“Good men don’t need rules. Today is not the day to find out why I have so many.”– The Eleventh Doctor; ‘Doctor Who’
In the two-part Star Trek episode ‘Descent’, Lieutenant Commander Data – a synth who’s spent much of the series trying to be more human – experiences his first emotion.
The circumstances aren’t ideal: the Enterprise had come under attack by Borg, one of whom attacked Data. After a short struggle, Data killed the drone in what he later described as a burst of anger.
Later, speaking to Lieutenant Commander Deanna Troi in her role as ship’s counsellor, Data admitted that not only was the killing driven by anger, but gazing at the dead Borg following the act, he experienced a further emotion, which he described as pleasure.
The episode goes quickly off on one: turns out the emotions had been fed to him remotely by his evil ‘older brother’ Lore, an identical synth who’d earlier been fitted with ‘an emotion chip’ (it’s Star Trek, come on), and that Data wasn’t really going bad at all. Of course he wasn’t.
But it was Data’s conversation with Troi that hooked me – as it’s usually the quiet bits where people are talking that I find most interesting in sci-fi and fantasy. You can keep your warp-drive laserphasers and magical dragons and their mothers, TBH; just give me words.
As I may have mentioned in previous posts, I’ve always had an interest in the question of whether and to what extent the morality of a person is determined by their inherent nature – if people even have such a thing – or whether it’s possible for someone to choose to be other than nature might appear, in terms of character at least, to have made them.
Just before his admission of feeling pleasure at the killing, Data tells Troi that he’s concerned that the only emotion he’s experienced has been a negative one: anger. She points out that emotions aren’t themselves good or bad. Anger, she explains, could lead someone to fight an injustice, for example.
I generally agree with this. Emotions are like magic: there is no ‘black’ or ‘white’ magic as is often claimed – magic is simply a force of nature and its morality comes from how it’s used. With emotion, it’s not what you feel – I hope – but what you do and say in response to the feeling. Our emotions are evolved, and we have them because they’ve been evolutionarily useful to us. Fear helps us assess likely danger and withdraw from things that might harm us. Anger, it’s suggested according to some models, began as an early social tool for gaining fairer treatment within a hierarchy; and as Troi suggested, it can still have a use in creating and preserving equity.
How we respond to and express emotions can change over time, often according to our social context. A good example from here in my own benighted homeland would be in how we deal with grief. As late as the mid-20th century, the rule here in the UK was the legendary ‘stiff upper lip’. A certain stoicism was encouraged in British society: one did not wear one’s emotions on one’s sleeve, letting everyone see how you felt. One simply put on a brave and unruffled face and got on with it. Chin up, pip pip, tally ho, and so on.
Quite different from the prevailing social view now, perhaps encouraged by a greater awareness of mental health as a serious issue, in which the expression of emotions such as grief is considered not only normal but essential to proper processing. In the space of only about fifty years our attitude to the expression of emotion has changed substantially.
Back on the Enterprise, Data feared – or, rather, was positronically concerned – that he would become a bad person if he could only feel anger. But what he should have been concerned about was his capacity for managing the feeling. According to Deanna’s view, merely being angry doesn’t make one bad, evil, wrong: it is what one does and says in response to one’s anger that makes one bad – or not.
One of my favourite themes in fiction – any kind of fiction: sci-fi, fantasy, anything – is the idea of the person who is trying, fighting, to be better than their nature. The person who fears what they are because they’re afraid it will determine who they are. Or the person who knows what they are but makes the conscious choice to resist it in order to reach a higher standard.
“Now might be a really good time for you to get angry.”
“That’s my secret, Cap. I’m always angry.”– Captain America and Bruce Banner (The Hulk); ‘The Avengers’
I began this post with a quote from one of my favourite characters in fiction – the Doctor.
Throughout the long, long run of Doctor Who, there’s been a consistent surface-level moral order: the Doctor, in all his, and now her (and unless I’m talking specifically about a previous regeneration I’m going to refer to the Doctor as ‘her’, because she’s a woman now deal with it), incarnations, is the ‘good guy’. And the Doctor fights monsters, whether they be slavering be-clawed alien beasties or the human kind. Because the Doctor is unfailingly good and kind and compassionate and never ever oh wait…
The Doctor is a fascinating character to me because the surface individual – the one whose personality and quirks (and sartorial sense, or lack thereof) changes with every regeneration – hides the core of the being underneath. And the being underneath is dark: a cold, ruthless, vengeful, wounded, callous, furious, violent, capricious megalomaniac. That’s been made more explicit in the revived series, since Christopher Eccleston first appeared as the Ninth Doctor, but it was present to some degree, canonically intentional or not, in the portrayals of every one. The Seventh Doctor, played by Sylvester McCoy, was very deliberately painted in darker tones than those who’d gone before, and his storylines began to hint at a complex backstory that sadly was lost when the show was axed back in 1989.
The Doctor is good not because it’s her nature. Quite the opposite. She’s good because she’s decided to be good. A long time ago she made the decision that she was going to stand for certain values and constantly forces herself to maintain them.
But she and her previous selves haven’t always been able to hold to those values. David Tennant’s Tenth Doctor is one of the clearest examples: his despair at surviving the Time War led him to more readily express and indulge his darker side; his rage at the death of his daughter saw him pick up a gun and only barely hold himself back from shooting the man responsible in the head.
And sometimes, the Doctor doesn’t manage to hold back at all.
One of the greatest examples in Doctor Who was the conclusion of the special episode ‘The Waters of Mars’, where Ten, just for a few minutes, completely throws off his self-imposed morality and revels – albeit briefly – in his true nature and the power he enjoys.
The story of the being, evil – or at least somehow wrong – at its core, that nevertheless holds to values it doesn’t necessarily feel naturally, but that it makes a conscious decision to embrace, resonates very strongly with me. Being what I am, coming from where I do, I find it very easy to relate to. Many of my own characters in games and stories have lived with this conflict, because it’s such a central part of myself (and I’m terrible at coming up with original characters).
So my characters in roleplaying games have been such as my Dark Elf in Everquest, who abandoned the subterranean* city of Neriak where she began, and trekked at low level all the way across the continent to Qeynos, the shining glowy city of light and goodness and hope – only to find en even longer journey ahead as she had to work to gain acceptance from a society unused to seeing Dark Elves trying to be, if not kind, then at least not murderously evil.
[* Since Everquest takes place on the fictitious fantasy world of Norrath, that should probably be subnorrathian but who’s counting? I mean me, obviously, but who else? Hm?]
My Star Trek Online character was a Romulan… Well, admittedly she was built using a Vulcan character base because you couldn’t choose Romulans back then… But she was a Romulan who defected to the Federation because she believed in its values more than those of her own empire.
My Sith Assassin in Star Wars Online tried very hard not to submit to the malevolent designs of her faction, and instead took every opportunity to subvert them: sparing lives and helping the victimised wherever she could. Not that it did her much good. Or them, in the long run. (In truth the game wasn’t really
In Elite Dangerous, my character is an Imperial, but one who has little truck with the machiavellian political shenanigans, the prescriptive and hierarchical society and especially the slavery – as complex and misleading a concept as it actually is.
Huh. So apparently I just really like traitors. There’s a thing.
In truth I like stories about people who are willing to abandon what is wrong in favour of what is right, no matter how hard – emotionally or spiritually or politically – it might be.
(And my Elite character isn’t a traitor, by the way. She’s still an Imperial. She’s just a remote one who doesn’t actively support the things she doesn’t like.)
Stories like these, characters like these, remind me that it’s possible, no matter what you are in your soul, and no matter how you’ve been brought up or socially conditioned, to decide what to be in the world. You needn’t be perfect. No-one is, and even storylines like ‘Descent’ or ‘The Waters of Mars’, where the willpower breaks down or the rage or the hate becomes too much for the character, the lesson is that the choice was there.
These stories emphasise that the character had the choice, and this, if anything, means that insofar as we perceive human self-determination as a real thing the character is more responsible for their wrongs But at the same time, these same stories give hope. They show that those of us whose inner nature is rage, is fury, is despair, can choose to be more than just those parts of us – even if they’re the far greater part. We can carry those things, be those things, without actually releasing them into the world; or, at the very least, we can aim to direct them in more beneficial ways. We can use our anger to oppose injustice. We can use our fear to enhance our empathy for those who are afraid. And for those impulses that cannot readily be turned to good use – like hate – we know that we can choose, as hard as it may be, and as difficult and tiring as it may be, to tether those things and keep them buried within us.
We do not have to be what we feel.