Sunday, June 23, 2024

Doctor Who Refuses to Show Mercy?

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Is our favorite Time Lord merciful, or does he lack compassion and the ability to forgive?

We all like to think of the Doctor as a friend. A savior. An eccentric man who will grab your hand and whisper, “run!” So, what are we to make of The Magician’s Apprentice and The Witch’s Familiar when our beloved Time Lord seems to defy his usual moral code? When he is the one running away from the problem instead of toward it? Should we be surprised that the Doctor refuses to show the young Davros mercy?


The Oxford Dictionary defines the word mercy as, “compassion or forgiveness shown toward someone whom it is within one’s power to punish or harm.” The Doctor is in a position to save, or leave for dead, the boy who will grow up to become the Doctor’s archenemy—Davros, the creator of the Dalek race. Yes, the Doctor tosses Davros his sonic screwdriver out of compassion, but then he leaves. The Doctor cannot forgive the boy’s future. It is a given that the child will one day be responsible for the burning of galaxies; however, if the Doctor is living up to his high moral standards, he should be able to put aside future events to help a child in need. This moral ambiguity causes us to pause and question this new face. Is the Doctor no longer merciful?

A Dying Man’s Wish

The Witch’s Familiar sheds the most light on this topic. We immediately know that the Doctor is in the wrong because he openly admits his shame. Shame is only felt by a consciousness that has done something wrong. In The Magician’s Apprentice Clara is the first to point out the look of shame on the Doctor’s face. Later, in The Witch’s Familiar, Davros directly asks about the Doctor’s shame.

Davros: “Is this the conscience of the Doctor or his shame? The shame that brought you here?”

Doctor: “There’s no such thing as the Doctor. I’m just a bloke in a box telling stories. And I didn’t come here because I’m ashamed. A bit of shame never hurt anyone. I came because you’re sick and you asked. And because sometimes on a good day, if I try very hard, I’m not some old Time Lord who ran away. I’m the Doctor.”

It is the merciful Doctor we know well that answered Davros’s dying wish. The Doctor willingly came to Skaro simply because Davros asked and is about to die. When the Doctor made this decision, it didn’t matter that Davros is his archenemy. So what changed?


The Doctor’s differentiation between the “old Time Lord” he is and “the Doctor” he tries to be also helps us understand his lack of mercy in the first episode. “There’s no such thing as the Doctor.” The Doctor is a title, almost like a superhero name. The name is an alias that stands for something bigger than himself: a qualified or experienced person who can aid people in need or mend things that are broken. Ultimately, “The Doctor” is the name of a man who is compassionate and forgiving. He’s a good man, a savior, a protector, a soldier… (Explaining the title “The Doctor” is a complex topic of its own, which is why I won’t delve into that right here, right now; however, it is still an intriguing conversation that has attempted to be directly answered in a multitude of previous episodes.)

The “old Time Lord,” on the other hand, is a person with a past. A man capable of flaws. A man who did not show mercy when mercy was needed. A man who did not save Davros as a child. Even Davros says after a logical discussion, “…we have established one thing… You are not a good doctor.” The “old Time Lord” is the man we call the Doctor, even though he is not always “The Doctor.”

Are you still with me? The contradictions are everywhere, but that’s the point. Doesn’t human nature contradict itself? We say we don’t screen calls, but as soon as we hear our mother on the answering machine, we refuse to pick up. We hate seeing trash on the ground, but it’s not considered littering if you drop an ice cream cone on the ground. We say we’re a safe driver, but then a deer jumps out of the woods, ruining our record. Life is full of contradictions and hypocrisy. Why should the Doctor be exempt?

Missy’s Words

Missy makes an acute observation toward the end of The Witch’s Familiar:

“In a way, this is why I gave her to you in the first place, to make you see. The friend inside the enemy. The enemy inside the friend… Everyone’s a bit of both. Everyone’s a hybrid.”

Missy could be justifying her poor behavior or trying to explain her relationship with the Doctor. Despite her motives, one thing rings true: life is not full of polar opposites and binary words. Everyone is capable of making the wrong decision, just like everyone is capable of showing mercy. Why else would a Dalek know the word mercy? Davros admits early on:

“Compassion is wrong… My Daleks are afflicted with a genetic defect. …Respect. Mercy for their father. Design flaws I was unable to eliminate.”


Mercy at the Last Moment

21765036589_4592db40fd_hIt comes as no shock when the Doctor returns to save young Davros in the end. The question was never, “Will the Doctor save the day?” The true question was always, “Is the Doctor saving Davros as an act of mercy?” The Doctor makes it clear that he is only helping Davros so that he may save Clara and Missy in the future—Davros’s well-being is not the motivating factor. Which leads us to question, are the Doctor’s motives still considered pure if he’s helping for reasons that have little to do with Davros’s well-being? Is compassion conditional? Saving young Davros is no act of forgiveness. And if saving Davros is shown with conditional compassion, is the Doctor truly showing mercy? Can mercy even be conditional?

The Last Word

It is impossible for Steven Moffat, and other script writers, to address every inconsistency in the television series. We do have to give them some credit though. The writers attempt to solve these questions about morals when they end with the Doctor’s final words:

“I’m not sure that any of that matters, friends, enemies. So long as there’s mercy. Always mercy.”

Many of the questions still remain, and more come to mind. Is the Doctor right or wrong? Does it matter whether or not your friends or enemies when you show mercy? Are these last words an easy way out for the show’s writers? Or like most Doctor Who episodes, is this line of questioning a way for us viewers to question our perception of the world we live in and our interaction with people?

All Images Courtesy of the BBC

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