Quentin Tarantino’s upcoming monstrosity, Inglorious Basterds, has finally gone into high-gear marketing for its impending release. The film features a campy Brad Pitt and a squadron of American thugs (including, of course, Tarantino’s signature hot fighter chick) who go behind enemy lines in occupied France during World War II and spend a couple hours brutally and spectacularly killing Nazis. It has been American film tradition to treat Nazis as the ultimate one-dimensional bad guy. No one questions the justice of killing a Nazi on film. We like to leave moral ambiguity and individuation of characters to historians, not filmmakers. Tarantino is now taking that to a new level, goading theaters full of twenty-something boys into cheering with each gory death. Whether he’s trying to shock us out of our cultural programming or not, this filmed bloodbath will undoubtedly continue what American action films, especially war films, have trained us to do: see the world in black and white, good guys versus bad guys. The good guys deserve to win, and the bad guys deserve to die, no question.
The problem is that’s not biblical. We all deserve to die, good and bad alike. We’ve all been offered mercy, good and bad alike. But American film history decided such ambiguity is inconvenient and boring. It trained us to settle for cheap catharsis.
We need a new model. If art is supposed to show us great truths, our art falls woefully short. It offers us a convenient false dichotomy that satisfies both our blood lust and our hackneyed sense of justice. It should instead teach us to see the truth more completely. In fact, our mother culture could show us the way. We have Jack Bauer; Britain has the Doctor.
If you’ve never seen Doctor Who, you should do yourself a favor and spend a few days catching up. Not the cheesy Doctor Who dating from the mid-60s with people running around in rubber suits and sets that wobble if you hit them (though they have their own nostalgic charm, especially the Tom Baker series), but the new incarnation of the series which premiered in 2005, reinvented by longtime fanboy Russell T. Davies. If you’re unfamiliar with the mythology (as many Americans are), Doctor Who follows a character called The Doctor, a Time Lord who is all but immortal and travels the universe in his TARDIS, a ship that is capable of travel through time and space. He’s the closest thing scifi gets to a god, mostly through the power of his intellect. He always chooses to have a human companion.
The new series begins by dismantling the history of the Doctor. Where once he was one among many Time Lords who just bops around the galaxy meeting strange beings, Davies’ Ninth Doctor (played brilliantly by celebrated actor Christopher Eccleston) has just survived the death of his entire race at the hands of their archenemies, the Daleks – and he may have had to wipe out both races to end their Time War, a history deeply rooted in the culture shaped by World War II. He stumbles onto earth and meets Rose Tyler (Billie Piper), a low-income teen Londoner, who he takes with him to travel the stars. Through her, he confronts the darkness of his role in the Time War, and rediscovers himself after the great tragedy.
Why does America need this very British Doctor? Because the Doctor always surprises me. I don’t mean that the stories are surprising. By and large, they’re just great scifi. What surprises me is the Doctor. His capacity for mercy is breathtaking. When he faces a Dalek who somehow escaped the Time War, a Dalek who is part of a race dedicated to exterminating anyone unlike them (sound familiar, Quentin?), he’s ready to blow it away, but instead he pities it. Time and again, the story takes you to what you think is a fork in the road, and then the Doctor turns and runs into the forest, and you realize that mercy is much larger than oversimplified false justice.
I never see it coming. I’ve been too well trained by the false catharsis of Jack Bauer and John Wayne. But the Doctor’s a lot like God. The more his human companions thirst for violent vengeance the greater the grace the Doctor shows to his enemies. And I come away from Doctor Who thinking that God’s mercy is unfathomable, and because of that, when his companions don’t understand, He must be very, very lonely. I’ll take that over Brad Pitt and his gang of thugs any day. ‘