Doctor Who: Arguing About Canon

Thanks to some big moves by Chris Chibnall as the showrunner of Doctor Who (spoilers for the current series, but not for the final episode), there has been a lot of talk in various public forums about “canon”–what is considered canon, what is not canon, whether canon exists at all, and does it matter.

Doctor Who Fugitive of the Judoon j

We’re not talking about what books belong in the Bible.  We’re talking about what gets considered “official” continuity for Doctor Who, and what does not.  It sounds like the sort of things you shouldn’t get all that passionate about, but it’s evident that people do.

As I said, Chris Chibnall has done some pretty big things in the current series of Doctor Who.  He’s introduced a previously unknown incarnation of the Doctor, and he’s hinted that the Timelords and their world and their origins are shrouded in secrets that will shake the Doctor’s beliefs about herself to the core.

As a result, some people are crying Foul! over any adjustments to the way of things as established over 50+ years of storytelling.  And even more than these sorts of posts, I have seen the response, which rebuts this idea with varying levels of intensity–from claims that you can’t expect the show to live up to that sort of burden, to comments that there is no clear canon because the show has contradicted itself so many times that nobody knows what happened and what didn’t,  to assertions that the whole concept of “canon” with Doctor Who is meaningless.  Some even seem to imply that to have any expectation that anything we see will hold to any level of consistency with anything the show has presented in the past is to be pathetically short-sighted and ignorant.  One comment even implied that a new showrunner means in essence a new show, and with that new show comes a complete absence of expectation that the show will maintain any continuity with the show we used to watch.

Doctor Who Spyfall part two c

But surely, this is overstating the matter, right?  I mean I certainly tune into the program expecting or at least hoping that I will see a few recognizable elements that I enjoy.  And surely, all of us fans have things that would be a bridge too far for us, in terms of accepting the show as still being Doctor Who. 

For example, what if the season finale, due to air in just a day or two, revealed that the Ruth-Doctor was the real Doctor, and that all of the other Doctors we’ve watched on TV (from Hartnell through to McCoy to McGann to Hurt to Eccleston to Whittaker) were part of a semi-sentient Time-Lordy dream that she’d been having, where she dreamt she was on the whole a nicer person with lots of friends and a handy magic wand-like sonic screwdriver.  This is something being done by the Time Lords to keep the more aggressive and destructive Ruth-Doctor under control.  However, when Ruth-Doctor finally decided to escape, she inadvertently set her other self free, along with her friends and her version of earth. She also accidentally brought out the Master, who returned to Gallifrey and discovered that his whole life was a big strange fiction, leading him to destroy them all and to angrily tell the Doctor that everything she knows is a lie.

Pretty cool, right?

Or actually…not?

Doctor Who Fugitive of the Judoon i

I mean surely, there’s nobody on the planet who’d want I wrote to be the actual resolution of The Timeless Children, right?  Even most people who might argue that canon is irrelevant would think, I am guessing, that this storyline changes too much, and should not venture out of some fan fiction that someone was a little too proud of.  And that’s because, amongst other things, it undermines that premise of the program too radically.  So on level, even if we don’t say “Canon”, there are things that most of us agree that if they were changed, the series would no longer really be Doctor Who.  Basically, I’m guessing that we all have some concepts that we consider “canon” for the series, though some of us have a much lighter view of what the word means than others.

The real problem here is not specifically that the ideas violate canon specifically, but that they cause huge problems for the show moving forward.  Can we really imagine this as the Doctor’s new status quo?  “I’m not a Time Lord from Gallifrey but rather a sentient dream given life in a temporal accident.   I don’t know if I’ll regenerate or not but till then I’m going to do my level best to do good things….”  It would remind me of stuff I read in a comics, where a big “reveal” or “twist” would be done to quickly generate interest or sales, but without consideration to the long-term narrative strength of the series.

And that’s what I’m really worried about in terms of the season finale of the current series…that whatever we get won’t just violate canon, but that it will be stupid.  There’s always a solution for canon, if you’re willing to work for it.  And Chris Chibnall is a fan of the show and I’m sure is aware of the canon-problems with whatever is coming in future episodes.  He will either address them, or the fans will.  But…will the new information he presents be kind of dumb?  Will it strike at core concepts of the program too deeply to still accept?  Will it make it hard for the show to go forward, ultimately forcing himself or another writer down the track to undo it all, in what is probably another example of this same thing?

Doctor Who Fugitive of the Judoon h

We are waiting to see, and in the meantime people are talking and writing about this.  It’s led me to think of three questions which I find helpful in evaluating a big reveal or plot twist.  And I find it helpful to ask these questions in the reverse order of importance

3. Does the event violate established continuity?

2. Is the change actually important to the series going forward?

1. Is it stupid?

With any event or revelation that the show gives us, we could look through these questions, and if we get a “no” answer, then we can kind of leave the event alone, though it may be necessary to consider some continuity patches.  If the answer is “Yes” to all three, then some sort of response is needed.

Consider these examples

Example One:  The Doctor destroyed Gallifrey in the Time War and is the last remaining Time Lord

Doctor Who - The War Doctor

3. Does this violate established continuity?

No.  Even though it was a huge change of status quo for the series, it was an entirely “new” event, not changing anything that had previously taken place in the series.  Thus, at this point, we can leave it.

Example Two:  The moon is an egg

Kill the Moon

3. Does this violate established continuity?

Kind of–more implied continuity than explicit continuity.  The Doctor never said, “Here we are, on the moon, which is not an egg.”  But it’s the sort of thing you’d think someone would have noticed or commented on before.

2. Is it important for the series moving forward?

No, it’s not.  With enough work, one can work out explanations for everything that happens in Kill the Moon, and the episode itself leaves the moon status quo the exact same that it was before the episode.

So at this point, we can drop this one.

Example Three:  The Doctor has two hearts

Doctor Who the Third Doctor

3. Does this violate established continuity?

Kind of.  It was implied once or twice in the early days of the series that the Doctor had what an uniformed human being would consider to be a “normal” heartbeat.

2. Is it important for the series moving forward?

Yes, in a way.  It will certainly get mentioned lots of times, and becomes an established part of Time Lord anatomy.

1. Is it stupid?

No, it’s kind of cool.

That means we can mostly just leave it–the change is a good thing, a positive step for the show.  It’s not hard to ignore the previous contradictions to this idea, as they are few and not particularly explicit.  One of them involves Ian checking if the Doctor is okay after an injury, but Ian is not a medical expert so has no reason to understand the pulse he is feeling.

Example Four:  The Daleks were mutated from a race called the Kaleds

Doctor Who - Daleks

3. Does this violate established continuity?

Yes.  When the Daleks first appeared in the 1960’s, they were said to be mutated from a race called the Dals, and their origins sound different than what was later developed in Genesis of the Daleks.

2. Is it important for the series moving forward?

Yes.  The Daleks are certainly important for the show, so a general understanding their backstory will always be important.  When you add in the introduction of Davros and his continuing influence on both the Daleks and the series, this is extremely important.

1. Is it stupid?

No, it works great.  And the earlier explanation for the Daleks is easy to explain away as it came from the ancient records of the Thals, the Daleks’ enemy.  It’s easy to imagine that their records were corrupted or confused.

Example Five:  The Doctor has a previously unheard of “hidden” incarnation who fought in the Time War

Doctor Who - The Day of the Doctor

3. Does this violate established continuity?

Yes, in that there have been a number of times where the show has presented to us with an overview of the Doctor’s faces, and Matt Smith’s Doctor definitely identified his face as the eleventh in The Lodger.

2. Is it important for the series moving forward?

Definitely, especially as far as the immediate future was concerned.

1. Is it stupid?

No, it’s awesome, thanks to a great performance by John Hurt and a solid story in The Day of the Doctor.  This highlights how important the execution of an idea is to making it acceptable.  If had been botched or done badly, I’d probably be a lot more motivated to explain this one away.

And thankfully, the show attempts to give an an explanation for the contradictory elements, by making this incarnation one who didn’t call himself the Doctor and whom the Doctor by and large has attempted to suppress and ignore.

Example Six:  The Doctor is half human

Doctor Who Paul McGann

3. Does this violate established continuity?

Yes.  There are plenty of times where the Doctor has specifically identified himself as not human.

2. Is it important for the series moving forward?

Yes, or at least no doubt it would have been if the show had continued immediately on from the 1996 TV movie where this was revealed.

1. Is it stupid?

Yes.  One is immediately concerned that we’re going to get stories about the Doctor wrestling with the two sides of his identity (like Mr. Spock, for example) or that there will be endless focus on finding his human mother.  Maybe, if Philip Segal had continued to produced the series, he would have done a great job with it and that would change my mind.  But he didn’t, so it hasn’t.

So now we have a situation where all our questions are answered “yes”, confirming that we have a problem.  The solution, it turns out, is to completely ignore this idea, and never mention it again (at least not on TV).  Interestingly, the show has also never explicitly contradicted this idea, so if you want to believe the Doctor is half-human, you can still do so.  By not bringing it up at all, it’s easy to avoid the irritation associated with it.

Doctor Who - Ascension of the Cybermen b

So…what will happen next?  The Timeless Children airs in less than a day.  We don’t know what the shocking revelations will be.  But…

Will it violate established continuity?

Almost certainly.  Indeed, the whole promotion of the twist–both internally within the story and externally within the marketing–seems to be built on this idea.

Will it be important for the series moving forward?

Again, almost certainly.  It seems to involve the history of the Time Lords and certainly impacts their future, as well as the relationship between the Doctor and the Master, and maybe the existence of another unknown Doctor.  It’s going to “matter”, that’s for sure.

Will it be stupid?

I really hope not, but I do feel a bit worried.  There’s a feeling that one gets that the focus here is not telling a story, but providing a shock twist, which is usually bad for a story.

But I thought the destruction of Gallifrey was going to be stupid, but it great when Russell T. Davies did it.  I’d have thought the introduction of a new regeneration into the character’s history would have been ridiculous, but it was great when Steven Moffat did it. So certainly I’m wiling to give Chris Chibnall the benefit of the doubt.

Doctor Who - The Timeless Children

Here we go!

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