Doctor Who and the Virtues of Compassion

Doctor Who actors

When I was a kid, back in the wild and wooly 70s, I watched Doctor Who on the local PBS station, which aired it every Saturday night. The series originally aired in half hour installments, but the PBS station would show the Doctor Who adventures all edited together, making it an epic that lasted for two hours. Tom Baker was the Doctor at that time, and for the longest time, he was my all-favorite actor in that role.

I recently noticed that Netflix Instant has the Classic Doctor Who (in addition to the more recent series), and so I indulged myself in a little bit of nostalgia by watching the Tom Baker episodes The Horror Of Fang Rock (Netflix has them in their original half hour format, but I binged-watched them all in one sitting). In this adventure, the good Doctor and his companion Leela (Louise Jameson) combat an evil alien that looks like a glowy gas balloon in a lighthouse.

There’s also the secondary cast, made up of the lighthouse keepers, and the survivors of a shipwreck (as you probably can gather, thanks to the annoying alien’s antics, the lighthouse ain’t working too well). I was struck at how blasé the good Doctor took the deaths of the secondary cast characters, who were being offed one by one by the alien in a weird variation of Ten Little Indians. At one point, when Leela asked what happend to the colonel (a retired military man) the Doctor just quips, “Dead with honor.”

That seemed pretty cold to me. I mean, James Bond would also toss off a quip like that whenever somebody died in one of his movies, but the quip was always for a villain. And sometimes that quip was also Bond’s way of getting in one final dig at a hated enemy (“Last rat standing.”). But in Horror Of Fang Rock, the colonel had been helping them fight a (really silly looking) monster, giving his life in the process, and all the Doctor could do after the poor guy is killed for his effort is just make a little joke about his death?


In contrast, when David Tennant played the Doctor, he seemed to agonize over every last death, no matter how insignificant the character might have been. I forget the episode, but he was aboard a space station, and when he saw the body of a dead woman floating away through a window, Tennant’s Doctor immediately blurted out, “I’m sorry; I’m so sorry….” It didn’t matter if he barely knew the woman, Tennant’s Doctor still deeply regretted her death.

Because it was clear that Tennant’s Doctor was a humanist who tried to help every last person he could, and was hit just hard by a stranger’s death as if it had happened to one of his own. He fights for everybody, regardless of who they are or their station in life. I really liked this fact about the Tenth Doctor; so much so that he’s become my new favorite Doctor Who. I still like Tom Baker’s Doctor–he remains my favorite of the classic Doctors because he was my childhood hero. But seeing how I’m no longer a kid, and seeing how my attitudes have changed over time, David Tennant is now my favorite of all the Doctors.

But I’m still eager to see what Peter Capaldi does with the role. Onward and upward.

One thought on “Doctor Who and the Virtues of Compassion

  1. Hi SJ,

    I’m also a Tennant fan, but had grown to like Matt Smith too, so a little sad to see him go. Expecting good things from Peter Capaldi though.

    Off-topic, but I was wondering whether you thought your audience might appreciate articles about railway modelling (it being somewhat related to your modelling hobby)? I write articles about the hobby, mostly aimed at those new to it, and am always on the look out for new places to publish them in the hopes of recruiting some fresh blood!

    Let me know if you’re interested.


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