Not The Man I Fell in Love With: Does The Doctor Falls Make the Unbound Series Canon?

In a parallel universe, David Warner was the Doctor.

No, really. He met up with Nicholas Courtney in Hong Kong and they fought off the Master, who sounded a lot like Mark Gatiss, only slightly less sinister. David Tennant was there too, and he swore quite a bit. You know all this because you have, one assumes, experienced the Unbound series, a set of Big Finish audio stories that throw aside the millstone of continuity in favour of telling any story they wanted (something I often wish the show would do on a permanent basis), with mixed results.

Sympathy for the Devil works. Exile – the sixth story in the series – really doesn’t. It stars Arabella Weir as a washed-up, alcoholic Third Doctor working in a supermarket, living under the name of Susan Foreman. It’s incoherent and the narrative is wobbly, but the biggest sin the drama commits is that it simply isn’t very funny. All that said, Exile does provide one particularly interesting and currently topical discussion point: it clarifies, in fairly specific terms, exactly how Time Lords have a sex change. And moreover, the circumstances under which it happens may have just bled into mainstream continuity.

Let me unpack. Arabella Weir plays a female Doctor because, it is explained, Time Lords switch gender when they’ve committed suicide. “I was stupid enough not to know that when a Time Lord commits suicide, he changes sex,” the Doctor says, in an imaginary conversation with him / herself. “It’s disgusting. I’m a man of action trapped inside the body of a drunken woman.” The Time Lords seem to agree, one of the C.I.A. people sent to capture the Doctor describing it as ‘a total embarrassment’.

Where are we going with this? You’ve probably figured it out, but if you haven’t, let me remind you of Saturday night, and the best scene in the series finale. You know. This one.

I think it’s just after this that we cut back to the battlefield, where the Doctor is jumping over rocks and shrubs yelling “Telos! The lost moon! Every single child! FOR SPARTAAAAAA!”. We will not linger there.

The events of The Doctor Falls are, of course, sufficiently ambiguous to allow for the filling of copious gaps. Simm’s regeneration is no more a given than Missy’s assumed death: the Master fell into a black hole once and lived to tell the tale, so it’s a fairly safe bet that Missy can survive a laser screwdriver, whatever anatomical changes she may endure as a result. Similarly, there’s no reason why Simm couldn’t patch himself up with an elastoplast and a bit of Witch Hazel. Even if he does regenerate, it doesn’t follow that he’ll resemble Gomez. The scene is left deliberately open-ended for Chibnall to pick up the pieces (or leave them scattered on the kitchen floor for someone to trip over) and is more about mood than exposition; Missy’s wicked witch expiring with a cackle in the forest just as her black-clad, bearded counterpart descends figuratively and literally into a hell of his own making.

But let’s assume (because otherwise we’ll be here all day) that Simm really is about to regenerate, and that he’s going to become Gomez. Which is a gender switch. And it happens just after a suicide, because the Master is effectively destroying himself – in both directions, as it turns out – and that’s akin to suicide. Isn’t it? I had no real idea, which prompted an email to Gareth. “Isn’t killing your past or future self essentially suicide?” I asked him.

“There are probably Time Lord laws that say whether it is or not,” he said, adding as an aside, “Actually there are probably Time Lord explanations about why the same regenerations meet so rarely.”

I’d never even considered it, but he’s absolutely right. Multi-Doctor stories happen quite a bit but when the Doctor crosses his own timeline it’s nearly always with a previous self. There are exceptions: Day of the Daleks springs to mind, as do those Matt Smith minisodes they did for Comic Relief. But usually when you get two identical Doctors meeting, one of them is a cactus-shaped imposter, or an android, or a plastic clone. Obvious technical issues aside, why doesn’t it happen more often?

Anyway, we’re off topic, and that’s usually how posts get deleted. The point is this: if Missy kills the Master and it counts as suicide and he regenerates into her, then that makes the Exile law of gender swap more or less official. What’s more, if the suicide works both ways, Gomez will presumably regenerate into a man. We’ve had a female Master and the stories more or less worked but, should Chibnall decide to resurrect the character, the likelihood is that said Master will be another male. Possibly Rupert Grint. It really is time, isn’t it?

On its own, this theory doesn’t add up to much (say, six and a half. That’s a nice round number), but we have more. Consider also the General: a man who allows the Doctor to shoot him in order to further allow him to escape, and who subsequently becomes a black woman – a state which, we’re told, is something akin to normality. Isn’t that a form of suicide? And doesn’t it make the General something of a loose cannon for a military type, if he’s forever cashing in his own chips? We know nothing about the circumstances under which he became a man in the first place, but conclusions can be drawn. Myself, I like to imagine he was captured by Dalek operatives and forced to endure repeats of Baywatch Nights until he was overcome with despair.

I’m not suggesting (I’m really, really not) that becoming a woman is a punishment, the way it is in those body swap films where misogynists get to experience life from a female perspective. More a by-product of a particular type of death. It’s like that bit in the second Scooby Doo movie where Shaggy drinks the wrong potion and  briefly becomes a distressingly attractive female version of himself. Or it’s like that bit in Undertale when you do the genocide path and it changes, like, the end text a bit. (Sorry. That’s how the twelve-year-old explained it to me, word for word. I tried to get something lucid out of him, but puberty seems to have eradicated his ability to form coherent sentences.)

But it gets more complicated when you look at the nature of some of the Doctor’s other deaths. Tennant’s is, to all intents and purposes, a suicide, given that he effectively kills himself in order to save Wilf. The same might be said for Eccleston. Perhaps it’s the act of personal sacrifice – giving your life to save one person – that stops it being a suicide, the survival of the person you save being enough to cancel out the life of the person you take. Yes, the General kind of gives his life to save the Doctor, but only from arrest, not death, and in any case that entire scene makes no sense and the episode is basically rubbish, so we’ll shoehorn it into the argument and squidge down the edges until it fits.

“The Fifth Doctor basically sacrifices himself to save Peri,” said Gareth. “He does that sort of thing.” He does, although – as much as I love Androzani – I’ve spent the last six months wondering just how much of a sacrifice this actually was, and why the Doctor didn’t just take the bat’s milk himself in the cave and then carry Peri back to the TARDIS, thereby reducing the amount of stuff he would have to carry and subsequently drop. But then he’d have to go back for the fox and the grain and bring the chicken with him, and then where would we be? (Probably in the TARDIS with a chicken that exploded when it came into contact with his son-in-law’s Timey Wimey Detector, and then you’ve got the Animal Welfare people on your back.)

Still, the notion of karma is interesting when you consider what happens in each regeneration. We’ve spoken before about the Doctor becoming the person he needs to be; this is what happens at the end of Planet of the Spiders. But what if there’s more to it than that – what if regeneration somehow punishes transgressions or stops potential ones from happening? It would explain the “Not your boyfriend” scene between Twelfth Doctor and Clara, for example, but it’s hardly a new thing. The Fifth Doctor finds, in his last two stories, someone he can actively flirt with – the sort of thing the chaste, no-sex-please-we’re-Gallifreyan Time Lords wouldn’t do at all – and is thus transformed into someone with the sort of appalling fashion sense (and hair) we would later see attached to Colin Hunt in The Fast Show. The Sixth Doctor is arguably the most underrated of the lot, but let’s face it, even his greatest advocates probably wouldn’t want to sleep with him, unless he was hung like a horse or something.

Ever get the feeling that there are some doors you just shouldn’t open?