Can You Hear Me? Doctor Who and the Problem of Evil

Previously

Spyfall 1: It’s the End of the World as We Know It

Spyfall 2: It’s Time She Spent Some Time Alone

Orphan 55: Climate Chaos in Cardiff

Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror: Great Men and Great History

Fugitive of the Judoon: The Book of Ruth

Praxeus: Fake Plastic Earth


[This was written in the week following the first major public outcry and round of demonstrations surrounding the UK Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, a terrible, authoritarian bit of legislation that, as you’re reading this, is likely now fully in law. The post started with a brief summary and call to action, which obviously needed to be trimmed out for this version, despite having a joke I really liked at the end, so we’ll see if we can get that back in there somehow. I’ve decided to mention this, just for tonal context, but it shouldn’t really be relevant, because this week we’re talking about… the dangers of absolute power… ah.]

Set Up: Gods are Monsters

The Problem of Evil is a classic of First Term Theology, and was a real favourite of mine when I was younger, and I think the fact that such an entry-level thought experiment still has people arguing is fascinating to me. The problem goes like this:

  1. Is God neither able nor willing to prevent evil? Then why call them God?
  2. Is God willing, but not able? Then they are not all-powerful.
  3. Are they able, but not willing? Then they are not good.
  4. Are they both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil?

I reworded slightly for clarity, but this is more or less exactly how the problem was originally stated all those years ago. It represents a a very literalistic approach, and one that doesn’t really apply to most religions or most modern conceptualisations of God, so let’s not start any bickering about that. General bickering remains much encouraged.

Over the centuries, there have been a number of defences against the problem that I think would be useful to sketch out. I don’t find any of these particularly convincing myself, but do come to your own conclusions. Here are the major ones, succinctly:

  • The evil in the world is the result of free will and overruling free would be a greater evil than allowing evil to exist. Absolute power is wrong and all that.
  • Life has to be hard; it’s a test of our character, for heaven, from God. The test doesn’t work if life is good.
  • God works in mysterious ways, and there are rules we don’t or can’t know about that that tie their hands from helping.

Of course the other explanation is that God is not actually good, although this is less a defence than a capitulation. Selfish gods, cruel gods, ignorant gods all dodge this paradox entirely. And this is why the problem comes up so rarely in fiction, despite sci-fi and fantasy in particular having a hell of a lot of Gods or God-like characters in it. Star Trek’s Q isn’t ‘good,’ so their being all-powerful isn’t a problem, and Doctor Who follows the same model. The gods of the Doctor Who universe are all fakes, like the Nimon, Odin, Dalek Emperor; disinterested in the suffering of individual people, like the Time Lords are; or outright evil, like the creature in the pit, like the Toymaker, like Fenric, like Zellin and Rakaya in this episode, like most of the frankly massive number of Bad Gods disposed by every Doctor all the time.

And they have to be bad, given that these characters usually fill in the “monster” role in a given episode. The formula of the show means that the Doctor disposes actual Gods in exactly the same way she does the Slitheen or some big maggots. There’s such a massive number of evil Gods or demi-Gods or semi-Gods in the Doctor Who universe, and every week they’re kept in line by their antipodes: a being even more powerful, and more inscrutable than the rest combined. She is defined by her goodness, in opposition to their evil, but is she really so righteous?

Development: The Suffering of Man

Can You Hear Me? Is the episode of S12 that tries hardest to dramatise the companions of this era, and the focus on dreams and nightmares especially provides opportunity to give them an interiority that I think many people have felt they’ve been lacking. We have a number of really quite affecting developments, backed up by creative, powerful imagery: Ryan’s friend Tibo, who he feels he is abandoning on Earth by flying off around space with the Doctor, makes for a genuinely interesting set up for a companion exit, focussed on a sense of homebound duty that, perhaps because of her inability to enact real change, Ryan doesn’t feel is fulfilled in his travels with the Doctor; Yaz’s story of once running away from home, euphemistically suicidal, how her family is there for her on the anniversary, and how an aspirational, authoritative woman gave her direction when she needed it most, which adds a whole new depth to her relationship with the Doctor; and Graham’s fears of his cancer returning, and of letting down Grace by wasting the time he has, which he confides in the Doctor, to her response:


I’m still quite socially awkward, so I’m just going to subtly walk towards the console and look at something.


Now this scene didn’t irk me as much as it seemed to so many people. I see both the arguments that the Doctor has let down her friend in favour of a cheap gag at the denouement of an episode that is framed from every angle as public service feature on mental health, that that’s both insensitive and unhelpful, but also that this Doctor suffers quite serious social anxiety, as I imagine a few of us do, and that this is representation in its own right because not everyone is always able to say the right thing at the right time. Personally, I felt that the main failing was that the scene isn’t an answer to the question of the title – I don’t know, after watching the episode a few times now, whether or not Graham feels that the Doctor Can Hear Him when he opens up to her – and that feels like a problem.

But aside from her failure to say the right thing, I can’t help get the feeling from this episode, and 13’s track record, that she’s failing to do the right thing, too. The companion’s fears are grounded in real, material problems that she has the power to address. Graham isn’t just vaguely scared of something, he’s specifically afraid of his cancer recurring and destroying his life, and he comes to the Doctor as a Doctor. And she shrugs him off in favour of Mary Shelly in an Adventure with Robots instead of taking him to New Earth, or the Sisters of the Infinite Schism, or any other place in the universe where he could get permanent treatment. Why doesn’t she get Yaz that sweet space-therapy we all need? Why doesn’t she give Ryan a billion pounds so that he never has to work demeaning and depressing manual labour again, and can instead actually have the resources to build towards a better future for planet Earth? We know that she has the power to do these things, and yet she chooses not to.

And, while we’re asking, if she has the cure for cancer, which she must do, why doesn’t she give it to all cancer patients everywhere? Why doesn’t she give everybody a billion pounds? Or, more practically, why doesn’t she dismantle the world’s systems of production and help reorganise human society into one that benefits everyone?

Obviously, I’m being a little glib, but the points stand. Maybe the Doctor isn’t exactly God, but she has the power and the knowledge to help, and she doesn’t. She might not be all-powerful in the sense that she can conjure fire from the sky or fire lasers from her eyes, but she is an immortal (barring accidents) both tangibly and narratively, and has a time machine, and with it, infinite resources and the ability to change history. She might not technically be all-knowing, but she is a genius, thinking faster than anybody else, and has access to a whole dimension of knowledge that the rest of us aren’t privy to; she knows how time flows, how actions ripple out into the world. And fundamentally, she knows the rules.

And at this point I want to emphasise that this isn’t a Thirteen problem, and it isn’t a Chibnall problem. This is something that has existed very nearly as long as the show has and has become especially pronounced the more we have leaned into the virtuous low-rent deity idea of the Doctor that began to develop in the 80s, and has been the central characterisation of the character for the most of the revival. It’s not something that’s never been addressed; most Doctors, at some point, are led to question what their exact remit is, and whether they have the right to take their intervention to the extremes. Twelve has a particularly defined debate over this across S8, trying to find a sweet spot between do-gooding and waging war on the evils of the universe, at the end of which he settles on being a “traveller”, returning to what seems to be the Doctor’s natural state. The only real long-term deviation from this has been the extended media’s Seventh Doctor, whose two most recognisable traits are a willingness to use the full force of his power for good and being the de facto “bad guy” Doctor. Interesting, that.

But I find it difficult to buy that “helping fewer people and doing less good” is really the moral highroad that Doctor Who claims. And yet it definitely does claim it. So, let’s see if we can’t understand why.

Deus Ex Machina: Empathy with the Devil

The real reasons that the Doctor isn’t able, or isn’t willing, to help people on a wider scale than she does all come from out-universe, by which I mean they are creative or practical limitations that stem from the show as a TV show (and by extension other media too), from the aims of the writers and the restrictions of the production, cast and crew, rather from the in-universe motives of the Doctor themself as a character.

For one, we have a shared assumption that there needs to be a representation of real-life Earth (or close-to-real-life-Earth) in the show for relatable, viewpoint companions to derive from, and to ground the series’ stakes in a recognisable landscape. The Doctor’s limits don’t often apply away from the context of Already Existing Earth. There’s no issue overthrowing the government on future Pluto because we never have to go back there. And he can change the course of human society 200,000 years in the future because it’s too far away to matter. But you can’t change the modern day in the same way because it breaks the connection with the real world. Even when past invasions are in-continuity they’re swept under the international rug.

Another reason is that if the Doctor’s limits don’t apply, that puts right to the fore the questions of what she should do rather than what she can do, which is a much stickier, much more difficult question to answer. This is the interesting thing about the Moffat-era “power level” increase of the Doctor: practical questions become moral ones. It’s not “can I save Clara?” but “should I save Clara?” This works in the other direction, too: taking power away from the Doctor has the same effect, like in The Doctor Falls where the question isn’t whether the Doctor can win – we know for a fact he can’t – it’s whether he still fights despite that. But apply this idea to modern day Earth, and we’re forced to address “what should society look like?” which is understandably not something writers are keen to get into on family TV. It’s much more comfortable to play negatives, having the Doctor slap down technocracies and dictatorships across the universe and then fly away before anybody has a chance to ask, “what now?” Utopian storytelling isn’t easy.

What all of this adds up to is that it would probably break the show to have the Doctor applying the full force of her power to bettering the lives of the people of Earth, and that might be true, but hand-waving can only go so far. There have to be in-universe reasons for the Doctor’s inaction, too, but like the solutions to the original problem, these have proven to be, at best, vague and inconsistent:

It’s not a violation of anybody’s free will to distribute the cure for cancer – in fact it is the opposite, allowing people to live longer and exercise more freedom – and while absolute power might well corrupt absolutely, the point is that the Doctor already has the power, she is just choosing not to distribute it to the needy. If it is a kind of ‘test of character’, then the Doctor is cruel for making her friends walk through fire for her own satisfaction; Ryan’s fears of ecological collapse are real, as are Graham’s anxiety about recurrence and Yaz’s depression. They are not problems solved by them learning a lesson or ‘doing a character arc’ even if that is the easiest way to tell a story. So, if we want to keep believing in a Good Doctor, there’s only one answer left, and this is where the show finds its defence: The Doctor works in mysterious ways. There are rules, rules of time, that she and her people know, and that we don’t know. That we are not allowed to know. That we apparently couldn’t even comprehend.

But is that really true? And should we accept it even if it is? Well, for my answer to that problem, you’ll have to hold on. Because everything you think you know is a lie, and everything is about to change.

TWO. WEEKS. UNTIL. THE FINALE.

NEXT WEEK: M͗̉͆a̔̽̎̀͗r̽ỹ͗͞’̛̒̇͆̓́̅s̈́͐͝ ̄͠S̴̱͠t̶͓̑o̵͕̐r̷̠͂y̶͓̽:̄̀̋͐ I̋̾̊̓ ̾͋̐̇͂À̵̧m ͛̑́͂̈́̀̓̌̽͘͠G̷r̴e̵a̸t O̒̇͂̕z̐̑̽͒̋́̓̈̒̀̔y̅̀͊̄́̅̃̈́̄̐̃̑̓͒͠m̀̔̿͋̚ǎ̇̀͞n̛͗̓̍d̷i̶a̴s̶,̌̇͐ ̍͐̔͒̀͊͑S̛͐̔̇̉͡͡a̔̿̊́́͋͛͛͌̇͞î̾̕t̒̌́͝h͋͌̍̾̓͡ ̒̆͌͑̕t̊́͋̿̕h̔̿͋̍͗̎͋͋͆̏̔̀͠è̷̃̓̍̒̐̇̔̒͂̔͋̅͋̆ S̑̋̀̅͞͞͡t̑͒̒͗̾̾̓͊́̑͡͞ơ̈́̀͌̀̎̄̚͞n̒͛̔ė̀̋̃̃̾͐̆͆́͋͡

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