Opinion Doctor Who: Scream of the Shalka From a wallpaper image by kamykwbucie

Published on June 9th, 2012 | by Alasdair Shaw

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An Infinite Number of Doctors…

Canon.

It’s a complicated matter. No two fans take exactly the same position on it. How can we? There is nearly 50 years worth of continuity to try to fit into it. There’s 26 series of Classic Who, over 150 Target novelisations (many of which tied continuity in knots by them selves), New, Past and Missing Adventures, Eighth through to Eleventh Doctor Adventures, who knows how many comic strips, several hundred audio plays and nearly seven series of New Who.

Not to mention 11 Doctors.

Seriously; how could all of it be canon?

Hold on; 11 Doctors? Is that right?

Nope. It’s not. We’ve had several Doctors over the years that fall between the cracks between canon and non-canon.

Take the Valeyard for example. One of my favourite Doctors. I’ve stated as much before. He appeared in Season 23, so he falls well into canon criteria. However a last-minute editorial decision meant that his place within definitive canon remains a discussion that continues to divide fandom.

Suddenly a whole world of alternate (and canon) Doctors opens up wide before us. Providing, of course, that you consider the books to be canon.

But we had an alternative Doctor long before the Valeyard, however. Indeed we had one even before Patrick Troughton. In 1965 the Doctor was brought to full technicolour life by Peter Cushing. The idea of a Doctor Who film divorced from continuity is significantly more palatable when the Doctor is played by the other Grand Moff.  Interestingly though Cushing himself didn’t consider his Doctor to be outwith of continuity as this quote from Doctor Who Interviews illustrates.

“Well I’ll tell you something I thought once. I just said I didn’t watch TV, but one of the few episodes of the ‘Dr. Who’ series that I saw was one that involved a kind of mystical clown (‘The Celestial Toymaker’? – ed.), and I realised that perhaps he kidnapped Dr Who and wiped his memory and made him relive some of his earlier adventures. When Bill Hartnell turned into Patrick Troughton, and changed his appearance, that idea seemed more likely. I think that’s what happened, so I think those films we did fit perfectly well into the TV series. “

So who’s willing to argue with Peter Cushing? I know I’m not, even if he did think his name was Doctor Who.

But all the other alternate Doctors really aren’t in canon are they?

Well…..

Curse of Fatal Death brought us not one new Doctor, but five of them. Rowan Atkinson, Richard E Grant, Jim Broadbent, Hugh Grant and even Joanna Lumley. Lumley aside it represents a 90s wish list of actors that fans wanted to see playing our favourite Time Lord. In the wake of the Television Movie it established key themes that went on to become mainstays in the new series. A blurring of the relationship between Doctor and companion, a golden expulsion of regenerational energy and a tendency to be written by Steven Moffat for Comic Relief. The Fatal Death Doctors may not be strictly canon, but doesn’t a little bit of you wish that they were?

And speaking of Richard E Grant he went on to play the Doctor again in 2003, written by Paul Cornell this time around. The Shalka Doctor, as he’s come to be known, was canon for a excruciatingly small period of time before the 2005 series was announced. As with Fatal Death, Scream of the Shalka contained elements that would contain plot points that would leech into the 2005 onwards era. The Doctor fleeing from some past mistake, a strong companion and Derek Jacobi playing the Master. Incidentally; The Scream of the Shalka is available in it’s entirety on the BBC website. You should go have a look.

Around the same kind of time Derek Jacobi was also playing an alternative Doctor. Big Finish produced a rather wonderful range entitled ‘Doctor Who: Unbound” which provided a selection of ‘what if’ scenarios that resulted In different actors playing the lead role. The range as a whole is worth looking into, but the three stand out performances for me are David Warner, David Collings (who as Mawdryn impersonated a Doctor once) and Michael Jayston reprising his role as the Valeyard in a tale that could sit very easily between Trial of a Time Lord and Time and the Rani.

Could Lance Parkin's The Infinity Doctors be the model for the 50th anniversary of Doctor Who?

Could Lance Parkin’s The Infinity Doctors be the model for the 50th anniversary of Doctor Who?

If you do listen to Full Fathom Fivewith David Collings Doctor be very sure not to read anything about it first. Trust me on this one.

Sympathy for the Devil has some standout performances, not only from David Warner as the Doctor but from Nicolas Courtney reprising his role as the Brig and having more fun with it than he ever had before going by his performance. David Tennant turns up giving an outstanding turn as a UNIT commanding officer and Mark Gatiss clocks in as a Gallifreyan.

Of course a few years previous to that Gatiss had played a version of the Doctor for 1999’s Web of Cavesas featured during Doctor Who night. Not even remotely canon, but distinctly ginger.

Which brings us finally to The Infinity Doctors, Lance Parkin’s celebration of 35 years of Doctor Who. Debate has raged amongst Who fans since it’s release regarding just which Doctor was featured within it’s pages. Either an early First Doctor or a late Eighth Doctor seem to be the most popular options. A third option was a Doctor from an alternate continuity, an option that Parkin himself confirmed in a recent interview with the Doctor Who Reprint Society.

Not even the Doctor and his past selves can agree which version of themselves appears in The Infinity Doctors according to the In Print Web Comic.

Another popular theory regarding the Infinity Doctor was that he was the Other. A controversial view to be sure as the concept of the Other is tied firmly the New Adventures and the Looms. It’s another article all by itself, but the short version of the story is that the Doctor is a reincarnation of the Other; a contemporary of Rassilon and Omega from the early days of Gallifrey. Still it’s in the books so we can ignore if we want, right?

Wrong.

The Other made it into Season 26 through a series of obscure comments from the Seventh Doctor and is explicitly named in the novelization of Remembrance of the Daleks. So he’s canon. That and we’ve seen him, in 1977 of all years. Before the 12 regeneration limit was introduced The Brain of Morbius showed us earlier faces of the Doctor. Once the limit was introduced that  left fans with the problem of explaining who the faces were. Once the Other was introduced in the books he seemed like the obvious fit, especially as Lance Parkin seems to have used one of the faces in his description of the Other in Cold Fusion.

Suddenly a whole world of alternate (and canon) Doctors opens up wide before us. Providing, of course, that you consider the books to be canon.

I could go on,  I haven’t even touched on the stage plays, the David Troughton Doctor that nearly emerged from the New Adventures or the future Doctor that the Seventh encountered in the comics.

But I’m not going to. Because I’ve covered the alternative Doctors that matter to me. Maybe that’s selfish, but that’s how personal canon works. You pick and choose which elements you choose to work into continuity. It’s just not possible to have everything. After all the Doctor’s age ranges from merely 900 years old to a bit over a thousand to several thousand if the 3rd Doctor is to be believed

But the Doctor lies and maybe, just maybe, that’s the only way to stay sane and keep all the contradicting elements of his continuity in one TARDIS.

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About the Author

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Alasdair Shaw dabbled in Who throughout the 80s, but didn’t really get into it properly until 1989. His sense of timing has not improved over the years. He’s a third generation Who fan as well as a father of two. His wife has a bad feeling about those two facts. When not working as a lab technician or writing for Kasterborous Alasdair runs the Doctor Who Reprint Society for which he writes In Print and Dangling Threads. He’s a big fan of the Valeyard, but that’s neither here nor there. He has never worked for UNIT and is not related to Dr Liz Shaw.




19 Responses to An Infinite Number of Doctors…

  1. avatar Bob James says:

    I know I’m in the minority, and I love what Christopher Eccleston did with the role, but I still wonder what Richard E. Grant might have done with the role. Though never in contention to be a Television Doctor, I still feel he would have got past his indifference and been a fantastic Ninth Doctor. And let us not even get started about the possibility of Bill Nighy………

  2. avatar James McLean says:

    Always funny how people can’t cope with alternates… in a show about timelines and occasionally… alternate dimensions in space/time. I have no problem with multiple facets of the Doctor or alternate ones. They can all exist in the same timeline/or splits/or webs. Does it matter? Time should be more complicated than we understand, and like cavemen, we try and place the complex weave of multi-dimensional cause/effect into one timeline, and if stuff doesn’t fit – throw it out! Can’t be canon because it’s not… linear? Really? When has changing time been linear? It’s a great topic, handled well here. Nice one.

  3. avatar TonyS says:

    The whole 12 regenerations issue has plagued Doctor Who for too lonh now and is a testament to how continuity obsessed the programme had become by the 80s. Fandom is a good thing and can be helpful to the programme. But in the 80s the programme started to be about pleasing the fans. This reached unhealthy degrees. I agree with the article and with both commentators. The rigid insistence on 13 and out was a product of this.

    My take, for what it is worth, is that the limit on the number of regenerations was a law rather than a natural consequence and was policed by the Time Lords. One thing that might suggest this is that the Time Lords offered the Master a new regeneration cycle in “The Five Doctors”. With the Time Lords out of the way, there is no limit on the number of regenerations.

  4. avatar Gavin Noble says:

    I thought Hugh Grant would have made a good Doctor and based on his cameo in Curse of Fatal Death the potential is there.

    • avatar Alasdair Shaw says:

      “But in the 80s the programme started to be about pleasing the fans.”

      Well before then I would hope.

      • avatar TonyS says:

        Yes but fandom really became organised in about 1978. In the 80s the programme makers seemed to become obsessed with pleasing the die-hard fans and alienated the general viewing public.And fandom itself got quite ugly as the 802 progressed.

  5. avatar Chris Alford says:

    Hello this article is like a philosophical debate asking philosophical questions about interpretations of history, the nature of truth and lies and is truth relative or absolute? in the medium of Doctor Who and in human life in general. I would love if someone replied to this.

    • avatar Alasdair Shaw says:

      “I would love if someone replied to this.”

      Done. Glad you enjoyed the article, Chris.

      I had great fun researching it.

  6. avatar Mugen Pharoah says:

    The concept of canon in sci-fi has always seemed remarkably pretentious to me. The term has Biblical origins as in which books should be actually in it or not and since extended in to the idea of ‘literary canon’ as in which texts are deemed ‘worthy’.

    All these people who get into a sweat about ‘canon’ really need to chill out. To the makers of Doctor Who over the years I expect the word ‘canon’ has probably only been used by Ian Levine’s conversations with Eric Saward. Doctor Who is only conssitent as it needs to be.

    Who’s light regard to ‘canon’ is a strength of the show. In Star Wars fandom they have official different levels of canon! Canon has ruined star Wars. You can find out the name and back story to every alien in the Mos Eisley cantina. Why? It was far more fun looking around and imagining for yourself. They even named my favourite Star Wars background character, the bloke in a spacesuit in The Empire Strikes back who lookis like he’s evacuating Cloud City clutching an experimental favourite toilet. Ruined.

    Doctor Who elegantly copes with UNIT dating. An equivalent could kill some Star Wars or Star Trek fans as they foam at the mouth trying to establish why Kirk’s shirt changes colour between turbolift and bridge. Which is obviously an exaggeration, but ‘canon’ is completely personal and no-one can say what is and isn’t.

    I have my own way of linking the Cushing movies to main Whoniverse. It’s far too convuluted and geeky to ever speak aloud. but I had fun thinking it up.

    • avatar Alasdair Shaw says:

      I think it was Paul Cornell who once commented that the Doctor’s continuity changes each time the TARDIS doors close.

      In the mean time, at the risk of self plugging, you can find my take on changing continuities over at Inferno Fiction. A short story I for the current issue.


      • I chaired a discussion with Paul Cornell and Simon Guerrier about canon a few years ago at one of the Vworp events.

        Might dig it out…

        • avatar Alasdair Shaw says:

          Let me know if you do dig it out.

  7. avatar Doctor Whom says:

    As far as cannon is concerned, there are 2 simple rules which solve everything. If it didn’t happen on the TV show itself, then it’s not cannon. And, if it did happen on the TV show but was the product of a writer who really should have known better, it’s not cannon either.

    Another thing that’s not cannon is any Kasterborous article which uses the word “outwith”. Why has this word acquired prevalence lately?

    • avatar Alasdair Shaw says:

      I think you’ll find the two simple rules for cannon are to light it and then stand the hell back. The rules you’re talking about would apply more to canon. Or rather; your view of it.

      “Outwith” is a Scottish colloquialism that, as a Scotsman born and raised, I’ve been using my whole life.

  8. avatar Doctor Whom says:

    I don’t believe you’re a Scotsman for one minute. You’re clearly a Cockney called Alister who’s changed the spelling to be contrary.

    Anyway, my “view” of canon still seems self-evident. Nothing else seems to threaten it – not even the TARGET novelisations.

    But show me someone who gets het up about contraventions of the Blimovitch thingummy or the implications of a 12 regeneration limit or the US-pleasing balls about being half-human and I’ll show you someone for whom DW has moved from being a love to being a fetish. And a strap-on one at that.

    Honestly, people, it really is possible to immerse yourself into DW while still retaining a consciousness that it’s all fiction. That’s how you reconcile the Hartnell stories with the Cushing films.

    Mugen Pharoah is quite right. Once you start codifying what is and isn’t canon (presumably after alphabetising one’s DVD collection), one is becoming like Van Statten – seeking the stars just so that you can drag that down to Earth and bury them under the dirt.

    It’s the pursuit of canon which leads people to want the Time War to be explained in detail – taken out of the limitless realm of imagination and made banal and concrete.

    It’s only a short step from worrying about canon to writing fan fiction and then the straitjacket is never far away.

    • avatar Alasdair Shaw says:

      “Cor blimey, Guvn’r, you’ve only gone and rumbled me like.”

      or

      “Away an’ boil ye heid.”

      I’ll let you guess which of those comments is the canon one….

      But, I do think you’re right about getting too caught up in continuity. As I pointed out in the article itself there’s just too much to fit into fifty wears worth of fiction and some of just plain won’t fit. Business Unusual and The Spectre of Lanyon Moor both won’t fit for example. Both have the 6th Doctor meeting the Brig for the first time. How do you decide which is canon? You invoke personal preference, or personal canon.

      It’s the only sane way of doing it.

      Having said that I don’t agree with disparaging fans merely because they do try to reconcile these inconsistances, it is after all a show about time travel.

      And as for your view on Fan fic? You’ll find my contribution to that field on Inferno Fiction.

  9. avatar The Wardster says:

    Quite simply by far the best article ive read on here, well done. Now please teach the other writers on this site.

  10. avatar STLShawn says:

    (Why are the math questions asked before replying getting harder?)

    I like that everyone has different views. Obviously, the new series has completely done away with the 13 regenerations. This brings to light a whole slew of doctors that could have been.

    Besides if Canon was truly Canon wouldn’t we have had all been hijacked by the Daleks, seen the sky changed by the Atraxi, Hypnotized to walk to rooftops, etc etc etc….

    It’s science fiction. Just enjoy the ride :)

    By the way,,,, fantastic article

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