We love heroes. Epic heroes, antiheroes, everyday heroes, superheroes, conquering heroes, we just can’t get enough of a truly ‘good’ thing. That’s all well and dandy, but let’s challenge our definitions for a moment:
Is a hero someone who you should trust?
Most would argue that the Doctor is a hero, in the classic mythological sense and in an odd, scrappy genius sort of way. But would you trust him? With the fate of your family and friends, the world, the whole universe at stake, would you put your faith in a man like that?
Turns out, it’s all a question of when you knew him.
Different incarnations of the Doctor demanded devotion in different quantities. The very First was not particularly trustworthy to anyone but his granddaughter, and that seemed to be his prerogative as a feisty old man. Companions were ever faithful to the Second Doctor, but had to be prepared for a little trickery and misdirection on his part. The Fourth was the man you would follow anywhere, and that may play a large part in the sheer likability and, ultimately, the longevity of Tom Baker’s Doctor. He was so unprepossessing, full of wit and all smiles. It’s not hard to understand why all those companions trailed after his overlong, multi-hued scarf. Even Romana, who was one of his own people and never missed an opportunity to show him up, proved her faith by the mere desire to keep company with him.
The Fifth Doctor was famous for how little his companions trusted in his leadership. It was the hallmark of the era to see Five’s crew run off the TARDIS to do whatever they pleased; he could barely keep track of them. While it certainly made him lovable from an audience standpoint, it shook his faith in himself badly by the end. Then there was the Seventh Doctor, who you trusted at your peril. He had all the best intentions and the clout to carry them off, but he famously used his companion Ace as a means to his ends throughout their relationship. The Trickster God, you could call him, or “Time’s Champion,” as he preferred.
But it was the Tenth Doctor who brought faith to a whole new level.
The true god complex was Ten’s, his belief that he could fix every problem no matter how lost the cause or insurmountable the odds. It was a holdover from the Time War, an overcompensation for all of his guilt and anguish that was galvanized by Rose’s love when she came back to save his Ninth incarnation from the Daleks. “Voyage of the Damned” provided clarity on the damage that complex had caused in both his anger at the survival of Rickston Slade, and his inability to save Astrid; the furious, thoughtless cry of “I can do anything!” when all hope of rescuing her was lost showed the beginnings of his deterioration into the man who would eventually try to alter a fixed point in time during “The Waters of Mars.”
More importantly, Ten engendered that belief in practically everyone he met. The number of people who rallied to the call ‘the Doctor will save us,’ during his reign are incalculable. The whole planet called his name in “The Last of the Time Lords,” the Children of the Motorway heard his voice commanding them to ‘Drive up!’ in “Gridlock.” Every single one of his companions never hesitated to comfort the helpless by assuring them of the Doctor’s magic, usually before they themselves knew him well enough to gauge his win/lose ratio.
Maybe the Tenth Doctor seemed like he was winning all the time because even when he couldn’t save everyone, he always managed to pull someone out of the blast zone. Lazlo in “The Evolution of the Daleks,” the family in “The Fires of Pompeii,” Elton and Ursula in “Love and Monsters,” River Song in “Forest of the Dead,” even Wilf in “The End of Time.” And all of this contributed to his legend. A man who never gives up, even when he can’t come to everyone’s aid, is surely the sort of man you would follow into a battle... or another galaxy. Or the future.
Ten paid for that overblown status dearly as time went on, and Eleven appears to be taking a different tack as a result. Exploring the differences between the Tenth and Eleventh Doctors is a fun game on its own, but it is safe to say that the greatest departure between them is summed up in three short words: “the Doctor lies.”
While few (if any) versions of the Doctor have been known for unfailing honesty, Eleven seems determined to garner the award for duplicity. He plays his cards close, goes on whole adventures and never explains his true reason for visiting until he’s back on the TARDIS sipping tea and melting his friends into puddles of goo. He makes promises to little girls and breaks them. Years later, he makes promises to their husbands and then breaks them, too. The Eleventh Doctor’s willingness to shoulder that guilt is perhaps a sign of maturity, but it doesn’t make his choices any easier to stomach.
But is he still a hero? Of course he is.
He is still a hero because when it really counted, the Doctor told Amy Pond the truth. That he needs that faith from people because it keeps him going. That he isn’t a god, or a saint, or a great sorcerer with a magic screwdriver who keeps all the bad things in the universe at bay. That her belief in him was so much stronger than it ever should have been, and she needed to let him go. His choice to let Amy grow up, to tell her she needed to stop waiting for that mad raggedy man who saved her as a child, perhaps makes him more of a hero than any Doctor before him. It also proves that her trust in him was ultimately not misplaced.
So the Eleventh Doctor lies, and maybe you cannot take everything he says at face value. But it turns out that we never needed that assurance in the first place: after all, viewers have been entranced by Doctor Who for decades now, and not because we are impressed by the Doctor’s unwavering principles. We love him for his ability to reevaluate, to evolve. To become more or less honest as experience has taught him — just like one of us.
Being hundreds of years old just awards him that much more experience to inform his judgment. Poor guy.
Emily Asher-Perrin lies. Well, sort of. She might be... right now. You can bug her on Twitter and read more of her work here and elsewhere.