Doctor Who’s recent episode “The Zygon Inversion” might prove that time travel is real.

Writer Peter Harness — possibly with showrunner Steven Moffat as his companion — may have entered a blue phone box and set the controls. Then like the Doctor himself, they traveled from pre-production in 2014 to see fall 2015’s controversies, including the campus conflicts and talks of international wars. Then they wrote a TV story about it.

For his 2014 Who debut, “Kill the Moon,” Harness took an outlandish premise and turned it into a critical real-life-reflecting decision: Should human women kill a possibly dangerous unborn alien life form? Near the story’s end, the Doctor literally fled the scene and let the women make the choice. Then his friend Clara blasted him for it. He knew the answer, but patronized Clara and the other women in the name of “respecting” them. “That was you, my friend, making me scared,” Clara said. “Making me feel like a bloody idiot.”

Perhaps after his “am I a good man?” identity crisis in series 8, the Doctor had changed his approach. But feigning ignorance about truth and distancing himself from humanity is not the action of a hero. In series 9, the “old” Doctor is back — conflicted yet confident, youthful yet ancient, alien yet familiar. He will explore fantastical new worlds yet retain a “vintage” morality and aesthetic. Also, he is paradoxically a fierce fighter for the causes of peace.

Beyond real wars or campus conflicts, that’s what matters — our own personal desires for peace and supernatural forgiveness.

Spoilers, sweetie: In the recent series 9 two-part story, the Doctor wants to secure peace between humans on Earth and aliens called Zygons, who can shape-shift into humans and live among us. With help, the Doctor hides away two boxes. Each box contains two buttons: “Truth” and “Consequences.” If a human or Zygon presses one button, their side gets total victory. Press the other and their side is destroyed. No one knows which button does what.

I wasn’t too surprised to learn that there was no actual doomsday device. The problem is that the hoax can only work until you figure that out, or unless the Doctor turns a memory-wipe device on you (which he does). Such an ethics class prevention of war only works if you have a true hero to enforce the strategy, a hero who also has supernatural power.

The Doctor can also one-up anyone’s claim about suffering and loss. Unquestionably he has had it worse. He is not only “old enough to be your messiah,” as he “jokes” earlier in the story. He is also old enough, and has fought and died enough, to imitate a Messiah.

But one of the Doctor’s techniques can work for ordinary humans, without magic or messianic deaths. The Doctor, shouting with passionate revivalism, begs a human — or rather, an alien who acts exactly like a human — to reconsider her desires for cruelty and vengeance. Story cowriter Harness did say this exploring is intentional:

I’m presenting something for discussion, I’m not reaching a conclusion. I don’t believe that drama, or art, is there to provide answers. It’s not to tell people what to think, it’s to encourage people to think, and come up with answers themselves.

As ministers of reconciliation, Christians can learn from the Doctor’s fight for peace.

1. “No, it’s not, it’s your fault.” When “Bonnie,” a Zygon impersonating Clara, complains that the Doctor is to blame, the Doctor refuses to accept it. After all, he has concluded he is an idiot, but trying to be good. He doesn’t enable false accusations.

2. “Oh, I didn’t realize that it was not fair!” The Doctor refuses to let Bonnie play victim. To be sure, real victims who have been “treated like cattle,” as Bonnie says, must be cared for, which means withholding harsh words. But with Bonnie, the Doctor does not confront someone personally weakened by abuse (like he does earlier, when he demonstrates more compassion). Instead he is confronting the real victims’ self-appointed advocate — someone strong enough to fight for their cause. And he refuses to accept her use of their suffering to justify her own desires for vengeance. He respects his foe enough to confront her boldly.

3. “You’re just a whole bunch of new cruel people.” Bonnie’s motives are at best mixed. But the Doctor does not let Bonnie claim any high ground. He does not offer her praise for good motives, thus enabling her real desire for cruelty. He calls her cruelty by its proper name.

4. “The only way anyone can live in peace is if they’re prepared to forgive.” The Doctor’s wording is (incidentally or otherwise) even cleverer than we may think. He does not say “forgive” without a qualifier. He says “prepared to forgive.” This aligns with the Bible’s (oft-ignored) picture: Forgiveness is a moral “transaction” between willing parties, conditioned on personal repentance. Thus forgiveness is not always possible. But people must be prepared to forgive and to leave unresolved conflicts to the God who avenges.

5. “Thank you. Thank you.” When the human party, Kate Lethbridge-Stewart (daughter of the Doctor’s old friend the Brigadier), steps back from her box, the Doctor praises her. Even an idiotic hero takes a side and says, “That choice she made is better. Now you choose.”

6. “When this war is over… what do you think it’s going to be like?” Perhaps best of all, the Doctor brings a Time Lord’s timeless perspective to the issue. Bonnie — and any person who is obsessed with social revolutions — is limited to a temporal view of today’s problems and solutions. She is not thinking about the real future of her people. I would add that she does not consider what her obsessions are doing to her own soul. Is she even capable of enjoying the fruits of her revolution? Can she not be an old and bitter warrior, so conditioned to fight the evils that she cannot enjoy goodness?

“Do you want people to go to work?” the Doctor demands. “Will there be holidays? Oh! Will there be music? Do you think people will be allowed to play violins? Who’s going to make the violins? Well? Oh, you don’t actually know, do you? Because, like every other tantrumming child in history, Bonnie, you don’t actually know what you want.”

I have asked similar questions of others, and of myself in those dastardly moments when I am “enjoying” a conflict too much, e.g., am I taking a perverse “joy” in the very actions that, while they may be necessary now, won’t be necessary in the New Heavens and New Earth?

This wisdom applies to anyone who supports or wants to resolve any cultural revolution.

Conflict is often necessary. But do we speak in the language of victimhood “on behalf” of weaker people as a means to seek our own comparative power? Do we appropriate cultural grievance as a desire for sinful vengeance? And do we know what we want beyond the struggle? Beyond the Doctor’s fictional boxes, and beyond real wars or campus conflicts, that’s what matters — our own personal desires for peace and supernatural forgiveness.

1 Comment

  1. If I may indulge in a trip down memory lane: ( This comment refers to Let’s Kill Hitler and the Doctor’s conversation with the Tesseleta:

    The Doctor’s objection to the Tessellactor is this: “Her sin is against me, not you. Therefore, since I have decided to be merciful, who are you to say otherwise?”

    Here, we have a situation where the Doctor is neither oppressor or victim. He doesn’t have the long history that he does with Cybermen or Daleks, of an ongoing struggle. He’s attempting to be an impartial mediator. And what does he bring to that?
    His own past. As early as Beast Below, Moffat’s era subtly showed the long-term consequences that the Time War had on the Doctor’s worldview.

    “There was a bad day. Bad stuff happened. And you know what? I’d love to forget it all, every last bit of it, but I don’t. Not ever. Because this is what I do, every time, every day, every second. This (choses to protest sight unseen).”
    He explicitly ties his ‘mission,’ his defense of the world in general and earth in particular (The ‘Basically, Run’ scene at the end of Eleventh Hour) to the war, to its aftermath.
    “All that pain and misery and loneliness…and it just made it kind.”–Amy Pond.

    And the ‘prepared to forgive’ bit–that is something he wants, something he seeks so much.
    DOCTOR: There are Time Lords here. I heard them and they need me.
    AMY: You told me about your people, and you told me what you did.
    DOCTOR: Yes, yes, but if they’re like the Corsair, they’re good one and I can save them.
    AMY: And then tell them you destroyed the others?
    DOCTOR: I can explain. Tell them why I had to.
    AMY: You want to be forgiven.
    DOCTOR: Don’t we all?
    –The Doctor’s Wife

    (According The Eleventh Doctor Companion (a magazine special), during their farewell conversation, the TARDIS was to tell the Doctor he was forgiven)

    And again in Wedding of River Song
    RIVER: Why would you do that? Make me watch?
    DOCTOR: So that you know this is inevitable. And you are forgiven. Always and completely forgiven.

    In another mirroring discussion
    JEX: You think I’m unaffected by what I did? That I don’t hear them screaming every time I close my eyes? It would be so much simpler if I was just one thing, wouldn’t it? The mad scientist who made that killing machine, or the physician who’s dedicated his life to serving this town. The fact that I’m both bewilders you.
    DOCTOR: Oh, I know exactly what you are, and I see this reformation for what it really is. You committed an atrocity and chose this as your punishment. Don’t get me wrong, good choice. Civilised hours, lots of adulation, nice weather, but, but justice doesn’t work like that. //You don’t get to decide when and how your debt is paid. //
    JEX: In my culture, we believe that when you die your spirit has to climb a mountain carrying the souls of everyone you wronged in your lifetime. Imagine the weight I will have to lift. The monsters I created, the people they killed. Isaac, he was my friend. Now his soul will be in my arms, too. Can you see now why I fear death? You want to hand me over. There’s no shame in that. But you won’t. We all carry our prisons with us. Mine is my past. Yours is your morality.
    –Town Called Mercy

    He knows the importance of forgiveness, because he can’t be absolved for any of the things he’s done. “You don’t get to decide how your debt is paid.” And when he’s talking with Bonnie, he doesn’t talk about restitution or payback or entitlement. He only mentions what her part is. And that is to forgive.

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