John Ostrander: To Be A Hero

Doctor Who has aired a new trailer for the upcoming season that starts August 23rd*. You can see it here. It’s our first real glimpse at the new Doctor played by Peter Capaldi and I think it all looks very promising. He’s very different from the past few Doctors. In some ways, he’s more reminiscent of the first one.

Something bugged me, tho. At the end of the trailer, he asks his companion, Clara, if he is a good man. She seems a bit flummoxed by this and answers, “I don’t know.”

My first reaction to the question was “I do. The Doctor is a good man. He’s a hero. He has saved the planet, the galaxy, all of reality about a bazillion times.”

Then I thought about it some more. Do you have to be a good man in order to be a hero? You don’t have to be a good person to be the protagonist; many good stories have been told using someone bad or even evil as the center of the story. Hero, on the other hand, is a different matter, isn’t it? A hero needs to have certain moral values – honor, nobility, courage, self-sacrifice and so on. They may have these qualities from the onset of the story or acquire them along the way. They can rise up as heroes as the story progresses or the qualities they already have can be tested.

The hero is something we might want to emulate. Superman in my youth was a big blue Boy Scout. Even Batman, for all the fact that he dresses more like a villain, was more of a hero in a traditional sense.

Then Marvel came along with its more complicated set of heroes. Spider-Man had a lot of hang-ups. At the same time, they were heroes because they rose to the challenges. They exhibited a certain honor, nobility, and so on.

The anti-hero seems more in tune with modern society. He or she is the protagonist of the story but not the moral center. Typically, they are in it for themselves and what they can gain or they are simply tossed around by life and not masters of their own fate. Kafka’s Joseph K in The Trial is an anti-hero because his choices simply do not matter. He is a victim and cannot change his own fate.

I tend to write more towards the anti-hero side of the scale. I like the moral complexity they present; it interests me as a writer. Even a good person will struggle to find the right thing to do in a given situation. J.K. Rowling in one of the Harry Potter books has her character Dumbledore say that the time is coming when people will have to choose between what is right and what is easy. There’s always a cost involved to do what is right.

Can you be a hero without also being a good man or woman, at least to some degree? I don’t think so. It may be difficult for the character to make the “right choice” but they need to have somewhere inside of them a degree of courage, empathy, honor and so on. George Bailey in It’s A Wonderful Life has to struggle with his frustration and sense of helplessness. He lashes out in anger towards the climax of the movie against people he loves. Yet even in his deepest despair, he will jump off a bridge to save what he thinks is a drowning man.

So, is the Doctor a good man? He certainly is a hero and, whatever his failings, he is a good man. The fact that he asks the question makes him a good man; a bad man wouldn’t care.

* Also coming to a handful of movie theaters, probably not near you.