Doctor Who: The Mind of Evil

This Doctor Who episode from the Jon Pertwee era, “The Mind of Evil,” offers interesting explorations of religious themes, as well as some intriguing connections with (or perhaps disconnects from) more recent episodes.

The Doctor and Jo Grant go to see a demonstration at a prison of a device called the Keller Machine, which supposedly removes “evil impulses” from a human being. The reference to “evil impulses” is reminiscent of the Rabbinic term yetzer ha-ra, and the episode raises the same question some rabbis did, namely whether the so-called “evil impulse” is not something necessary to human existence, and thus to be tamed rather than eliminated.

As a result of a mishap, a test subject, Barnham, has all his evil removed. When asked about Barnham’s condition after undergoing the process in this extreme fashion, the reply is that he is now “an idiot or a saint” – and that the distinction depends on one’s perspective. The idea that a saint is an idiot – or that a seemingly idiotic person may be a saint – could be taken as an insult aimed at saints, or one aimed at society’s perception of those who lack the selfishness, pride, anger, and other characteristics that may bring success or criminality – depending on one’s perspective.

Before discussing the ending of the episode, which returns us to these considerations, let me mention a few very interesting but passing details.

First, the Doctor begins to say at one point when flustered that he has “been a scientist for many thousands of…” Presumable the lowest unit of time that could be inserted is “years” and this would make the Doctor much older than his current typically-offered figure of 900. Has the Doctor been lying about his age, or is this just a continuity error?

The Keller Machine turns out to be the work of the Master, and to have within it an alien intelligence that feeds off of evil. It may thus try to overpower a potential victim by projecting a hallucination of their greatest fear. While later on he sees his various classic enemies, the first time the machine tries this on him, we find out what the Doctor’s greatest fear is: he says that he once witnessed an entire world consumed by fire, and thus fire was what the machine projected. Presumably fire is not what the Doctor saw in the hotel room in “The God Complex” but it is still interesting to compare how the idea of what the Doctor fears most may have evolved and changed over the course of the show’s history.

In this episode, we also find the Doctor to be proficient in a dialect of Chinese – and to have previously practiced it in conversation with Mao Tse Tung!

When the Chinese diplomat to whom he is speaking offers a goodbye in his dialect, the Doctor replies with its equivalent in English, which is very interesting for those interested in religion on Doctor Who. The Doctor replies. “May God go with you also.”

The Doctor says at one point that “It pays to have a pure mind after all.” This fits nicely the discovery that the machine – or better, the entity within it – is kept dormant by the presence of that innocent soul Barnham from whom all evil had been removed. But when the Doctor uses the machine to defeat the master, Barnham goes to his aid, allowing the Master to escape.

This raises the classic question about pacifism: can pure unadulterated kindness ultimately prevail? Or does it take evil, in whatever small a measure, to effectively combat evil? The message seems to be that it is the Doctor’s cunning which could have in theory beaten the Master, while sainthood simply leads to martyrdom.

It is a profound question, I think, and so let me ask those reading this: Does it take evil to overcome evil?


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  • Straw Man

    Your question at the end seems to presuppose that absolute pacifism is “good,” and the absence of pacifism is “evil.” By implication, all use of force must be “evil,” whether used aggressively or in self-defense. This is by no means clear.

    More generally, “evil” is a value judgment, and hence ultimately subjective. To some, self-defense is indeed evil; to others, such as sociopaths, there is no such thing at all. There is no purely objective way to decide the question. Even if God stepped in and offered His opinion, it would still be subjective, albeit the subjective opinion of a supreme being.

    But this implies that the question, “Does it take evil to fight evil,” is not necessarily coherent. By whose definition is the “evil” that is necessary to resist “evil,” evil? Or if you formulate the question a different way, you would be asking whether evil itself is an incoherent concept. I.e., if “evil” is something to be absolutely avoided, but refraining from evil can in some circumstances itself be evil, then “evil” is a self-contradictory concept. QED.

    This conundrum is easily avoided by redefining evil. For example, if we define self-defense as “not evil,” then you can resist a murderer, using deadly force, without yourself being evil. A homicide can then only be judged to be evil by excluding self-defense as a justification–there is evil homicide and non-evil homicide.

    A third interpretation of your question is psychological in nature, and relates to “becoming what we hate.” Can we be intolerant of intolerance, without crossing the line and becoming intolerant generally? Can we hate haters, without becoming haters ourselves? Can we practice self-defense without becoming hardened to violence, and starting to use offensive force as well? These are excellent questions, but they don’t seem to me to be truly philosophical questions about good and evil, so much as about the difficulty distinguishing them sometimes, and our psychological unsuitability to make such distinctions reliably and consistently.

    • James F. McGrath

      Thanks for your great comment! i was taking the episode as the starting point for my reflection, and in the episode, the Doctor is susceptible to the machine’s attacks, which meant that there was evil within him. But it is indeed important to problematize many aspects of the episode, such as the idea that there are “evil impulses” that can simply be removed, leaving the person otherwise intact, as well as the question of what within the Doctor or any of us is evil.

      Still, as sci-fi episodes serving as discussion-starters for interesting conversations, I would say this is a good one!

  • Gary

    Evil to fight evil. No. But relative. So, I suppose total pacifism worked, when the Christian martyrs were killed for their beliefs. Christianity eventually prevailed. On the other hand, when the Christian church fathers promoted their fellow martyrs to sainthood, and suggested that martyrdom is something good for you and your family to participate in, instead of burning some incense to a Roman god, I would suppose “The idea that a saint is an idiot – or that a seemingly idiotic person may be a saint” – could be taken as true. Not a new idea. Gospel of Judas. I am usually influenced by my last book read, in this case, Pagel’s Gospel of Judas. The author of the Gospel of Judas, takes the ultimate villain, and makes him a secret compatriot of Jesus, and angrily protests about the people (evil) that promote martyrdom. I’d have to side with the Gospel of Judas, if I lived 2000 years ago. Live to fight another day. Sacrifice to Roman gods, and practice Christianity in secret. Otherwise, you might win a Darwin award for you and your family.

  • Gary

    Lots happening. But can’t let August 6 pass without mentioning Hiroshima. Tough call. Invade, or sacrifice 100,000+ civilians to end a war.