Last night, Doctor Who showrunner Chris Chibnal blew-up some keystone components of the classic science-fiction show in a way that not only redefines what we think we know about the character of the time and space traveling Time Lord known as the Doctor, but established some new mysteries to ponder as well. And in the course of things, Chibnall does it in such a way that is accessible to newer fans of the rebooted series while still fitting in with much of the character’s mythology that had been established over the longs years since he first appeared on television in 1963.
The reveal itself is of course sparking plenty of debate online as to whether it is a good story idea or not. We’re not going to look at that so much as address if the idea that the Doctor is not quite the Time Lord we thought she was works within the already established milieu of the show. (That is, as much as a show that has been going strong for five decades can have canon that doesn’t contradict itself somewhere.)
Obviously, spoilers from here on out for the most recent season of Doctor Who and the season finale episode “The Timeless Children” in particular.
The Doctor’s Hidden Life And The Timeless Child
At the beginning of this season, the Doctor’s old friend/long-time nemesis taunted her saying that he knew something that proved that everything that had been told the Doctor was a lie and that lie was why he destroyed the Time Lords and decimated their homeworld of Gallifrey. In the season finale, the Master pulls the Doctor into the Matrix, a cyber-realm of sorts made up of the Time Lords entire knowledge and experience. There he reveals that she is not a Gallifreyan at all, but something much more. Found as a child by an early pre-Time Lord Gallifreyan explorer by the name of Tecteun in front of a mysterious trans-dimensional gate, the future Doctor was brought back to Gallifrey. After what should have been a lethal accident, the child regenerates – the first time any Gallifreyan has seen such a thing, Tecteun experiments on the child, ultimately unlocking the process and imbuing certain Gallifreyans with the ability, though limiting them to a dozen times through the cycle. Those Gallifreyans go on to be Time Lords.
Meanwhile, the known fully grown adult Doctor is recruited by a shadowy organization within Time Lord society called The Division. She then spends several lifetimes working for this group traveling through space and time on numerous, unspecified missions. One of those incarnations could very likely be the mysterious Fugitive Doctor, the Doctor encountered this season in this season’s episode “Fugitive Of The Judoon.”
It is implied that the work was unsavory and after some time the Doctor decided to leave. At this point, the Doctor’s memory was wiped completely and it appears as if he was then forced to regenerate into a child, who would grow up to become the First Doctor, as portrayed by William Hartnell back when the series debuted in 1963.
Talking About My Regeneration
First off, let’s take a look at one of the most important part of the Doctor Who mythos, literally the one thing that has allowed it to continue on for over half a century – the concept of regeneration. Basically, when a Time Lord gets gravely injured or just too old, their body undergoes a process called regeneration. In a burst of energy, their cells realign and they take on a new appearance, ready to continue their life.
From a practical point, it allows the television series to continue on after its lead actor decides they would like to seek other work. From a storytelling standpoint, having a new Doctor every couple of years who may share the ongoing character’s core beliefs while sporting a new personality and mannerisms helps to keep things fresh and lets the show reset itself somewhat. It was a device that the producers first came up with when the original Doctor, actor William Hartnell, decided in 1966 that he needed to leave the show for health reasons. It was also a risky gamble, but one that is still paying off five decades later.
Prior to now, it has been established that the Time Lords’ regeneration cycle being limited to 12 was implemented by Rassilon, one of the founders of Time Lord society. Granted, in the wake of this new revelation about the Doctor and Tecteun, giving Rassilon credit may be a case where he took or was assigned credit as part of the conspiracy to wipe Tecteun from Gallifreyan history.
That twelve regeneration limitation by decree had always carried with it the implication that regeneration could potentially be unlimited. And indeed we have seen the Time Lord High Council promise a new regeneration cycle before to the Master in “The Five Doctors” anniversary episode. So nothing about this new revelation about the origins of Time Lord regeneration significantly contradict what has come before. If anything, it shades and gives some additional wrinkles to the concept.
The Brain Of Morbius Debate
In the classic Doctor Who series, the Doctor’s childhood friend-turned-intergalactic-homicidal-maniac, The Master, was not the only renegade Time Lord he would come up against. Patrick Troughton’s Second Doctor had two face-offs with the Meddling Monk before moving onto the War Chief in Troughton’s final regular serial, “The War Games.” But it was Tom Baker’s Doctor’s encounter with the Time Lord known as Morbius that would wind up sparking a nearly four-and-a-half decade debate among fandom.
The story opens with the TARDIS landing on the planet Karn. The Doctor tells his companion Sarah Jane Smith (Liz Sladen) that the Time Lords have diverted him there for some reason. That mission becomes apparent when he discovers that one of the greatest criminals of Time Lord society, Morbius, has somehow escaped the public execution he had been sentenced. Escaped, of course, being a relative term. As Morbius was being disintegrated, his brain was somehow rescued and spirited away to a spooky castle on Karn, where a scientist by the name of Solon is endeavoring to assemble a body from the parts of various aliens to transplant Morbius’s brain into. So, think of this episode as a little bit Frankenstein and a little bit They Saved Hitler’s Brain.
In the course of the story, Solon manages to get Morbius’s brain into the monstrous body and the Doctor challenges him to something called a “mindbending contest,” basically a contest that seems them bit their sheer will power against each other. The contest in done by each Time Lord bribing one side of a machine and concentrating while a screen in the middle shows who has the upper hand, er, mind. As the Doctor and Morbius mind wrestle back and forth, we see the Doctor’s various incarnations appear on the screen in the form of the three previous actors who played the part.
But then something odd happened that started a controversy that went unaddressed in the show until this week’s episode. The familiar faces of the Doctor on the screen gave way to a host of unfamiliar faces – eight in total. And who were these guys? Since it had been established that William Hartnell’s Doctor was the first, they couldn’t be from before. Some fans, including myself, theorized that they were various incarnations of Morbius. Later, then current producer Philip Hinchcliffe would say “I attempted to imply that William Hartnell was not the first Doctor.”
Now, as the Doctor tries to escape the Matrix in this week’s “The Timeless Children,” she sends out a blast of all her memories. As the she does so, we the audience see clips of all the Doctor’s previously known incarnations, all the way back to William Hartnell’s original model, as it were. We also see flashed of some of the Doctor’s greatest enemies and monsters. And towards the end of that montage, we see a moment of that mental duel from “The Brain Of Morbius,” and then close ups of those mysterious pre-First-Doctor Doctors. In the YouTube video below, the scene has been slowed down so that one can see each individual cut in the sequence. The possible-Doctors show up at the 1:32 mark.
It certainly feels as if Chibnal is giving us a definitive answer to this old fan debate. Yes, they were earlier versions of the Doctor, and the space in the Doctor’s life where they existed is in the missing time that the Time Lords have erased from her memory.
The Cartmel Masterplan
The revelations of this past season are not the first time that the show had tried to inject some new mystery into the Doctor’s backstory. During the second and third seasons of Sylvester McCoy’s run as the Seventh Doctor, script editor Andrew Cartmel and writers Ben Aaronovich and Marc Platt collaborated on a plan that would first hint and then ultimately reveal that the Doctor was something more than just a standard, run-of-the-mill renegade Time Lord. While Cartmel was able to start laying the clues to the big reveal in a couple of stories in the show’s 25th and 26th season, the show was cancelled by the BBC before the big reveal could be dropped on audiences.
In broad strokes, the plan was to reveal that the Doctor was one of the three founding members of Time Lord society alongside Rassilon and Omega. But while much was known about the other two, the third member was only known as The Other and was shrouded in myth and legend. Some say the Other was stronger than the other two members of the Triumvirate. Other stories suggested that the Other was perhaps not a Time Lord but was born somewhere else.
In the 25th anniversary episode “Silver Nemesis,” the character of Lady Peniforte suggests that she knows something about the Doctor’s true name, while the Doctor hinted that he was something “far more than just another Time Lord” in the episode “Revelation of The Daleks.” Indeed, both of those episodes dealt with ancient Time Lord artifacts that the Doctor had knowledge of in more of a personal way than an academic way. The seeds were being laid for a grand reveal that would never come. After planting hints as to a deeper and darker history for the Doctor through the show’s twenty-fifth and twenty-sixth seasons, the BBC declined to renew the show.
The cancellation wasn’t the end of the Cartmel Masterplan though, as it continued to be played out through the Doctor Who: The New Adventures series of spinoff novels that were published following the cancellation, culminating with Platt delivering much of the intended reveals in his novel Lungbarrow.
It should be noted that the books are not considered cannon, so in terms of the show’s continuity, those plot threads from the old series are still open. And it certainly feels like Chibnal’s idea of an other-Gallifreyan origin for the Doctor does address those threads.
The Doctor’s “New” Regeneration Cycle
Chibnal’s predecessor as storyrunner on Doctor Who, Steven Moffat, was very intent on closing out the Doctor’s regeneration cycle and gifting the character, and the producer who would follow him, with a new regeneration cycle and clean slate. In order to get to the end of the Doctor’s regeneration cycle, he created the War Doctor to be slotted into the space between the Eight Doctor (Paul McGann) and Ninth Doctor (Christopher Eccleston) and had the Tenth Doctor (David Tennant) take up not one but two regenerations, just so Matt Smith’s Eleventh Doctor could be the Doctor’s thirteenth, and presumably final, incarnation.
Now of course, as the series was in the midst of a popular worldwide resurgence, there was no way that the BBC was going to let the show come to end over a technicality on something that has kept the show going for decades. And that was not Moffat’s plan either, ending Matt Smith’s final episode with the Time Lords granting him a new regeneration cycle.
But in light of the revelation that the Doctor most likely has an unlimited amount of regenerations, it looks as if the Time Lords may have been fibbing somewhat. However, the Time Lords have a long history of lying to the Doctor and manipulating him into doing their bidding. Letting the Doctor believe he had been granted a new regeneration cycle as a means to cover up the truth about his origins seems like a very Time Lord thing to do.
The Doctor effectively having an infinite number of regenerations basically renders them immortal save for the most catastrophic of deaths, like falling into a sun or being subject to the immeasurable gravity of a black hole. So that kind of takes away some of the danger stakes for the character. And once the Doctor realizes that she doesn’t have a limit on her lives, she could very easily become really reckless. The only thing potentially holding herself back is how the Doctor has always viewed their current incarnation as a somewhat separate individual from their previous and future selves and may be still reluctant to expose that version of herself to undue risk.
One would also think that for a character where death is not really a potential outcome from their adventures would start to become really boring to watch from an audience’s standpoint. If there character is never in any real danger, how are we the viewers supposed to become invested in their story. This does seem to something that Chibnal gave thought to as the last moments of this week’s episode sees the Doctor arrested by intergalactic police-for-hire the Judoon and sentenced to “whole of life imprisonment” which can be a very long time if you can’t actually ever die.
If the Doctor doesn’t have a specific end point to her regeneration cycle, how do we explain the Valeyard? For those who aren’t well-versed in the classic Who series, the Valeyard was a Time Lord prosecutor who presented the charges against the Sixth Doctor (Colin Baker) in the season-long “Trial Of A Time Lord” storyline. At the end of the story, it was revealed that the Valeyard was actually an distillation of the darker aspects of the Doctor, an incarnation that came into being somewhere between his twelfth and final incarnations. The Valeyard was brought up a few years ago by fans who expected a return of the villain as Matt Smith’s Doctor neared the end of his life. Then showrunner Steven Moffat seemed to have just ignored the Valeyard, much to the consternation of fans. But that does allow the Valeyard to exist in something of a technicality. While “between the Doctor’s twelfth and final incarnation” was interpreted as a very specific, finite point, it can now be read as a much broader undefined time, this establishing the danger of the Doctor becoming the Valeyard as an ever-present background threat.
Didn’t the Doctor once say he was half-human? In his only televised adventure, McGann’s Eighth Doctor confessed to his new friend Grace (Daphne Ashbrook) that he was “half-human on my mother’s side.” Certainly that should be a rather status quo-changing admission. But given that the franchise has pretty much forgotten this almost as soon as McGann’s Doctor had uttered it, it seems safe to ignore it. The Doctor is prone to saying some crazy things in the hours post-regeneration and that was where the Eighth Doctor was at when made it, so most likely he was just talking crazy.
So what about River Song’s ability to regenerate? While not a Time Lord, the Doctor’s wife River Song was revealed to have the ability to regenerate like one. Turns out that when the DOctor’s companions Amy and Rory celebrated their wedding night in the TARDIS bedroom, they conceived the future River Song. And because she was conceived in the Space-Time Vortex that the TARDIS travels through, the energy their granted River the power of regeneration. So how does that tie into what the Master revealed to the Doctor about her own part in how Time Lords got the power of regeneration?
And what about Clara, the Impossible Girl? When facing off against the Great Intelligence, whom has infiltrated the Doctor’s timestream in order to reverse all of his victories across his many incarnations, the Doctor’s companion Clara jumped into his timestream to defeat the Intelligence. Doing so supposedly fractured her across the Doctor’s entire life span. But if that were so, why did she only go back as far as the First Doctor and not to any one of the incarnations we have only just learned about?
But the Master’s revelation to the Doctor is by no means the whole story. If anything, it is just the beginning, though it looks like we will have to wait until late next year before we see any further movement on where this story will take the Time Lord and her fans.