There’s a question that has been lurking at the back of Who fandom since… well really since the New Who season two episode “The Girl in the Fireplace.” I know some would argue that it’s the first and only question of Whovians everywhere, but in reality, asking the question “Doctor Who?” in any seriousness only began when Madame de Pompadour informed us all that it was something worth taking seriously.
It’s a question that has been on showrunner Steven Moffat’s mind, and one he seems intent on answering—whether we like it or not.
We’ve been through a lot of interesting developments with New Who, but there are certain themes that get hit hard every season. The intensity of the Doctor’s relationships with his companions is one, the effect it has on the families and friendships of those companions is another, the way that traveling with the Doctor inevitably changes their lives, and how hard it is for the Doctor to recover when he has to let them go. Those themes encompass the emotional base of the show, and are a large part of why the current audience keeps coming back. We’ve ignored deus after deus ex machina and some awfully convoluted plotting because we care about the Doctor and the people he loves.
The big arcs of the show in the Russell T. Davies era were built around the Time War, the affect that it had on the Doctor psychologically, and the idea of putting the Time Lords and Gallifrey to bed. It was a dark but thrilling direction to take the story in and had fascinating repercussions for the universe of the show. But with the Tenth Doctor’s passing, that arc was packed up and the show moved on.
The arc that we received in its place has revolved primarily around two questions. The minor one as the Eleventh Doctor emerged was “Who is River Song?” Now that that question has been clearly answered, the larger arc, the question that Steven Moffat has been asking since season two, is back with a vengeance. “Doctor Who?”
Here’s what I want to know: Why do we need an answer to this question?
The show has worked very hard to make us believe that it’s an important one. We’re led to infer that some great secret is attached to the Doctor’s true name, that it horrifies him to the point where he cannot admit it to anyone, no one except River (ostensibly because they are married after a fashion and he loves and trusts her). Epic events are attached to its revelation: Silence (Silents, maybe?) will fall when the Question is asked, so we can count on some kind of implosion, a threat to the universe most likely.
But what we already know about the Doctor from earlier canon makes it unlikely that this revelation will be even marginally satisfying. To begin with, naming conventions for the Doctor’s species have never been eked out all that well. We know the Doctor’s nickname from school on Gallifrey—he was called Theta Sigma, a bad academic grade among his people because he almost flunked his first tests at the Time Lord Academy. It’s suggested some Time Lords and Ladies have ridiculously complex names in actuality, like Romana, whose full name is Romanadvoratrelundar, and there are other names that are either outright invented or pop up in historic texts, like Borusa and Flavia. But the names that begin with “the,” indicating a title aspect—including the Doctor and the Master and the Rani—are likely assumed, perhaps once the initiates graduate from the Academy (this is suggested in Doctor Who novels). Oddly, River Song suggests that perhaps the Doctor created his name, that he is the first person in the universe to use it… more on that later.
So we’ve always really understood that “the Doctor” was not the Doctor’s real name. But suddenly that name, the one that he’s “kept hidden” is deeply important.
There have been points in Doctor Who’s history where the show has tried to imply that the Doctor has a special function or persona outside of his renegade Time Lord schtick, but those side plots have rarely been well-conceived or executed. There was a confusing in-between figure called the Watcher, who existed on the periphery before the Fourth Doctor’s regeneration, eventually merging with him to cause the event and produce the Fifth Doctor. The Seventh Doctor considered himself to be a chosen manipulator of sorts with the weight of time on his shoulders. The Sixth Doctor was put on trial by the Time Lords, prosecuted by a figure named the Valeyard, who faked evidence to make the Doctor appear guilty according to Gallifreyan law. Eventually, the Master decided to bat for the Doctor’s team, revealing that the Valeyard was in fact the Doctor’s darker side, split off into an entirely new person. While it was fun to watch the Doctor’s old enemy come to his rescue, the actual appearance of the Valeyard was awkward and unsettling, particularly since it was revealed that he would be created during the Twelfth Doctor’s regeneration. That means that he hasn’t actually come into being yet—he should arrive when the Twelfth Doctor becomes the Thirteenth.
So we have to consider our options with this mystery. It could be that Moffat is drawing on something from classic canon—maybe he wants to bring in the Valeyard early, maybe he wants to play with Gallifreyan legends. It’s also possible that Moffat means to use new canon to back up his claim; perhaps the Doctor’s role as the Dream Lord is more relevant than we were led to believe, for instance. But any of these steps could change the mythology of the show entirely and that—while understandably tempting now that the Time Lords are gone and there is no overseeing species guarding time—is not something that most fans would likely accept without a fight.
Making the Doctor something more, something legendary and larger than life (which Moffat is always in favor of, observing his track record) effectively destroys the premise of the character, the elements that charm us and draw us to him; if the Doctor is a saint, a savior, a great tale of the universe rather than a misfit among his own people who simply can’t resist meddling, then the alien that we have known and loved for five decades is a lie. It’s one thing to say that specific peoples call him the Oncoming Storm or the Lonely God because he did something frightening that they couldn’t comprehend, but to say that the Doctor created this name, this word, and that every culture has a different definition for the word based entirely on his behavior when they met him… that’s something else entirely. It’s fun when the show weaves the Doctor into history because we can all giggle at the impact he makes by virtue of showing up, of course. But if the Doctor turns out to be a force of nature, a figure of destiny, a guardian of all time and space, then this is a new man and the show will have to alter itself to accommodate him.
How much can it be changed before Doctor Who fails to resemble its inception? It’s not that the show has never played with these themes before, but it normally backs away from them without any in-depth expansion. Some might claim that Moffat has too much respect for canon to change it that much, but we can observe the opposite at work with even the most minor of nitpicks… such as when River berates the Doctor for leaving the brakes on when he lands the TARDIS—that’s why it makes the famous noise, according to her. That is, unless you watched Classic Who and remember that every other TARDIS landed by a Time Lord or Lady made the exact same noise. So either every Gallifreyan needs to retake their TARDIS breaking test, or Moffat ignored canon completely to make a cute joke.
It has now been heavy hinted that the end of the 7th season will provide our answer. According to Moffat, “And in the finale, the Doctor’s greatest secret will at last be revealed!” One has to wonder if the finale with also be the anniversary episode—theories among fans have suggested that the Question could fall on the 50th Anniversary with all Doctors in attendance (via special effects potentially), which might make sense—if there’s going to be a major revelation or retcon to canon, having each Doctor present is a great way to legitimize the move. But it’s still an odd choice, especially considering the other notable push in the Eleventh Doctor’s arc—that is, the attempt to become more anonymous, to melt into the shadows and make people forget that he ever existed in the first place. The Doctor becoming a mystery to the universe whilst becoming totally known to us via his true name almost seems like an oxymoron—one can only imagine how these elements will coincide. Erring on the side of optimism would be nice, but considering how often Moffat’s era has been criticized for the larger plots arcs of the series, worry isn’t unfounded.
I hope to happily eat my words by the 50th anniversary episode. Moffat has indicated that the question is bearing down on us in recent interviews, and that all might perhaps be revealed, so with any luck we’ll get the truth soon. But mostly, I find myself concerned. This subplot has been on shaky footing since it hit ground level. The Question is only pressing because we were suddenly told it was. And then told again. And again. And again. Here’s hoping that the Answer pans out to everyone’s satisfaction.
First Question fan art made by dalekdom-fanart on DeviantArt.