The philosophy of Doctor Who: Is the Doctor good or evil?

Morality is as complicated as time travel...


For a hero, the Doctor does an awful lot of bad things. From destroying entire civilisations to leaving children to die on the battlefield, he’s hardly a goodie blue-shoes, and sometimes seems to cause more harm than good. Even the Doctor is sometimes compelled to ask:


Let’s consider the evidence. 

Who’s to blame? 

Imagine you’re a bit player in a Doctor Who story. There you are, living happily in your 15th century village, making hay, chewing cud, when suddenly a strange man shows up. Around the same time, all of your friends start dying.

What conclusions would you draw? You can’t really blame the terrified locals for throwing him in the nearest dungeon every episode, can you?

The Doctor’s habit of arriving just before trouble strikes has often been remarked upon (and it’s kinda-sorta-canonical that the TARDIS deliberately lands at trouble spots) but the Doctor would argue that just because bad stuff happens after he showed up, doesn’t mean he caused it. This is a fallacy known as post hoc ergo propter hoc. If you were on the TARDIS or in Ancient Rome, that would translate as “after it, therefore because of it”.

However, whether he helped cause the initial problem or not, it’s undeniable that in the course of trying to save the day, his actions often directly result in deaths, sometimes many, many deaths.

For instance, in the Fires of Pompeii the Doctor deliberately causes Vesuvius to erupt, killing almost the entire population of the Roman town, in order to prevent an invasion of rock people.

Now, we’re no fans of rock people, but how can killings thousands of people ever be the right thing to do?

Only following orders

One possible answer is that the Doctor is sometimes forced into ‘bad’ or unpleasant choices through circumstance.

For one thing, the Doctor is a Time Lord, with power and duties we can barely grasp. Perhaps his primary responsibility isn’t always to do the right thing, but rather to maintain the integrity of history. Pompeii had to explode, or time would fracture, and it’s the Doctor’s job as a Time Lord to ensure that doesn’t happen.

The question is, why?

Well, for much of Doctor Who’s history, the Doctor was outranked by a council of Time Lords, who would sometimes send him on missions. Sometimes these orders were morally dubious. In Genesis of the Daleks, the Doctor was told to wipe out an entire species – a grim task, even when the species in question is your mortal enemy.

In this case the Doctor didn’t go through with the order, but if he had he could claim to be “only following orders”. However, these days we tend to take a dim view of the so-called ‘Nuremberg defence’.

But then we all know that the Doctor was never one for following orders. No one could make him do anything he didn’t want to do. His decision to destroy Pompeii was his own.

Doctor Spock

Perhaps the simplest explanation for why the Doctor does bad things is the best one: it’s to prevent something worse. For instance, not following the course of history – by, say, saving Rose’s dad in Father’s Day or the Doctor in The Wedding of River Song – is seen to cause universe-ending paradoxes, killing billions.

In that case, allowing one person or a relatively small group of people to die is surely justifiable, as it stops a much larger group of people coming to harm? 

This is the most frequent moral quandary the Doctor faces. In The Beast Below, he decides that lobotomising an innocent Star Whale is necessary to preserve the civilisation that lives on its back. (The fact it is a ridiculous problem doesn’t make it any less wrenching.)

One of the Doctor’s defining moments was his (apparent) use of the apocalyptic weapon The Moment to end the Time War – this time actually killing the Daleks and the Time Lords – in order to stop more civilians dying in the fighting.

This is a form of Utilitarianism – a branch of moral philosophy whose most famous fan has pointy ears.

A similar rationale was used to justify Harry Truman dropping atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki – with many arguing that the loss of life was justified as it forced Japan to surrender, preventing World War II from dragging on and ultimately killing even more people. 

Utilitarianism is a consequentialist philosophy, which argues that it’s not the action itself, but the effect of an action that counts. Put another way: the end justifies the means. 

So, in some cases the Doctor is choosing the lesser of two evils, but why does he have to choose either? Why can’t the Doctor keep his hands clean, and take no action at all? 

Off his trolley?

Let’s go back to the Fires of Pompeii. Ignoring all of the ‘fixed point in time’ stuff, the Doctor still must make a moral choice. Either he actively helps kill the citizens of Pompeii, or he does nothing and let events/rock aliens take their course. 

In fact, the Time Lords are supposed to obey a law of non-intervention – kind of like Starfleet in Star Trek, but with stupid hats. But the Doctor (as we’ve already suggested, not always a big rule follower) sometimes claims to have a form of ‘treaty’ with the Earth, guaranteeing our protection. The rock people are an alien invasion, so by that token he is duty bound to step in to defend his ally (and simultaneously annoy the Time Lords so, two birds, one stone). 

Any deaths that occur are simply collateral damage from honouring his commitments. Like how the First World War was collateral damage from the Serbian/Austro-Hungary war. But with aliens!

The issue with interventionist politics is that, even with the best of intentions, there can be unintended consequences further down the line. For instance, the Doctor’s decision to interfere in the fight between a Viking village and the Mire in The Girl Who Died, and his subsequent decision to save Ashildr by granting her immortality, ultimately led to an invasion of fire-breathing lions, the death of his companion Clara and regime change on Gallifrey.

A recent real-world example of interventionist policies? 

The Blair Doctrine.

But let’s return to the question: surely it is better to do nothing than actually kill people? At its most basic level, in one outcome you have killed people, in another you haven’t. Morally, aren’t you in the clear?

In Pompeii, the Doctor has the opportunity to either pull a lever or not. If he does nothing, many millions of people will die – something that would have happened regardless of his presence. If he pulls the lever, the citizens of Pompeii will die, but everyone else will be saved.

Let’s imagine that the lever doesn’t control some sci-fi nonsense, but something more tangible: the switch on a railroad. In philosophy, this is known as the Trolley Problem. In this thought experiment you are given the choice between allowing a train to run down a group of pedestrians, or divert it onto another track where only one person will die. What is the correct action: track one or track two? Volcano or rock men? Action or inaction?

The Doctor’s response would probably be that taking no action when you could take an action is itself a moral action. As the old saying goes, all that evil needs to succeed is for good men to do nothing.

But there’s that question again: is the Doctor really a ‘good man’?

“You would make a good Dalek”

Daleks give bad compliments. While a Dalek might be flattered at being told…

…it’s unlikely to be your Tinder profile. The Daleks are complimenting the Doctor’s ruthless streak, but we’re most interested in this little diatribe from Davros in The Stolen Earth.

“You take ordinary people and fashion them as weapons”, the creator of the Daleks spits. “How many have died in your name?”

Davros claims that the Doctor adopts these humans not just for companionship, but because they’re his own private army. Rory similarly berated the Doctor for encouraging people to take unnecessary risks to impress him. It’s not love; the Doctor’s companions are useful to him.

The Dalek’s number one priority might be to EXTERMINATE, but Davros is actually hinting at another rule here: the Categorical Imperative. Philosopher Immanuel Kant argued that morality was a rationally consistent proposition – if you really thought about it, you would realise immorality was self-defeating. For example, if everyone told lies, then no-one would believe anyone, meaning lying would be pointless. QED.

As part of the Categorical Imperative, Kant argued that you should:

“Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of another, always at the same time as an end and never simply as a means.”

To put it another way: don’t use people. This is a rule that the Doctor, a skilled manipulator, breaks all the time. He is always convincing people to do what he wants in order to further his own ends.

Remember A Christmas Carol – the Matt Smith special with opera and flying fish?

Michael Gambon is an Scrooge–like character named Kazran Sardick. Sardick controls the weather and the Doctor needs to access his computer so Amy and Rory can land in a spaceship. However, because Sardick’s such a grumpy grumps, he won’t do it.

The Doctor’s solution? Go back in time and completely alter Sardick’s personal history, so he ends up less of a grumpy grumps.

There is no question Sardick is horrible, but does the Doctor have the right to change him in this way? In doing so, he is treating Sardick as a means to an end, rather than an end in himself. From a Kantian point of view, The Doctor is the real Sardick.

Let’s Kill Hitler

Considering the efforts the Doctor went to in order to change one bad man, it makes you wonder about some familiar faces…

In The Magician’s Apprentice, Clara berated the Doctor for letting his pal Missy escape again and again, and laid the death she caused at his feet. But the problem is bigger than that.

As we have seen, the Doctor seems to have scoped out a consequentialist, interventionist morality with almost unchecked power to alter events, and no compunction about using people. If that’s the case, then why does he let evil exist in the first place?

This is, appropriately enough, known as the Problem of Evil. Traditionally it concerns the perceived incompatibility between an all knowing, all powerful and all benevolent god and the existence of evil – why would he/she allow it to exist?

The Doctor isn’t a god, but he can do an awful lot. He tends to take a reactive position – he rarely starts a fight, even if he always finishes it – but there’s little doubt that if he applied himself, the Cybermen would never have made it past beta.

(Then again, you could also spend every waking hour running marathons for charity, but you don’t. Unless you’re Eddie Izzard.)

A time traveller’s morality is summed up by that old, blunt internet debate: would you kill baby Hitler?

It isn’t clear cut – baby Hitler has yet to commit any crimes – but the point is that with a TARDIS, there is very little you couldn’t solve. It’s an issue that the show not only side-stepped, but shoved in the cupboard.

It’s hard to see that as anything other than a dodge. 

Except that, if the Doctor were to shoot someone in cold blood, it might be kind of hard to hold him up as a role model… Yep, morality is about as complicated as time travel…

The difference between the Doctor and the Daleks, or even the other Time Lords, is that he is trying to use his power for good. He’s playing the game, and even if he loses every now and again, or doesn’t quite know what the rules are, or occasionally cheats, to him winning really only means helping.


As Clara says:

You asked me if you were 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.