“Am I a good man?”
It’s the tagline for the new season of Doctor Who, and by extension, for the new Doctor as played by Peter Capaldi. Presumably this question meant to to intrigue the viewers – who is this new Doctor? What is he like? How different is he from the man we once knew? Frankly, it doesn’t intrigue me; it irks me.
When the Doctor asks Clara this, to her credit she does not stroke his ego. “I don’t know,” she says honestly. What I wish she’d said is, “You tell me.”
Because that is, of course, a question only the asker can and should answer. You want to know if you are good? Interrogate your actions. Be good. Do good things. Act in a way that is ethical, compassionate, just, and kind. This answer, however, presumes that the asker really cares. In this case, I’m not so sure.
When it comes to goodness, we can agree that actions speak louder than words. The Doctor asks if he is good, but his actions show that what he really cares about being is right. An obsession with rightness has long been a part of this character, but with this new series and this new Doctor, it seems to have reached a fever pitch.
In “Into the Dalek,” the Doctor comes into contact with Rusty, a Dalek who has seemingly been made “good” by damage to its wiring. A good Dalek is impossible, he decides, even though the evidence of it is right in front of him. It doesn’t matter; he doesn’t want to see it. The would rather be right than hopeful; he would rather have the limits of the world as he knows it reaffirmed than to open himself to possibility. He would rather be right, even if that means his death and the death of those around him, including Clara.
Later, deep in the belly of the Dalek, Journey Blue – who is grieving the brother the Daleks just killed and has just watched one of her fellow soldiers sacrifice himself – asks the Doctor if her fallen comrade’s remains are among the half-digested human detritus through which they are trudging. “Yep, he’s probably the top layer here!” the Doctor chirps glibly. Let us be clear. This answer is not cute. It isn’t adorably alien or even thoughtless or grumpy. It’s callous and it is repulsively cruel. Is he right? Probably. Is he good? Absolutely not.
The Doctor’s obsession with rightness continues into “Robots of Sherwood.” He asks Clara where in all of time and space she wants to go. Her answer? To see Robin Hood, a man she has idolized since childhood. The Prince of Thieves, an outcast hero who always fights for what is good even if sometimes he does it by questionable means. The Doctor should be flattered by the obvious parallels, but he can’t see them. He can’t see beyond his own desire to be right.
You see, Robin Hood doesn’t exist, he says. And for the rest of the episode, he sets about proving it, even at the expense of dampening the one experience Clara has asked for – Clara, who, let us remember, he recently begged to continue travelling with him, and who has literally saved his life dozens of times. It doesn’t matter. He doesn’t see Clara’s beautiful, giddy thrill at meeting her hero. His rightness, his supreme correctness, is more important to him than her joy.
The Doctor has never been my favourite parts of the show – I’ve always preferred the companions, the recurring characters, and the memorable one-off guest stars. The number one reason I’ve given for this preference is that I consider the Doctor a mansplainer. Many people will groan at that term and write me off as a feminist harpy (you’re half right). But the term is a useful shorthand for many women; when I say mansplainer, the Doctor – especially this Doctor – is exactly the kind of man I mean.
The mansplainer is usually not someone who is deliberately oppressive, violent, or otherwise villainous. Sometimes he is someone who genuinely means well. But he is always someone who arrogantly assumes he knows exactly how the universe and everyone in it works. Who believes that he is right and who has a desperate need for that belief to be re-affirmed over and over again, even if it means steamrolling over other people’s feelings, perspectives, and truths. Who, when challenged, has the gall to turn around and plaintively ask, “Am I a good man?” Aren’t I a Nice Guy?
I see this myopic, defiant obsession with rightness in our culture all the time; most recently, of course, in the refrain of “Well, if you/she didn’t take nude photos, then they wouldn’t be hacked!” Is this right – as in, is it correct? In the narrowest, most technical way possible, sure. You cannot steal and publicize what is not there. But those who repeat this are concerned with being acknowledged as right, not with being just or compassionate. Not with being good. They are not nice guys, and they are certainly not good men.
I do not know in what direction the Doctor Who writers will take this series. I am hopeful that since we have seen the Doctor proven wrong about both the good Dalek and Robin Hood, his obsession with rightness will pay off narratively in the form of a lesson. I hope that that lesson goes further than “you are not always right”; I hope the real lesson is “sometimes, you need to let go of being right in order to be good.” I hope we actually get to see a good man.
I do not want the young men – or young women or anyone, frankly – who watch this show to think that “good” is a thing you just are, permanently. Goodness is a thing you enact. It is a thing you practice. It is hard, and more often than not, you will fail at it. Goodness means trying your best, but it also means allowing space for mistakes (yours and others’) and responding to them with grace. Goodness means being willing to open yourself to different points of view, even if they threaten and challenge you. It means treating everyone, regardless of their background, as people with real feelings and ideas that are just as important as yours.
Goodness, then, it is not a credential; it is a responsibility. But more excitingly, it is an opportunity. Because there is always time to be good. It is never, ever too late to start being a good man – or in this case, to start again.