The Trolley Problem

Guest contributor Maria Schmidt explores 5 times where there were no easy solutions.


After Series 8 there have been many talks about decisions and situations when ‘sometimes the only choices you have are bad ones, but you still have to choose’. I decided to write about it and remembered something I find really interesting – thought experiments. One of them, I think many of you might have heard of, is the trolley problem. Surely I’m not the first to apply this experiment to Doctor Who, as its characters, and the Doctor especially, face such a dilemma quite often.

The general form of the experiment is thus: a runaway trolley is barrelling down the railway tracks. Ahead, on the tracks, there are five people tied up. You’re standing next to a lever. If you pull this lever, the trolley will switch to a different set of tracks. Unfortunately, there is one person on the side track. Important – under the conditions, you can’t sacrifice yourself jumping under the trolley, you can’t run and free any of those people, etc. There are only two options:

  • 1) Do nothing, and the trolley kills the five people on the main track.
  • 2) Pull the lever, diverting the trolley onto the side track where it will kill one person.

What is your choice?

Utilitarians claim that you have to steer to the track with one man on it, and such a decision is not only permissible, but the better option. An alternate viewpoint is that moving to another track makes you partially responsible for the death when otherwise no one would be responsible. Some may also point to the incommensurability of human lives, others say that simply being present in this situation and able to influence its outcome obliges you to participate. In this case deciding to do nothing would be considered immoral if you value five lives more than one.

Now we can apply this to Doctor Who. There are several episodes that occurred to me as good examples:

The Parting of the Ways

As you may remember, the Daleks that survived the Time War spent a while recovering and using human genetic material to create an army. Now they are going to exterminate everyone on the Game Station, then on Earth and so on. The Doctor decides to create a delta wave, which can fry every brain, Dalek or human, within the blast radius.

Let’s assume that delta wave is our trolley. If the Doctor does nothing, the entire universe will be in danger. If he uses the wave, both people and Daleks will die, but the universe will be saved and humanity still can survive. The Doctor decided to act, and Jack Harkness supported this decision, while the Dalek Emperor tried to dissuade him saying he’ll be the one responsible for all those deaths.

At the crucial moment, the Doctor is given a choice – to press or not to press the button. And he doesn’t. In response, the Dalek Emperor says that Earth people will die now because of him, and the question arises – whether the Doctor really is to blame for the oncoming deaths, or the Daleks are. On the one hand, they’ll do the actual killing, but on the other, he let this happen. As we know, the case was resolved by the Bad Wolf saving the day, but it still is a good example of the problem, because the Doctor had to make a choice without expecting such a resolution. Anyway, 1:0 for saving one.

The Fires of Pompeii

The-Fires-of-Pompeii-eruptBefore we continue, I should mention an addition to this dilemma, known as ‘the fat man’. As before, a trolley is hurtling down a track towards five people. You can stop it by putting something very heavy in front of it. There is a fat man next to you – you can only stop the trolley pushing him onto the track, killing him to save five. Should you proceed? Most of those who approved of sacrificing one to save five in the first case do not approve it in the second one.

So what’s the relevant distinction, if one person dies in both cases? One distinction is that in the first case you don’t intend harm towards anyone – harming one is just a side effect of switching the trolley away from the five. While in the second case harming him is an integral part of the plan to save them. You actually intend someone’s death to save the five, and this is wrong, whereas in the first, you have no such intention. The opposite viewpoint says there’s no big difference between bringing the harm to the one and moving the one into the path of the harm. This version is often more suitable for Doctor Who episodes, as the Doctor usually has to deliberately and directly sacrifice/kill the minority for the sake of the majority.

And now we recall ‘The Fires of Pompeii’. The Tenth Doctor and Donna face a dilemma – whether to cause the eruption of Vesuvius, destroy the city and themselves, thus saving the whole planet from Pyrovile invasion, or to do nothing and let the aliens convert all humans into their kind. The Doctor decides to destroy the city to save the whole planet. No happy endings. Donna supports him, and you may assume that it was easier for her to accept this choice, as the destruction of Pompeii was always a historical fact for her. Though, of course, it didn’t make anyone feel any better. 1:1.

The Beast Below

Doctor-Who-The-Beast-Below-(11)Starship UK travelled on a huge star whale, but the price was too high – people tortured and hurt it to keep going. Every 10 years Liz X faced the trolley problem – to free the whale and kill everyone on the ship or to keep on torturing it.

Once again, the situation was resolved by something the Doctor couldn’t expect – Amy chose to act believing there’d be no harm for anyone. But the Doctor decided to set up a massive electrical charge which would render the star whale braindead – which means he chose to sacrifice one to save many. And what he said about not being the Doctor anymore proves clearly that for him, saving the many doesn’t lessen the guilt for killing one. 2:1.

Another addition to the problem – the fat man is the villain who put these five people in peril. In this instance, pushing the villain to his death, especially to save five innocent people, seems not only morally justifiable but perhaps even imperative. It doesn’t have much to do with the next situation, but demonstrates the attitude of one of the participants.

Kill the Moon

kill-the-moon-abortedAnd here it is, ‘Kill the Moon’, the episode almost entirely addressed to the trolley problem. The Doctor, Clara, Courtney and Lundvik have to choose to kill the Moon creature and save humanity, or to let it hatch and endanger the planet. The Doctor holds aloof, Clara thinks they have to risk and deal with the consequences, so does Courtney and Lundvik, who’d never encountered aliens as Clara did and who’s used to putting humanity first, perceives the creature as a ‘villain’ that put her home in danger and must be killed for the sake of Earth.

Element of fatalism that probably helped Donna to deal with it, doesn’t work for Clara – she doesn’t know what lies ahead, the scales are equal, the choice is even harder. They let people of Earth decide what to do – and people decide to kill. At the last moment Clara stops the detonation, thereby choosing inaction. And again the resolution is unexpected – the moon lays an egg which becomes a new moon. Subsequently Lundvik thanks Clara for stopping her. If we count main character’s decisions, it’s 2:2.

It should be noted how the obligation to make such an impossible choice affected Clara. It proves once again that there’s no right choice and no matter what you choose or what happens – there’ll be consequences for you.

The Day of the Doctor

day-hurt-timewarAnd finally the last example, though it should probably precede ‘The Parting of the Ways’ or ‘Kill the Moon’. The War Doctor knows that the only way to stop the Time War is to destroy both sides, sacrifice the minority to save the whole universe. He decides to do so, persuading himself that it’s for the greater good, but he still hesitates. Moreover, even the weapon itself is against it and shows him what will happen if he chooses to act.

The War Doctor still decides to use the weapon, and there comes an unexpected wonderfully happy ending again – the salvation of Gallifrey and the end of the Time War. But the Doctor forgets, and since the very start of the new series we can see the consequences: future incarnations refuse to call him the Doctor, his behaviour suffers a change, and his companions help him to move on. I guess that’s why he couldn’t act in ‘The Parting of the Ways’ – he thought he’d done it not long ago and didn’t want to do it again.


The trolley problem appears in the show regularly, and while it often gets resolved by a sudden third option and a happy ending, and the action-inaction percentage is approximately equal (at least in these examples, you can also remember The Waters of Mars, The Time of the Doctor and other episodes where the problem is present), in many episodes, especially in ‘The Day of the Doctor’ the viewer is led to believe that human lives are incommensurable and if there is even a tiny chance for a better option, for a middle ground where ‘everybody lives’ – you have to do your best to find it.

What other Doctor Who trolley problem examples do you remember, and what would you choose?


About mydoctor1962

Doctor Who fan like few others. Also a fan of Science Fiction, Cooking Shows and more.

Posted on February 26, 2015, in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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