When Sherlock delivers the line “This isn’t torture, this is vivisection. We’re experiencing science from the perspective of lab rats” in “The Final Problem”, I was willing to bet I’d spotted a piece of dialogue scripted by Steven Moffat, even if figuring out who wrote what in a co write is always a tricky job, as a subtle protest for animal rights has bled through a few of his scripts in recent years. The first example of such a line comes in “The Bells of St John”, when Ms Kizlet claims “Nobody loves Cattle more than Burger King“. There is a remarkably similar line in “The Girl Who Died” Jamie Mathieson’s most recent brilliant addition to Doctor Who that nonetheless features a Moffat co-credit: when gloating about his false Valhalla, Odin asks “What is a god but the cattle’s name for farmer? What is heaven but the gilded door of the abattoir?“, a line that, given the similar lines in other scripts where Moffat is the recurring author (even if he is only the sole author of “Bells of St John“), I suspect was written by Moffat, not Mathieson. So let’s examine each line, their context within their respective episodes, and find out what we can learn both about the topic of animal rights, and of what we can learn about the ideas animating Steven Moffat’s era of Doctor Who at large.
“Nobody loves cattle more than Burger King”: “The Bells of St John” and Capitalism
The metaphor at the heart of “The Bells of St John” is ultimately, a critique of consumer culture. The Great intelligence literally consumes the souls of the people trapped by Ms Kizlet and the spoonheads. This critique is made most explicit in the following exchange between Kizlet and the Doctor:
“Kizlet: The people of this world are in no danger whatsoever. My client requires a steady diet of living human minds. Healthy, free-range, human minds. He loves and cares for humanity. In fact, he can’t get enough of it.
The Doctor: It’s obscene. It’s murder.
Kizlet: It’s life. The farmer tends his flock like a loving parent. The abattoir is not a contradiction. No one loves cattle more than Burger King.“
There is an interesting tension in Kizlet’s justifications, as she references the Great Intelligence’s need for “free range” human minds at the start of the speech, but responds to the Doctor’s moral objections to her actions by referencing the fast food industry, a place where animal rights issues and capitalism most visibly intersect. Fast food companies claim they produce their meat in an ethical and environmentally sustainable way, but the amount of meat produced by these chains makes that impossible, the animals have to be produced in a battery farm environment to fulfill the necessary quantity of meat. Last year, Lidl ran a series of cinema adverts where a presenter tells the audience they have doubts about the ethics behind Lidl’s meat production, before visiting one of the farms Lidl sources their meat from, so that these doubts can be firmly dispelled. The farm is usually a pleasant farm, sourced in the UK, where the animals are reared friendly conditions, and the presenter is usually given the chance to, for example, feed the adorable calf or lamb. The advert then ends, with no sense of irony, with the presenter trying a delicious stake or lamb chop from the farm. These corporations don’t “love” the animals, they love the money the animals make for them, the worth of a living being reduced to the profit they create. Ultimately, the only value cattle are given within this culture is monetary value.
“What is heaven but the gilded door of the abattoir?”: “The Girl Who Died” and Religion
“The Girl Who Died, meanwhile, compares the relationship between a farmer and his cattle to the relationship between humanity and God, or, at least organised religion’s conception of God. This conception of God is first referenced when the Doctor rebuffs Einnar’s claim the villagers have been taken to Valhalla by saying “what’s the one thing that gods never do? Gods never actually show up!” Organised religion, according to the Doctor, requires a cold, distant God who never shows up to be called into question by the people who worship these Gods, as the Doctor and Odin quickly are by the villagers, who instantly recognise the Doctor as a “False Odin”, before the same happens to Odin upon the Doctor’s prompting.
This cold, distant relationship between God as presented by organised religion is directly linked to humanity’s relationship with animals in this exchange between Odin and Clara:
“CLARA: Why play God?
ODIN: What is a god but the cattle’s name for farmer? What is heaven but the gilded door of the abattoir?”
At its worst, organised religion presents God as a loving figure who looks after humanity (not unlike Ms Kizlet’s description of farmers lovingly tending to their cattle), but uses this idea of God, along with the promise of Heaven, to control a large social group according the ideals of the people running the religion, instead of according to the ideals of a truly loving God. The followers of such a religion are forced to feel guilt for innocent behavior, curb their wants and desires, and not voice the questions they may have about the actions of their religious leaders, all in the name the promise of Heaven. But the “Heaven” they end up getting is in fact, little more than an abbatoir, a world of suffering and repression that feeds the desire of corrupt religious leaders for dominance and control, for the enacting of meaningless bigotry. This false Heaven motif follows on from the series eight finale “Death in Heaven“, where Missy promises to lovingly tend the souls of rich people after their death, but all as a part of a cleverly constructed trap in capitalistic workings of bureaucracy and administration. And humanity’s treatment of farm animals does prove to be an apt metaphor for this system: powerful people exploiting beings they consider less important than them, going their wealth and consuming their meat because everyone has convinced themselves this is the way things have to be.
“This isn’t torture, this is vivisection.”: “The Final Problem” and Animal Experimentation
This is a Doctor Who blog, so why focus on Sherlock? Well, put simply, it’s hard to ignore Moffat’s writing of the show he developed alongside his era of Doctor Who when talking about said era, particularly as both shows visibly inform one another in thematic content.
So how does “The Final Problem” tie into the theme of animal rights? After being into getting Molly to say “I love You”, Sherlock states “This isn’t torture, this is vivisection. We’re experiencing science from the perspective of lab rats”, placing the human protagonists in the position of animals. The tension between emotion and reason forms the central conflict in “The Final Problem”: Eurus treats her kidnap and incarceration of Sherlock, Mycroft and John as an experiment, a chance to study human emotions, and better understand her brothers and the human emotions that don’t make sense to her. The emotional distress Sherlock, John and Mycroft go through (and Sherlock and Molly in the scene preceding this line) form a clear position against Eurus’s treatment of her family, and the way she turns people into curiosities to experiment on. In doing so, it calls into question our own treatment of animals used for scientific research: what makes Sherlock, John, Molly and Mycroft deserving of our empathy, but not the animals used for vivisection?
“The Bells of St John” is a story that critiques capitalism’s brutal rejection of animal rights, “The Girl Who Died” offers a pointed criticism of organised religion and the way it can turn people into cattle, and “The Final Problem” looks at animal rights through the context of science, interrogating the logic behind our justifications for experimenting on animals. It’s a satisfyingly thorough look at the various perspectives on the theme.
Objectification is at the heart of this: I took the title of this essay from “The Lying Detective”, which, as Moffat’s first script of 2017, reveals a lot about his current thematic preoccupations as he starts his final year as the Doctor Who showrunner. In “The Lying Detective” Culverton Smith, villain of the episode, says he is a serial killer because he likes “to turn people into things”, dialogue that itself echoes Terry Pratchett’s Discworld, and the great quote he gives to Granny Weatherwax: “sin, young man, is when you treat people like things”. Each script examined in this essay presents people in the position of the animals we objectify. “The Bells of St John” likens the souls of the people left for the Great intelligence to consume to calves that are fattened up and cared for before being slaughtered for profit: the companionship and responsibility the humans who raise the animals have for them is ignored by turning them into objects of monetary value. “The Girl Who Died” compares the relationship between cattle and farmer to the way organised religion turns its followers into objects of control by keeping them in unnecessary ignorance, kept waiting for a God that never shows up, not allowed the subjectivity that would allow them the knowledge that they are waiting at the gilded door of the Abbatoir. In both episodes, there is a theme of people being reduced to product: Kizlet turns people into souls on a screen for the Great Intelligence to consume, and Odin turns the Vikings into testosterone goo that he consumes in a single gulp, multiple lives boiled down into a single mouthful of produce. And “The Final Problem” emphasizes the subjectivity of animals that experience vivisection, asking the viewer to empathise with the creatures that are put through unethical tests, reminding us that their distress and fear is real, and that to dismiss that would be to turn them into objects, tools we can use to learn useful information. And this deconstruction of objectification is further explored in other aspects of the late Moffat era: Series Nine repeatedly subverts the “Woman in Refrigerator” trope, with the underlying themes exploring the way killing a female character to enable a male character’s development ultimately turns women into objects the stories of men.
This thematic preoccupation with objectification can summed in in a cutting, angry, and deeply moral message, a very Doctor Who-ish appeal to human empathy: don’t treat people, or animals, like things.