Almost all of the soldiers of a British light division were dead in a fog-covered field just outside of Sevastopol, Crimea, sometime in 1855. Instead of fighting Russians, in this alternate timeline they fought the Sontarans, an advanced alien race whose weapons were far superior to nineteenth-century rifles or cannons. A time-traveling alien, Doctor Who—specifically the Thirteenth Doctor, portrayed by Jodie Whittaker in the popular BBC series Doctor Who—developed a plan. She would tamper with the mechanism that allowed the Sontarans to breathe in Earth’s atmosphere, forcing them to retreat without further bloodshed. For a character who previously claimed to follow pacifism, the plan resembles a non-violent alternative to war. But before the enemy spaceships could take off, Lieutenant-General Logan of the obliterated British division detonated a series of gunpowder barrels, eliminating the entire Sontaran fleet.
Furious, the Doctor chastises him with self-righteous disgust, “They were retreating! It was done… Sometimes men like you make me wonder why I bother with humanity.”
Yet the general made the right decision to destroy the fleet when he had the opportunity—though according to the just war tradition he did it for the wrong reason, revenge. The Sontarans were withdrawing (they refused to call it a “retreat”) but did not surrender, lay down their arms, or promise not to return. Sometime after the time-traveling protagonist left, as she did a few minutes later, the genocidal warriors would attack again. At that point, humanity would have no hope of survival.
This episode (“War of the Sontarans,” November 2021) exemplifies problems with Doctor Who’s pacifism. Yet this character is not quite “the most famous pacifist in science fiction,” as King’s College philosophy professor David Johnson suggests.1
The Doctor is a genius Time Lord from the planet Gallifrey who uses the TARDIS—a spaceship that from the outside appears as a blue police box that is bigger on the inside—to travel to numerous locations across time and space. Instead of dying, Time Lords can regenerate and acquire a new body, allowing them to live for centuries or millennia. The actor who portrays the Doctor changes during regeneration (Whittaker is the thirteenth actor to portray the character regularly, though there are other incarnations besides the normal 13). This process changes a Time Lord’s biology and personality, and the Doctor’s views on pacifism or morality appear malleable as well. So instead of the Doctor being a pacifist, certain incarnations may be pacifist or at least try to be. Since the series relaunched in 2005 after a hiatus that started in 1989, the Tenth Doctor (David Tennant) and the Thirteenth are the most pacifist. But even then, they are more pseudo-pacifist than faithful adherents who follow the philosophy even when non-violence results in horrific injustices.
For example, Whittaker’s Doctor sometimes puts her companions in situations where they have to kill. In the same episode when she admonished the British general, a man she just met a few hours previously, Dan Lewis, finds his way onto a Sontaran ship attacking modern-day Liverpool, England. She tells him, “You have to stop those ships leaving,” but does not say how. She does not even suggest that he should complete his mission without killing, something a brilliant pacifist who understood humanity would have known to say. Along with another character, Lewis fulfills the Doctor’s orders by killing every Sontaran on Earth while the Time Lord keeps her hands morally clean.
Later in “The Vanquishers” (December 2021), the Doctor and her companions again confront the Sontarans, who just betrayed and killed off two other notorious species—the Cybermen and Daleks. She gives her companions orders and helps them as they kill all remaining Sontarans. Subsequently, she stops the force that killed the enemy, showing that she could have saved them earlier if she had prioritized that goal, as a genius pacifist would. So if the Thirteenth Doctor is a pacifist as she claims, she is perhaps the worst one in science fiction.
Tennant’s Doctor also wrestles with the ethics of killing, especially after a previous incarnation, the War Doctor, nearly wiped out two species (the War Doctor and Whittaker’s Doctor do indeed have a lot of blood on their hands). But unlike the current writers who uncritically present the Thirteenth Doctor as righteous and with few significant faults, writers in those years did not make the Tenth Doctor a paragon of morality and showed pacifism’s downsides. As Johnson highlights, in “Journey’s End” (July 2008) the creator of the Daleks, Davros, calls out the Doctor’s hypocrisy. The Time Lord refuses to kill people directly so that he can remain pure, but he surrounds himself with others who kill for him.2 Nevertheless, the Tenth Doctor later rebukes his companions for committing “genocide” when they destroyed a Dalek fleet threatening the universe. (Based on internationally recognized definitions of genocide, he is wrong; the companions attacked legitimate military targets. According to the just war tradition, these kills were morally justified and necessary.) Johnson concludes:
The Doctor can only practice pacifism because others do the necessary dirty work of violence for him. In the same way, it seems real-world pacifists could never practice pacifism had it not been for past wars fought to guarantee them that right. As an absolute, the notion that violence and war are never justified seems indefensible.
But Doctor Who did not always consider pacifism an ideal. The Second Doctor, portrayed by Patrick Troughton from 1966 to 1969, is much more militant—as is his companion Jamie McCrimmon (Frazer Hines), a Highland Scot whose gallantry inspired Diana Gabaldon’s hero Jamie Hines in the Outlander series. In “The Dominators” story (August – September 1968), the Doctor tries to convince the pacifist Dulcians, who are a satire of hippie culture, to defend themselves from the invading Dominators. Ultimately, the Doctor takes a bomb from the Dominators and places it on the invaders’ ship, killing them while they try to leave. The suggestion that the Second Doctor’s numerous killings are a deviation from his pacifism only makes sense in hindsight after future writers changed the character—nothing suggests that Troughton’s Doctor was supposed to be a pacifist.3
Earlier in Doctor Who’s second story, “The Daleks” (December 1963 – February 1964), the characters more directly criticize pacifism as unreasonable. The First Doctor (William Hartnell) and his companions discover the Daleks for the first time. This powerful species hates every other race and seeks to “exterminate” them. In this, Daleks are a science-fiction embodiment of Nazis. Thals, who also live on the planet Skaro, were once great soldiers but became pacifist after a destructive war, but now the Daleks threaten their existence. Instead of fighting, they plan to flee if attacked, even though retreat would be futile.
Across two episodes, the Doctor’s companions, Ian Chesterton (William Russell) and Barbara Wright (Jacqueline Hill), have a long discussion that criticizes the Thals’ pacifism. Ian explains to the Thals that the Daleks’ past violence proves they dislike everyone else who is different and will not respond to reasonable appeals. He says, “You must teach them to respect you. Show them some strength.” He adds, “You can’t go on running away. There are some things worth preserving.”
When Barbara wonders if pacifism could become a human instinct, Ian replies, “Pacifism? Is that it? Pacifism only works when everybody feels the same.”
But she questions the sincerity of the Thals’ objection to war, “Yes, but are they really pacifists? I mean, genuinely so. Or is it a belief that’s become a reality because they’ve never had to prove it?”
Meanwhile, the Doctor, who is too elderly to fight, plans to lead the Thals into battle. But when he hears that they will not fight, he scoffs, “My dear child, this is no time for morals. They must fight for us.” (In “The Dalek Invasion of Earth,” which aired in November and December 1964, the First Doctor exhibits more concern about morality and jus in bello—the ethics of how one fights in war—when he tells a warrior not to kill an incapacitated enemy who poses no threat.)
Facing a crisis, Ian decides to force the Thals to prove their pacifism by threatening what they cherish. First, he suggests he might destroy their historical records, but they do not budge. Then he begins to abduct Dyoni, a young woman, and out of love for her the Thal leader Alydon attacks Ian. Recovering from the punch, the companion says, “So there is something you’ll fight for.”
Therefore, while Doctor Who may dislike violence, the character is hardly a steadfast pacifist, especially in the 1960s. For the British in these Cold War years, many remembered the horrors of Nazi Germany. World War II was not an event over there in the long-ago past. When the Daleks try to exterminate everyone who is different from them, they are not an entirely ridiculous, unbelievable monster with plunger hands. Either the viewers’ generation or their parents’ generation had to fight and kill similar monsters, and many experienced their destruction in places like London. The show’s early writers and viewers knew what the Thals’ pacifism would have meant for the world.
But the show’s protaganist started turning pacifist in the 1970s and ’80s, though he is still responsible for the deaths of others (such as in “Genesis of the Daleks,” March – April 1975; while the Doctor sets up a bomb to kill Daleks, another character starts the explosion). After the Cold War, people believed the world was gradually getting better, even if they did not accept that history had ended with the victory of democracy. War, tyranny, and terrorism remained, but genocidal terrors appeared distant, relatively small, or rare. Diplomacy among rational actors could limit war, especially between great powers. A “war of choice” in Iraq looked like the future of conflict, and Western critics could insist that many wars would cease if their leaders chose not to start them. Other conflicts like the war in Afghanistan would be unnecessary if states treated counterterrorism as primarily an intelligence or police issue. In this historical context, a Doctor who could find pacifist, non-violent solutions to every crisis might appear reasonable. War in Syria should have questioned this view, but too few paid attention.
Images from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine directly challenge the pacifist position. Here the forces of Vladimir Putin—following an imperialistic Russian nationalism that rejects the notion that Ukraine should exist as sovereign and separate from Russia—have tried to exterminate the Ukrainian nation in part or in whole. The just war tradition upholds Ukrainians’ right to kill Russian invaders. But would the Thirteenth Doctor, who approvingly said pacifism was a “strong position to take during wartime” (“Spyfall,” January 2020)? If her TARDIS appeared on the streets of Bucha, in the Mariupol maternity hospital, or on the crowded Kramatorsk train platform after a Russian missile killed civilians, including a child who left behind a blood-soaked stuffed animal—would Doctor Who be willing to kill the invaders as a last resort? Or would she, after her non-violent plans failed as they inevitably would in the real world, prove her pacifism by letting Russian soldiers continue their slaughter of innocents? Merchandise from that episode would flop at the BBC store.
Most likely, she would let her companions—her weapons—do the dirty work while her hands remained clean. She would probably chastise them afterward in a moralistic tone, and maybe wrongly accuse them of genocide because they eliminated a column of Russian tanks. But according to the just war tradition, they would be the heroes who saved innocents.
While the writers of Doctor Who try to make their protagonist a pacifist, their stories cannot work if he or she follows pacifism consistently and faithfully. Since their inception, Daleks, Cybermen, Sontorans, and so many others in the show intend to destroy. They will not negotiate in good faith or respond to reasonable appeals. Similar horrors exist in the real world with human depravity. A Doctor who can stop unjust violence by killing as the last resort but refuses to do so is partially culpable for what comes next. As Marc LiVecche writes, “pacifism commits a great deal of unjustified violence.” The writers must know this, which is why they need militant companions to stop genocidal villains.
As the show prepares for the Fourteenth Doctor (Ncuti Gatwa), the BBC writers should stop pretending Doctor Who is pacifist and bring back the character’s skepticism of the philosophy. They might still offer philosophical lessons, such as by exploring the just war tradition’s jus in bello. This way, Doctor Who could still love peace, abhor violence, and resort to killing only as a last resort. Perhaps he or she could resemble characters of J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis who “do not love the bright sword for its sharpness, nor the arrow for its swiftness, nor the warrior for his glory”, but “love only that which they defend.” If the protaganist remains a hypocritical pacifist, the show should not uncritically gloss over his or her flaws but examine them, just as it explored the Tenth Doctor’s complexity.
1. I suspect many who think Doctor Who is supposed to be pacifist started watching the show in the ’70s or ’80s when Terrance Dicks was the show’s main writer, or when David Tennant portrayed the character. But for someone who starts watching around 2010 or with the original classic episodes, the character is not a pacifist.
2. Even though Doctor Who constantly uses companions and other allies as weapons to kill, some insist the pacifist and genius Doctor does not kill enemies because he or she can outsmart them. If they die, the protagonist manipulated them and turned their violence against them. True, the Doctor often uses his or her genius to save the day. But in a fantasy or science-fiction story, someone who is both a pacifist and a genius would see how to solve a crisis without killing others, even if indirectly. A character who cannot do this is either not a genius or not a pacifist.
For example, in the “War of the Sontarans” episode mentioned above, anyone who has studied war briefly should have known what the general would do because he was obligated to stop the Sontoran threat. If she was a genius, the Doctor would have known, too (she has had centirues to study warfare, after all). So is she a pacifist who isn’t smart enough to see the obvious, or a genius who allowed the general to do her dirty work while maintaining a self-righteous facade? She can’t be both a genius and a pacifist here.
Because the Doctor’s genius is the central and consistent characteristic across all incarnations, the series could be viewed not as a story about a pacifist who sometimes goes rogue, but about a brilliant manipulator who is willing to kill but lies about being a pacifist (the series constantly reminds viewers that the Doctor lies). Of course, this is not what this season’s (frankly sloppy) writers intended.
3. The Second Doctor helped inspire parts of the Eleventh Doctor, portrayed by Matt Smith from 2010 to 2013, particularly his outfit. The two versions also have comparable personalities. Smith’s Doctor is more militant than some other recent incarnations—such as in the Battle of Demon’s Run, which received its name from a line in a poem by Doctor Who writer Steven Moffat: “Demons run when a good man goes to war.” Later, the Eleventh Doctor defends a village called Christmas for 300 years in “The Time of the Doctor” (December 2013); while there, he uses power from his regeneration to kill Daleks but not the innocent.