Like a Geek God #3 by Mark Purcell
Doctor Who: An Unarmed Hero for a World That Won’t Put Down Its Guns
Whenever an incident of mass shooting violence strikes flint to the tinder of our national consciousness, many people—both the media and the laity—are quick to scapegoat pop culture as the primary contributing factor. As a result, a lot of our pop culture objects from the last twenty-five years, from Mortal Kombat to The Matrix to The Dark Knight, have become irrevocably entwined with our history of violence. And while I don’t personally believe that violent movies, games, and TV shows can be convincingly held accountable when an unstable person takes up arms against a crowded theater or an elementary school, it is impossible to ignore the fact that geek culture is, by and large, a culture that worships the warrior, and frequently a gun-toting one, at that. Sure, a few of our great geek heroes (Batman, for example) make a point of using non-lethal force, but they tend to be the exception. Even some heroes and heroines who may be intially averse to holding a gun, much less firing one, find themselves thumbing off the safety when push comes to shove. You can argue whether or not the prevalence of gun violence in pop culture objects—particularly geek pop culture—has anything to do with incidents of domestic shooting violence or not, but the prevalence itself is something that can be objectively stated to exist.
Is it any wonder, really, that geek pop culture gravitates towards the warrior archetype in many ways, be it with guns blazing or sword swinging? It is only a small percentage of the population who have any idea what war or battle are truly like. For the rest of us, the warrior archetype in our movies and TV shows and games and books give us a feeling of agency, using an imaginative link to satisfy our desire to stand tall against the forces of evil and cast them back into the shadows. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. And it is perhaps not our fault that our default view of the best, most direct method of combatting evil is, well, combat. It’s certainly the default view of a lot of pop culture objects, a lot of the population, and a lot of politicians. There is something atavistic about it, as if hearkening back to our prehistoric infancy as a race, using force to defend our food, our territories, and our families. This kind of martial existence is no longer a reality for most of us in the developed world and hasn’t been for a very long time, but the instinct remains, bolstered by the gun battles and kung fu throwdowns in our pop culture. Or maybe those things exist because of the instinct and not the other way around. Who knows?
When you consider all this together, it makes the question of Doctor Who—the eponymous hero from the famous and long-running British science-fiction TV serial, in which the Doctor and a chosen companion travel both time and space like a kind of two-person United Nations, facing down injustice and genocide wherever they find it—a bit perplexing. Because Doctor Who is, largely, a pacifist. He rarely takes physical action against an enemy, instead relying on diplomacy, negotiation, trickery, and his intelligence to find a way through or around whatever stands in his way. The only tool he employs is something called a “sonic screwdriver”, a nifty gadget that allows him to disable locks and fiddle with computers and machinery but which can’t be used directly as any kind of weapon. It is part of the Doctor’s philosophical standpoint and main argument against any race relying on the use of weapons that he manages to survive danger and accomplish his goals without ever pointing a gun at someone. There is a long-running thematic strand of the show’s mythology that deals with the Doctor’s conflicted attitude towards the human race: he favors humans above most other races, finding them fascinating and capable of great beauty and achievement, but he detests the willingness with which humans turn towards violence and weaponry.
Despite this lack of martial prowess—and, indeed, an outspoken anti-gun point-of-view that would make conservative firearm apologists froth with misguided Second Amendment fervor—Doctor Who has, in recent years, become a highly popular, highly visible pop culture figure in the United States. The show’s popularity isn’t difficult to explain—its Joss Whedon-esque mix of humor and heartbreak, its vivid characters, its labyrinthine mythology—but the Doctor himself as a popular figure with the American audience, an audience in a country that worships the gun and the military-industrial complex more zealously than God, is a curiosity. And, perhaps, a sign of something. If an anti-gun, pacifist alien espousing diplomacy and intellectualism as the chief tools in a hero’s utility belt can rise to prominence in the national pop culture consciousness, there’s a possibility that there’s a generational shift occurring in the way we view guns and violence. The warrior is a necessary archetype that’s never going to go away, but a pop culture landscape stocked with as many sage, peacemaking heroes as it is with fighters might, I think, be something worth aspiring to.
Mark Pursell is a lifelong geek and lover of words. His publishing credits include Nimrod International Journal, The New Orleans Review, and The Florida Review, where he also served as poetry editor. His work can most recently be seen in the first volume of the 15 Views of Orlando anthology from Burrow Press. He currently teaches storytelling and narrative design for video games at Full Sail University in Winter Park, Florida.