Sunday, December 7, 2014

It Ain't Ever Easy: Doctor Who and Moral Dilemma

     Decisions. If there is anything that an overly analytic mind hates, it is the prospect of making decisions. Some choices are simply too difficult, particularly when either direction could be taken, and either could be legitimate. Some problems simply won't be resolved by analysis. They can be picked apart, seen from every angle, and every possible solution considered, and yet no decision. Sometimes no matter what a person chooses to do, they will win. Or lose.

     As difficult as decisions can be when they are roughly equal, it is even worse when we are faced with moral decisions that have no clear, perfect solution. Throughout the reboot series, constant mention is made of the Time War, a momentous conflict between the Daleks and the Time Lords. In this conflict, we are told, the Doctor made a decision that resulted not only in the defeat of the Dalek enemies, but also the destruction of his Gallifreyan people as well. The 50th anniversary special, "Day of the Doctor," gives fans a long-awaited depiction of this story. The Doctor of this time, the so-called "War Doctor," is faced with a decision: allow his people to survive in the present, or detonate a device known as "the Moment," thus killing them and the Daleks, and by doing so save more lives in the long run.

     Why bring up this particular episode? Because it places before us something common in Doctor Who, and something that I believe Christians often like to forget about, the real moral paradox. As Christians, we believe in good and evil, right and wrong, with clear lines between the two. And, in an ultimate sense, this is true. The Doctor would agree, and he frequently appeals to such categories. But unfortunately, real life is much messier than this. We just as frequently see the Doctor faced with moral dilemmas. Who wins in the doomsday situation of "Day of the Doctor"? No one. The Doctor, having done what needed to be done for the good of the greatest number, is now left with the guilt of his actions, a heavy weight that he never quite escapes.

     We make a mistake when we assume that all moral decisions are easily decided upon, and don't involve compromise and sacrifice. Our expectation that these decisions will be easy often leads us to declare definitively when something is right or wrong, and to judge others when they introduce the complexity of those problems. Complexity is frustrating, and we would prefer easy answers to our moral questions. But Doctor Who never lets these issues be easy; thus it challenges us to think through our own context, and our own moral dilemmas. Is it better if a pregnant girl keeps a child rather than abort it, though facing a life of struggle and poverty? Is it better if a soldier dies that many back in his home might live? Is it better that we give to a poor person, not knowing if they might use that for ill? Is it better to destroy a few, that many may live? Concerning these questions, most Christians would say yes. But better does not mean ideal, or even good. Sometimes, we can't win, no matter what we choose; sometimes, the decision is always an evil one, even if one is better than another.

     Such it is, this side of the New Heavens & Earth. Until that time, we need to be humble regarding these decisions, and remember that just because there is a clear line between good and evil, we and the world are often standing with a foot in each. Until the fateful day that the heavens part and Jesus Christ judges perfectly the living and the dead, we struggle, we make mistakes, and sometimes make decisions that are always tinged with evil, even when we make the "right" choice. And we need stories like those in Doctor Who to challenge us, to help us discern these complexities. We mustn't jump foolishly into our decisions and pridefully think that because a decision is the "right one," our job is done and our hands are clean. Our moral decisions effect both us and others, and part of choosing the better path is recognizing the good and the bad in our own choices. Sugar-coating over the bad by saying, "but it was the right thing to do," without grappling with the adverse effects, is to lie to ourselves and make us less mature, not more.

     But, even as it is messy, sometimes thin lights of heaven poke through the sky, and give us an image of what that perfect morality and justice will look like. Even the good Doctor catches a break once in awhile, as in the reboot series 1 episode, "The Doctor Dances," where one of the final lines of the episode is, "Everybody lives, Rose. Just this once, everybody lives." And in "The Day of the Doctor," the Doctor is even able to preserve his own people from their utter destruction, though he also is unable to remember that he produced this ideal outcome (wibbly wobbly stuff, watch the episode for an explanation). As we make difficult decisions, and face moral dilemmas in our own lives, we learn to look forward to that time when our choices will no longer be tainted with the ever-present chaos of the world, the day that everybody lives.

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