Doctor Who and the Difficulty of Rewriting Your Own History

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<i>Doctor Who</i> and the Difficulty of Rewriting Your Own History

Doctor Who is a series that’s been around for over 50 years, so it makes sense that its internal canon is a little bit on the messy side. It’s nearly impossible for a show in which time travel plays such a significant role to have anything like a truly linear narrative, when pretty much anything can change at any moment and the Doctor has written himself or herself into virtually every important historical occurrence in some way. And Doctor Who itself has certainly never shied away from changing, contradicting or even erasing its own history in the name of telling a story. One of the major taglines during the Matt Smith era of the show was “Time can be rewritten,” after all.

To be fair, that flexibility and willingness to confront and alter its own past has often served the show well. The very idea that the Doctor changed his face via regeneration was a retcon invented to solve a casting problem, when First Doctor William Hartnell could no longer continue in the role. Nothing in this series’ canon is sacred, and that means virtually anything is possible. It’s often exciting, usually confusing and generally pretty fun to watch, even when we aren’t entirely sure what’s going on. (How many times have the Time Lords been killed and resurrected and killed again at this point?)

But sometimes, Doctor Who’s willingness to play fast and loose with things we previously knew to be true just makes its stories unnecessarily complicated without adding anything of value to them. (See also: Clara’s status as the Impossible Girl, Melody Pond growing up to be River Song or the Hybrid mystery.) It certainly feels like that’s the case in the Season 12 finale, an episode which gives the Doctor an entirely new origin story, destroys her race (again!) and creates what feels like an almost limitless number of incarnations of the character that we, as viewers, will likely never meet.

Because the question at the end of all this is: So what?

After promising a game-changing finale that would upend everything we, as viewers, understood about the show, “The Timeless Children” didn’t really live up to that promise. It actually changes very little. By the time the closing credits roll, the entire series’ universe is supposed to be different. The problem is, it’s not. Not really. There are new pieces to the story, sure. But largely those pieces exist in the same places the old ones did. So, it’s hard to tell precisely why this story matters.

Because you can’t have it both ways: Either existing Doctor Who lore is important enough that shaking it up and turning it inside out and fighting strangers on the internet about it matters, or it doesn’t. If we change the rules, those changes need to mean something, and the story that comes out of those has to be worth rewriting the things that have come before. (And you have to respect that there were rules that existed in the first place.) It’s not clear that this episode does that, regardless of whether we’re talking about the Master’s characterization, the Doctor’s past, or the apparent erasure of Rassilon from existence. If nothing is truly different in the aftermath of stories that supposedly change everything, then what’s the point of telling them? Sure, “The Timeless Children” dropped the bombshell that the Doctor is functionally immortal, but we all sort of knew that already, since she was given a new set of regenerations back when she was Eleven. The reason behind this newfound twist is sort of a strange blend of uncomfortably messy and legitimately intriguing—that the Doctor isn’t actually a Time Lord at all, but a lost being from another dimension with the power to regenerate—but it’s also the sort of story this show has never proven particularly interested in exploring.

Conceptually, the idea of a Doctor existing prior to William Hartnell’s changes our idea of the character in a fairly significant way, but it’s also something that’s been hinted at before. (See also: Fourth Doctor adventure “The Brain of Morbius,” which indicated hidden versions of the character were possible.) On some level, it makes sense that Doctor Who might want to poke at that a bit now—via her apparent involvement in the secret agency known as Division—but it’s unlikely that the show will delve too deeply into how the confirmation of more previous Doctors impacts the character emotionally. (The show can sometimes barely bother to acknowledge the history of the regenerations we already do know in any significant way.)

But, thanks to the Doctor’s heretofore unknown dozens of previous lives, it’s confirmed that Jodie Whittaker is no longer the first female incarnation of the character. We know that the Doctor was, in fact, once a black woman, and also a ginger, and probably any physical version of the character we can imagine at one point or other. Don’t get me wrong, I realize what a big deal it is to have a Doctor who looks like Ruth, but part of me can’t help but be disappointed that this landmark change came attached to a version of the character we’ll at best see in a limited capacity moving forward.

We should also question whether retroactively adding diversity into a show that’s always been glaringly white and male is a worthwhile endeavor, as it lets the show off the hook for 50 years of not casting a woman or person of color in its lead role by basically pretending it did, it’s just that audiences weren’t aware of it since it predates their time with the show. (Make Fourteen a black woman, folks, and then we can talk.)

Furthermore, Doctor Who, by its very nature, is a propulsive sort of series that constantly moves forward, even as it looks back. On paper, the idea that the Doctor had potentially hundreds of previously unknown lives is interesting, but in actuality, it doesn’t drive a ton of story. The best days of the Doctor are never behind her—they’re ahead, in the adventures we’re watching now and will watch in future. Sure, it may be interesting to ponder these “lost” lives she once had, but Doctor Who is unlikely to do more than show us glimpses of them. It can’t. Even the Ruth Doctor, whose story we’ve seen a sliver of, is only useful insomuch as her story informs Thirteen’s, no matter how interesting she might be in her own right.

After all, are viewers really that interested in the people the Doctor used to be, particularly these versions we’ve never met who have, at best, limited narrative utility? “The Timeless Child” itself tells us that this new knowledge does nothing to change the person the Doctor is now. No matter how many versions of her have existed, the bedrock of her character remains the same. Never cruel or cowardly. No pears. That kind of thing. There’s just more of her now. The Doctor is the Doctor, whether there are 13 or 300 incarnations of her. Which has to make us wonder what purpose this twist serves in the first place. Can this truly change her story? Or is it just one more example of unnecessary change for change’s sake?


Lacy Baugher is a digital producer by day, but a television enthusiast pretty much all the time. Her writing has been featured in Collider, IGN, Screenrant, The Baltimore Sun and others. Literally always looking for someone to yell about Doctor Who and/or CW superhero properties with, you can find her on Twitter @LacyMB.

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