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This is part nine 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, 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.
Theory 5: The Room With No Doors
As I previously mentioned, in 1986’s The Trial of a Timelord, the Doctor comes face-to-face with what may be an evil future incarnation of himself. The next time we see the Doctor after his trial’s conclusion, he regenerates as a result of getting bumped on the noggin during a rough landing.
There is a line of thought that suggests that these events are related.
Specifically, it’s never really sat right with folks that the sixth Doctor meets his end from whacking his head on the console. I mean, after “facing down the qlippothic horror of Mondas”, “Execution”, “Irradiated by Metebelis crystals”, “Fell off a satellite dish” and “Spectrox Toxemia”, something just feels wrong about blowing a regeneration over something that normally just prompts my son to shout, “Boo-boo, daddy! Ice! Ice! Spido-Man, daddy! (He’s got this Spider-Man shaped ice pack he likes to play with on the pretext that he needs ice for his boo-boo)” I’m not saying lethal head-bumps aren’t a thing, but from a dramatic perspective, it’s ill-conceived.
So, says the line of thought to which I previously alluded, perhaps something else was at work. Back when Virgin Books was licensed to produce Doctor Who in novel form, they were working to this thing I’ve mentioned before, the “Cartmel Masterplan”, which wasn’t really much of a plan and which Cartmel wasn’t especially into (It’s suspicious, for example, that Cartmel wrote several books for the Virgin line, but they were all fairly straightforward cyberpunk pieces that had balls to do with the Masterplan named for him). And one of their big Myth-Arc type dealies is that the seventh Doctor was all Mysterious and Manipulative And Dark And Brooding, because it was the 1990s, and — little known fact — it was actually illegal 146 countries for a hero to not be all Mysterious and Manipulative and Dark and Brooding. It’s only because they were British and not American that the Doctor got out of having to wear shoulder pads.
So, some submit, maybe this dark and brooding and manipulative Doctor had a dark and brooding and manipulative plan. The New Adventures line is chock full of the Doctor pulling little stunts that involve crossing his own timeline to set up petards to hoist his foes with. Some have gone as far, on the evidence of several of the books, to suggest that the sixth Doctor, with his fits of occasional psychopathy (he tries to literally murder Peri with his bare hands in The Twin Dilemma. Which isn’t even the shittiest part of the episode) and cowardice (Vengeance on Varos), and blase attitude toward genocide (Terror of the Vervoids), or his cold-hearted “pragmatism” (The Sirens of Time), was or at least seemed to be a vital link on the path that would lead to the Valeyard incarnation, and that the manipulative seventh Doctor somehow forced his predecessor’s regeneration at the earliest opportunity in order to break the chain and keep himself “pure” (others went on to suggest that, ironically, it was the seventh Doctor’s ruthless manipulation of his own timestream, and not the sixth’s excesses that created the threat of the Valeyard).
What can we make of this? Suppose for a moment, unpleasant though the idea may be, that one of the big, profound gamechangers from the Virgin New Adventures actually counts, and the Doctor manipulated his own timestream by forcing his regeneration sooner than it should have happened.
There is antecedent. When the BBC took back the license from Virgin and started publishing their own line of eighth Doctor books, the series was initially a mess. It started to have something resembling a sensible shape thanks largely to a kinda weird sort of guy named Lawrence Miles, who, to my mind, was too clever for his own good. He started orienting the arc of the Eighth Doctor Adventures toward this idea that Time Lords of the future (relative to the Doctor) were going to be wiped out in a war with a mysterious enemy called, inventively, “The Enemy”, and that there was something to do with a time-traveling voodoo cult called “Faction Paradox”, and time was gonna be rewritten and the Doctor was gonna die and his body would be the ultimate weapon (Hey, where have I heard that before?), and he was also gonna turn into Grandfather Paradox, or maybe he wasn’t, or maybe he both was and wasn’t, and maybe the Doctor was actually a time traveling crystal skull with amnesia, and things were gonna happen and unhappen, and… Well look, it’s sort of intriguing to read about and all weird and fascinating as an abstract concept, but it’s also confusing and hard to follow and lots of it is crap when you get right down to it. It’s really really complicated. Probably too complicated for its own good most of the time, and if any of this makes even a little sense to you, I’m probably explaining it badly, because it very actively and deliberately defies any attempt to cut it down into a nice and simple and straightforward linear story that would make sense to someone who only remembers things that actually happened and did so in the past, as opposed to remembering things which didn’t happen in the future or something.
Anyway, this whole dealie really gets going in the two-part novel Interference. The premise of Interference — part of it, anyway, is that the eighth Doctor gets abducted and tortured for no particular reason, and while trying to escape by using math, psionics, or magic (or all three), he accidentally contacts his own past and as a result, the third Doctor’s TARDIS gets knocked off course, and he ends up having an eighth Doctor adventure instead of having a nice 1970s-style third Doctor adventure. And since eighth Doctor adventures are all about failure and pain and body counts, and the third Doctor’s style is more about Judo and fisticuffs and pontificating paternalistically at people about how they should just See Here My Good Man and do what the clever old white man says because he knows what’s what with freedom and liberation and peace and being properly British, while Sarah Jane makes half-hearted token stabs at feminism, it all goes a bit tits-up. So while the third Doctor manages to save the day, he also gets shot and regenerates ahead of schedule, and this mucks with his timeline in a complex sort of way such that he still sticks pretty close to televised history at first, but will eventually fall prey to the evil machinations of the afforementioned time traveling voodoo cult.
Let’s run with it. The Doctor’s past has been changed. A regeneration was moved. What happened instead? I’m going to break the pattern here and include two distinct versions of this theory in one article:
1. The Doctor and his companion Mel have recently survived the Doctor’s trial and the attempted coup by an evil future incarnation of the Doctor. The TARDIS is snared by a tractor beam and forced down on the planet Lakertya by the unscrupulous Time Lord scienist who calls herself The Rani. The Doctor and Mel are knocked unconscious but soon recover. With his signature bombast, the Doctor eventually puts a stop to her machinations, but not without a considerable body count. Together, the Doctor and Mel go on adventures in Paradise Towers, rescuing Delta from the Bannermen on 1950s Earth, and defeating Kane on Iceworld, where Mel elects to stay behind.
I think it’s here, on Iceworld, that the sixth Doctor meets his end. Maybe he inexplicably falls off a cliff, who can say. I could be wrong; it could happen later, crushed by tons of crystalized sugar on Terra Alpha, or struck down by the Gods of Ragnarok at the Psychic Circus. But I think Iceworld fits the best. He regenerates, and his new form is darker and colder than any he’s taken before. The failures of his last life weigh heavily on him, and he becomes more proactive. He uses the Hand of Omega to obliterate the Daleks without mercy, uses the Nemesis to wipe out the last of the Cybermen, and shows his old enemy, the Master, no mercy on the planet of the Cheetah People.
At some point, he crosses the line. There are lots of possibilities for what the act might be, but I rather like the idea that in World War II Brittan, when the old god Fenric slips his chains and threatens to bring down chaos upon the world, this Doctor sacrifices the life of his companion Ace. Where a different Doctor might have manipulated her, to try to trick her into losing faith in him at a crucial moment, this Doctor’s betrayal of her was complete and irrevocable.
He had gone too far, and he knew it. He couldn’t live with what he’d done — he had lost the right to even call himself “Doctor”. So he compounded his sin by breaking the first law of time. He reached back into his own past and forced his predecessor to regenerate a few weeks earlier. Everything changed. Oh, the new seventh incarnation was still a master manipulator, but there was also something of the clown about him. He was smaller, less intimidating. He allowed the Cybermen and the Daleks to destroy themselves, rather than taking the initiative. He was able to befriend and win the trust of the Kangs in Paradise Towers. He tried to save his old rival, even as the planet of the cheetah people started to turn them both into beasts. And, though his methods were sometimes cruel, he helped Ace to become a better, stronger person, one who could overcome the Curse of Fenric, maybe even make a kind of peace with her estranged mother…
Or maybe not.
2. The Doctor ran toward Rose Tyler, blinded by his joy at seeing her again. He did not see the Dalek until it was too late. He tried to duck out of its path. A green-white burst of energy caught him across the arm. His skeleton flashed visible for a fraction of a second under the force of the blow. His friends shepherded him into his TARDIS. Captain Jack wishes him luck as Donna Noble demands to know what’s going on. The Doctor’s hand starts to glow with golden energy. Rose begs him to hold on, but he can’t. “I’m sorry,” he says. “It’s too late. I’m regenerating.”
And then he does. The new Doctor manages to save the world somehow or other, but Rose can’t bring herself to accept this new, older, colder version of her beloved Doctor. I suspect Donna soon leaves him as well. I don’t know the circumstances. Maybe she decides she’s seen enough after Mars Base Bowie.
Whatever happens, I think it’s likely that he’s alone again when the Master uses the Whitepoint Star to create a bridge into the Time War. And here’s where it all goes wrong.
There are three ways this could go, and I’m not really sure which one I favor most. The road still leads to roughly the same place. Gallifrey is beginning to materialize in the skies over Earth. Rassilon, the Time Lord’s King Arthur, arisen from his Avalon in the Death Zone to lead Gallifrey in its hour of greatest need, is preparing the Final Sanction: the annihilation of all physical existence. The Doctor stands between Lord President Rassilon and the Master, holding a World War II revolver.
Perhaps he shoots Rassilon. Perhaps he shoots the Master. It’s hard to imagine himself surviving either scenario: if he shoots Rassilon, he’s still got to deal with the Master, and his newly acquired energy-bolt-throwing abilities. But he’s beaten the Master lots of times I guess. If he shoots the Master, Rassilon will undoubtedly kill him in retaliation for severing the link, but I suppose he could still find a way out.
But maybe it’s easier to assume that he does what his predecessor would have done, and shoots the Whitepoint star. The link is severed, and before Rassilon can kill the Doctor in revenge, the Master saves his old rival in a last act of defiance by using his own powers on the Time Lord President who’d turned him into an abomination. In any case, the link is severed, and the Time Lords are cast back into the hell of the Time War.
But there’s a nuclear bolt that’s still overloaded. And Wilfred Mott is sealed behind Vinvocci glass, a lethal dose of radiation about to spill into the chamber. The system is too damaged to operate remotely; Wilf’s only chance is for someone to step into the matching chamber and manually release the radiation there, trading their life for his.
Wilf is a good man. He served his country, outlived a wife, lived to see his beloved granddaughter happily engaged. When he realizes the price of his survival, he concedes. He gives the Doctor permission to walk away.
Another Doctor wouldn’t have. But despite his wizened visage, this Doctor is so very young — he’s existed barely a year. It’s too soon. It’s too much to ask. This Doctor lets an old man die so that he can live.
But he can’t, ultimately. He can’t live with the decision. Which is why, before long, he finds himself on Christmas Day in 2006. Somewhere in the shadow of the hovering Sycorax mothership, he watches something small drop to Earth. A severed hand. He retrieves it. He preserves it. He arranges for it to fall into the hands of Captain Jack Harkness in Cardiff. Two years later, Jack would carry it with him when he grabs on to a blue police box that’s parked itself along the spaciotemporal rift that intersects Torchwood’s Cardiff headquarters. It would remain in the Doctor’s TARDIS for another year — two years, if we count the erased year of the Master’s rulership of Earth — until the Doctor’s friends help him back inside, critically injured from a glancing blow from a Dalek weapon. Captain Jack wishes him luck as Donna Noble demands to know what’s going on. The Doctor’s hand starts to glow with golden energy. Rose begs him to hold on, but he can’t. “I’m sorry,” he says. “It’s too late. I’m regenerating.”
Do you think this could really be a thing? Moffat has said that we can honor the past but still reinterpret its meaning. So it’s not outside the bounds of plausibility. On the other hand, though, while Moffat likes Timey-Wimey plots, he’s always been more into predestination paradoxes and causality reversals than discreet shifting timelines; this kind of “There was originally a history X, then we went back and replaced it with a new history Y” isn’t really in keeping with his style of timey-wimey. Then there’s also the matter of the various dropped hints. There’s not really anything here to tie in with the whole “Terrible secret he’s been running from all his lives” thing. Killing Ace has a decent shot of fitting the criteria of “Without choice, in the name of peace and sanity,” and also fits with the parallel of murdering the Star Whale in terms of what the Doctor would have to do to lose his name. Scenario 2, though, is trickier. If the key act is letting Wilf die, then “Without choice in the name of peace and sanity” doesn’t really work, while if it’s killing Rassilon and/or the Master, it’s a bit harder to claim that this would turn Doctor to Warlock, no matter how much Doctor/Master/Rassilon slash you’ve read. No, if there’s an element of truth in this theory, I’m going to say that it’s only as a distant cousin.