In Defence of Headcanon

When you dip in and out of Doctor Who spin-off material, things confuse you. Different Doctors lead whole lives away from their TV stories, with births and marriages and deaths and arcs where people get killed and then replaced with amnesiac reconstructed duplicates. It happens quite a lot with the Seventh – and it’s borderline endemic with the Eighth. I found this out comparatively recently when I tried out Paul McGann’s Time War box set. It opens with a gentle stroll round a cruise ship which the Doctor is exploring with his companion Sheena. “Hang on,” I remember thinking. “Who’s this Sheena? How come I’ve never heard of her before?”

If you’ve listened to the series you will know what happens next: if you haven’t I’m not about to spoil it for you. Suffice it to say it all gets rather confusing, although it’s a good sort of confusing, like a particularly sparkly Monty Python sketch. There’s a Dalek suffering from an identity crisis, which rather reminds me of Father Fay, the speech-impaired pensioner in Father Ted who was banned from looking in mirrors because he didn’t know he was a priest. There’s a bit about evolution and then a ridiculous story at Time Lord Boot Camp, where they spend a lot of time drilling and singing Gallifreyan military cadences (yes, honestly). It doesn’t work, but you usually get at least one bad egg in every box these days. At least it’s clear they’ve actually been fighting, even if most of it happens off-microphone.

There’s a lovely bit in The End of Time where Tennant drops hints about some of the horrors of the Time War, in one of those moments you suspect RTD brainstormed in the pub one night, shoehorning every little quasi-Lovecraft abomination he could conjure into his finished script. It occurs as the Time Lords make their less-than-triumphant return, with Gallifrey lagging behind like a cosmos-scaled ball and chain. The Master is resplendent in his hoodie, bellowing “Take me with you” like a UFO conspiracy freak, but the Doctor isn’t convinced. “Everything’s coming through,” he declares. “Not just the Daleks, but the Skaro Degradations, the Horde of Travesties, the Nightmare Child, the Could-have-been King with his army of Meanwhiles and Never-weres. The war turned into hell.”

Typically this is the sort of moment that invites internet whining. “WHY DON’T WE EVER FIND OUT ABOUT THE NIGHTMARE CHILD?” someone complained the other week. “I WANT TO KNOW WHAT THE NIGHTMARE CHILD WAS!” I used to be polite. These days I’ll tell them to bugger off and write some fanfic. That’s what you do when there’s a gap you can’t possibly leave unplugged: you fill it, usually with something third rate and badly punctuated. Whatever the specifics of the Nightmare Child, it can never be as scary as the Nightmare Child that sits in my head, which is the entire point. Sometimes, less is more – actually, ninety per cent of the time less is more – but try telling that to the viewers.

But if we’re talking about this, it strikes me that the Time War was a missed opportunity. Davies used it as a clean break with the past – a chance to destroy Gallifrey so that people who didn’t know about it wouldn’t have to listen to minutes of tedious exposition or, worse still, watch Arc of Infinity. And when he eventually brought them back he got to reshape them in his own image, or at least in the image he chose, which explains why Timothy Dalton’s Rassilon is a bit like 1980s Michael Grade. Jump the best part of a decade and we’re at Hell Bent, which establishes that while the Doctor may not have been born in a barn, he did spend quite a lot of his childhood in one, chiefly eating soup.

Really it’s a bit feeble. Here’s the chance to clarify some of the biggest inconsistencies in the canon. The Daleks were the Kaleds and the Dals? Thanks to parallel timelines they can be both. The Doctor’s half human? Yes, why not? It’s just a different Doctor in a different narrative branch where his mother was an Earth woman and his father was a Vulcan ambassador. How come we never see parallel Doctors anyway? There are plenty of alternate universes but they rarely seem to have a Doctor. Perhaps Gallifrey is one of those limited edition collector’s cards that are so rare they probably don’t actually exist outside the YouTube commercials. It’s the fifth Golden Ticket, mother, and I’ve found it.

We can go further. Isn’t the Time War the perfect chance to expunge the archives? Doctor Who is always at its most awkward when it’s being self-referential – in other words, when the characters are actually sitting down to watch Doctor Who – and those montages of the Doctor doing all his great thing are frankly painful to watch, not to mention a source of embarrassment to the Doctor himself. They don’t even bother to use different camera angles. It’s like watching one of those BBC trailers they run when there’s an event coming up but they don’t want to release any actual footage. (My favourite bit in Twice Upon A Time is still the moment when David Bradley turns to Peter Capaldi after one such image dump, only for a visibly chagrined Capaldi to bluster “To be fair, they cut out all the jokes”.)

Anyway. Picture John Hurt, having abandoned the title ‘Doctor’ (which begs the question – how did he actually introduce himself during all those long years fighting the Time War? Kevin? Barney? Or did he just ask everyone to call him ‘The’?) and fresh onto the battlefield, plunged into a war that breaks every “You can’t rewrite history” rule in the book, on a minute-by-minute basis. Maybe I’ve just become too old and cynical (I turn forty this weekend) but it strikes me that if you want to bury bad news, you’re not going to get a better opportunity. Civilisations rise and fall and then pop out of existence all together in the blink of an eye; who’s going to miss a few less-than-stellar moments erased from history, or at least from the Matrix? When every bad, questionable or just plain dull tale you’ve ever told is there for your perusal, and you think the highlight reel could do with a bit of a refresh, then surely – look, all I’m saying is I think I’ve worked out what happened to The Myth Makers, and I can’t believe I’m the first person to join the dots.

If I’m being flippant about this it’s because I’ve spent my last two years in the heart of fandom and frankly I need a long, volcanic temperature shower and a back rub. You would not believe the fuss that people make about what constitutes Stuff That Really Happened and stuff that didn’t. The general consensus is that if it happened on TV, it counts. If it didn’t, it’s up for debate. You’d think that would be simple, but there’s a clue in that word ‘general’: it is the ones who defend to the death their right to declare that Every Sperm Story Is Sacred that tend to make the most noise, although they go suspiciously quiet when you point out that if this is really the case then Human Nature happened twice. There are arguments about whether The Mind of Evil happened in 1971 or 1981, whether River and the Doctor’s marriage counts, and what really happened to Susan. And do not get me started on the numbering.

I have been guilty of each and every one of the above and I wonder why we do it. Do they have these conversations in the James Bond groups? Are there lengthy discourses about whether Moore’s Bond is the same person as Connery’s, or someone different, or whether it’s a parallel universe or a witness protection thing, or the result of some fairly implausible plastic surgery? It’s tempting to think, now that you mention it, that MI6 has to hire a succession of agents called James Bond – or persuade them to change their names – because budget cuts won’t allow for the plethora of new paperwork. We might also speculate as to what happened to the last few Bonds, and the circumstances under which they threw in the towel (because you never kill the man, you just murder his wife) which leads to the image of Sean Connery waking up in Portmeirion only to have George Baker ask him why he resigned.

The worst thing is that every single argument is answered with one of two phrases: the words ‘Wibbly Wobbly Timey Wimey’ and ‘Rule One’. Rule One, if you’re having trouble keeping up, is ‘The Doctor Lies’. Or, if you like, shorthand for ‘I can’t be bothered to Google it’. I have lost count of the number of times I have told people that this is not Rule One. It’s not even the Doctor’s rule. It’s River’s, and River is about as reliable a narrator as Donald Trump describing one of his meetings. If we must, Rule One is probably ‘Don’t Wander Off’, but in any event it is not a stock phrase to be dragged out when you can’t explain something, or can’t be bothered to. It is a silly thing, the equivalent of posting a GIF rather than actually typing something, and I tolerate it because I must, because you have to pick your battles.

Fan argument is a balancing act and I adhere to providing explanations partly because somebody has to, but also (and, if truth be told, largely) because I like hearing the sound of my own voice, even if said voice actually sounds like me reading aloud whatever it is I’ve written. But at its best it’s a fruitless labour and, to repeat something I said a few years ago in my inaugural piece for this site’s previous incarnation, I am wondering whether we might be better off ignoring continuity completely. I would like to propose, as I did then, that we don’t actually need it. Because continuity is – let’s face it – a millstone. Coming up with new ideas is increasingly difficult because they’ve all been done, and we must accept that they all happened – and happened to the same person. (They tried that with Liam Neeson in the Taken series, and it lasted two films before everyone realised this was ridiculous and abandoned the franchise.) If you want to write a Doctor Who script these days they give you a three-hundred page series bible, spiral bound and decently laminated, with character notes and biographies and backstories and things you must not have the Doctor do or say, which you deviate from at your peril. I made that up. Or I just got dangerously close to the truth. You decide.

But there’s more to this than saving my own sanity. This is about saving Doctor Who from itself. Because a thought occurs: while most of the arguments we have stem from nitpicking and bullet points, far more of them are about ideology. The deep respect harboured for the history of Doctor Who has arguably enabled the show to survive as long as it has, but it comes at a terrible cost, and that cost is innovation. Thus every time they take a risk it’s deemed a contradiction in the eyes of those who have made the sanctity of the canon their life’s work. We cannot have a female Doctor because thus far we have not. Time Lords cannot change sex because Cho Je said so (seriously, I’ve done this one and it lasted a day and a half). We cannot have the Doctor marry because he’s never really been the marrying kind. The Doctor is a pacifist because he hates guns and never uses them, honestly.

You see it in Star Wars fandom: the notion that certain things in certain films must not be, cannot be, because they contradict the way it was. The furore surrounding The Last Jedi was about two things: the new as gender / race politics, and the new as it relates to the old. It is a source of consternation to fans that the novels and expanded media that they have accepted as official continuity have now been overwritten by J.J. Abrams, Mara Jade consigned to a footnote in history. It is irritating that Leia – whose force powers grow and develop gradually in the original expanded universe – can now float through space with no foreshadowing. Supposedly. I actually didn’t mind too much, but I have a healthy sense of detachment from what is (sorry) a children’s movie that I am now enjoying with my own children. When Yoda looks at the burning stack of Jedi books and mutters “Page turners they were not” I bristle, but largely because it’s clunky dialogue. So Force ghosts are unnaturally powerful now; I can live with that. Things have moved on. If you accept the Doctor can open the TARDIS by snapping his fingers, you can cope.

We strip away continuity at great risk: the result will likely be anarchy, and that usually ends with tear gas. Attempts to evolve usually fall on deaf ears – how much of the Death In Heaven fallout, if we’re really honest, was actually about the Brigadier and how much was about the flying Cybermen? But isn’t it worth fighting for? If something has changed beyond all recognition – at least what we would ourselves term recognition – would it not be better to either leave it for the new people or simply accept it and move on? And perhaps in this instance, accepting it means not accepting it – and then realising that this is not a paradox.

Let me give you an example, because all this has really been about Peri. Who died on that operating table, dammit; everything that’s happened since is a narrative I reject. Canonically that’s clearly not the case, but the idea of her dying at the end of Mindwarp makes for a better story. Similarly I prefer to think of the Fifth Doctor audio stories with Peri and Erimem as superfluous, because the regeneration at the end of Androzani is given layers of additional meaning if it happens for the benefit of a woman the Doctor scarcely knows. And I prefer not to think of the Curator as a future Doctor – as I do with Jack and the Face of Boe – because it’s more fun not knowing.

You see? If something doesn’t fit your worldview, you simply read it a different way and everyone’s happy. We could even say that P.R.O.B.E. happened if you want. Above all else, what I want to get away from is the idea that this is somehow a bad thing – that headcanon, as we call it, is something that we’re secretly ashamed about, like nose-picking, or a secret fondness for Olly Murs. In fact maybe we could dispense with the word altogether. I don’t know what we’d call it instead, but that’s what the comments box is for.

Still – imagine a world where we weren’t shackled by the continuity gatekeepers. Imagine a world where writers could write what they wanted. Imagine a world where things happened that contradicted most of what happened the previous week, which is what they did in The Prisoner, but people accepted it, just as they do with the likes of Bond. You wouldn’t stop the complaining – gaters gonna gate – but they would be rendered suddenly impotent, shouting into the wind because the argument is done and they lost. A world where Donna Noble suddenly turns up in the TARDIS with her memory back, simply because it’s fun, and nobody cares. Where we can get away from this tedious concept of legacy and treat the show like the soap opera that it was back in 1964 – where ideas change in a double heartbeat and people just suck it up and get on with it. It’s a nuclear option and it would probably kill the show stone dead, but it would be a glorious death.

In the absence of that, of course, we’re left with the notion of making up your own continuity and accepting the stories you like and rejecting the stories you don’t – where the Doctor can be whomever you please without those nasty know-it-all fans telling you you’ve got it wrong. And yes, I know some of you do this already, but I want you to quash those nagging feelings you have that it might be wrong, because it isn’t. Guilt-free headcanon is unexpectedly liberating, like a visit to a naturist beach, only with less sand. It’s not only acceptable, it’s possibly the only way we can escape the enormous gestalt the Doctor has become, where we must accept everything that happens is part of one seamless, unbreakable timeline – whereas the messy reality is that Doctor Who is a show that’s been written, produced and directed by hundreds of different people and it does not, never has and never really will make any sense, and the sooner we deal with that the better for all of us.

The trick, of course, is not telling anybody you’re doing it. It’s tempting – oh, so terribly tempting – but you mustn’t. People won’t understand; they’ll simply give you odd looks, or leave animated GIFs of sitcom characters shaking their heads. So keep it to yourself. And yes, I know I’ve just broken my own rule with all those examples. Let’s keep it between us, shall we?