and if we don’t act, people, including children, will be killed?

In Small Worlds, the Torchwood team is confronted with fairies who take pleasure in killing and torturing others. Gwen, at the beginning of the episode scoffs at the notion of fairies, to Jack’s annoyance.

GWEN: Anyone could have made this circle.
JACK: Why do you keep doubting me? I spell out the dangers, you keep looking for explanations.
GWEN: That’s what police work’s about.
JACK: This isn’t police work.
GWEN: All right then, science.
JACK: It’s not science.
GWEN: I know. You told me. It’s that corner of the eye stuff.

While Gwen does begin to sense that she and the others are being watched as they walk about n the forest, it isn’t until people begin to die and until her very home and sense of safety is threatened that she begins to take seriously the danger that these magical beings pose.

GWEN: In the whole of my working life I have never had to bring the bad times home with me. I have never had to feel threatened in my own home. But not anymore, because this means these creatures can invade my life whenever they feel like it and I am scared, Jack. What chance did Estelle have? What chance do any of us have?

In a similar way, when it comes to speaking out against injustice, many react as Gwen first did. They mock those who are suffering from injustice, assigning blame to the victims while ignoring or protecting societal norms that aid in the subjection of others. When women are beaten or raped, the response is “well they deserved it for not being more careful, for dressing like sluts.” Instances of brazen racism are denied. The poor are vilified and accused of being lazy. And those who die and suffer outside of our western reference? Well to be blunt, their lives don’t seem to matter. People don’t care.

And why should they? It is easier to live in a world where we can say pretend everything is ok and mock those who talk out against evil. In the Torchwood universe, it was easier for Gwen to mock the existence of fairies or for Estelle, to ignore the evil that lurks in them, than it was to believe that they could have such disregard for the lives of other living beings. Until of course, a moment arrives where ignoring or deluding oneself is no longer possible. And in many cases, humanity has a tendency to wait until a major catastrophe occurs to awaken from its stupor. And even then, we need to have a personal connection for us to really feel something. For instance, how many children are suffering in the Middle East as a result of our foreign policy? How many children are starving because we endorse trade agreements that make it harder for their parents to make a living or we give companies incentives to create sweatshops in third world countries? And we don’t notice until a particularly heart wrenching story catches our attention. It’s as if, as a society we require people to die in order for us to pay attention, for us to care.

In the episode, the fairies demand a little girl in exchange for sparing the world:

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I often wonder, if as a society we play a similar game or demand a similar sacrifice. The fairies demand their “Chosen One.” In some ways, society demands that others pay the price for our comfort and for our empathy. Our economic system is based on the exploitation of other people. Our empathy is tied to suffering that is able to awaken us from the haze of modern consumerism. It’s as if we demand the deaths of other people in order to keep our economic system running or in order to get us to care just long enough to maybe talk about doing something before the next new catastrophe catches our attention. But what is the alternative? Trying to keep track of all the various instances of injustice can be exhausting and mentally unhealthily. Exploitation and apathy are not just a part of the American way of life-but are global realities.

JASMINE: A dead world, is that what you want?
JACK: What good is that to you? There will be no more Chosen Ones.
JASMINE + VOICE: They’ll find us, back in time.
JACK: Take her.
GWEN: Jack, no.
JACK: You asked me what chance we have against them. For the sake of the world, this is our only chance.

As a society, we demand that other “less important lives” be expended in order for us to live comfortably or alternatively we wait until we hear horrific stories of death before we intervene, usually for a short amount of time.

6. A Town Called Mercy: Defining Revenge, Justice, and Mercy

One of my problems with pop theology (theology that has infiltrated popular culture but contains little to no substance)* is that mercy and forgiveness are used as a way to ignore and excuse injustice. “Oh it does not matter if that person abused you, you have to forgive them, because that is what God would want you to do.” Mercy and forgiveness become an excuse to ignore issues of justice and morality. Pop theology has turned notions of forgiveness and mercy into a tool of oppression and those who speak out against personal or systematic injustice are portrayed as being “unforgiving” or “bitter.” Yet is forgiveness and mercy really a matter of pretending that an injustice did not occur or pretending that harmful actions have no consequences? Is mercy and forgiveness at odds with justice? Even as I continue my studies and am exposed to various and more nuanced theological understandings of mercy and justice and even as an agnostic, who does not believe that issues of mercy, justice, and forgiveness need to be tied with belief in a deity figure, I still find myself grappling with how to define mercy, justice, and forgiveness in ways that don’t white wash oppression and injustice.

I guess my whole ambivalence about this subject is why A Town Called Mercy is one of my favorite episodes from Matt Smith’s time as the Doctor.  As a family show, the episode has funny bits (ex. When the Doctor walks into a bar and tells the bartender-“Tea. But the strong stuff. Leave the bag in,” as he proceeds to struggle with the tooth pick in his mouth) but it does not mince away from some darker stuff.

The Doctor is known throughout the series as a hero generally adverse to violence (especially after his experience in the Time War) yet he does not shy away from using violence when necessary. He, however, almost always seeks to solve problems without having to resort to killing. But at the end of the previous episode, Dinosaurs on a Spaceship we see the Doctor ignore Solomon’s pleas for mercy. Now one could argue, well Solomon deserved his fate. He massacred a ship filled with Silurians:

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Not to mention Solomon had no qualms about implying that he would rape Nefertiti. Solomon was a brutal and cruel and as the Doctor told Solomon in response to his cries for mercy: “Did the Silurians beg you to stop? Look, Solomon. The missiles. See them shine? See how valuable they are. And they’re all yours.”

But the vital questions are not: does Solomon (or in A Town Called Mercy, Jex) deserve to die, but is killing them in a similarly brutal way akin to justice or is it simply revenge? And what does it say about the Doctor when he conflates violence with justice? What does it say about us as a society when we do the same?

The Doctor’s anguish over whether or not to hand Jex over to the gunslinger is only partially tied to Jex’s involvement in a brutal war:

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But the Doctor’s anger and hatred of Jex is related to his own guilt for his actions in the time war and his inability throughout the centuries to save all those who have turned to him for help.

I’ve read in articles, blog posts, and facebook comments, and heard a speaker at a convention: deride the Doctor for trying to reason with his enemies and give them a chance to change instead of instantly blasting them to bits. Their reasoning was that Immediately destroying his enemies or launching into a violent frenzy would have saved more lives. But would it? In a tv show, the answer is perhaps. The writers can control the actions of any character as well as the consequences of said actions.

But, it seems as if some of those who advocate for the Doctor to use violence as a first resort see no qualms about such actions being used in the “real world.”  While I am not in anyway a pacifist and I do believe that violence and war will occasionally be necessary, but I am weary of how violence and war is viewed as the first and best solution towards injustice. The impulse towards violence can, in the long one, increase the death toll.

Yet I also understand and sympathize with the violent impulse. Violence has an immediate effect-no need to wait for tricky negations or placing one’s faith in a corrupt justice system.

Even while cringing when the Doctor pointed a gun at Jex,  I also understood his anger and frustration at Jex and at himself.  The Doctor was not only disgusted at Jex’s actions, but as Jex points out, there is a similarity between him and the Doctor

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The Doctor’s actions in the Time War, no matter how necessary, is arguably worse than Jex’s actions. The Doctor destroyed his own people in an attempt to avert even more deaths and destruction throughout the universe, yet he still feels overwhelming guilt towards his actions and to see someone like Jex, who ran away to avoid the consequences of his actions and who discusses what he has done so nonchalantly, reminds the Doctor of his guilt, of his past actions.  Ever since the Time War the Doctor has been running away in an attempt to forget what he has done.  Yet his guilt and he takes out his anger and hatred towards himself on Jex. The Doctor cannot forgive himself nor show mercy to himself, why would he extend it to Jex?

Furthermore, the Doctor also questions whether or not his mercy towards his enemies has truly benefited anyone. His acts of mercy do not involve an erasing or ignoring of horrible actions or consequences, but provides his enemies an opportunity to recognize what they have done wrong, stop their evil actions and perhaps try to rectify them. Yet his inability to instantly kill has resulted in the deaths of others, and he understandably questions his past actions. Perhaps by killing Jex or handing him over to the gunslinger to be killed the Doctor can atone for his actions in the Time War and all the instances in which he failed to save others.

But the reality of violence is never so simple and justice and violence are not necessarily one and the same. In this episode, Amy reminds the Doctor of who he is. Amy questions his impulse for violence and she challenges him to think-to provide a different solution. The Doctor has tried violence before and look where he has ended up…

I believe when the Doctor remembers he who he is-when he refuses to give into his violent impulses, he encourages Jex to take responsibility for his actions and to end all the death and destruction.

I still don’t have an easy answer for how to define justice, forgiveness, and mercy and I’m not sure I ever will. But I appreciate it when the TV shows I watch wrestle with said issues and encourage its audience members-including children, to do the same.

A quick note: did anyone notice the limited role the preacher played in this episode? The preacher, who one would assume would take the lead in discussing issues of justice and mercy does not. He relies on others to do so. He will offer prayers but very little action…

*And yes even as an agnostic, I find pop theology to be harmful and believe that being knowledgeable about Christian theology is vital for Christians and non-Christians. While Christianity is influx in developed countries, it is booming in developing countries and will continue to be an important force in world events in years to come.

11. The Beast Below

10. Amy’s Choice

9. Vincent And The Doctor

8.The Girl Who Waited

7. The God Complex