(This article has been modified so that its text will not appear on index pages)
This is part five in a series of articles speculating on the content of the upcoming Doctor Who fiftieth anniversary special “The Day of the Doctor”. Part one can be read here, part two here, part three here, and part four yonder. Some elements of this post may be considered spoilers for the preceding 50 years of Doctor Who, and will reference noncanonical statements presented in trailers and interviews.
In the previous four parts, I laid down some groundwork, based on my decades of obsessing over Doctor Who minutia, to outline the various angles and aspects to the Big Question surrounding what’s going to go down in the Doctor Who fiftieth anniversary special. Now, I’m going to turn my hand to sketching out some specific scenarios. Some of them, I’ve found for periods to be shockingly compelling, even as I slowly processed just how unlikely they are. Without further ado, then, let’s look at some mad fantasies of a mad man with a blog…
Theory One: The Son of Doctor Who
A recurring theme I suspect you’ll be seeing in at least two of these theories is a revisitation of the secret forgotten-and-denied past of Doctor Who, which is fitting, because we’re speculating about an episode that is at least in part guaranteed to be a revisitation of the secret forgotten-and-denied past of Dr. Who.
I couldn’t come up with a scenario that linked The Warlock to The Masters of Luxor, or indeed any scenario that made The Masters of Luxor sound less boring, so I’m going to go a bit later. The concept of Time Lord regeneration was, you might guess, not part of the original conception of the show. It was something clever that they came up with in order to keep the show working once it became clear that Billy Hartnell’s health was declining fairly rapidly (Hartnell himself maintained that he could have kept acting, but was forced out by the production team), a little cheat to help both the Doctor and the show escape death.
What it was not, though, was the only idea they floated. There was a competing idea, one, I gather, which William Hartnell personally preferred. There’s not much information around about it — it gets a cursory mention in all the books about that period in the show’s history, but I can only assume that the idea was abandoned before anyone wrote down any detailed plans, since I’ve never seen anything but a bare-bones high concept, referenced obliquely in interviews. They decided to go in a different direction, I assume, because there’s actually nothing in this plan that accomplishes the thing which regeneration was meant to accomplish: getting rid of William “Six-Take” Hartnell before he blew the budget with his complete inability to remember his lines(In all seriousness, much love to William Hartnell, a fine actor, and by many accounts, a human being of some sort. I mean, I kinda gather he was an unabashed racist, but at least he had the professionalism to keep it off the set. The point is, dude was suffering from a serious degenerative disease, and they were shooting something like seven hundred episodes a year back then, and their budget only allotted them 31 minutes of film to record a 29-minute episode during their 34-minute studio time slot, and he just could not keep it up.).
The alternate, lost history was this: Son of Doctor Who. I can already feel you cringing. The high concept of Son of Doctor Who was that it would be revealed that The Doctor had, as might be implied by the existence of Susan, a son. In a challenging double-role, the son would also be played by William Hartnell(Presumably, you can see why this was a non-starter. If your goal is to alter your show to reduce the amount of William Hartnell by 100%, then doubling your Hartnell is probably not the way to do it), probably made up to look younger (Hartnell was no spring chicken, but at the time he was playing The Doctor, he wasn’t as old as he looked: that white hair was a wig. If not for his illness, it’s easy to imagine that it would only take a little bit of make-up to let him pass for either a 50-something or an 80-something).
This hypothetical Doctor’s son would be introduced as the new recurring villain, with the show revamped as a chase through time and space as The Doctor and his crew pursued Jr. Who’s own TARDIS of Evil across the years, striving to set right what had once been wrong, and hoping each time that his next leap would be the… No, wait, that’s a different show. Anyway, it’s a terrible idea. It’s a stupid idea. And it wouldn’t have made the show immortal the way that regeneration did.
Those of us who are sympathetic to the Doctor Who fan-academic community have filched a phrase from the fan-academic community that surrounds a particular writer who, through what is surely only a coincidence if you don’t believe in magical synchronicity across time and space and symbolism(that is, a coincidence), happened to die the selfsame day that a pair of schoolteachers went to go spy on one of their students, got kidnapped by an old man in a box, and fell out of the world.
We call it “The Problem of Susan”
Susan Foreman is the Doctor’s first companion and also his granddaughter. The problem is this: the role of the companion has changed a lot over the years. It’s often claimed that the purpose of the companion is to be the audience-identification character, the equivalent of the precocious kid (Or occasionally, monkey) who tags along with the international anti-terrorism super-squad in an ’80s cartoon, from the long line of characters everyone always hated but who inexplicably had an inordinate number of episodes revolve around them. The tradition of Chim-Chim, of Scrappy Doo, of Penny, of Wileykit and Wileykat, of Spike Witwicky and of Slimer.
This is obvious bullshit, of course. No kid ran around their front yard imagining themselves to be Scrappy Doo, Spike, Slimer, or Adric. We were Scooby Doo, Optimus Prime, Peter Venkman and Doctor Freaking Who running around out there.
No, the role of the companion in the classic series was, for most of its run, more or less to be peril monkeys and occasionally say “What is it Doctor?” This is why the “smart” companions tended not to last very long: even though they were for the most part fantastic characters (except Adric), they didn’t fulfill the key narrative purpose for having them around.
But none of this is really where the role of the companion started out. Back in 1963 when the show began, The Doctor was a somewhat crochety old man who didn’t like to get involved and was not really made for a lot of running. Seriously. A Doctor Who not based around running. So throughout the 1960s, the basic Doctor Who setup was one youngish, handsomeish man to do the running and punching, and one young, attractive girl to get captured and scream at things. Steven and Vicki; Steven and Dodo; Ben and Polly; Jamie and Victoria; Jamie and Zoey. But right there at the very beginning, things hadn’t quite shook out yet, and one of the major roles of the companions, right at the beginning, was to force the Doctor to engage in the plot. That first ensemble, Ian, Barbara and Susan, they had a different dynamic. They’d show up somewhere, and one of them would immediately get lost or kidnapped or poisoned, and they’d spend the next four to eight weeks trying and failing to get all four of them in the same place as the TARDIS without any of them ending up dead, with the Doctor basically grousing the whole time about how they shouldn’t get involved.
And the first prong of the Problem of Susan is that this makes perfect sense.
What little we have learned about the circumstances under which the Doctor left Gallifrey have at times hinted that she may have had something to do with it. All that much-loved backstory about the Doctor being bored with the uninvolved lives of the Time Lords and their political machinations is something that came later. If you go back to the beginning, the real and true and proper beginning, the thing which would be RUINED FOREVER ZOMG!!!11ELEVENTY!! were we ever to even suggest that someday we might hint at telling the story of how the Doctor came to leave his home? That came later. Here’s what The Doctor says in the very first episode, way back in 1963:
Have you ever thought what it’s like to be wanderers in the fourth dimension? Have you? To be exiles? Susan and I are cut off from our own planet, without friends or protection. But one day we shall get back. Yes, one day. One day.
Let’s be absolutely clear here: these are the words of a man who had to leave and who wants to go back. However he may have come to feel about it later (And The End of Time opens up the possibility that some of what the Doctor has told us about his past may be less the truth, and more comforting lies), the Doctor’s original decision to to become a “wanderer in the fourth dimension” was not made freely. We might even say that it was done without choice.
Early drafts of the characters are more specific: Susan (or Jewel or Zezane or whatever she was called at that stage) was a princess on their homeworld (or home-time. At one point, they’re explicitly from Earth in the 47th century), and The Doctor had absconded with her to protect her from some nebulously specified enemies.
So the Doctor has been on the run all this time to protect Susan. Indeed, what sets us off on our first televised adventure is that a couple of nosy schoolteachers have found out that Susan is Not What She Seems, and so he decides to leg it and doesn’t mean to leave witnesses. In that light, of course the Doctor isn’t going to want to get involved in dangerous and exciting Evil-Overlord-Overthrowing: he doesn’t want to put Susan in danger. And he doesn’t want to call attention to himself. Indeed, as the show rolls on, we see an increasing tension between The Doctor and Susan as he tries to force her to play it safe when she feels she can make an active contribution in The Sensorites and The Dalek Invasion of Earth.
But this means that Susan doesn’t really work in that original companion role of “Person who drags The Doctor kicking and screaming into the plot this week.” Or rather, it does work, but only by making her a peril monkey: she’s pretty much got to step out of the TARDIS and break her ankle every few episodes to get the plot going (According to a recent interview, Carol Ann Ford was not happy that they chose to take her character in this direction).
And so she had to go. And this is the other prong of The Problem of Susan. Not too long ago, a regular in some forum or other that I frequent decided it would be a good idea to try to get into Doctor Who by watching from the beginning. Said person got ten serials in (modulo the missing ones), watched The Dalek Invasion of Earth, and said “Wait, so he just ditches his own granddaughter on a post-apocalyptic Earth without her consent, and basically orders her to marry a man she’s just met? This character is a sociopath with no redeeming traits and I am done with this show.”
Because that’s what happens. The Doctor decides unilaterally that it’s better for his granddaughter to spend the rest of her life with David Campbell in the ruins of a Dalek-invaded Earth, so he kicks her out of the ship, wishes her well, makes a vague promise (he never keeps) to come back for her someday, and buggers off.
The original Problem of Susan, the one that’s a criticism of The Chronicles of Narnia, boils down, in my mind, to the fact that CS Lewis, weighed down with a whole lot of cultural baggage from pre-Vatican II Catholicism (Described by one of the Jesuits who taught me theology as “When the Church stood up and decided to boldly march into the eighteenth century”) and pre-World War II British Imperialism, instead of rising above the privilege and sexism of his background, doubled down on it and kicked possibly the most awesome Pevensie out of heaven because she liked to wear make-up and nylons.
The Doctor’s Problem of Susan isn’t entirely unrelated: Susan starts to experience her own sexual awakening (It’s not like David Campbell came out of nowhere; they’d had a pleasant snog in the bushes earlier in the serial) and gets kicked off the show. In the form of her father-figure ordering her to marry the first man she’s shown an interest in. [And let’s not forget, Susan is very likely an ageless god (There’s lots of fan-speculation to the contrary, though rarely for Susan’s benefit; it’s mostly part and parcel of “No, even though she calls him ‘Grandfather’, it’s clear even from the beginning that she’s just a friend and not biologically related because The Doctor would never do something icky like father children.”): David Campbell will grow old and die, and Susan Campbell will regenerate. And still be stuck on post-apocalyptic Earth. John Peel’s novel Legacy of the Daleks, which is frankly a slog, at least is willing to address this, showing Susan and David’s relationship growing strained decades later as people start to grow uncomfortable with the fact that the now-mature David is apparently married to a teenager (Though given that the Earth’s population has been reduced by seven eighths, you’d think people would be a bit more flexible).]
But even more than that, The Doctor gives a stodgy little melodramatic speech and he leaves, and I can count the number of times The Doctor mentions his granddaughter again on one hand. For me, this is the beginning of the sin for which the classic series had to die. It comes to a head in 1982’s Logopolis, when Nyssa witnesses the off-screen destruction of her entire civilization at the hands of the man who has already killed her stepmother and her father, and the only reaction we ever see her have to any of this is dull surprise. My aforementioned acquaintance isn’t far off: this show is sociopathic. And not in the cute Steven Moffat sense where it’s a quirk that basically means “Sometimes I can make my characters do something profoundly inhuman without the DM penalizing me for going against my alignment.”
Now, you’re probably wondering where I’m going with all this. For that matter, I‘m kinda wondering too, since I went way off topic there for a bit. Well, after the jump, I’m going to start with the theory proper, and we’ll see if it all ties back together somehow…
A long time ago on the planet Gallifrey, there was a doctor. Gallifrey was a boring sort of place, but this doctor was content enough; he was a man of science and learning, and he was a family man, with a beloved son and a beloved granddaughter.
And then a bad thing happened.
What sort of bad thing? Best left a mystery. But the salient point is that whatever happened had a profound effect on the son of this doctor, it left him a changed man. What had been good inside him had now been twisted, hopelessly corrupted to evil. Through unrestrained use of the gravest and most secret powers of the Time Lords, he threatened all creation. He threatened his own daughter.
And so this doctor, this healer, this scholar, knew that something must be done, and he must be the one to do it. And so, without choice, in the name of peace and of sanity, he put an end to his son’s evil ways. He did something exceptional. Perhaps he enacted the same plan the Master would try against him centuries later, using the Eye of Harmony to steal his son’s lives (Doctor Who). Perhaps, like the Master would do to Tremas, he stole his son’s body (The Keeper of Traken). Perhaps in an extreme form of how the Doctor would inadvertently turn The Elders away from their exploitative lifestyle (The Savages), or cause the problem of Xoannon (The Face of Evil), he forcibly imprinted his own sense of self onto his child. Or perhaps he simply murdered him. One thing is clear: only one man walked away from that encounter, and it was a broken man. And so he banished that aspect of himself. Perhaps he regenerated. Or perhaps whatever he had done to put an end to the evil had in some other way changed his appearance. He had broken his oath as a doctor, had become a Warlock. He was no longer a doctor, but had instead become The Doctor.
He had at once to leave the planet. He may not have feared for his own safety, but enemies on all fronts would almost certainly try to exact revenge against his grandchild. So he stole away to a TARDIS repair bay. He nearly took the first ship he came across — a cackling, sinister-looking fellow had just dropped it off, but he passed young woman who directed him toward an older model with a faulty navigation system. Though reluctant, he stepped inside and was struck by the strange beauty, deciding at once to use the ship to make good his and Susan’s escape…
Do I think this is likely? Not especially. I find it a rather charming story largely in that it brings into play that ancient discarded “Son of Doctor Who” business. It has some niceties: it fits with some elements of the earliest seasons, such as the Doctor’s unwillingness to do any actual adventuring, and the intimation that he’d been driven out from his home, hoping someday to return, vindicated. The mechanism of the son’s demise might provide an answer to the nature of The Warlock’s separation from the rest of The Doctor’s life, if during those events The Doctor absorbed additional incarnations and became a kind of chimera (or, contrarywise, perhaps The Doctor was the son, and absorbed his own father, making the old man’s timeline a part of his own). But it tells us far more than most of us would like to know about the circumstances of the Doctor’s departure, and it’s more than a little overblown. All the same, this was the first idea I came up with, not long after watching The Name of the Doctor.
But there are other possibilities…