Monday 9 March 2020

On the Origins of the Doctor

There is a ridiculous amount of ire being directed at the most recent episode of Doctor Who for its latest retcon. Some idiots have even complained to the BBC because they didn't like this latest work of fiction. Look, we fans are all invested in this show, and there's no obligation to like any particular element of it, but seriously?

The daftest thing is that's there was never a sacrosanct background for the Doctor. The ideas that fans are holding onto as the core mythology came in gradually, over years and years, and are in flagrant contradiction to many elements that came before, or even at the same time. Dozens of writers have twisted Doctor Who into different shapes and it's absurd to attack this latest revamp as if it's somehow cultural offensive.

Back when Doctor Who started, there was no series bible. The original character outlines suggested the Doctor was from the far future and was fleeing a galactic war, but none of this even made it into the final script for the pilot episode. In this, which you can easily see on The Beginnings DVD box set, the Doctor and Susan are a bit more concrete about their origins than in the broadcast version of An Unearthly Child. Susan specifically says she's from the 49th century, rather than just "another time, another world." There's nothing in either version to say that she and the Doctor are aliens, they could be humans from an advanced future civilisation. Indeed, the Doctor's line, "I tolerate this century but I don't enjoy it" suggests the latter.

Different episodes throughout the Hartnell era give hints that they are alien beings, but others suggest they are merely humans. The Doctor explicitly refers to himself as human more than once. Examinations only suggest one heart in his body, which continues through the Troughton years. On the other hand, the Daleks, in The Dalek Masterplan, when the Doctor is referred to as human, say "that is how he appears to you." In The Evil of the Daleks, they say his travels through time are what have made him "more than human." This is after his first change of appearance - not yet called a regeneration - which the Doctor says is "part of the TARDIS." In the original script for The Destiny of Doctor Who, which would evolve into The Power of the Daleks, the Doctor makes it clear he has changed before, but this doesn't make it to the broadcast version.

It's very clear in the earliest episodes that the Doctor built the TARDIS, and Susan evens states that she came up with the name. It's not until The Time Meddler in 1965 that we meet another member of their people, the Meddling Monk, and while retroactively he's been considered a Time Lord, there's nothing here that suggests he's not another advanced future human. It isn't until The War Games in 1969 that the Doctor gets an official backstory, and we learn that he is a Time Lord. He says the Time Lords are "immortal, barring accidents," but there's no hint that they can all change appearance like he has.

The shift into colour brings the Doctor down to Earth, but in retaliation to this, his background is now much more explicitly alien. The Pertwee Doctor has two hearts and inhuman blood, and displays numerous biological oddities throughout his tenure. We learn a lot more about the Time Lords during his era, meeting the Master, his one-time school chum, now best enemy, and later Omega, the founder of Time Lord society. The Three Doctors brings different Doctors together for the first time, with Hartnell's version called the earliest by the Time Lords, so that seems pretty clear cut. We hear the name Gallifrey for the first time in 1973. In Pertwee's final story, we get the first use of the word regeneration to describe the Doctor's transformations, and learn that it's something all Time Lords can do. We also learn that more accomplished Time Lords like K'anpo can project their own future incarnations for a little help around the house.

Tom baker's era is one of dark and mysterious forces from the dawn of time. Robert Holmes rewrote The Brain of Morbius, which provides a great deal of new Time Lord mythology, such as the war criminal Morbius and the Sisterhood of Karn, who assist the Time Lords when regeneration fails. The Doctor loses his mind battle with Morbius, being pushed "back - back to (his) very beginnings!" The eight faces seen after Pertwee, Troughton and Hartnell are very clearly intended to be earlier versions of the Doctor. This was explicitly the production team's intent, and they should know, they were those faces. However, the scene is ambiguous enough that fans have been able to interpret it other ways over the year.

Not much later, the same writer would give us The Deadly Assassin, a story that reworked the omnipotent Time Lords as stuffy old space dons and the Master as a cadaverous ghoul. Now it's Rassilon who founded Time Lord society; the black hole that powered it in The Three Doctors is called the Eye of Harmony and kept hidden under the Capitol. We get a limit on Time Lord regenerations - twelve regenerations, thus thirteen lives, in order to give the Master a mission. Even here when the limit is introduced, it's clear it can be overcome with enough power. Going by Morbius, it looks like Tom Baker must be the penultimate Doctor, barring a reprieve.

We see other versions of regenerations over the next few years. The Minyans rejuvenate thousands of times, Mawdryn and the mutants suffer endless mutation, both using Time Lord technology. The Master is able to steal an alien body, rejuvenating it in the process, using the power of the Source of Traken, and is offered a new set of regenerations in The Five Doctors. Oddly enough, he's offered this by Borusa, who is searching for the secret of immortality when he seems to already have it at his fingertips. This story has the Hartnell Doctor concretely state he is "the original," even though he's been recast, and when he meets Davison he exclaims, "Ah! So there are five of me now!" Mawdryn Undead also backs this up and states the Doctor has eight more regenerations left from his original twelve. So the Davison Doctor is the fifth.

Come Remembrance of the Daleks in 1988, and the new production team are sowing seeds of a new backstory, with the Doctor hinting that he was around when the first time travel experiments were happening on ancient Gallifrey. Oh, and Rassilon and Omega were contemporaries, so that solves that one. Lady Peinforte is ready to reveal the Doctor's secrets from the old time, but he doesn't seem to care. Over the years, the Docotr has suggested he left his home out of fear, or boredom, or a desire to be part of the universe, not just watch it. Here, though, he's been laying traps for deadly aliens, fighting Fenric and the Gods of Ragnarok "all through time!" and even took the Hand of Omega to London in 1963.

These developments continues in the New Adventures novels, culminating in Lungbarrow, which created an entirely new backstory for the Doctor. In this telling, Time Lords are woven from genetic looms in families of "cousins," a response to a curse of sterility in the ancient times of Gallifrey. Regeneration was created as part of this. The Doctor is, in fact, the reincarnation of the Other, the mysterious third architect alongside Rassilon and Omega, who was among the last of the womb-born. He through himself into the first Loom and was rewoven, centuries later, as the First Doctor. This makes Susan a bit of an anomaly, so it's revealed she's not the Doctor's granddaughter, but the Other's, and the Doctor went back and rescued her from ancient Gallifrey. The suggestion is that the faces seen in Morbius are the faces of the Other, although he explicitly can't regenerate.

The TV Movie comes along in 1996, revealing that the Doctor is half-human on his mother's side, and Lungbarrow gamely lays a few hints to this. The movie also moves the Eye of Harmony into the TARDIS, makes it operable by humans only, and also has the Master exterminated and turned into a body-snatching slug. This is all considerably upsetting to some fans, but the original treatments would have had the Doctor and the Master as half-brothers, sons of the Time Lord explorer Ulysses.

Just because this never makes it to the screen doesn't mean it doesn't factor into the novels. Lance Parkin had already suggested the Doctor was much older than he seemed in the Missing Adventure Cold Fusion, where he meets his million-year-old Gallifreyan wife and shares memories of an earlier incarnation who looks rather like one of the Morbius faces. He follows this up with The Infinity Doctors, a Past Doctor Adventures novel that takes all the lore about Gallifrey and the Time Lords from years of material and tries to weave it together, in spite of the contradictions. The Doctor involved sounds like he might be played by Paul McGann like in the movie, but he might not, and the story is notoriously impossible to place in location with others. Characters from this are mentioned in Blum and Orman's Unnatural History, an Eighth Doctor Adventure that sees the Doctor meet someone who might be his father, while also revealing that the Doctor's biodata - kind of temporal DNA - has been altered dozens of times, rewriting his history. According to this, he's always been half-human, but only since he regenerated into the McGann model. This isn't even the last of it.

The destruction of Gallifrey by the Doctor in a great Time War happens twice, first in the EDAs and then as part of the backstory of the revived TV series. As part of this, some authors work on the idea that Gallifrey was merely blown up, and others than it was erased from history. To resolve the paradox of the latter idea, Justin Richards rewrites reality so that the Doctor is actually a crystalline skeleton man from the end of the universe, who eventually turned into the First Doctor and landed in London, 1963. This does not stick. Parkin follows it up with the final novel in the range, which actually brings Ulysses and Penelope - a human character from the New Adventures - in for a flashback as the Doctor's parents. The Master's dad is in it too. At least, all this is heavily implied.

Doctor Who returns to the screen after a couple of false starts as animated webcasts, one of which brings back the McCoy Doctor, makes him the last of the godlike Time Lords, then kills him off, and another which makes Richard E. Grant the official Ninth Doctor before he's overwritten completely. Russel T. Davies avoids much continuity in the Christopher Eccleston series, although he states he's a Time Lord and we learn all the others were wiped out in a Time War. There's no Eye of Harmony at the heart of the TARDIS, but looking into it can grant superpowers and/or kill you. The next Doctor is played by David Tennant, and the references to classic material creep in. The Master is resurrected, the Doctor regenerates into himself, and a handy spare hand is grown into a new Doctor, who is half-human. The new Doctor doesn't like being half-human at all, so it certainly doesn't seem like his mum was human.

The Next Doctor plays with the idea of Tennant leaving by having a decoy next incarnation - "or next but one, a future Doctor anyway" - and there's no suggestion the Doctor is running low on bodies. He's not keen to regenerate when it comes, although the Master has apparently cracked immortality at last. The Time Lords return from the last day of the Time War, where the Doctor destroyed them to prevent them from unleashing hell and destroying the universe. They're led by Rassilon, who's looking decidedly more active these days.

Moffat takes over and Matt Smith becomes the Doctor. The sixth series sees the Doctor apparently die, but also shows he's clearly got some regenerations left. But the death is a ruse so perhaps the regenerations are too. However, Eccleston's reluctance to return for the 50th anniversary special sees Moffat create an entirely new version of the Doctor, played by the great John Hurt, only he doesn't call himself the Doctor so the numbering is maintained, arguably. We finally see McGann regenerate into a new Doctor, but not the one we were expecting. Time travel shenanigans mean that Gallifrey was never destroyed at all, as "all thirteen" Doctors, including the next one, hide it in a pocket universe from which there may be no return.

The next episode, it returns, speaking through a crack in time and almost triggering another Time War. The Matt Smith Doctor, who even calls himself the Eleventh, reveals he's actually the last, since John Hurt and the double-Tennant both use up a regeneration. The Time Lords give the Doctor a whole new bunch of regenerations. Regeneration number thirteen turns him into Peter Capaldi, and he wonders if he may ever stop regenerating. We've also learned in Moffat's tenure that Time Lords can change gender when they regenerate, something we've only seen in semi-official comedy stories before. Missy is revealed as the new Master. Gallifrey is moved out of its pocket universe to the end of time, the Doctor discovers the secret of immortality in two very different ways, and eventually, he is mortally wounded fighting the Cybermen.

He meets the First Doctor again, recast but still calling himself the original. The First Doctor reveals he actually left Gallfrey to explore the problem of good and evil in the universe. We learn that he refused to regenerate at first, which we certainly never saw in 1966, and he's a lot more sexist than we remember too. The two Doctors regenerate after giving each other a pep talk, and the Doctor finally becomes a woman, which makes a certain type of fan very angry.

Given all of that, getting upset about the Timeless Child seems a bit silly, really.

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