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The Zealotry of The Doctor


  • The Zealotry of The Doctor

    Have you ever heard of the Zeal of the Convert? This phrase comes from the perception that converts to a new religion are frequently more fiercely devout than those who were born into it. Of course, not all converts are aggressive zealots – I wouldn’t even say most of them are. Despite the negative implications of this stereotype, l believe it is logical and perfectly understandable that someone who reached an epiphany about their own existence would be very excited about their new awareness and passionate about traveling down the path they just discovered. They might even try to convince you to go with them!

    This phenomenon isn’t limited to religion. You can find examples of it among people of all kinds wherever someone adopts a new idea or way of thinking. There’s the ex-smoker who becomes fiercely anti-smoking or the new vegetarian that proselytizes about their food choices – no matter what way of thinking you are talking about, it seems like you can find examples of new converts that are vigorous in their zeal.

    Now what does all of this have to do with Doctor Who?

    The First Doctor, Barbara, Ian, and SusanThe quick and dirty (and pertinent) about Doctor Who – it was and is a British science fiction serial program that ran for 26 seasons until it was cancelled by the BBC in 1989, only to be revived as a television movie in 1996, and more successfully resurrected in 2005. This new Doctor Who is still airing today, and while the show remains a cultural icon in Great Britain, it has earned a level of popularity in the United States that the classic series never achieved. If you’ve read this far, I’ll bet you already knew all of that.

    I have no idea about numbers, but I think it is safe to say that a large portion of fans of the new Doctor Who have never seen an episode of the classic series. They are available on streaming services, but twenty-six seasons with dozens of missing episodes is a daunting task, especially when the production values of the classic series were very different from those in the new. The truth is: many American fans are in the dark about the Doctor’s life and personality prior to Christopher Eccleston’s Ninth Doctor.

    This is important because the Doctor today is characterized by his extreme humanity. This alien, the Doctor, embodies the pinnacle heroic human ideal. He is selfless, wants to preserve life at all costs, stands up for the downtrodden, despises ignorance and cherishes wonderment. He is compassionate and empathetic, in his own alien way. His devotion to these traits could almost be described as fanatical. He’s a zealot. And, whether you realize it or not – he is a convert. Many of today’s fans aren’t familiar with the character traits of the earlier incarnations of the Doctor, and don’t realize that we didn’t start seeing this kind of ultra-humanity until he was a more than a few incarnations in. If you haven't watched any Classic Doctor Who, you may be shocked at the personality of the Doctor you see.

    Those of you who have watched Classic Doctor Who, particularly episodes of the very first serial will recall a very different Doctor. Originally, the First Doctor was very similar in personality to what we saw from other Time Lords later in the series. He was arrogant and dismissive, distrustful of the inferior humans. He was a rude elitist who was willing to kill to save his own neck. He saw humans as inferior and did not shy away from making this opinion known. This was a Doctor who delighted in kidnapping two unsuspecting humans and taking them away from their native time just to teach them a lesson for being so impertinent. This Doctor tried to take a pacifist race and make them go to war against a superior warlike enemy – all to make up for one of his own dishonest schemes gone wrong. This was a typical Time Lord, not the paragon of humanity we have come to know in the new series.

    If the Doctor is a convert to humanity, his first two human companions – Ian Chesterton and Barbara Wright – were his proselytizers. If you look at their actions in An Unearthly Child, you will find a pair of teachers who are very concerned about one of their students (the Doctor’s granddaughter, Susan Foreman). They visit her “home,” only to find that her address on file is a junkyard. Unable to find Susan, they eventually meet the Doctor – who to them appeared to be a strange and evasive old man who could be a danger to Susan. And when they discover that Susan herself is hiding in what seems to them to be a small Police Box? What else would any decent human do but force themselves into the situation, refuse to accept the Doctor’s deceptive and dismissive explanations, and try to protect one of their charges? In the Doctor’s first real experience with humans, he was the villain, and ended up the victim of that sort of aggressive compassion that eventually came to define him.

    Doctor: Murderer?Over the next several stories, Ian and Barbara began to mold the Doctor. Their early relationship was very confrontational: after all, the Doctor had taken them from their home against their will, placing them in danger time and time again. Despite their frustrations, despite being exposed to a fantastic reality they never-before imagined, they held on to what made them decent human beings and insisted that the Doctor behave the same way. They chided him for his lack of compassion, berated him for his unwillingness to put others before himself. They treated him with justifiable suspicion and refused to let him out of their sight – after all, he was perfectly willing to abandon them if it meant he could safely escape a situation with Susan. One particularly impactful moment came when Ian had to stop the Doctor from murdering a wounded caveman with a rock, all because Ian and Barbara’s insisted that they keep their enemy from dying. That act was costing them their opportunity to escape. Despite all the universe threw at them (including the Doctor), Ian and Barbara remained examples of honor and compassion, and showed the Doctor that their way worked.

    Barbara and Ian forced the Doctor to behave with decency, and eventually he started to come around. They prevented him from being truly evil through aggressive supervision, and as he continued to travel with them, he eventually grew to accept and love them, behaving like a decent human being would. His demeanor became softer – he was less the grouchy alien and became more the lovable grandpa. Ian and Barbara fought against him less, because he stopped giving them reasons too. He was learning to behave, learning to embrace humanity.

    There was still conflict to him, but he slowly learned to cope with those scenarios where human morality could not apply to the wider universe of time travel. In The Aztecs he remained firm in his opposition to Barbara’s attempts to change history, yet sympathized with her rationale and remained compassionate when she eventually was forced to admit he was right. In The Sensorites, we see the first glimpses of him as the Protector of Humanity when he tries to save Captain Maitland and his crew from the telepathic Sensorites.

    The Doctor has continued to evolve throughout his different incarnations, but in his very first we see how he transitioned from a Time Lord view on morality to something that a human might find admirable. He is still a long way from The Oncoming Storm that began with the Ninth Doctor at this point, but his faith was only growing. Today, more than fifty years after we first see William Hartnell’s Doctor, he’s finally become a Zealot in the church of humanity – and this is the Doctor that most American fans know and love today.

    I wonder if she will continue to be in the coming season?


    Doctor Who Season 1
    • An Unearthly Child (Episodes 1-4)
    • The Daleks (Episodes 5-11)
    • The Aztecs (Episodes 27-30)

    • Blake M. Petit
      Blake M. Petit commented
      Editing a comment
      Admittedly, I haven't seen a lot of Classic Who, but I like this interpretation of the character. It even fits in a bit with some of the ways the Tennant through Capaldi Doctors struggled to find themselves. Capaldi in particular seemed compelled to define himself.

    • Craig Reade
      Craig Reade commented
      Editing a comment
      Capaldi did a really good job bring the "alien" back to the character. Matt Smith was ok at this, but he ended up being just a little awkward, as opposed to alien.

      I think that is one thing I really liked about the Classic Series more than the Modern - the evolving Doctor. Sure, we get different base personalities, but at the end of the day, all of the stories end up being the crusading Doctor saving humanity. Watching the Doctor evolve from the crotchety, selfish First Doctor to the highly manipulative Seventh is a lot of fun. Not that it wasn't hard to get caught up, but I found it worth it.
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