The Moral of Doctor Who: Answering the Questions of “Genesis of the Daleks”
“The Magician’s Apprentice/The Witch’s Familiar,” is the opening episode to the ninth series (or 35th season, depending on how you count) of the British television show Doctor Who, a show about an alien called the Doctor who travels in time and space. This recent episode picks up on themes from a much older episode, “Genesis of the Daleks” (1974). In one notable scene in “Genesis,” the Doctor holds two wires, knowing that if he touches them together, he will destroy the Daleks, an evil race of aliens who want to destroy all non-Dalek life. Suddenly, the Doctor asks, “Have I that right?” In that moment, he realizes the decision to destroy all the Daleks would be tantamount to genocide, a crime for which the Daleks are well known and which the Doctor detests. “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?” he asks. Arguably, these are two different questions – 1) is it okay to kill all Daleks ever and 2) is it okay to kill someone innocent just because you know they will be guilty. Ultimately, he is saved from needing to find an answer because an ally comes to tell him Davros has agreed to put progress on the Daleks to a vote (though this vote turns out to be a scheme on the part of Davros).
That “The Magician’s Apprentice” has this scene in mind is clear – it even incorporates quotes from the “Genesis” scene in the background. More poignantly, and more to the point, the episode opens with the Doctor trying to save a child from a war zone – a child who turns out to be Davros. The decision of whether to save the child renews the theme of “Genesis” – as a time traveller, can you kill someone you know will grow up to be evil? As the show continues, the Doctor meets the old, dying Davros and is shown the very life force of the Daleks (again in the form of wires). The Doctor must decide – Do you save a child who will grow up to be evil? and Do you commit genocide against the Daleks, who want to commit genocide against every other living species?
Before now, “Genesis of the Daleks” stood as a unique example in Doctor Who. Although the Doctor often claims to have a moral code, he always manages to win by outsmarting his enemy. It becomes unclear whether the message of Doctor Who is “be good” or simply “be clever.” “Genesis of the Daleks” was a unique example where the Doctor lost, Davros won, and the moral code proved potentially more important to the Doctor than his winning. Thus, what “The Magician’s Apprentice” does with these themes from “Genesis” carries tremendous importance for the series.
“Could you then kill that child?”
When the Doctor learns the child is Davros, he freezes in place. The theme song begins and the episode leads us to believe that he saved the child. However, we later learn that upon hearing the child was Davros, the Doctor left the child to die.
His decision to come back for the child is motivated by his realization at the end that the Daleks know the word for “mercy,” that this word is the only way he managed to save his companion, Clara, and that they must have gotten this word from his interaction with the child Davros. And so the Doctor returns to the past to save the child Davros, and in doing so he is, “Saving my friend the only way I know how” – i.e. by not killing anyone. The Doctor tells Davros that sides don’t matter because there should always be a place for mercy.
However, this decision to save the child is fueled by a desire to save Clara – a desire that will drive the Doctor later in the series to betray the Time Lords and risk damaging the universe. Perhaps he has grown by the end of the episode, perhaps the Doctor has realized the importance of mercy – or perhaps he is simply saving his friend.
Regardless, at the beginning of the episode, the Doctor may not kill the child, but he seems content to allow the child to die. There is, at the beginning of the episode anyway, a loophole in his moral code that will allow him to effectively kill the child.
Could you kill the Daleks
The Doctor is given the opportunity at the beginning of his talk with the old and dying Davros to cut the wires and kill all the Daleks. He doesn’t. At first this seems like a moral victory for the Doctor, who can resist the temptation to commit genocide even against his greatest foe. At first.
But then, as the Doctor and Davros talk, Davros explains that he wants just a little regeneration energy from the Doctor so that he can watch the sun rise over his own planet. Regeneration energy is the energy Time Lords (such as the Doctor) use to stay alive for so long, and Davros is so weak he cannot open his eyes. In what seems like the ultimate mercy for an old foe, the Doctor agrees, starts to use some regeneration energy, and touches the aforementioned wires, which hook up the Daleks to Davros. But alas! Davros was trying to trick him and now highjacks the regeneration energy for himself and his Daleks in an attempt to create a Time Lord-Dalek hybrid.
And here the Doctor would have died if he had not been saved by Missy. At this point, it begins to become apparent that the Doctor knew this would happen from the beginning of the episode – barring the being saved by Missy. The Doctor knew he would be called to Skaro, knew why, and believed he would die on Skaro performing this act. And he did it because, he reveals, he knew this act would bring the sewer full of Dalek carcasses back to life, and that this sewer would attack the other Daleks. The Doctor’s plan was to destroy all the Daleks, but he tricked Davros into pulling the switch. In other words, here too we find a loophole in the Doctor’s moral code: it is not okay to commit genocide, but it is okay to trick your enemy into committing genocide for you.
Who is the hero of “The Magician’s Apprentice”?
And finally we get to this bizarre question. The Daleks have shown a capacity for kindness. More than just saying, “Mercy,” the Daleks are sacrificing their own life force to keep Davros alive. This is mercy acted out – this is exactly something the Doctor would do for a companion. So while the Doctor is not saving children (until the end) and conspiring to commit genocide (or rather, to trick Davros into committing genocide), the Daleks are trying to save a man they… love?
And so there is a Doctor-Dalek hybrid – it’s just a Dalek. And it’s not pure evil.
What do you think? Leave a comment.