What If?

Still from the movie I, Robot - Detective Spooner and an NS5

I, Robot (c) 2004 20th Century Fox

One of my favorite things about science-fiction done well is that it asks difficult-to-answer questions and makes us think. Like Bicentennial Man or I, Robot exploring the nature of humanity through the question of “what if robotics advanced so far that the line between man and machine became blurred?” Or The Matrix exploring the nature of reality through the question “what if it was all an illusion?” Or Ender’s Game asking “would it be worth the price of our brightest children if it saved humanity from annihilation?” And how do we, or should we, as a society treat genius children, anyway? Or The Giver asking what we would give up to have peace and freedom from pain – would we give up our individuality and ability to make choices to never have war again? (I haven’t seen the new movie version yet, it is on my list.)

I like that not only does science-fiction explore the possibilities of what may happen if technology advances to or beyond a certain point in the future but that it also asks questions of us here and now. How would we interact with someone if they had the ability to read minds, like Charles Xavier does in X-Men? Or what would we do with our last hours if we knew an asteroid the size of Texas was bringing Armageddon to Earth?

That is one of the (many) things that draws me to Doctor Who, the range of questions it explores and asks. From the nearly-impossible-to-answer “what ifs?” like what if, even with time in flux and many events changeable, some tragedies must happen because of the way they affect the future that will be? Could you stand by and watch them happen? To the convolutions of some of the “whys?” like why are we afraid of things that go bump in the dark, or why do we invent such wonderfully ridiculous things as edible ball bearings?

The format of the show also allows us viewers to put ourselves in the place of the companions who travel with the Doctor. To ask ourselves what would we do if faced with something logically impossible, but clearly in front of us – such as a spaceship that looks like a 1960’s British police call box and that is bigger on the inside than it is on the outside. To wonder how we would react if we had a chance to walk on other worlds under alien suns and meet intelligent beings we’d never imagined.

The Tenth Doctor Doctor Who (c) BBC

The Tenth Doctor and his TARDIS
Doctor Who (c) BBC

Now, I will never get to travel in time and space, but I will definitely meet people who look different from me, who sound different from me, who think differently than I do (perhaps even the opposite of what I do.) And if I can accept the idea that someone with a face like an Ood can also be wise and kind and gentle, can I not accept the same of my fellow humans, no matter how different they are from me? I love how the questions sci-fi asks can be transferred from theoretical to practical.

For me, personally, Doctor Who has also brought up deeper questions to which I still haven’t found the answers. The finale of series 1 led me to ponder: if someone risks their life to get you safely out of danger, but that means they have to remain behind, do you have the right to go back into that danger? Shouldn’t you honor their sacrifice and stay where you are safe? The only real-world example I could think of that would fit what had happened in the off-world scenario, was perhaps someone getting you out of a burning building and then getting stuck themselves. Do you actually have an obligation to someone who saves you to stay safe because they wanted you to be? Or could you risk your life to go back in for them if you thought you could save them? I don’t know the answer, but it’s an interesting question I hadn’t thought of before.

The finale of series 3, Last of the Time Lords, was another that made me question, though it was more myself that time. The villain has taken over the world with some extraterrestrial help and humans are being used as slave labor to build interstellar warships. The Doctor has been captured and essentially incapacitated but his companion remains free and walks the world to gather the resistance. She is also collecting the parts of a weapon rumored to be able to kill the nearly indestructible villain. Along with oppressing humanity, and having killed a tenth of the population on a whim, the villain has taken the companion’s family captive and is mistreating them. At one point a woman who knows the companion is gathering pieces of a weapon says to her, “Can you really do it? You don’t look like a killer to me.” She replies, “I’ve got no choice.” I realized then that I really wanted him to die. I wanted her to be the one to do it, for her family and the Doctor and their suffering, to end the death and the insanity the villain is pushing the world toward, to be the one to stop him. I wanted him dead.

Still shot of Martha from Last of the Time Lords, Doctor Who, 2007

From Last of the Time Lords (c) 2007 BBC

After the bittersweet but fitting ending (I’m not telling you which way it goes – watch series 3 yourself) I sat back and thought for a while. With the information I had at the time, it seemed that the companion killing the villain was the only option to stop what was happening. And I didn’t just want him dethroned, I wanted him dead. He was demonstrably and frighteningly insane, but in control of his faculties enough to know that what he was doing was wrong and was clearly not only unrepentant but enjoying it. With the power he had, there was no possibility of talking him out of it or locking him away. But is there really a point where death is the only solution? Part of me wants to say there is, partly because killing the bad guy is the solution stories often put forward. But who am I to say that someone is past all hope of redemption? It is such a final and irreversible decision to make and there may be consequences you couldn’t have thought of beforehand.

I never did come up with a clear answer on that one. I guess it’s the whole death penalty question from a different angle. Which is exactly what I mean about sci-fi asking great questions – the episode didn’t set out to explore the merits or vices of the death penalty, it set out to tell a story about a hero and a villain and hard choices, but it brought up questions along the way.

Odd as it may sound, I think I like the ones that are hard to answer. Because it is in exploring them, whether we answer them or not, that we can come to know ourselves better. To know our beliefs and opinions, the things we’ll take a stand on and the things we don’t agree with but can accept that others do. That is one of the wonderful things about good science-fiction: they are stories that we can read or watch for fun, but they can also be so much more than that.


About Ruth

I am a Missionary Kid (MK) enjoying navigating this life with the unique viewpoint that has given me.
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4 Responses to What If?

  1. John Gossner says:

    You know, when I was in high school, a VERY long time ago, I always hated it when my teachers insisted I think about what the authors were trying to say or what the relevance of the story to real world might be. I insisted that the author was trying to entertain and get paid for doing that very limited goal. Now you are still trying to spoil my fun! That said, you raise some excellent points. Darn you anyway.


    • Ruth says:

      Yes, I used to agree with you on English teachers often spoiling my fun. Sometimes I still think so. But what I was trying to say in the last sentence was that, done right, sci-fi can be both entertaining fun and deeper, thought-causing stuff. Not that you have to think, mind you, if you don’t want to, but you can. I like having that option. 🙂


  2. Mom VanDoren says:

    Coming from someone who does not at all like to read or watch science fiction or fantasy, I so very much appreciated this post of yours, Ruth, because it made me see why so many people DO enjoy it! I now see value beyond just entertainment, that I had not seen before. And this someone who does not enjoy it, has several “kids” that really DO enjoy it. Thanks for bringing some insights to this mom! 🙂


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