Friday, October 10, 2014

Pro-Life Themes in Doctor Who [Clinton Wilcox]

I am very much a Whovian. I'm actually a fan of many science fiction shows, especially Star Trek. And as a side note, I don't consider Doctor Who to be science fiction. I consider it science fantasy. I have seen many articles written about the latest Doctor Who episode, "Kill the Moon," which seems to have a pro-life theme running through the episode. I am skeptical about this theme, as I'll outline below. However, as is the abortion issue, this episode has clearly been polarizing. I've seen reviews by people who hated it with the burning passion of a thousand suns. I've seen reviews by people who loved it. And even pro-choice reviewers have found a pro-life theme in this episode, such as this reviewer. This will contain obvious spoilers, so continue reading at your own peril.

Let's be clear: I love when science fiction shows present moral dilemmas. That makes for compelling television. I love it when they have philosophical discussions. That's why this episode (and others) have appealed to me. Doctor Who doesn't always present moral dilemmas or philosophical problems, but when it does, it makes for a great hour of television.

But here's the problem: Doctor Who has been a show that has always been about animal rights. There are many scenes from prior episodes that show that animals should be treated just like humans. A more recent example was when the Tyrannosaurus Rex was threatening modern London, and The Doctor condemned the British for killing the Dinosaur because it was scared and didn't know what it was doing.

In "Kill the Moon," The Doctor takes Clara and a student at Clara's school, Courtney, to the Moon in the year 2049. They discover that the Moon had put on weight, affecting its gravity, and was threatening the life of everyone on Earth. They later discover that the Moon is actually an egg and a space creature is about to hatch from it. They encounter a team of astronauts, led by Lundvik, who have been sent by Earth to plant nukes and destroy the Moon before it destroys them. But now with the discovery of the creature, they face a moral dilemma: Destroy the Moon, and the creature with it, or let the animal survive and hope that it doesn't destroy the Earth. Lundvik votes to kill the creature, while Clara and Courtney want to save the creature's life. As this doesn't involve him, The Doctor leaves in the TARDIS (which stands for Time And Relative Dimension In Space) to allow the Terrans to make the decision for themselves.

It's not hard to draw a pro-life allegory from the tale, especially when you consider the ten points that Matt Bowman of Catholic Vote outlined in his article here. So I will at least concede that there is good reason to draw those parallels. But now I wish to talk about why I'm skeptical that it was a pro-life episode instead of merely an episode of protecting life in general.

First, I have no idea what the political views of Steven Moffat are. Gene Roddenberry would allow writers on Star Trek to explore themes that he didn't agree with. I don't know if Moffat has the same philosophy for his writers, or if Moffat considers himself to be pro-life. Until I do, I'm hesitant to call this a pro-life episode.

Second, this may not be a sentient creature that we are dealing with here. If this is not a sentient creature, then I think Lundvik's idea of killing the creature to save the earth would be morally permissible. Only if this was a child of a sentient species would this actually present a moral dilemma at all. As we know, there have been many instances in Doctor Who in which we are treated to the idea that "animals are people, too." So I'm not so sure this was actually about the wrongness of killing an unborn human child, specifically (or perhaps it was about abortion, but they would condemn all abortions, even of animals). But we also shouldn't look past the fact that The Doctor allowed them the choice, so even if we understand that saving the child's life was the right thing to do, it doesn't necessarily follow from that that abortion should be made illegal.

So at worst, this wasn't about abortion at all. At best, it was but it went about it in a very confused way that didn't really address the moral underpinnings of the issue. It would have been better if they simply would have encountered a pregnant woman and had this discussion. The objection might be raised, "but that wouldn't be science fiction-y." True. But let's consider an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation that did this better.

Star Trek: The Next Generation had an episode called "The Child," in which Deanna Troi was impregnated by an alien against her will. She wasn't raped, the child growing in her womb was the alien. The alien belonged to a non-corporeal species (that is, the species is an immaterial species) and wanted to understand life as a humanoid. So the way he went about it was to start life right from the beginning, as an embryo, and live out an accelerated life in just a few days that culminated in dying of natural causes. During a briefing after discovering Counselor Troi's pregnancy, Commander Riker suggested the child be aborted (even referring to the child as "it"), but Troi was insistent that the child was hers, and she was going to keep him.

This is a much better episode that discusses the abortion issue and doesn't leave any ambiguity about it. I would love to know that Moffat is pro-life (and the writer of the episode, Peter Harness). After researching a lot of reviews of this episode, I can say that there is a good chance this was meant to respond to the abortion debate. But considering how they went about it, I don't think the episode delivered in the way they may have intended it to.


  1. I haven't seen the episode, but it seems like there are two key ethical issues (or two ways in which killing the creature could be justified):

    (1) The moral status of the creature: If it is not a rights-bearing person (like a human being or another species of a rational nature) but instead morally equivalent to a dog or insect, then killing it does not seem very problematic. If there is uncertainty about the creature's status (which seems to be the case), it is better to error on the side of not killing, other things being equal.

    (2) Self-defense: Even if the creature has the same rights as each of us, killing it could be justified in order to prevent it from destroying the planet. This killing could be justified even if the creature has zero moral culpability for its threatening actions (like a mind-controlled assassin, for example). But it seems like a certain degree of confidence that the creature actually poses an existential threat would be necessary for this self-defense rationale to work -- confidence that the characters in the episode do not have.

    Sounds like a great episode to me. It has both similarities and differences with the abortion issue. That's true of any analogy.

  2. Interesting article. I wonder if the writers and pro-lifers are coming to the same conclusion, albeit for different reasons. One thing I've noticed, and I'm not sure why this is, is that the same people who get the most upset about say, a bald eagle's nest being disturbed, are the same who seem to have no problem with human abortion.


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