Who is Doctor Who?
This is a question which has never really been answered in the series, Doctor Who.
It is a question which has attained new relevance in Series 4 of Doctor Who, currently screening in Britain.
An upcoming episode is entitled ‘The Doctor’s Daughter’. Are we about to meet the Doctor’s family? We have in fact met a member of his family already.
In 1963, when Doctor Who first began, William Hartnell’s eccentric but brilliant interpretation of the character saw him travelling with his grand-daughter Susan Foreman, in the very first episode, ‘An Unearthly Child’, referring to Foreman herself. Although the name Foreman was not Susan’s real name, it was taken from the doors of the junkyard where the Doctor had parked the TARDIS. They described themselves as exiles from their home planet, and travellers in time and space. While Susan quickly grew up and settled down to married life in post-apocalyptic 21st century London, the Doctor’s continuing adventures revealed him to be a resourceful, intrepid and somewhat too curious adventurer, who had the ability to renew his body entirely when he suffered massive trauma. It wasn’t until 1969 that we would learn more about the Doctor’s origins.
The final adventure featuring talented character actor Patrick Troughton in the role, ‘The War Games’, brought the Doctor and his companions to his home planet, which remained nameless. While there he had to uncover a plot to abduct entire battlefronts from wars throughout Earth’s history by the manipulative War Lords, a renegade branch of his own people, finally identified as Time Lords. The War Lords had pieced together a patchwork of battlefronts through which it was possible to walk from Waterloo to Gallipoli in a few short steps. Uncovering this put the Doctor squarely before the judgement of the Time Lords, who deemed he was a nuisance in time and space, acting irresponsibly and defying the Time Lords’ imperative to observe but not to interfere in the development of alien races. This was the first time we saw the Doctor’s own people and learned their name. It was also the last time we saw this incarnation of the Doctor, and it would be several years before we learned more information.
The episode entitled ‘The Time Warrior’ screened in 1974, and gave viewers an introduction to the character Sarah-Jane Smith, and the villainous Sontarans, two additions to the show which reappear in the current series. In this episode, the Doctor revealed the name of his home planet for the first time- Gallifrey. In the season which followed, the Doctor mentioned some things about his home planet, such as the man who lived close to his childhood home who mentored him. This man would preside over the Doctor’s next regeneration, which came at the end of the season. Tom Baker’s Doctor came next, battling his nemesis, The Master, on Gallifrey.
‘The Deadly Assassin’, the only Doctor Who story to feature the Doctor without a companion, depicted Gallifrey as a place of intrigue and political corruption. The Doctor was framed for an assassination attempt on the President, and in order to frustrate the perverted course of justice, the Doctor announced his intention to run as Candidate for the vacant Presidency. Gallifreyan law meant he could not be tried if he successfully attained the Presidency. The story saw the demise of his political opponents, who were in fact responsible for the assassination of the original President, and two seasons later, we would see the Doctor return to Gallifrey to accept the Presidency, which he had won by default. His tenure as President was short, however, and we would not see the Doctor on Gallifrey again until 1983, when Peter Davison’s young and energetic Doctor was summoned to outwit ancient Omega, the pioneer of time travel and Time Lord civilisation turned evil, in the story ‘Arc of Infinity’.
Omega had already appeared in Doctor Who once before, and along with the Master is one of Doctor Who’s recurring Time Lord villains. These characters have been developed significantly in the various branches of Doctor Who. We will come back to them shortly.
The Doctor became involved in further events on Gallifrey which would lead to further revelations about the culture which he comes from. ‘The Five Doctors’, Doctor Who’s twentieth anniversary story which screened shortly after ‘Arc of Infinity’, is a popular story featuring all five incarnations of the Doctor (there had been five only up to this point). It also features Rassilon, the scientist who worked alongside Omega to develop time travel, and became the first ever President of Gallifrey. We see an ethereal avatar of Rassilon, offering eternal life to whoever wants it. Eternal life turns out to be not such an attractive option, however, as the wily and double-crossing Borusa, current President of Gallifrey, chooses immortality and is summarily frozen for eternity in the form of stone on the side of Rassilon’s tomb.
Rassilon and Omega are therefore established as the progenitors of Time Lord culture on Gallifrey. They are responsible for the black hole experiments which saw the harnessing of time travel power. Their relationship with the Doctor goes beyond simple good versus evil rivalry, however. Later stories would show us the Doctor’s role in Gallifrey’s early life.
Colin Baker’s Doctor met a possible future incarnation of himself in the epic ‘Trial of a Timelord’, screened in 1987. This future version, known as the Valeyard, pressured the Doctor over his interference in the affairs of alien civilisations, just as he had been tried once before in 1969′s ‘War Games’. The Valeyard had a sinister motive, however. He wanted the Doctor to forfeit his remaining lives, so he could use them- despite being a possible future incarnation of the Doctor himself! The trial proceeded, with accusations against the Doctor ranging from interference already committed, to genocide he was supposedly to commit in the future. The Doctor was accused of torturing his companion and causing her death, although it was later revealed this evidence was entirely fabricated. The events of the trial may have had a profound affect on the Doctor, for his next incarnation was perhaps his strangest yet, that played by Sylvester McCoy.
During Sylvester McCoy’s tenure as the Doctor, the producers of the show decided to increase the mystery surrounding the character’s origins. A story arc was created for his companion, charting her progress as the victim of an ancestral curse, through her delinquency as a youth in suburban London to her chance relocation to a waitressing role on a remote space station, and the Doctor’s efforts to grow her up by making her confront her past. The Doctor, meanwhile, encountered Omega once again, or more specifically, his ‘hand’- the device used to manipulate stars to enable time travel. The story which features the Hand of Omega, ‘Remembrance of the Daleks’, includes the most important information to occur in the whole televised history of Doctor Who.
‘Remembrance of the Daleks’, besides being the best Doctor Who story of the late 1980s, includes important story information. The Doctor brought the Hand of Omega with him from Gallifrey when he left with Susan prior to the events of ‘An Unearthly Child’. He buried the Hand in a cemetary, and in ‘Remembrance of the Daleks’, he exhumes it, because two warring factions of Daleks have arrived in London, 1963, to take the Hand. Sylvester McCoy’s Doctor is an expert at playing a double game, as the conclusion of this story reveals. Rather than hide the Hand from the Daleks, he leaves it for them to take. The Hand has been programmed with secret instructions. When the Imperial Dalek faction, led by Davros, the creator of the Daleks, finds the Hand, they instruct it to return to Skaro, their home planet. It does this, and destroys Skaro, to the Daleks horror. It then returns to the Imperial Dalek ship and destroys it, and finally returns to Gallifrey. This closes a story arc from 1963 through to 1988, and explains what the Doctor was really doing in London in 1963 with Susan. It doesn’t explain who Susan really is. One of the many events in 1988′s ‘Remembrance of the Daleks’ which establish the fact it has picked up directly from the 1963 serial ‘An Unearthly Child’ is a moment when Sylvester McCoy’s companion Ace, played by Sophie Aldred, visits a school and picks up a book on French Revolutionary history, a book which Susan had placed there in ‘An Unearthly Child’, presumably the day before Ace visits the school. Why the Doctor took the Hand of Omega from Gallifrey to Earth remains a mystery.
In the 1996 movie, starring Paul McGann, the Doctor tells a policeman that he is half human. This is significant new information which has divided Doctor Who fans ever since. This revelation, along with the events of a series of novels published after the show’s cancellation in 1989, have prompted ongoing debate over what events are ‘canon’- in other words, which versions of the story are acceptable to be sequenced into the mainstream idea of what Doctor Who is.
The New Adventures novels overdeveloped Ace’s character. She was seen to have two contrasting story exits. In one story, ‘The Curse of Fenric’, published as the novelisation of a TV series in the Target range of novelisations, it was explained that she married the ancestor of a character she had fallen in love with during the course of the story, and settled down to live in France during the Belle Epoche. Another story, part of the New Adventures range, explained she had parted ways with the Doctor to become a hardened Dalek fighter. Ultimately it would be explained that both these things happened to her at different times, when the character met herself across the time continuum in ‘Lungbarrow’. This gives the casual reader and the Doctor Who fan a sense that the series was struggling to honour its own continuity. It also gives a hint of why the mystery has hovered over the character of the Doctor for so long. It is very easy to provide multiple conflicting storylines in a show about time travel, written by dozens of different writers.
The novel ‘Lungbarrow’ serves as a conclusion to the work started by the producers of Doctor Who in the late 1980s. The mystery of the Doctor’s character, which came to the forefront of the show once again in Sylvester McCoy’s stories, is somewhat resolved. Rassilon and Omega, progenitors of Time Lord society, are joined by a third character known as the Other, whose origins remain obscure, but are possibly human. When Rassilon tricked Omega into being purged into the world of anti-matter, the Other threw himself into the planet’s genetic banks as an act of rebellion against the dictator Rassilon. The genetic banks are where all life comes from on Gallifrey. Generations later he would be born again as the Doctor. Finding a TARDIS and deciding to run away from Gallifrey, the Doctor was surprised when the Hand of Omega recognised him and followed him to the TARDIS. The Hand is semi-sentient. It took him to where the Other’s grand-daughter was roaming Gallifrey, abandoned after the Other’s suicidal jump into the genetic banks. The Other’s grand-daughter is Susan. The apparent genetic throwback to the Other which was so strong in the Doctor led to Susan adopting him as her grandfather, and they left Gallifrey to hide the Hand of Omega and to travel in time and space.
It is by no means clear whether this is canon. The new Doctor Who began in 2005 under the stewardship of Russell T Davies, with the incredibly focussed performance of Christopher Ecclestone as the Doctor. Davies is a Doctor Who fan himself, and is familiar with the New Adventures series to which ‘Lungbarrow’ belongs. He has not contradicted the events of the New Adventures series. In fact, he referred to them in the episode ‘Doomsday’, which featured David Tennant as the Doctor. The Doctor mentions the Time War and Arcadia. This is a direct reference to the New Adventures story ‘Deceit’, which saw Ace in her Dalek-fighting days. The David Tennant story ‘Human Nature’ and ‘Family of Blood’ is a rewrite of a New Adventures story, ‘Human Nature’, written for Sylvester McCoys Doctor. So this constitutes something of a contradiction and a tribute at the same time.
Part of the story arc in the new series of Doctor Who is the destruction of Gallifrey in the Time War. The Doctor has stated many times that his home world is destroyed, along with his friends and family. The events which led to Gallifrey’s destruction remain unknown. Gallifrey had certainly not been destroyed in the New Adventures series. The Doctor feels guilty as the only survivor of his race. He believed the Daleks had been destroyed as well, but this has since been proven not to be true. The Master escaped the Time War as well, portrayed in a hyperactive and menacing performance by John Simm in ‘Last of the Timelords’ and the preceding story ‘Sound of Drums’. John Simm’s Master was immediately preceded by Derek Jacobi’s grandfatherly Master, who featured in the David Tennant story ‘Utopia’. In this story, the Master was unaware of his true identity. If the Master remained alive after the Time War, maybe there are other Time Lords we will meet as the story progresses. Perhaps Gallifrey itself will feature, or Rassilon, or Omega, and maybe Davies will acknowledge the continuity of the New Adventures by including the Other in the storyline. Perhaps the story of the novel ‘Lungbarrow’ will not be included in the current series, and an alternative explanation for the Doctor’s origins and his relationship to Susan will be offered. This would not stop ‘Lungbarrow’ from being the most wanted Doctor Who novel ever printed, with copies selling for upwards of $200, due to a combination of its rarity and importance in the storyline.
The possibility remains open for a retrospective series featuring Paul McGann as the Doctor, fighting in the Time Wars. This could mean the Time War unfolds on screen rather than as background information to the new series. Paul McGann’s Doctor fought Eric Roberts creepy and vampiric Master in the 1996 movie, but it is possible he could fight Derek Jacobi’s Master, if a retrospective show was to be made. Derek Jacobi’s Master fits between Eric Roberts and John Simm, and would therefore be contemporary to Paul McGann’s Doctor.
There has been a range of Doctor Who audio stories produced, which provide histories of Davros, the Daleks, and the Cybemen. These stories are sometimes contradictory to events in the televised series, as well as to the New Adventures novels. The Christopher Ecclestone story ‘Dalek’ was a reworking of one of the audio stories, as was the David Tennant story ‘The Age of Steel’. Paul McGann recorded a host of audio stories when the 1996 movie failed to result in the relaunch of the television series. David Tennant also features in a range of new audio stories. It is fair to say that while these stories sometimes contradict the history of the series, or are later contradicted or borrowed from by the televised series, they do not attempt to address the mystery surrounding the identity of the Doctor’s character, so they do not need to be discussed here.
In the same vein, dozens of books in the BBC Books range introduce stories retrospectively to the storyline, introducing new stories to William Hartnell’s time as the original Doctor and every Doctor since. These stories do not try to add elements of mystery to the Doctor’s origins, or to to resolve questions, and do not need to be examined here.