“Do I have the right? Simply touch one wire against the other, and that’s it. The Daleks simply cease to exist. Hundreds of millions of people, thousands of generations, can live without fear, in peace, and never even know the word ‘Dalek.’ … But if I kill, wipe out, a whole, intelligent life form, then I become like them. I’d be no better than the Daleks.”
– The Doctor, Classic Doctor Who
Season 12, Serial 4, “Genesis of the Daleks”
For as long as there has been Doctor Who, there have been the Daleks. They are the perfect antithesis to the Doctor. Where he is willing to kill in order to protect or avenge, he takes no joy in the act, and stops himself when it feels like he’d be going too far, while the Daleks kill without any restraint whatsoever, simply because they want to. The Doctor has saved countless worlds countless times, while the Daleks have laid countless worlds to barren, lifeless wastes in their wake. Genocide after genocide, entire species and civilizations, untold numbers of people, have all been murdered by Daleks, simply for the crime of existing.
After twelve years of watching the Daleks’ deadly rampage across the stars, the audience saw the Doctor and his companions be sent through time and space to the day the Daleks were first created. The mission: prevent their creation, to stop their terror before it ever begins. It takes some doing, but at last there comes the moment where the Doctor can accomplish the mission. He stands on the verge of doing it, but hesitates. It would be so easy, so practical, so righteous to save everyone the Daleks would ever kill. But if the Doctor commits genocide, how is he any better than them? Does he really have the right to end them before they soak the stars in innocent blood?
The Doctor is all but paralyzed by the weight of this decision. Even the Daleks have been an instrument for some good, uniting quarreling peoples against them. Yet he can’t ignore the havoc and destruction they’ll wreak. Yet he can’t do what Daleks do while still claiming moral superiority. He doubts his right to do what must done, yet he bears the responsibility of doing it.
His friend, Sarah Jane Smith, tries to convince him to go through with it, and she is right to insist. If it were a bacteria, the Doctor wouldn’t hesitate to destroy it in order to save people. She’s seen the horror of the Daleks and she knows the threat they pose to every living being in the universe. For her, it’s not a question of if they have the right. Anyone has the right to defend themselves and those around them, and if that cannot be done without killing the aggressor, then that is what must be done. It’s not about having the right, it’s about having the responsibility.
Interestingly, the Doctor seems to be spared the weight of this terrible decision by some unexpected good news, but that news turns out to be a lie, a ploy by their enemy to buy time for the creation of the Daleks to be completed. And then it’s simply too late. The wave of horror which will sweep across the galaxies may be slowed, but never stopped. All because the Doctor questioned his “right.”
By and large, I tend to take Sarah’s side of things, but I am also aware of how easy it is to slip into the role of judge, jury, and executioner. Everything is more difficult to do the first time. When it comes to doing something terrible “because it must be done,” that is dangerous ground to cross even once. What happens the second time? Or the third? What happens when it becomes acceptable to do any terrible thing, because the ends justify the means? That way lies self-destruction, beginning with one’s own soul and cascading infinitely outwards. Even more so in the Doctor’s case.
If a figure such as the Doctor were to cross that line, then his fear of becoming like the genocidal Daleks could well have proven the single most perfectly justified fear of all time. Certainly his fellow Time Lords went that way.
This is one of those times where I don’t really have an answer, and perhaps that is good. Taking a single answer and applying it across the board in every situation is more than a little foolish, it is dangerous.
What do you think?
Should the Doctor have destroyed the Daleks before they existed?
Or was he right to hesitate?