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Cruel or Cowardly: Doctor Who and the Fates Worse Than Death?

I think we can all agree that the Doctor is the one that saves people. The Doctor saves people from monsters, aliens, other people, themselves, threats of all kind. But sometimes, the well-meaning Doctor dooms them, leaving them to face a fate worse than death.

Maybe it’s just that, throughout the Doctor’s very long life, there’s been so, so, so much death, that for the Time Lord, any life is better than death, the viewpoint being that life is oh so precious, that it must never, ever be wasted. But depending on the outcome, the Doctor can be a total, freaking, alien idiot. Just ask Ursula.

This poor girl had already been assimilated into the Absorbaloff and, after the Tenth Doctor took the monster out, her essence and corporeal form was lost, drained in the cement. Ursula was dead, along with the bulk of her group, L.I.N.D.A. in the adored and/or loathed episode, Love & Monsters. At this point, the Doctor… saves her life, I guess? He brings back her consciousness, and at least her face, permanently adhered to a small slab of cement, where she can somehow just live out her life on Elton’s shelf. The episode seemingly ends on a high note as she’s… grateful? Really, this seems like more of a torture that the Master would design – and I’m talking about the John Simm version, because he’s the most cruel and nutty as a pancake. It was kind of horrifying. Let’s fast forward one season later, to Laszlo.

While the Daleks were in Manhattan during the great depression in Series 3, the Tenth Doctor and Martha Jones had their hands full but with the help of Spider-Man and a singer-dancer girl named Tallulah -“three l’s and an h” – they saved everyone. Well, except the love of Tallulah’s life, Laszlo. You see, Laszlo was quickly changing into a barbaric pig-man, because of the Daleks’ scientific shenanigans. The Doctor, bless him, was able to halt his decline! But he was unable to fix poor Laszlo’s face, which was now more pig than man, complete with humongous ears and a formidable snout. He truly looked horrifying. But having stopped the Daleks, the Doctor was off, with his physician-in-training, Martha Jones – neither of whom raised the topic of maybe getting Laszlo some much needed plastic surgery, probably available on any one of a zillion planets the Doctor knows of. Tough luck Laszlo, we’re needed back in London, be glad you’re alive, Porky! To be fair, I’ll bet that Laszlo was probably glad to still be alive. Until the next time he looked a mirror, went topside and was found by city-goers who’d probably shoot him on sight. No, I’m sure he had a great life, hiding in the sewers as the reviled pig-man.

As Spidey warns, “They’ll give you a home, Laszlo. I mean, don’t imagine people ain’t going to stare. I can’t promise you’ll be at peace but, in the end, that is what Hooverville is for. People who ain’t got nowhere else.”

The blame here, though, lands squarely on the shoulders of showrunner, Russell T Davies. I, of course, enjoyed RTD’s era, but there were times when his judgement was all over the map. In any case, I don’t know what he was thinking, but for my money, he’s arguably the worst offender of the showrunners when it comes to this phenomenon. But there’s more discussion to be had…

There might be other examples of RTD’s handiwork. Of course, Donna Noble, who had her memories torn away from her and basically stole away her very best parts, turned back into the Runaway Bride version, which was cruel enough unto itself. Then there were the poor people in Gridlock, some of them stuck in the same traffic jam for decades then sent to repopulate a city presumably awash with bodies — but at least they had each other. It’s not the worst existence and they weren’t disembodied heads stuck in cement on a shelf, anyway.

We move along to Steven Moffat and I think of the three showrunners, he’s possibly the most compassionate in his refusal to let death take anyone of note — no matter what!

Let’s look at the Weeping Angels’ modus operandi. They’re a product of the Moff’s imagination but they seem to subscribe to the “showrunner’s code” of not actually killing anyone, but the Angels just send them back in time to live out their lives, creating temporal energy that the creatures feed on. At least poor Billy Shipton didn’t die; he got to live out his life, albeit in the wrong era. It probably sucked for him to have to wait a decade for the invention of the microwave oven, then VCRs and most importantly, DVD players, but I digress. Not really all that bad. Ditto for Kathy Nightingale, and Rory and Amy.

Maybe it’s all in how a showrunner must face his greatest challenge: separating a companion from a Doctor, especially when, in the new era, no companions ever want to leave. Well, except Martha and I don’t blame her. “Rose, Rose, Rose, blah blah blah.”

River Song was an especially unusual case. We met her in her last hours but as we’d find out from River much later, the Doctor doesn’t like endings and it doesn’t really matter how you feel about it; he’s going to save you, at least according to his own definition of the term, “save”. Not content with letting this woman die either, he transfers her consciousness to the Library, where she’ll wander around the grounds reading books for the rest of her life. Again, not a bad life really and she did somehow manage to partake in conference calls with Vastra and others thanks to psychic links, which was kind of cool. Condemned to immortality but at least she doesn’t have to hide in the sewer, fearing for her life.

Then there’s Clara Oswald: an excellent case study in just how attached the Twelfth Doctor got to his companions and what lengths he’d go to for their sake. The last we see of Clara, she’s also been “saved”, existing in between her last heartbeat and death. No pressure. She even ventures off with Me in another TARDIS in the shape of a cafe. They’re really going to have to fix that particular chameleon circuit. (Maybe a nice blue garden shed? White trim, little windows?) In any event, she’s really living on the edge, waiting for that other shoe to drop. Come to think of it, being she’s such an adrenaline junkie, this fate doesn’t even belong on this list. This must be a dream for her! ‘Nuff said.

Onto the showrunners who’s already the most divisive of the bunch in this category: Chris Chibnall. I was talking with the DWC’s editor, Philip about this whole thing and, while I feel there’s one clear cut case of unimaginable cruelty while trying to save someone, Philip cited what he believes were at least few more. Under the thumb of Chibs, Philip mentions the poor workers of Kerblam!, who must toil away for so many hours a day, so many days a week. That one gets hazy for me as by and large, the people in the episode seemed to be pleased they got the job, vital to provide for their families. On one hand, it’s horrible drudgery; on the other hand, it’s kind of relatable, depending on the job one has in real life. It’s possible that after the Doctor’s intervention, working conditions might actually pick up a bit and they do have a “people person” on their side.

Then there’s the rather ineffectual racist who craved revenge against Rosa Parks. He gets his by being transported back to the prehistoric age by Ryan Sinclair. I imagine he’d end up either just living off nuts and berries or getting eaten by a Velociraptor or getting a first hand look at the asteroid/spaceship before it hits. Either way, I’m not sure he fits the bill of the Doctor saving him only to have a worse fate — it was instigated by Ryan, but either way, there’s a debate there on whether it was a proportionate punishment, one way or another.

My main complaint against the Thirteenth Doctor under Chibnall’s reign, is in, you guessed it, Arachnids in the UK. In the other examples, the showrunners save good people and condemn them to an either nightmarish existence (RTD) or a bizarre immortality (Moff) but yes, at least they live long lives in their condition, for what it’s worth.

In Arachnids, the giant queen spider is asphyxiating to death right in front of the Doctor. It is in utter and total agony. Even the Trump-wannabe is moved to put it out of its misery. But no. In some twisted, perverted take on what Chibnall believes the Doctor is all about, he has her demanding that everyone let this terrified, near mindless creature slowly suffer in torment just because she never wants anything or anyone to die. This was about as insulting as anything this past series. To make matters worse, she then corrals what she assumes to be all the spiders in the city and herds them into a safe room where they will slowly starve to death – perhaps eat each other? Thank goodness they’ll live until then, hmm? I’m afraid the current incarnation has the most cockeyed notion of quality of life, but as shown above, we’ve seen lesser variations of it before.

To quote the Ninth Doctor from The Doctor Dances: “Everyone lives! Just this one, everybody lives!” Sometimes, maybe that’s not such a great thing, depending on who’s running the show.

And what of you, reader? Any other examples of the Doctor saving someone when maybe they shouldn’t? Please do chime in.

Rick Lundeen

Cruel or Cowardly: Doctor Who and the Fates Worse Than Death?

by Rick Lundeen time to read: 7 min
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