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Doctor Who & The Punch

CW: Homophobic slurs, discussions of violence

The following post is intended to be an examination of the moral dimensions of certain actions in Doctor Who, pursued in a rationalist style borrowing from Western theories of ethics. As such, it will likely strike many readers as a chilly analysis, but I hope not an insensitive one.

N.B. After several days, and a loss of several hours work, I have given up on doing linking footnotes in the interest in publishing this before the heat death of the universe. Everything is marked, though, so Control + F is your friend. I also had help editing and proofreading this post, but due to the great Save Fail of 2017, many of those edits have been lost. Management regrets the inconvenience.

A Thought Experiment

Let's say I'm walking down the street, and a guy calls me a faggot as he walks past me. As a gay dude, this has definitely happened to me. I know what to do, which is to keep walking. But what if I were to turn around, tap him on the shoulder, and clock him one? Is that cool? I mean, I am a wronged party, and I definitely have felt angry when that's happened, but that doesn't make it okay.  In addition to being a crime and a tort, it's wrong, not helpful, and will likely just escalate the problem more. Obviously, if he attacked me, I could and would fight back, scream for help, run away, whatever--but all he did was call me a "faggot." That's not nothing, obviously, but it's not a permission slip. But what if it were? What if it actually were a permission slip? Could I punch him once? Twice? Do I get to kick him once he's on the ground? As someone who was the victim of street violence when three guys went to town on me, I know that the kicks when you're on the ground are where you really do the damage. Hey, what if I had a weapon? Could I stab him? Taze him? Shoot him? Or am I somehow morally entitled to one punch, and that's it? That seems random and arbitrary. That can't be right, can it?


On Saturday, April 29th, Doctor Who featured an episode titled "Thin Ice" written by Sarah Dollard and directed by Bill Anderson. In brief, the story involves the Doctor (Peter Capaldi) and Bill (Pearl Mackie) arriving in Regency London and overthrowing the murderous industrialist Lord Sutcliffe (Nicholas Burns).

The episode was quite good, but what makes it, I believe, a landmark episode of DW is its treatment of race. DW has had a complicated relationship with race since its inception [1], and I won't go into all of that here. There are many excellent resources that cover that topic far better than I could. Needless to say, it was past due for DW to address the topic of racism in Earth's history head-on [2].

"Thin Ice" addresses the question of racism from its first moments, and it does so honestly, and with clear implications for today's society. Racism is still very much a problem, as well as the more subtle practice of racial erasure. When Bill finds London in 1814 to be more racially varied than she imagined, the Doctor says, "History is a whitewash.' This is true, clever, and entirely in keeping with the Doctor's character.

The tone of the episode breaks for me, however, when the Doctor and Bill follow the money, as it were, back to Lord Sutcliffe. While waiting for him, the Doctor gives Bill a speech telling her to let him do the talking because she has a "temper," "passion fights, reason wins," etc. [3] This is classic DW, and as is often the case in DW, it's used as a set-up for a punch-line. In this case, the punch-line is a literal punch. Lord Sutcliffe, our villain, enters the room and, as soon as he sees Bill, spits out, "Who let this creature in here?! On your feet, girl, in the presence of your betters!" [4] which is about the worst sort of racist verbal attack you could have on a Saturday evening family TV show. After saying this, he proceeds towards toward a chair, at which point the Doctor taps him on the shoulder so he'll turn around. The Doctor then clocks him.

This, then, is the question at hand. Was it morally right for the Doctor to punch Sutcliffe? I'm going to attempt to show that it was not. First, we must address the most obvious objection: Namely, the argument that the Doctor is a pacifist, he is morally right in his pacifism, and therefore The Punch was wrong. This seems to me to be easily refuted. While there have been stories in which the Doctor has sought to broker a peace between opposing factions even at the cost of human or alien deaths, [5], he has also repeatedly engaged in violence himself, and has also encouraged righteous violence in others [6]. While I am sure DW, as a show, has some appeal for pacifists, the Doctor himself is not (usually) a pacifist.

Having shown, then, that the Doctor is not opposed to violence in all cases, we can dig deeper and see whether this particular instance of violence is both within the Doctor's character and morally the right thing to do. I divide those two because, as we as fans know but sometimes forget, the Doctor's doing something doesn't make it morally right. [7] Theologians have wrestled with this question for centuries, but the Doctor is not God, and his doing something doesn't alter its moral status.

First, is The Punch within the Doctor's character? The Doctor has taken actions or stances to protect or defend his companions in nearly every episode of DW. He has what Capaldi's Doctor has frequently called "a duty of care," which is an actual legal term of art, a formalization of the responsibilities certain people have based on their occupations. The Doctor, from his own perspective if not legally, has a responsibility to ensure he acts in the interests of his companion and does what he can to protect them from harm.

One could argue that by exposing Bill to a virulent racist, who also happens to have no respect for human life, the Doctor has abrogated that duty and put Bill in physical danger. He certainly has exposed her to abusive language, which can cause psychological damage. It's entirely plausible that, from the Doctor's perspective, he has exposed her to something neither of them were prepared for and that he feels responsible for that. The Punch could therefore be the Doctor's way of apologizing to Bill, and reiterating to her, through deed if not word, that he will take care of her. [8] The Capaldi Doctor went to extreme lengths in his attempt to save Clara, so it seems distinctly possible that he would view a little chin music as a solid way of reaffirming his duty of care to Bill. It is therefore entirely within his character for the Doctor to punch Sutcliffe at this moment. [9]

The core question that remains, then, is to what degree is the Doctor right in his actions? Or, to put it another way, to what degree is he wrong? I think that it's useful to look of four levels of morality in examining actions: they can wrong utterly; they can be wrong, but understandable; justifiable; or they can be right, purely and entirely. [10] One might quibble with my levels, which I admit are my own, but I think they capture a consensus of understandings regarding morality. [11]

Something that is morally wrong in its entirety is easy enough to understand. Actions that are wrong, but understandable are those that we as humans can understand, at a emotional level, but that we cannot condone. We understand why the actor [12] behaved that way, we are sympathetic, but we wouldn't wish their example to become the moral law for everyone. Wrong, but justifiable is one tier up from wrong, but understandable. Wrong, but justifiable I would I would use to describe actions that we view not just emotionally but as also rationally, as understandable. We cannot wish everyone committed the action in and of itself, but the situational context justifies the action. It is therefore the boundary between the wrong options and the right one. Doing the right thing is clear enough as a guide in the abstract, though it is often difficult establish what the "right thing" to do is. That said, traditional morality is premised on the idea that there are right, correct, moral choices to make. [13]

One final assertion, which some may disagree with: causing harm to another person can never, ever be morally, purely, right. Physical violence, or emotional violence, is never right. This may be considered begging the question, but in its defense I will say that, if causing harm were right, it would be right always and everywhere. That is what being the right, moral choice means--not now, not just for this situation or this person, but everyone. This is clearly not the case. Causing harm must always be wrong, or, at best, justifiable. No matter how heinous the crime, people do not sacrifice their bodily autonomy and natural right to be unharmed by private individuals. Just to be clear, this is not a new idea I am proposing, but one of the fundamental tenets of a significant number of systems of morality going back centuries. [14]

Having argued and shown that The Punch was not he total, purely, entirely right thing to do, we can examine which other level it falls into. It certainly does not seem totally wrong. Had the Doctor walked into a random stranger's house and punched them, with no context or reason, that would have been wrong, clearly. Here, however, there were external factors that drove the Doctor to this course of action. There was provocation, even if the right course would arguably have been to ignore it. Still, it was not utterly wrong for the Doctor to harm Sutcliffe.

So, was the Doctor's attack understandable or justifiable? This is, I believe, where there is disagreement, spoken or otherwise, about The Punch. It is certainly understandable. Bill, the Doctor's friend, had just been insulted by a man the Doctor already knew to be a monster. Punching Sutcliffe was an entirely understandable action, arguably done in the heat of the moment [15]. We sympathize; we feel that we might have done the same. Surely, then, it was understandable.

Was it justifiable, however? I think the key decider here is that the Doctor escalated the level of violence. Sutcliffe threw out words, the Doctor threw a fist. Also, while it's very common in TV shows and movies for punches to be treated as jokes, they are not. A punch is not, as it were, a slap on the wrist--or across the cheek. [16] This is important, because I think we are so inured to seeing punches as things with literally no consequences that we don't understand the full gravity of the Doctor's actions. [17] Still, I have seen people say that Sutcliffe "had it coming." Perhaps he did, but that is an emotional argument for understanding, not a rational one for justification. I have also seen people argue that, since Sutcliffe had such an indifference to human life, he had in essence forfeited his right to be unmolested. Again, however, that is an emotional argument--simply a variant of "he had it coming." At the end of the analysis, the Doctor's escalation of the level of violence cannot be justified. It can only be understood.


[1] The first story is generally free from racial overtones, but the second story, "The Daleks" posits a race of Aryan-looking Thals as the good guys while the ugly, mutated Daleks are the bad guys. As the Daleks eventually become and explicit Nazi metaphor, this is both confusing and troubling. Moreover, I should say that at least one classic story, "The Talons of Weng-Chiang," is considered by many, including myself, to be irredeemably racist.

[2] There were no companions of color in the classic series, but there were elements of racism in Ace's backstory concerning a non-white friend whose house was firebombed in a racially motivated attack. With the arrival of Martha Jones in 2007, however, the exploration of Earth's racist past (and present) was brought further to the fore. However, aside from a brief discussion (and some jokes) in "The Shakespeare Code" and some passing moments in "Human Nature / The Family of Blood," Martha's blackness is largely ignored.

[3] It's worth noting that Bill is sitting for much as this speech, as she is when Lord Sutcliffe enters. This is a violation of Regency etiquette, and could even be considered a violation of modern etiquette. Obviously, this is a minor infraction, but it's interesting that the Doctor doesn't do what he often does in these situations, which is to encourage his companions to try to conform to the mores of the time/place they're visiting. She needs to be sitting, however, for the full force of Sutcliffe's outburst to be felt.

[4] In preparing this post, I rewatched this scene several times. Out of context, it feels reduced, as if Sutcliffe was shouting at her possibly because she was a woman. In contact, however, with the preceding conversations about race and history, it clearly is racist. This allows Dollard to write lines that, in and of themselves, are merely bad (this is still a family show) and to turn them into something terrible. The outburst is worse because it is both a reminder and a rebuke of what has been said before. It is also worth noting, however, that the Doctor is right; there was a sizable population of Britons of African descent during the Regency. Indeed, Jane Austen's last, unfinished novel features a wealthy biracial women.

[5] Two warring factions, both saved by the Doctor is a common DW trope, specifically in stories by Malcolm Hulke or those in this vein: cf. "Doctor Who and the Silurians," "The Hungry Earth/Cold Blood," "Day of the Doctor," and 'The Zygon Invasion/The Zygon Inversion."

[6] The Doctor also often metes out justice using physical force, either by encouraging others or through direct action: cf. "The Daleks," "The Space Museum," "Day of the Daleks," etc. Indeed, this is the main theme in "Stolen Earth/Journey's End."

[7] The Doctor is not flawless in his actions: cf. "An Unearthly Child," "Tomb of the Cybermen," much of the Eric Saward era, and "Day of the Doctor."

[8] The Doctor standing up for Bill's honor, as it were, does have slightly sexist overtones: "You insulted my girl, and I'm going to punch you for it" While much of my analysis would remain the same if Bill punched Lord Sutcliffe instead of the Doctor, it would clear up this one issue.

[9] That the Doctor doesn't remember Clara doesn't mean that who we saw him become with her is erased. That anger, desperation, willful blindness are all stillf attributes of the Capaldi Doctor.

[10] We often talk about things, such as test answers or guesses, as being "partly" or "mostly" right, but to be morally right doesn't not admit of partiality. If something is the correct, moral decision, anything that falls short of that isn't right at all. It is wrong--the question is how much.

[11] These four levels are essentially reflected in the US legal code: murdering someone with no extenuating circumstances is utterly, totally wrong; diminished capacity and/or compassionate sentencing may follow on from a crime that was understandable--murdering the man who ran over your child but who was acquitted; homicide in self-defense is justified, but you still have a trial (or at least an investigation) to verify it not killing someone is the right thing to do, full stop

[12] Just to be clear, I mean the moral actor, not the acting professional on screen.

[13] Moral relativism, about which much more here, is basically belief that all moral systems are relative, none can claim "truth," and that all moral decisions are hinged on cultural beliefs. It's also total bullshit, in my most humble opinion, because things like murdering strangers, enslaving women, etc. are so clearly wrong as to gather almost universal assent. It's true that people behaved worse in many capacities than they do now--that doesn't meant they were right to do so.

[14] Most thinkers who have spent time thinking of individual morality and virtue have condemned person-on-person violence (as opposed to state violence such as war or corporal punishment). Broadly speaking, many of those thinkers have done so for one of three reasons: the Ancients did so because violence outside of war demonstrated a lack of virtue; Christian inflected thinkers, because violence is un-Christlike and sinful; Enlightenment thinkers, because violence is a breach of the social contract and thus a disruption of society. Immanuel Kant devised his own moral theory, borrowing from all three of these traditions. This analysis is heavily reflects his influence.

[15] I quibble with the general understanding that the punch was thrown purely in the heat of the moment. Instead, there was a moment where the Doctor tapped Sutcliffe on the shoulder so the Doctor could punch him. There's another moment in there, between the insult and the punch, that makes me uneasy about ascribing it to the heat of the moment. But let's say it was for the benefit of the joke, which it was largely, and move on.

[16] I like the idea of the Doctor taking off his glove and really whacking Sutcliffe across the face with it, maybe even challenging him to a duel.

[17] This may seem trivial, but while it is not common for a punch to cause serious, lasting damage, it is not unheard of, either, especially if the victim falls from the force of the punch.


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