I recently finished watching S2 of ITV’s Broadchurch. Besides the murder mystery, family drama, and landscape cinematography, a major theme I’m noticing is responsibility: who takes the blame. As much of New Who shares this theme, I’d like to explore it here.
MASSIVE BROADCHURCH SPOILERS BELOW. STOP NOW IF YOU INTEND TO WATCH IT.
All clear? Then carry on.
As we open on S2, Alec Hardy has taken responsibility for losing evidence that would have convicted a child murderer. Without it the trial collapsed, taking with it his career and reputation. Ellie Miller has been demoted and ostracized following her husband’s arrest. She blames herself for her failure as a detective; her son blames her for the loss of his father, and her best friend blames her for everything.
On the other side, Joe Miller refuses to take responsibility for his actions, pleading not guilty in court and compelling a trial.
As the series progresses, more blame is spread. The lawyer Bishop has a son in prison: she blames the system, society, and her old mentor, never taking any responsibility for herself or laying any on her son. Tess Henchard declines any share of the blame for the failure of the Sandbrook case. Suspects Claire and Lee pass blame back and forth between themselves and anyone else who comes within reach.
By the end of the season, however, the tables have turned. Tess doesn’t get to close her most famous case, the honor falling instead to former DS Miller. Joe, found not guilty in court, is driven from town by a wall of determined citizens. Ellie Miller solves the Sandbrook case, gets free of her husband, and is restored to her community. Alec Hardy is healed from his illness and from his guilt. Responsibility sits where it belongs, and the blameless are finally free to go on with their lives.
New Who in particular enjoys playing the blame game. Both modern showrunners have portrayed the Doctor as being at fault for the chaos that surrounds him. In the very first remount episode, Russell T. Davies writes (in the words of Clive): “When disaster comes, he’s there. He brings the storm in his wake, and he has one constant companion… Death.” (‘Rose’)
No one in the series so far has bothered to point out that the Doctor comes in fact in the wake of the storm, to prevent as many deaths as possible. Even when Martha states openly that “it wasn’t the Doctor’s fault,” (‘The Sontaran Stratagem’) it’s clear by her phrasing that she actually means the opposite. She says he’s like fire, but he isn’t the fire; he’s the first responder, the man self-tasked with the most dangerous work for the greatest possible good. Even when someone like the Master comes along, sowing destruction for the Doctor’s attention, the writers prefer to blame the Doctor than the Master.
I don’t know why this is. I don’t know why people are obsessed with laying blame on any handy target rather than where it actually belongs. I don’t know why people enjoy the angst of misplaced guilt. The Doctor, like Alec Hardy, takes responsibilty for things that are not his fault and that he could not possibly have prevented. Like Ellie Miller, he tries to help, and ends up receiving the blame due someone else. But unlike Broadchurch, Doctor Who continually fails to place responsibility where it belongs.