Truth never changes,
And Beauty's her dress,
And Good never changes,
Which those two express.
The TARDIS has been destroyed. The Doctor is stuck on one particular planet. Next season will be composed of a single, long "arc" about that planet. The one after that will involve the Doctor hitching a ride on a series of spaceships to try to find their way home.
Nothing will ever be the same again...
The Doctor has died and not regenerated. They gave their life nobly to save their friends, the earth and the universe. They leave the TARDIS and give Graham the keys, saying "I've got no further use for these." Next season, Graham, Yaz and Ryan will, in their bumbling way, try to look after the universe with technology they don't understand.
Nothing will ever be the same again...
The Doctor has finally gone over to the Dark Side. The much trailed "Dark Doctor" has arrived. Jodie Whittaker was the Valeyard all along! They spend the next season coming up with malevolent plans just like the Master. No, worse, they try to irresponsibly use their great powers to change time and space for the better. Their former companions and foes have to come together to stop them.
Nothing will ever be the same again!
The Doctor commits suicide in order to destroy a new alien race — regenerating Cyber Time Lords, for the sake of argument. They are totally dead: their story is over. But the series is not over, because it turns out that there were many, many Doctors before the one we have always thought of as the First. No one actor will replace Jodie Whittaker as the Doctor; but the next few seasons will be set in different times and different places with different actors in the role of the Doctor.
Nothing will ever be the same again!
It is highly unlikely that in any of the above scenarios nothing would really ever be the same again. What one writer can write another writer can undo. The TARDIS can be fixed; the Doctor can recover from their death. But each situation would genuinely change Doctor Who for at least several seasons.
Almost the whole point of popular culture is that it doesn't change. Spider-Man, Paddington Bear and Kellogs Cornflakes are fixed points in an increasingly confusing world. That is why people complain that the BBC axed the Test Card or that the label on the HP Sauce bottle is different from the one they remember. Everything else keeps changing, so why can't my bacon sandwiches stay the same? Actual grown ups are actually saying that one of the actual benefits from Britain seceding from the European Union is that the cover of replacement passports will be blue instead of red.
In 2007 it was widely reported that Captain America was definitely and completely dead: and indeed there were several years' worth of stories in which the Falcon and Bucky and the anti-communist Cap from the 1950s tried to fill his red, white and blue shoes. But anyone who has ever read a comic knows that when a major character gets knocked down, he can also get up again. Resurrections can happen relatively easily within the framework of the story, and if that fails, comic book universes periodically reboot and revert to the status quo. It is quite fun to pretend that Thor has retired from thundegodding and handed the hammer over to a thundergoddess, but no-one apart from journalists and sad puppies believe this to be a permanent arrangement.
Every decade or so D.C Thompson announces that Dennis the Menace is going to start wearing blue denims, or a hoodie, or whatever the current fashion is, and sure enough, three weeks later, he is back in his iconic, identifiable and eminently trade-markable black and red stripey jumper. The same newspapers are surprised every six to eighteen months that he no longer gets hit by his father even though that hasn't been a running gag in the comic since the 1970s.) Characters change; but they change incrementally. There was no one moment when we looked at Superman and said "Nothing will ever be the same again." But the Superman of 2020 is hardly recognizable as the Superman of 1939.
There have been at least five points in the history of Doctor Who when we could truly have said "Nothing will ever be the same again."
1: The Dalek Invasion of Earth (1964)
The Dalek Invasion of Earth ended with the Doctor's grand-daughter, Susan, leaving the TARDIS to marry David Cameron. Nothing was ever the same again. Doctor Who was no longer an ensemble piece — the William and William and Jacqueline and Carol show. The centre of gravity shifted to William Hartnell. Everyone else was down-graded to one of a potentially infinite series of temporary "companions". Susan's exit also functionally amputated a chunk of the show's central mystery. She was the original unearthly child, and the problem of her relationship with the Doctor would never now be resolved. When we finally learned the secret of the Doctor's origins, and when, even later, they returned home, Susan was not mentioned.
2: The Tenth Planet (1966)
By 1966, we had had three complete change-overs in TARDIS personnel: from Susan and Ian and Barbara to Steven and Vicki and thence to Ben, Polly and Dodo. But you could no more imagine Doctor Who without William Hartnell. than you could imagine the Avengers without Patrick McNee. But the Tenth Planet ended with William Hartnell changing into Patrick Troughton. Nothing was ever the same again. Doctor Who was now bigger than any one actor. Jon Pertwee and Tom Baker could have stints as the current doctor or the new doctor, but no one would ever again be the Doctor.
3: The War Games (1969)
And then, three years later, the Doctor went home. We were told the name of their own people, and learned how they came to be wandering in the fourth dimension in the first place. Nothing was ever the same again. Of course, we knew already that the Doctor was a renegade from a very advanced alien species with the secret of time travel: we just found out that the very advanced aliens were called Time Lords and that the Doctor ran away because they were bored. But "I was a pioneer once, among my own people" has one effect on our imaginations. "Frankly I made such a nuisance of myself that the High Council of the Time Lords banned the things..." feels quite different. If the Time Lords had never been identified you might possibly still have had the Master. But you probably would never have had Morbius or Omega.
The War Games changed Doctor Who in a much more immediate and radical way. The TARDIS was stranded on earth for two and a bit seasons. The series became about the relationship between the eccentric, amnesiac alien scientist and the no-nonsense British brigadier. And the Doctor never quite left 20th century England behind. Some people say that Doctor Who was effectively cancelled in 1969 and replaced with a different show which happened to have the same title. This is an exaggeration, but a good way of visualizing just how radically the show changed.
4: The Deadly Assassin (1976)
Then came the Deadly Assassin. Fans spotted immediately that the Deadly Assassin was a radical change of direction. Fans were angry. Some of them, I recently learned are still angry. Deadly Assassin went back and overwrote the War Games. It reinvented the Time Lords: pretty much the whole of what we now think of as Doctor Who mythology comes from that one story. It did what it did consciously and deliberately. Nothing was ever the same again. Jan Vincent Rudski (who wrote an infamous review of the episode at the time) still thinks that Robert Holmes was ignorant of the show's lore. I find this hard to believe. He rightly saw that a race of omnipotent, god-like aliens with a non-intervention policy were of no dramatic use; but a space Vatican with colleges of Cardinals jockeying for power had numerous narrative possibilities.
5: The Girl in the Fireplace (2005) and Doomsday (2005)
What would have happened if Doctor Who had stayed on air through the 1990s? We know that the final script editor had a multi-season story arc up his sleeve: this would have changed Time Lord mythology a third time, and given the Doctor a much more pivotal position in their people's history. Things like Ghost Light and Greatest Show in the Galaxy pointed to a version of Doctor Who that would have been more atmospheric and surreal; and there were some clumsy attempts to sledgehammer some mystery back into the Doctor's character. But the series was cancelled before this could become any more than a few broad hints.
The Doctor Who which finally reappeared on the TV in 2005 was not interested in any Cartmell Masterplan. The idea of the Time War echoes down the Seasons; but it is functionally a metaphor for the fact that Doctor Who has been off air for a decade. On an episode by episode basis "I am a Time Lord" is not that much different from "I am the Last Time Lord." The really big moment came in the second season, when the Doctor started to openly flirt with Reinette; and in the over-wrought farewell to Rose at the end of the season. I said at the time that I felt as if the classic series had been put to death and replaced with something different; and I do not think I was wrong. Tom Baker and absolutely everyone else who ever watched the old series thinks that the Doctor was an asexual being: Rusell T. Davies started to put them into love stories. Doctor Who became a rom-com about a series of human women and their doomed relationship with an unattainable deity. Old Who was about the situations the Doctor and their companions found themselves in; New Who was about the relationship between the companions and the Doctor. Nothing was ever the same again.
So. In Spyfall the Master tells the Doctor that everything they think they know is a lie. The BBC trailer for Fugitive of the Judoon emphasizes that we had already had one great big revelation, but an even bigger one is on the way. And Ascension of the Cybermen winds up with the Master repeating "everything you think you know is about to change forever". He is partly talking at the Doctor but he is mostly talking at the Doctor's fans.
This is hype. And it is meta-textual hype. You have to have bought into the history of Doctor Who in a very particular way to care that the history of Gallifrey is about to be changed.
Can any story actually deliver on this much hype? Can a single revelation actually change the entire fifty seven year history of Doctor Who? And would it matter if it did? Is the Doctor Who we are left with more interesting than the one which existed before?
The Doctor can say “I am half human on my mother's side” as often as they want: if nothing interesting follows from it we forget all about it almost immediately. Jan Vincent Rudski can spend forty-four years sulking about Deadly Assassin spoiling the War Games, but scheming archbishops with twelve regenerations are firmly and irrevocably embedded in the narrative because they are interesting. Lore counts for nothing: only story matters.
So what just happened?
The Doctor's back story changed. The Doctor is no longer merely a renegade Time Lord. They are now a special Time Lord, the Time Lord from whom all other Time Lords were cloned. Their story no longer begins when they stole a TARDIS and went on the run: it turns out they have lived many, many lives before that. For some of those lives, they were working for the Celestial Intervention Agency — mercifully renamed “the department” — but records of this have been deleted from the Matrix.
What follows from this? Why, apart from adding some new pages to our I Spy Book of Doctor Who Lore, should we care?
Back when the world was black and white, the primary characteristic of the Doctor was that they were Mysterious. Not surprisingly, after 57 years, a lot of that mystery has been eroded. It isn't just that we've known the name of their people since 1969 and the name of their planet since 1973 and the address of their planet since 1976. It's that over the years, writers stopped treating the Doctor's past as if it were mysterious. Romana took the mickey out of the Doctor because they had had to do retakes of their Time-lording exams. Borusa treated them as a rather naughty undergraduate; and Drax called them by their college nickname. By the time Peter Davison relinquished their stick of celery, learning about the Doctor's past escapades on Gallifrey was no different from learning about what Jim Kirk did at Star Fleet Academy. Moffat and Davies both gave us flashbacks to the Doctor's childhood: but to their credit they presented those scenes as if they were slightly transgressive; letting audiences in on secrets that they weren't really supposed to know.
Like Andrew Cartmell, Chris Chibnall has shoe-horned some "mystery" into the Doctor's backstory. We can no longer say "The Doctor comes from Gallifrey in the Constellation of Kasterburus". We have to say "No-one knows where the Doctor comes from." We know all about their fifteen lives since running away from Gallifrey; but we know nothing about the many, many lives they had before that. And neither do they. We definitely don't know anything about the even more mysterious period when they were working for the CIA.
I think that it was a mistake to write it into the series that William Hartnell was literally the first Doctor. I think it would have been better to have left that vague. I think that that is probably what Philip Hinchcliff and Robert Holmes had in mind when they frivolously dropped pre-Hartnell faces into the Mind Wrestling scene in Brain of Morbius.
I was eleven when that scene was first shown. I didn't think "Omigod everything I thought I knew has changed." I thought "Oh, other Doctor's before the first one; I never knew that." William Hartnell already seemed a fantastically long, mythological time in the past: a time before Andrew was born. A time deleted by the BBC.
But it has, in fact, been stated frequently that the First Doctor was the first Doctor; that the Doctor has lived thirteen, or depending on how you count it, fifteen lives. And on a day-to-day, Doctor-Who-watching basis, this shouldn't matter. Doctor Who is still about a madwoman with a magic box who defeats evil aliens whether they have had three past lives or fifty three. Chibnall has written a huge amount of new back-story to correct an aesthetic niggle that didn't make very much difference in the first place.
Either we will find out what the Doctor did when they were working for the CIA, or we won't. If we do, then either they were doing good things which benefited the universe or they were not.. If they were then they were already the Doctor we know and love. If they did bad things on the Time Lords behalf then they have a new skeleton in their cupboard (which is presumably bigger on the inside than the outside). But they must, a very long time ago, have had a change of heart. They may not always have been the Doctor but they are quite definitely the Doctor now.
Either we will find out where the Timeless Children originated, or we will not. If we do not, then the Doctor is still the Doctor, but with a slightly more nebulous point of origin. If we do, then they will turn out to have come from a race even ancienter and powerfuller and mysteriouser than the Time Lords. The Even Timier Lords. And that doesn't make a great deal of difference. The Doctor is still an ancient, powerful, august, godlike being who presents as a human boffin with a liking for jelly babies. Or as it may be, custard creams.
The Doctor has had previous lives: but their memories of those lives has been erased, and at some point a couple of thousand years ago, they were turned into a child. It isn't quite clear how "All your memories were wiped and you were turned into a baby" and "You were killed" are two different propositions. I seem to recall that Krishna tells Prince Arjun that it is okay that friends and kinsfolk are about to slaughter each other in a catastrophic war, because everyone who dies will be reincarnated. Arjun objects that this doesn't mitigate the horror, because he will not know or recognize his brothers when he meets them in future lives. This seems to be a good point.
We have largely accepted that when the Doctor dies, they really die: the consciousness of that individual is extinguished. Doctor David and Doctor Matt certainly appeared to experience their regenerations as if it was the end of their lives. But the memories and experiences of the dying Doctor are carried over into their new form. Doctor Peter will never experience being Doctor Jodie — they are dead. But Doctor Jodie has the memories of Doctor Peter. If the memories of the Minus Onth and Minus Second Doctors have been wiped out, in what sense can Doctor Jodie be said to have been them?
The Timeless Children has changed Doctor Who in one solid way: there are potentially many hundreds of different Doctors bouncing around the universe, having adventures in many hundreds of different TARDISes. Writers can write multiple Doctor stories to their hearts content: they are not limited to cameos by ageing 70s actors and unconvincing William Hartnell lookylikies. You could have a new Doctor without a regeneration scene: "This season happens to be about that time thirty thousand years ago when the Doctor had regenerated as a frog." Chibnall has opened up the possibilities for more stories, and more kinds of story.
The Minus Exth Doctor we have actually been shown — Jo Martin — seems to be almost indistinguishable from every other post reboot Doctor. They have the same eccentricity, the same moral compass, the same terrible dress sense, the same stolen TARDIS and indeed the same broken chameleon circuit. We have not discovered that Doctor is more multiple than we thought but that they is more singular. There are lots of Doctors running round the universe but they all have a police box, a screwdriver and a habit of carrying on conversations with themselves.
It doesn't really make any difference if the Doctor is black, white or oriental; it doesn't make any difference if the Doctor is masculine, feminine or neuter: they are still the Doctor. I don't know if that is reassuringly egalitarian or horribly racist. Gender and race are not really part of who your; they are just superficial add-ons to your true self. I suppose that is implicit in the whole idea of regeneration; if you can switch your whole body and still be the same person than bodies can't have much to do with who you are.
"How many children had Lady Macbeth" is a proverbially unanswerable question. The only answers are "It doesn't matter"; "Shakespeare was inconsistent"; or "She didn't have any. She didn't really exist." This hasn't stopped a certain kind of scholar building great critical theories on the fact that Lady Macbeth must have had kids ("I have given suck") who died ("He has no children!). Or that she has children by a previous marriage. Or that she at one time worked as a wet nurse. Most critics think this is not a very fruitful way of approaching a text.
Some Doctor Who fans — and by "some Doctor Who fans" I obviously mean Ian Levine — seem not to be able to imagine any question apart from the "how-many-children-had-lady-macbeth" kind. The only pleasure they get out of Doctor Who is treating it as if it were literally true — an accurate portrayal of incidents in the life of a real person — and building up complex histories and biographies using the TV show as data. Even more oddly, they insist on treating all thousand and something episodes as if they made up a single text. Even worse, they try to treat each component of that text — each 60 year old episode — as if it were a fly-on-the-wall recording of actual events. If Susan Foreman said something in the Sensorites or the Edge of Destruction then she really said it. It can be reinterpreted but it can never be unsaid.
"How will these new ideas affect the future of Doctor Who?" is a perfectly sensible question to ask about the Timeless Children, just as it was a sensible question to ask about the Deadly Assassin or the War Games. Will next season's stories, set in a universe where there are potentially an infinite number of Doctor's be more or less interesting than they would have been if they had still been set in universe where there is only one? But the deal-breaker, for Mr Levine and others, is the affect which the Timeless Children supposedly has on past stories. Doctor Jo's TARDIS already looks like a TARDIS — a London Police Box from the 1950s. But in the Cave of Skulls — the second ever episode of Doctor Who, December 1964 — William Hartnell is surprised and alarmed that the TARDIS has jammed in the Police Box form. So the TARDIS can't have been that shape before; so the Timeless Children makes the text incoherent. If you accept Chibnall's story as part of the text, then Unearthly Children is no longer literally fly-on-the-wall camcorder "true". If you accept the historical truth of Unearthly Child, then you reject the Timeless Children. You either acknowledge that Doctor Who is not a single coherent text; or you fulminate against Chibnall as a betrayer of the canon.
It's a very odd way of consuming TV.
It is definitely true that in 1963, a comic book was published in which a dislikeable nerd called Peter Parker was bitten by a radioactive spider. And it is certainly true that the character currently appearing in the Amazing Spider-Man comic book was bitten by a radioactive spider years ago when he was a dislikeable nerd. But we do not insist on him having worn 1950s fashion and spoken 1950s slang and thinking of the Beatles as a new and innovative band. Nor do we claim that the present Spider-Man is 74 years old. Amazing Fantasy #15 is the source-text from which our consensus memory of Spider-Man was created. It is not the memory itself.
"I am a Time Lord from Gallifrey in the Constellation of Kasterburus. I can regenerate thirteen times. I stole a TARDIS and ran away." That is what exists in the collective memory of fandom: that is the lore. "Susan Foreman made up the name TARDIS from the acronym" is a curious piece of writing in an ancient text. It may be where "the lore" came from; it is not "the lore" itself.. [*]
We are happy enough to treat what happens on the screen as a mere picture or representation of "what really happened". We never say "The anthropology of the Doctor Who universe must be radically different from ours, because cave men spoke in posh British accents and conformed to BBC standards of modesty." We never say "The Doctor's trial changed the physical nature of the universe: up to that point, time and space had been monochrome, but afterwards, the cosmos was in colour" or "Why were their no toilets in the doctor who universe until 2005")[**] or "Why did the first generation of Daleks have cardboard cut-outs of themselves in their base."
We accept that this kind of thing is an artefact of story telling: that Doctor Who was more primitive in those days. We might talk about the old school special effects and prissy BBC social attitudes as artistic blemishes; we might on the other hand quite enjoy the retro feel; but we don't ask why spaceships in the 30th century will dangle on pieces of wire. So why are the scripts so immutable?
In the second century of the Christian era, a writer named Marcion declared that Christianity was basically a massive ret-con of the Old Testament, and that everything everyone thought they knew was wrong. The Old Testament was a lie, the God who Jesus was son of was a different God from the one the Jews believed in, and nearly all the Christian scriptures were false. He declared that Matthew, Mark and John were #notmygospels and that only a handful of Paul's letters counted. This seems to have been the main reason that Christians came up with a "canon" of authoritative texts: if Marcion was making lists of books which weren't authentic, they needed a list of texts which were.
"Canon" is not unimportant, whether you are talking about the Bible or Doctor Who. If you are telling a story which follows on from another story then you have to know what story it follows on from. When Walt Disney acquired Star Wars it made perfect sense to say "from the point of view of The Force Awakens, none of the comic-books, video games, cartoons or novels about the Star Wars characters really happened: only the main movies." But it is that "from the point of view of" which makes the difference. The so-called "Extended Universe" novels still exist, and are still in print, and you can read them if you want to. Some fans somehow thought that their reading experiences were invalidated by the new movies: even that the time they had spent reading had been wasted. But that is not the only way of thinking about this stuff. I am sure that readers of TV comic in the 1960s understood perfectly well that the adventures of "Doctor Who" and their two grand children "John and Gillian" were not canon, in the sense that John and Gillian could never appear or be referred to on TV. But they still enjoyed them. Hell, at the age of 6 I understood perfectly well that Sooty and Sweep had legs in the comic but not in the TV show.
Some fans have responded to An Untimely Children by saying that discussions of Doctor Who canon are rendered pointless: that the history of the Doctor is now so vast and so multiple that anything and everything is now "canonical". I do not understand how this works. I am rather fond of Peter Cushing and Their Amazing Technicolour Daleks. I don't see how my pleasure has become more legitimate because I can say "Maybe they were one of the ten thousand avatars of the Timeless Children." I don't foresee a moment in the next season when the Thirteenth Doctor says "Gee, I now remember that time when I was an Eagle-reading human living on earth with two grandchildren who mysteriously had the same name as my legitimate Gallifreyan kid and her history teacher." I don't see how the Timeless Children permits the Doctor to say "And then, of course, I had exactly the same adventure at the same public school, twice, once when I was Sylvester McCoy and once when I was David Tennant." I don't even see how An Untimely Child allows me to pretend that,say, the Big Finish and the New Adventures versions of Paul McGann are both true.
And I couldn't possibly see why it matters. Fan fiction writers can, and probably already are, creating stories about Previous Doctors, probably including dirty bits. But fan fiction writers have always done all kinds of crazy shit, with or without permission. That is what they are for.
So. This time next year, if the human race survives, the Doctor will have some thrilling adventures. They will land on alien planets and thwart alien invasions. There will be Daleks, and there will be at least one other alien life form which fans have heard of but casual viewers don't remember. The Doctor will pick up three new companions of mixed heritage, and in the final episode Jodie will have some flashbacks and regenerate into a black guy. That is the format: that is how Doctor Who has always been. Nothing will change.
At some point, this year or next year, they will encounter a past version of themselves that we hadn't seen before. This will be on one level quite fun, because new casting revelations and new Doctors are always exciting, and at another level, quite boring, because "new Doctor" will become a lazy cliche to fall back on when inspiration fails.
By season 14, "there are many thousands of Doctors in the universe and even the Doctor doesn't know who they are" will be an a true thing that has always been a part of Doctor Who lore; or else "it was once implied that there were many other versions of the Doctor" will be an esoteric fact that only fans remember.
Since Doctor Who rebooted, we have been concerned that it is over-reliant on Regeneration: both as a plot device and as a way of generating public interest. No sooner is one Doctor cast than the speculation begins about who The Next One will be. And each time, we go through the same questions: could the next Doctor be black; could they be a woman; could they be an all American tough guy who thinks with their fists? The answer to all of those questions is "yes, they could be, but it wouldn't really be very interesting if they were" A better question would be "Could the next Doctor be really old, like Gandalf? Could they be a small, brilliant seven-year old? Is there any reason they couldn't regenerate as a Zygon or an Artificial Intelligence?"
I grant that the Big Reveal at the end of Name of the Doctor — that there was an twelfth Doctor who had never been mentioned on TV — was pretty dramatic. But that's the sort of stunt you can only pull once in a lifetime. The result of Timeless Children may be that "And introducing — Wendy Craig as the Doctor" will become one more over used cliffhanger. If there are an infinite number of Doctor's in the universe than famous actors who would never commit to a three year stint will be queuing up to have a go.
That is certainly a little bit different. But it is not very much more interesting.
[*]Time Lords are very old, and someone must have coined the name "TARDIS" and there is no logical reason why it can't have been a member of the Doctor's family. But "Susan suggested the name to Rassilon during the Dark Times" does not redeem the literal text of Unearthly Child. In Unearthly Child, the TARDIS is the Doctor's machine and their smart kid thought up a funny name. Darth Vader is the murderer of Luke Skywalker's father. Jean Grey committed suicide on the moon; Bucky Barnes died in World War II.
[**] There was a sign pointing to a public lavatory as early as 1969
I'm Andrew. I like God, Doctor Who, Star Wars, Wagner, folk-music and Spider-Man, not necessarily in that order. I have no political opinions of any kind.
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