“Am I a good man?”: Lessons from the Twelfth Doctor’s Moral Dilemma

At the beginning of “Into the Dalek” (s. 8, ep. 2) Peter Capaldi’s Doctor returns to ask Clara Oswald a question.

Twelfth Doctor: I need something from you. I need the truth… Clara, be my pal. Tell me: am I a good man?

Clara: I don’t know.

It’s an apt question for a show called Doctor Who. I only just finished my first viewing (from Christopher Eccleston to the present) several hours ago. I paid close attention to what changes and what stays the same after the Doctor regenerates. I’ll have to go back and confirm, but I want to argue that his commitment to certain principles (not using weapons, not killing) remains intact.

In the Doctor Who universe, this code initially seems to be a source of goodness. (How these principles are lived and often compromised is a different post entirely.) In “A Good Man Goes to War” (s. 6, ep. 7), Madame Kovarian taunts Matt Smith’s Eleventh Doctor by claiming “Good men have too many rules.” His response (“Today is not the day to find out why I have so many.”) squarely puts the Eleventh Doctor in the “Good” column. He’s so good he makes “demons run.”

We see in “Hell Bent” (s. 9, ep. 12) the Twelfth Doctor claiming “a duty of care,” thus signaling his commitment to the moral code adhered to by his past regenerations. So it is striking for two reasons—one of in-universe significance and the other of note for everyone watching—that he even has to grapple with that question.

First, it highlights the fact that while there is a single individual (“the Doctor”), his virtue is contingent on the attitudes and dispositions of his current face. So it is meaningful that he asks Clara, who first came on the scene during a prior regeneration. She has a relatively unique perspective from which to judge this existential question. Her uncertainty compounds his own.

Second, this is how we tend to evaluate character in our world. Rather than assign goodness based on the presence of a moral code, we tend to assess a person’s goodness based on the action(s) performed. The Twelfth Doctor’s introspection constitutes a maturation point for Doctor Who in terms of moral reasoning.

We can construct the Doctor’s code based on the things he says. We can then judge his actions based on a strict adherence to that code. The Eleventh Doctor, like the Tenth Doctor before him, was not wholly consistent in his application of his abstract principles. Yet it did not cause the kind of angst for him that it causes for Capaldi’s Doctor.

While I’ll still defend Matt Smith as my favorite Doctor, I think there’s something beautifully unsettling about the Twelfth Doctor that was just lacking in the Eleventh. If we accept as another truth about all his faces the fact that the Doctor “runs”, we finally have a Doctor standing his ground and doing the work of learning about himself rather than adapting to his current personality.

There is value, I think, in watching this unfold. The Twelfth Doctor’s declaration from “Death in Heaven” (s. 8, ep. 12) that

I am not a good man! And I’m not a bad man. I am not a hero. I’m definitely not a president. And no, I’m not an officer. You know what I am? I… am… an idiot. With a box and a screwdriver, passing through, helping out, learning. I don’t need an army, I never have. Because I’ve got them. Always them. Because love, it’s not an emotion. Love is a promise.

highlights something essential to our moral development: that it can’t happen alone. We are not always robust, self-sufficient individuals. The Doctor, with the ability to experience all of time and space at his fingertips, should not be left alone. This is a theme hit hard by Donna Noble, Amy Pond, and Clara. The Doctor, the closest thing to a god we see in the show, needs active reminders that his code is a practice as much as it is a composition of principles.


About wlivings

I'm a PhD student in Religion, Ethics, and Philosophy at Florida State University. My primary work is in human rights and pop culture.
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