Recently, I was rewatching Remembrance of the Daleks, a well regarded story from the 25th season of the classic Doctor Who series. In addition to being a well-directed story with good performances and interesting characters, it attempted to do something that current showrunner Chris Chibnall has been touted as attempting decades later…adding a little mystery into the Doctor’s backstory. On the whole, I think this was done fairly successfully–certainly far more so then in more recent attempts.
Still, the things that Remembrance brings up were definitely retcons (“retroactive continuity”, a term popularized by adjustments to established continuity in comics in the 1980’s). In discussing this with my daughters, I suggested a thought I had for dealing with these inconsistencies (a “fan theory”, if you will). One of them then pointed out how the idea could also issues from the most recent series of Doctor Who as well.
Before I get into this, I’ll outline the relevant points from the show’s history:
• In An Unearthly Child and its follow-on episodes, way back when Doctor Who debuted in 1963, the First Doctor is traveling with his granddaughter Susan, living in London of 1963. He doesn’t have detailed control of his time machine, the TARDIS, which resembles a London police box.
• Susan’s two school teachers, Ian Chesterton and Barbara Wright, discover that she seems to live in the TARDIS in a scrap yard. When the teachers break into the TARDIS and discover its unusual qualities, the Doctor essentially kidnaps them by locking the doors and taking them away on a journey.
• After leaving the London of 1963, they travel to pre-historic period of earth, and Susan remarks that something has gone wrong with the TARDIS’ chameleon circuit, as it gotten stuck in the shape of a police box (whereas it had previously taken other shapes).
• In the show’s second serial, from 1963-1964, the Doctor meets the xenophobic, murderous Daleks, for the very first time, on their home planet of Skaro. He has apparently never heard of them before.
• By the Doctor’s next incarnation, the Doctor regularly makes use of a tool called the sonic screwdriver. Over the years o the Doctor’s life, he will continue to use, develop and expand the screwdriver’s uses, using regularly and extensively, especially from 9th incarnation onward.
So that can all be considered part of the show’s “original” continuity. Since then, lots of new ideas have been introduced, with a couple being of particular relevance to these thoughts:
Retcon 1: Remembrance of the Daleks
This story from 1988 revealed that the Doctor apparently came to 1963 with a piece of Gallifreyan technology called the Hand of Omega, which was originally used to convert a star into a black hole, thus providing the power necessary for time travel. He hid it there for future use.
It’s not stated why he did this, but others have inferred that the Doctor left Gallifrey because he was taking away the Hand of Omega, either to hide it or to use as a weapon. Certainly, in Remembrance the Seventh Doctor uses it as part of a trap to destroy the Daleks. Was this his plan all along? If so, it contradicts the idea that he had never met the Daleks until he encountered them after leaving earth in 1963. With all the stories that we’ve had about the Daleks since then, including the existential threat they pose to the universe, it’s hard to believe that a person like the Doctor would never have heard of them.
And certainly it seems that the Daleks had become aware of the Doctor’s presence in 1963–they spend all their time lurking around the scrapyard at 76 Totter’s Lane and in Coal Hill School, which is where the Doctor and Susan seem to have spent a lot of their time.
One “easy” theory would be that the Doctor did have the Hand of Omega to hide it or use it as a trap, and became aware of the Daleks intentions to steal it. So he realized that he’d have to leave quickly, and then come back later to spring the trap. He rushed home that one fateful evening with the intention of taking off with Susan, but found her nosy school teachers in the scrapyard waiting for him. Concerned for their lives , he tried to berate them into leaving. When that failed he took them away by force, knowing that they’d likely be killed by the Daleks if he didn’t. Later, when he actually met the Daleks, he simply pretended to not be aware of them, when in reality he was trying to find out everything he could about his enemy.
This is a simple little explanation that more-or-less fits the facts, but I don’t like it because it forces you to presume that the Doctor was lying all the time about his motives and intentions for the first 11 episodes of the series or so, when clearly that’s not what was intended by the script, actors or show.
It also doesn’t help us with a later, an all together larger retcon that the show presented to us:
Retcon 2: Fugitive of the Judoon
This story from the most recent season of Doctor Who had the Doctor meeting another Doctor, whom she didn’t recognize at all but accepted was somehow from her own past. Her reasons for accepting this were spurious at best but the idea was presented to the audience as being a fairly undisputed fact. This Doctor, here called the Ruth-Doctor (after the human name she adopted), comes with the following clues as to where in the Doctor’s past she fits in:
• She has a TARDIS that is seems stuck in the form of a Police Box, which has a fairly “old school” interior
• She doesn’t recognize the sonic screwdriver
• She is trying to get away from the Time Lords and to avoid going on missions for them
• A later episode revealed that the Doctor had a whole slew of lives prior to the so-called First Doctor, some of whom went on missions for the Time Lords/
Since the show purposely didn’t reveal where in the Doctor’s timeline she is from, the internet has been awash with theories trying to make sense of it. The most common is that the Ruth Doctor is either one of the many pre-First Doctor incarnations of the Doctor, or that she fits in between the Second and Third Doctor (a transition we never saw the entirety of). Both of these ideas come with problems. If she’s from before the First Doctor, why does her TARDIS look like a police box? If she’s from after the Second Doctor, why doesn’t she recognize a sonic screwdriver? Proponents of either theory have developed plenty of ideas to explain these things, which have various levels of outlandishness attached to them.
I am now here to add to all of this.
Now, to be clear, nothing I am writing here should be taken to imply that I like the idea of the Ruth Doctor. I think the idea of trying to surprise us by introducing a previously unknown incarnation of the Doctor was a mistake. This trick was pulled once, quite successfully, by Steven Moffat just 7 years ago. It was novel then; but now it threatens to be derivative, cheap and lazy. The only reason the verdict is still out is because the full story hasn’t been revealed yet, but I have a hard time having hope for it.
But if a theory like mine were to come to pass, at least it’d make sense within the context of the show.
(I’m also taking everything about the Timeless Child into account. That’s the Shocking Revelation that the show offered at the end of the last season that unbeknownst to even the Doctor, he/she is not native-born Gallifreyan but rather a being of unknown origin whom the early Gallifreyans used to give themselves the power to regenerate. I like this idea even less than the Ruth-Doctor, but for the moment, the show also treats it like fact, so we’ll accept it as well).
The point of this post…
After his/her body had been used to unlock the secret of regeneration, the being known as the Timeless Child went on missions for the early Time Lords. He did not call himself the Doctor, but he presumably demonstrated the same sort of independent spirit and concern for morality and justice that the Doctor was later known for.
Eventually, the Time Lords felt that it was a bit dangerous to have a basically immortal loose canon like Timeless Child just running around the universe, so they brought him back and subjected to him to a severe biological process which reverted him into a child, erased all of his memories and limited him to only 12 further regenerations. This young child then grew up as a bit of an outcast, attended university, excelled in many ways, and eventually became known as the Doctor. Most of mainstream Time Lord society knew nothing of his hidden background.
Eventually, the Doctor chose to steal a TARDIS and flee from Gallifrey, along with his granddaughter Susan. Different reasons have been given for him doing this over the years–he was bored, he was scared, he was curious, he felt stifled–but it’s not necessary for us to specify this beyond what the program has given us in order to continue with this theory.
The Doctor took the Hand of Omega with him and carried it on his early travels with Susan (though she would have been unaware of its significance). Ultimately, he hid it in the London of 1963.
In all of this, the Doctor would have only been aware of races like the Daleks and the Cybermen, and the threat that they posed. He hadn’t encountered them personally yet and the fear and concern over them was not something that had become public knowledge to all Time Lords (though he probably knew more back before he was known as the Doctor.)
Anyway, a faction of Time Lords decided they needed an agent they could control, someone who could help to push the universe in the direction that they wanted, and so with strength and ruthlessness. Perhaps they knew about the Doctor’s secret history, perhaps they didn’t. Either way, they were convinced that the Doctor was the person they wanted. So they tracked him down to 1963 London, shortly before the events of An Unearthly Child. They intercepted him while Susan was at school, and took him and his TARDIS away. The Doctor resisted, but was overcome. The battle results in the chameleon circuit being broken and the TARDIS being trapped in the form of a police box.
Needing someone “younger” and “more fit” then the Doctor was for their operations, they forcibly regenerated him into the Ruth Doctor, and basically conscripted her into service. (Many times, the Time Lords have been shown to have a lot of control over the whole idea of regenerations).
They forced her down a harsh and dark path in order to fulfill a variety of missions. The details of all this are still to be revealed in forthcoming seasons of the show (presumably) but the Doctor never stopped trying to get away, as we saw in Fugitive of the Judoon.
Whatever the specifics of this time in the Doctor’s life are, eventually the Doctor’s service came to an end, and he and his TARDIS were returned to London in 1963, on the same day that he had left. His memory of this time was erased and he was forced back into his prior form. The chameleon circuit, however, remained broken. Susan was never aware that any of this had happened.
But the effect was traumatic for the Doctor. Though he did not recall any details, he had a sense that somehow, something wrong had taken place–which left him confused, angry and even a bit paranoid. This is why he reacted so badly to finding Ian and Barbara lurking around his ship. This vague awareness of danger is also what motivated his reckless exploration of Skaro shortly afterward–on a subconscious level, he had a sense of the danger about the place.
However, at the same time, he was unconsciously aware that he had lost a part of his personality through his unwanted service–elements of compassion and kindness. Thus, part of his subconscious motivation for kidnapping Barbara and Ian was to relearn this aspect of his “humanity”, for lack of a better word. Over his time with Ian and Barbara, and his later subsequent companions, the Doctor rediscovers these qualities of himself–qualities that lead to his self-focused promise, to never be cruel or cowardly, and to always be kind.
And that’s my thoughts! I’ve had ideas about the much of this for years, in order to explain the First Doctor’s uncharacteristic behavior in the first few Doctor Who stories, as well as the oddness of him never have heard of the Daleks. Tying this all into the Ruth-Doctor was the new idea, which has the benefit of allowing her to have a police box-shaped TARDIS and still not be familiar with the sonic screwdriver. And the Ruth-Doctor’s more aggressive manner is also consistent with some of the early First Doctor characterization.
In the end of the day, though, it is just a fan theory, and has no more authority then anyone else’s wild ideas. My theory is not an entirely smooth explanation, but I think any explanation to the Ruth-Doctor is going to have some problems. So until things get revealed, it’s sort of a case of choose your own clunkiness. Hopefully, when it all comes to pass, the official story makes at least as much sense, and is at least as enjoyable.