March 26, 2015, by Lindsay Brooke
The ethics of Dr Who’s diet
Dr Kate Stewart from The University of Nottingham and her co-author Dr Matthew Cole at the Open University offer some food for thought on the 10th anniversary of 21st century Dr Who
On 26th March 2005, the BBC began broadcasting the first series of Doctor Who since the original show was cancelled in 1989. The show presents the Doctor as a moral leader, and a key aspect of that moral leadership is about a respectful relationship with members of other species. He expresses admiration and wonder for other species, even when they threaten him or his human companions. Speaking to the BBC when the 2005 series launched, Christopher Eccleston who played the Doctor said the new show retained “the central message of love life in all its forms”[i]. Why then, isn’t the Doctor a vegan?
In the new series, the Doctor doesn’t extend this love to nonhuman earth species – he eats dead animals and wears dead animals’ skins. This is a departure from the Doctor’s behaviour during the original series. The 6th incarnation (played by Colin Baker) became a vegetarian in a 1985 episode The Two Doctors[ii] after one of his companions was almost killed by a species who viewed humans as food animals. But his vegetarianism was deliberately abandoned by Russell T Davies, the head writer when the show returned 10 years ago. Speaking in 2013, Davies explained he ended the Doctor’s vegetarianism because ‘I’m not vegetarian’. The result has been the Doctor displaying some very confused ethics: In a restaurant scene in which the Doctor discussed issues about capital punishment and mercy with a condemned alien, he orders steak and chips. The Eccleston, David Tennant and Matt Smith Doctors have all been shown as enthusiastic consumers of some nonhuman species while at the same time seeking to protect others. When the earth is under threat of destruction, the Doctor only ever seems to care about the loss of the human lives that might result and not our fellow earthlings.
Peter Capaldi’s Doctor though, hasn’t been shown eating meat like his three predecessors. He even gently chided his companion Clara’s hypocrisy when she was disgusted by the farming of human body parts by an alien: “you weren’t a vegetarian the last time I looked”[iii] (Deep Breath 2014). While the story hasn’t directly said he’s returned to his vegetarianism, by not eating meat Capaldi’s Doctor has returned, so far, to the moral consistency of Baker’s vegetarianism . A decade on from Davies decision, the Doctor does not need to eat steak in order for us to relate to the character.
As a primetime show aimed at children and adults, with a more than 50 year history, Doctor Who reflects contemporary cultural and ethical norms through the stories it tells. The post 2005 show has been rightly credited for improvements in how it portrays diversity in its human characters. It has not been so progressive in dealing with our inconsistent relationship with other species, but it doesn’t need another 10 years to live up to the promise of ‘love life in all its forms’.
Dr Kate Stewart is a medical sociologist working at the University of Nottingham, UK. For the past decade she has had a particular research interest in how information about food is presented, interpreted and applied.
Dr Matthew Cole is an Honorary Associate and Associate Lecturer with The Open University in the UK. His research centres on Critical Animal Studies and the sociology of human-nonhuman animal relations, including the childhood socialization of human domination, the cultural representation of vegans and veganism and the genealogy of modern veganism.
Dr Stewart and Dr Cole have recently published their first book together: Our Children and Other Animals: The Cultural Construction of Human-Animal Relations in Childhood, published by Ashgate.
They recently presented the Pop Culture lecture ‘I need fish fingers and custard’ on ‘The irruption and suppression of vegan ethics in Doctor Who’ at the University of Nottingham on Wed 25 February.
[i] “Interview with BBC Breakfast”. Disc 1. Doctor Who. The Complete First Series. London: BBC Worldwide, 2006.
[ii] The Two Doctors. First broadcast 16 February – 2 March 1985 by the BBC. Directed by Peter Moffatt and written by Robert Holmes.
[iii] Deep Breath. First broadcast 23 August 2014 by the BBC. Directed by Ben Wheatley and written by Steven Moffat.
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