“My name, my real name, that is not the point. The name I chose is ‘The Doctor’. The name you choose, it’s like, it’s like a promise you make. He’s the one who broke the promise. He is my secret.”
Spoilers, obviously. The last scene of the most recent episode of Doctor Who, “The Name of the Doctor”, was a powerful and (if you’d managed to watch it unspoiled) shocking cliff-hanger. A game-changer, if you’re a fan.
I’m a Doctor Who fan. I have been since he looked a bit like this
and I’m still a fan now he looks a bit like this.
There are accepted rules when you form a relationship with any story or with any character. I’ll try not to go all Donald Rumsfeld, but there are known knowns and known unknowns in every story. There are always blanks to be filled in and sometimes an author will shake things up by revealing hitherto unimagined details of a character’s past or by flatly contradicting that which was previously established. Unknown unknowns, if you like.
With Doctor Who, we have learned much about the show’s mysterious title character over the past half-century. Mythology accretes over time. We know that the Doctor is a centuries-old alien time-traveller, a renegade exile and the now last survivor of the Time Lords of Gallifrey. We know that he stole his bigger-on-the-inside time machine, the TARDIS, and escaped with his granddaughter, Susan, fifty years ago in our time, lifetimes ago in his.
We know that when the Doctor’s people are dying, they undergo a process of regeneration which causes their bodies and personalities to renew and change. A Time Lord can regenerate twelve times and has thirteen lives and we know that the Doctor, as portrayed now by the magnificent Matt Smith, is currently on his Eleventh life. Two more regenerations, two more lives.
A curious side-effect of being a time-traveller is that the Doctor sometimes meets his other selves and doesn’t always get on with himself.
There are known unknowns with the Doctor too, things we almost certainly will never know. We don’t know his real name, as advertised over the door, although lately he has told us, as quoted above, that he considers his real name unimportant because he chose the name “Doctor” as a sort of mission statement. We don’t know anything about his life before we met him. We know he has, or had, a granddaughter but we know nothing about the rest of his family. In fact, not long (in our time) after the First Doctor abandoned Susan, the Second Doctor implied that his family is dead.
It would have been nice if the Doctor’s older incarnations had acknowledged Susan, beyond Peter Davison’s wistful look, when they saw her in “The Five Doctors”. We also don’t know what the Doctor’s job was or who he married. We don’t know who his children or other grandchildren were and we don’t know who his parents were. We don’t know why he once claimed his mother was human. Maybe she was, although he later seemed to think the idea ridiculous.
To be honest, though, the store of mysteries surrounding the Doctor has certainly shrunk over fifty years. That’s inevitable. But. It’s not so important. What’s important is that there are fundamental, unchanging certainties to this fantastic show. The lead character, and maybe he won’t always be “he”, will always be a (still) mysterious, brilliant, eccentric traveller through time and space, “a mad man in a box”, who stands for curiosity and kindness and who will always tell a little child that while you might be afraid of monsters, guess Who keeps the monsters awake at night?
So, then. Certainties. Whatever else we know or don’t know about the Doctor, we know that he’s always the good guy and he’s now on his third-last life. When we first met him, he was at the end of his first life and was cranky and misanthropic. Interaction with humanity and time spent with Susan softened him and, as his lives progressed, he became, variously, impish, dashing, mad, gentle, bombastic, clownish, romantic, melancholy, hyper-active and now silly, brilliant and doomed.
There are gaps in our knowledge, of course. The show was cancelled in 1989, with Sylvester McCoy’s whimsical Seventh Doctor walking away, not quite into the sunset. There was an attempted revival when Paul McGann played the Doctor in the 1996 US TV movie and, although there were books and Big Finish audio-stories in the intervening time, we don’t know what happened between the Eighth Doctor’s adventures and the show’s revival under Russell T. Davies in 2005, when Christopher Eccleston assumed the role as the deeply traumatised Ninth Doctor.
Eccleston was superb, portraying a Doctor suddenly alone in the universe, the last Time Lord and, for all he knew, the only survivor of the Last Great Time War. Eccleston was a perfect choice for the role, hiding heartbreak and guilt beneath a flashing smile and a mercurial turn of mood.
So there’s the biggest gap. The Eighth Doctor, all brilliant innocence and kissing Americans, and then the Ninth Doctor, pretending everything is fine but saved only by the love of a stupid ape called Rose Tyler.
In the revived series we have learned that the Time Lords all died in the Last Great Time War, a conflict that was ended by the Doctor himself, making him a traitor in the eyes of his own people. Of course, it could be argued that it was the Doctor himself who fired the first shot in those hostilities…
In Eccleston’s first appearance as the Doctor, he looked at his own reflection as though for the first time, giving us the strong impression that he had only recently regenerated. When David Tennant’s Tenth Doctor met his former companion Sarah Jane Smith, he told her he had regenerated “a half-a-dozen times” since he left her in Aberdeen in 1976. We’ve seen nothing on screen to contradict our assumption that it was McGann’s Eighth Doctor who fought in the Time War and, using something called The Moment, ended the conflict and with it, his own life.
Until “The Name of the Doctor”. The Doctor’s latest companion, Clara, is adrift in the Doctor’s time-stream, a sort of dream state where all of the Doctor’s past selves rush about as half-glimpsed ghosts. While there, she spies a figure who shouldn’t be. An older man, bearded and haggard, standing in shadow.
The Eleventh Doctor claims that this man is another aspect of himself, but not the Doctor. “I said he was me. I never said he was the Doctor.” This claim is undone somewhat by the on-screen legend “Introducing John Hurt as The Doctor” but there seems little doubt that this is a hidden past incarnation.
There appears to be only one place in the Doctor’s past where this forgotten version might fit. We never saw Paul McGann’s Eighth Doctor become Christopher Eccleston’s Ninth Doctor, so presumably the battle-weary character played by Hurt lived between them. We don’t know yet whether it was he who renounced the name “The Doctor” or whether it was his successors who decided to disown him.
“Doctor Who” producer Stephen Moffatt says he added John Hurt as an unseen Doctor because fans like to make lists and he thought it was time to remind us that the Doctor is terribly secretive and that we know next to nothing about him. Which is, I suppose, fair enough. I suspect it also had at least as much to do Christopher Eccleston declining Moffat’s invitation to join David Tennant as a returning Doctor in the 50th Anniversary show. Either way, we have a new twist on a beloved character and at least the promise of a good story.
Seeing as we’re in the land of complete and utter speculation, let’s take a wander around the grounds. We don’t know at what point of his life we meet the Hurt Doctor or what the landmarks of that life are.
Presumably Paul McGann’s Doctor died and was replaced by Hurt’s character, who then fought in the Time War and died saving all of time and space from his own people, gone bad. Then again, the Time Lords resurrected the Master so that he could fight in the Time War. Could they have lifted the Doctor from his time-stream and given him a new life, outside of his regeneration cycle, so he could serve as a Battle Doctor? Was the Time War the whole of his life? Did he have adventures before it? Did he travel with companions? Did he wander the universe mourning his actions afterward or did he die with Gallifrey?
Bearing in mind that the Tenth and Eleventh Doctors are older than the Hurt Doctor, do they remember meeting themselves, or is time, as the Doctor’s friend Will Shakespeare once said, out of joint? More importantly, where in his life is this forgotten Doctor when he meets his older selves? Something to consider: what if Ten and Eleven meet their predecessor before he betrays his Name? What if, for all of their unforgiving of their earlier self, they discover that he is blameless when they encounter him? What if they come to realise that, much as they disapprove, his actions were necessary and they must facilitate him, making themselves as guilty as he was?
“Of course you have to remember that the Doctors are all one person, so I’m not outside of that,” John Hurt told the Observer recently.
Before we leave the land of complete and utter speculation, one more thing. Unless the Hurt Doctor is the work of the Time Lords and an in-story insertion to match the character’s real-world origin, Matt Smith’s Doctor can call himself the Eleventh Doctor. He can call himself the Suffusion of Yellow and a Half-th Doctor if he likes, but he’s still the twelfth incarnation and about to enter his final life this Christmas. I wonder if we’ll see the recently-mentioned Valeyard again?
Peter Capaldi‘s the Next Doctor and I’ll be devastated if he doesn’t quietly credit his new Scottishness to “Something I picked up from a friend”. That said, his upcoming Twelfth Doctor/Thirteenth Doctor will be the Last Doctor and Steven Moffatt will get to tell that story. Don’t tell me the real Man Who Lies is not delighted with that. And then, when the Doctor somehow survives beyond the regeneration limit, maybe we’ll see the first female Doctor.
Is it November yet?
Well. A week to go and a few questions answered. We now know where the newly-named War Doctor fits into the Doctor’s history.
We also know how Ten and Eleven meet. (We both wear a fez now. Fezzes are cool.)
And we have a trailer. Would that be The Moment, by any chance?
Is it 7.50pm, Saturday 23rd of November 2013 yet?