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SYFY WIRE Doctor Who

Doctor Who boldly goes with a choice that defines the franchise

By Ani Bundel
Doctor Who S12 E8 The Haunting of Villa Diodati

When Chris Chibnall took over Doctor Who in 2018, his tenure started with a soft reboot of the series. Since the show's 2006 return, every showrunner begins by introducing a new Doctor and companion(s), but Chibnall went much further. He brought an entire found family: Ryan, Yaz, and Graham. But the new showrunner didn't just refresh the characters — he also took the series back to its roots.

After a decade and a half of season-long arcs, Season 11 was the first to be nothing but stand-alone stories, a throwback to the show's original format from the 1960s. Stories set in the past were history lessons, those set in the future focused on scientific developments of today and (notably) climate change.

But most radically, Chibnall is using his time to articulate long-held Doctor Who philosophies, putting into words what fans have long taken as unspoken principles, including the importance of the individual and the belief that art is one of humanity's greatest creations and influences.

The latest of these instances came during Season 12, Episode 8, "The Haunting of Villa Diodati." After being warned by Captain Jack Harkness that when the Lone Cyberman showed up, she should not let it have what it wants, the Doctor realized the decision wasn't going to be so easy. What the Lone Cyberman wanted was the Cyberium, a vast repository of data from which this race of cyborgs could be resurrected, an insurance policy against galaxy-wide defeat. But the liquid substance that held their nanotechnology had been accidentally absorbed by Percy Shelley. (Yes, that Percy Shelley, the one who wrote Prometheus Unbound, Queen Mab, "Ozymandias," and other works of poetry considered among the greatest in any language.)

The fastest way to get the substance out of Shelley was to let the Cyberman have what he wanted ... with the Doctor letting one of the greatest poets who ever lived die before producing his most celebrated works. Confronted with this untenable situation, Ryan spoke up for making the hard choice: letting Shelley die to keep the Cybermen from being able to resurrect. It was the classic "The good of the many outweighs the needs of the few" argument. It was also the first time in the show's history that the Doctor was confronted in plain language by this philosophy, made famous by the other 50-plus-year-old sci-fi franchise, Star Trek (even if Trek didn't necessarily adhere to the philosophy).

Without missing a beat, the Doctor rejected such an answer out of hand.

Lewis Rainer As Percy Shelley in Doctor Who

For the Doctor to outright reject such ruthless and cold logic, swatting it down with such emotional force that Ryan looked abashed, should not come as a surprise. Doctor Who has never been a show that concerned itself with the many. It's a series about the individual, how each person is an essential part of a greater tapestry, even if they never know it. The actions of one person can make a difference if they're just willing to take a stand. (As the Eleventh Doctor once said, "In 900 years of time and space, I've never met anyone who wasn't important.") Killing one person in order to save theoretical billions is foolish because that one could go on to change the world.

And, as the Doctor points out, Percy Shelley's writings do change the world for the better. The Masque of Anarchy, which contemplated the effectiveness of nonviolent resistance, inspired Tolstoy, who inspired Gandhi, who in turn inspired MLK. His work influenced generations of poets all the way into the 20th century. He also encouraged those around him, like his wife Mary Shelley, who wrote Frankenstein, and John Polidori, who invented the entire vampire genre with 1819's The Vampyre. (Tell Anne Rice you're welcome.) Without him, the present as we know it today would not exist, which means we would not exist. Our world is as it is because Shelley's writings helped push it in this direction and inspired others to make it that way.

Moreover, the Doctor's argument as to why letting Percy Shelley die would be wrong also encapsulates how much the series has always believed in the importance of art and artists. Science fiction has rarely stopped to consider the importance of art, even before the rise of STEM and the common belief that those shaping the future of tomorrow are those who focus on technology. Star Wars, for instance, rarely considers the importance of writings and philosophy — Yoda even burned the Jedi tomes as "dull." Notably, Star Trek is one of the few franchises that does stop to remind us that art is what makes us human. But most major franchises don't have time to consider art; characters are too busy running either toward or away from mortal danger.

Doctor Who manages to combine the running and the philosophy; entire adventures take the time to visit artists and writers, influential visionaries who the show holds up as some of the most important people in history. Not just the Shelleys in this episode, but Vincent van Gogh, Agatha Christie, William Shakespeare, and Charles Dickens — just to name a few who've turned up since the 2005 reboot. The Tenth Doctor called books "the best weapons in the world" and a library "the greatest arsenal we could have." Firearms are a temporary, immediate solution. Words, especially when written down, can help humans envision a better world for centuries.

But the series doesn't just argue "save the poet, save the world" as an abstract. By laying out what the show stands for, and letting the Doctor articulate these beliefs in ways that cannot be ignored, the series is essentially practicing what it preaches. Viewers have accepted that this belief in art over science, heart over head, is a core tenet of the series. But as the show passes from hand to hand over the coming decades, it won't always be assured that the next showrunner will stay true to these sentiments. By writing it down, the same way Shelley wrote his own thoughts down, Chibnall is looking to influence the future. One person can make a difference, be it a 19th-century poet or a 21st-century showrunner, so long as they put their minds to it.