Smack in the middle of its (currently ongoing) 12th season, Doctor Who has introduced the biggest Time Lord twist in very recent memory, and we’ve been left with so many big questions: Has the Doctor lost the memories of her life on Gallifrey? How many? A lifetime’s worth? Several lifetime’s worth? And when we say “Doctor,” what now are we talking about?
This latest reveal, which I’ll get more specific about below, leaves us with a lot of questions. But, if you take a look back through the show (WAY back), there seems to be only one answer. And it goes all the way back to the earliest days of regeneration.
Spoilers ahead for Doctor Who, season 12, episode 5, “Fugitive of the Judoon.”
First some spoiler space.
Never be cruel.
Never be cowardly.
And never ever eat pears!
Although we also got a welcome return from Captain Jack Harkness in “Fugitive of the Judoon,” the biggest shakeup was easily the introduction of Jo Martin as a previously unknown incarnation of the Doctor—one who doesn’t remember having been Jodie Whittaker. Throughout most of the episode, we think that this character is a human named Ruth, but then, it turns out it’s really the Doctor disguised by a Chameleon Arch. (That’s a gizmo we first saw used by David Tennant in “Human Nature,” but as we’ll see, the technology certainly predates the 10th Doctor.)
Ostensibly, the question the episode poses is this: is the new Doctor in Thirteeen’s past, or her future? Unless Jo Martin’s Doctor had her memory wiped of ever having been Jodie Whittaker (not to mention the double-destruction of Gallifrey) there doesn’t seem to be a way of ensuring that she is a future Doctor. In fact, there’s evidence throughout the show’s entire 50+ year history that “Ruth” may be a Doctor that predates the First Doctor himself. Not only that, but Ruth may be one of a full set of Doctors that pre-date what we know as “the First Doctor”.
Here’s the evidence, in the chronological order of the Doctor’s life, that what we’re seeing now is possibly an origin story that’s always been there, just waiting to be told.
1. The Time Lords Are Able to Force a Regeneration (“The War Games”, 1969)
It’s plausible that at some point in the distant past, the Time Lords forced the Doctor to regenerate into William Hartnell’s First Doctor with no previous knowledge of his past lives. There’s precedent for this kind of thing in the final episode of the 1969 serial “The War Games,” where Patrick Troughton’s Second Doctor regenerates into Jon Pertwee’s Third Doctor.
In this story, the Time Lords put the Doctor on trial for violating their various non-interference laws. He’s found guilty of meddling and his “punishment” is death via forced regeneration, then exile to Earth. (They also deactivate his TARDIS, which is vaguely reminiscent of the TARDIS being buried in “Fugitive of the Judoon.”) The Doctor is then allowed to choose his next appearance from a set offered by the Time Lords, and his knowledge of how to fly a TARDIS is erased.
We don’t quite see this concept come up again in the show, but it does establish that the Time Lords on Gallifrey, when at the height of their powers, have control over their people that is near-total and very terrible.
2. The Fourth Doctor Admits to Several Hidden Previous Incarnations. (“The Brain of Morbius”, 1976).
In the Tom Baker Fourth Doctor serial, “The Brain of Morbius,” the Doctor and Sarah Jane Smith are briefly trapped on the planet Karn, a sister planet to Gallifrey. While probing the Doctor’s mind, the titular Morbius says “Back! Back to your beginning” and the Doctor, under a lot of strain, says “You can’t… not that far… I won’t let you… Not even I.”
Nevertheless, we get a glimpse of several faces that the Doctor could previously have been, which doesn’t make a lot of sense at the time since Tom Baker is ostensibly the Fourth Doctor. The show has essentially ignored this scene as an early-days kind of mythology hiccup, but what if current Doctor Who showrunner Chris Chibnall has found a way to use this scene to tell a story of manipulation, identity, and erasure? What if the 8 faces above did happen, unbeknownst to the Doctor? That implies that the Doctor’s memories of these incarnations have been erased, or otherwise suppressed. Who could do such a thing? And why?
3. The Eighth Doctor’s Regeneration Into the War Doctor Reveals the Ability to Create a Doctor With a Specific Personality (“The Night of the Doctor”, 2013)
In 2013’s mini-episode “The Night of the Doctor,” we learn that the Eighth Doctor becomes motivated to fight in the Time War after encountering a victim of said War. He coincidentally crash lands on Karn (the same place where Morbius trapped him and dug out information of suppressed incarnations) and asks the Sisterhood of Karn—who demonstrate advanced knowledge of Time Lord regenerations—to mold his next incarnation into a warrior.
This is notable, because the Eighth Doctor is asking the Sisterhood to not just guide his regeneration, but to specifically craft the ensuing aspects of his personality. This is manipulation of the self that the Time Lords have not yet demonstrated, but which we now know is very possible, thanks to the successful emergence of the War Doctor. Since we’ve seen the Time Lords of Gallifrey selectively edit memories before, it’s not a stretch to think that they—at some point—also know how to specifically mold the personality of another Time Lord’s regeneration.
Because we’ve also seen…
4. The 10th Doctor Uses Time Lord Technology to Suppress His Knowledge of His Entire Life (“Human Nature”, 2007)
In the Tenth Doctor season 3 episodes “Human Nature” and “The Family of Blood,” we learn that Time Lords can seemingly re-write their DNA and memory to not only appear totally human, but to suppress entire lifetimes of memories. In “Fugitive of the Judoon,” when the new secret Jo Martin Doctor is revealed, it’s fully explained that—yes—she used a Chameleon Arch to hide her identity on Earth.
The idea that Time Lords could hide among us, and even be unaware who they were to themselves is relevant to the plot of “Fugitive of the Judoon,” but the thing we tend to forget here is that the Chameleon Arch technology suppresses memories in general. If the Time Lords can hide their whole identities from themselves, surely, they can selectively erase whole incarnations from the memories of individual Gallifreyans?
This kind of big memory wipe is exactly what the Master is claiming happened in “Spyfall Part 2,” when he says “We’re not who we think.” And the Master would know! Because they’ve had their memories suppressed by a Chameleon Arch before, back in the episode “Utopia.” Where it was implied that they—possibly—were also granted a new set of regenerations, as well!
5. The Master’s Memories Are Restored and He (Possibly) Regenerates Past His Supposed “12 Regeneration Limit” (“Utopia”, 2007)
In 1976’s episode “The Deadly Assassin” we encounter the Master’s “final” regeneration and watch his quest to extend his life past the Time Lord 12-regeneration limit through more arcane means. He eventually succeeds, as we see the Master revive himself in the 1996 Doctor Who TV movie without the aid of Time Lord regeneration.
Then we lose track of him until 2007’s “Utopia”, where his memories are restored by a Chameleon Arch and he undergoes a Time Lord regeneration into his John Simm incarnation. He mentions that he was “found” on the edge of a war-torn landscape, and the implication (later confirmed) is that the Time Lords specifically resurrected the Master to fight in the Time War, they were that desperate.
But to do that, the Time Lords would need to be capable of granting a new cycle of regenerations, wouldn’t they?
6. The Time Lords Demonstrate That They Can Grant Additional Regenerations (“The Time of the Doctor”, 2013)
The aforementioned 1976 Fourth Doctor serial “The Deadly Assassin” can be blamed for the origin of the 12-regeneration limit rule in Who canon. (For context this serial aired the same year as “The Brain of Morbius,” albeit much later and is part of the original season 14, versus “Morbius” which was part of season 13.)
After this point, there was some debate if there really was a limit, but this was 100 percent confirmed to be true in the final regular Eleventh Doctor episode, “The Time of the Doctor.” The plot of that episode also results in the Doctor being granted a new cycle of regenerations by the Time Lords, however, which we’ve seen directly result in the Twelfth Doctor, and more recently, the Thirteenth Doctor. (And, it is implied, a Doctor yet to come who fancies himself a Caretaker and wears a favorite old face.)
That said, we don’t really know if the Doctor was gifted only 12 more regenerations, or if they can now cycle endlessly. In the 2015 Twelfth Doctor episode “Hell Bent,” the Time Lord ruler Rassilon taunts the Doctor with the line, “How many regenerations did we grant you?”
This kind of suggests regeneration cycles could shake out in all sorts of different ways, but the point is that the Time Lords can directly grant a new cycle to specific people, and we’ve seen them do it at least once, meaning, it could have happened before, too.
7. Missy Knew The Doctor “When he was a little girl” (“The Witch’s Familiar”, 2015)
When Clara and Missy are stuck together at the start of season 9, Missy rattles off a lot of things about the Doctor, and mentions she knew him “when he was a little girl,” then claims one of the things she said was a lie. Assuming Missy was telling the truth, this could mean that the Master has memories of the Doctor having been a girl before William Hartnell’s “First Doctor”. There’s another little hint in a line in the Thirteenth Doctor’s first episode, “The Woman Who Fell to Earth,” where she says that she hasn’t had to shop for women’s clothing in a while. That could suggest a fleeting memory of having been a woman before—though obviously that comment could mean a lot of things.
8. Finally, Time Lords Can Indeed Selectively Erase Memories, but Instincts, Fragmented Memories, Preferences, and Emotional Responses Remain (“Hell Bent”, 2015)
The Doctor has seemingly always had the power to selectively erase the memories of others and this ability is clearly not just limited to them alone. The Tenth Doctor erased part of Donna Noble’s memory in “Journey’s End,” the Twelfth Doctor erased young Danny Pink’s memory in “Listen,” and of course, Clara Oswald reverses the Doctor’s mind-erasing powers on him in “Hell Bent,” to erase all memories of herself.
And yet, in all these cases, the erased memories leave traces behind that are typically activated in high-stress situations, or triggered instinctively or emotionally. The Tenth Doctor writes about his past lives as if they were fiction in “Human Nature” and “The Family of Blood”. The Doctor is drawn back to Clara absentmindedly immediately after they separate in “Hell Bent”, Donna Noble could still feel parts of her memory in “The End of Time”, and in the case of Danny Pink, the Doctor actually created a personality trait—Pink’s desire to become a soldier—in his attempt to create a false memory.
The takeaway here is this: If the Time Lords erased the Doctor’s memory of any incarnations previous to William Hartnell’s “First Doctor” then it seems like motivations and experiences of those unknown incarnations would have definitely lingered into other versions of the Doctor. For example, Jo Martin’s mystery Doctor’s restored personality is irascible and impatient, yet ultimately kind and non-lethal. Which could easily describe the First Doctor to the letter.
It’s also implied that Jo Martin’s Doctor is a conscripted special agent or soldier, that this was her job, and that it’s “not the kind you apply for or can ever leave.” Later Doctors, particularly the Tenth and Twelfth Doctors, carry this disdain for guns, soldiers, and lethal methods as central tenets of their being, even when they are distressingly good at forming up their own special forces and storming well-defended areas (something we see the Tenth and Eleventh Doctors do repeatedly). And they are utterly shamed by their time as the War Doctor. This preference in their personalities tracks perfectly with Jo Martin’s Doctor’s urge to flee the life of a lethal Time Lord agent. And if Jo Martin’s Doctor does indeed come before William Hartnell’s “First Doctor”, then we know that the Doctor is going to be mindwiped again, and will nevertheless try again to flee their life as a special agent.
9. What About The Phone Box? Lingering Questions About a Pre-First Doctor Set of Doctors
- Why is Jo Martin’s TARDIS a phone box when William Hartnell’s TARDIS started as a featureless cylinder?
This seems like a hitch in the theory, but it’s actually easy to explain. Jo Martin’s Doctor fled to Earth, disguised her TARDIS as a phone box, really liked it, then buried it later on with the help of her companion when it came time to seal away her memories in the Chameleon Arch. When the First Doctor flees Gallifrey, he decides to settle in 1960s Earth where, conveniently, the TARDIS would have to disguise itself as a phone box.
We know that the Doctor’s preferences last even when the memories are gone. The First Doctor must have simply felt the urge to restore the phone box appearance, and that manifested in traveling to the one place and the one time where that would happen.
- Have we seen Jo Martin’s Doctor before?
Sort of! In the 2018 novelization of “Rose” (written by former showrunner Russell T. Davies) conspiracy theorist Craig’s research reveals older versions of the Doctor, including one that is obviously Jodie Whittaker but also “a tall bald black woman…with a flaming sword.”
Jo Martin’s Doctor isn’t bald and doesn’t have a flaming sword. But she is a person of color. She does have a laser rifle. And she is tall.
Ryan Britt is a longtime contributor to Tor.com and the author of the book Luke Skywalker Can’t Read and Other Geeky Truths (Plume 2015.) His other writing and criticism have been published in Inverse, SyFy Wire, Vulture, Den of Geek!, the New York Times, and StarTrek.com. He is an editor at Fatherly. Ryan lives with his wife and daughter in Portland, Maine.