How To Frame A Time Lord

When in doubt about the importance of continuity, one should always defer to Terrance Dicks. In a comment reprinted in The Man Who Invented the Daleks by Alwyn W. Turner, citing the maxim that ‘history is what you can remember’ from the tongue-in-cheek 1066 And All That by R. J. Yeatman and W. C. Sellar, Dicks imparted:

“Continuity on Doctor Who was what I could remember of the past and what future script editors could remember about what I’d done. Star Trek, I believe, had a bible, in which everything was laid down. We never did that on Who. There are varying accounts of almost everything. And I really don’t care. I always say: if they’re asking questions about inconsistencies, the show is not good enough.”

Of course, he’s absolutely spot on. No one’s viewing pleasure was enhanced by slavish devotion to the correct continuity – if there is such a thing – and conversely, no TV show ever improved its viewing figures by promising to make sure both ends meet.

It’s such an implicit lesson you can imagine that, in the three weeks where Robert Holmes shadowed Terrance Dicks before he become script editor, the pair probably never mentioned it; here’s the desk, here’s the workload, the aspirins are in the top right hand draw.

Yet it’s the reason why episodes like Genesis of the Daleks, Pyramids of Mars and The Deadly Assassin exist. If Holmes hadn’t binned some of the Daleks history (although personal dislike of the ‘boring’ Daleks may have had a part to play here), dismissed the importance of the TARDIS’ isomorphic controls and assumed that at least some faction of the Time Lords was corrupt or had something to hide we’d be all the poorer for it.

When it came to exploring the Time Lords with The Deadly Assassin, all notions of continuity were thrown out the window: no companion, no monster of the week and no slavish devotion to tradition…

The Deadly Assassin 6

In The War Games, the first appearance of the Time Lords, we start to build a picture of who the Doctor is in opposition to what he was running from. He tells Jaime and Zoe that he was bored with the Time Lord’s lifestyle and that they ‘hardly ever use their great powers’ and that barring an accident they could conceivably live forever…which, in hindsight, seems to miss 12 key steps between a Time Lord and infinite but it paints a vivid picture (the figure of 12 regenerations is another debt we owe to Holmes too).

The palpable excitement at glimpsing this key part of the Doctors past had, for contemporary reviews, resulted in a lot of the Second Doctors final appearance being dismissed as a pointless run around – which is absurd on its face –  but those last moments, building on the Second Doctor’s genuine fear of the Time Lords from previous episodes, are electric.

The War Games 10

In saying that continuity isn’t as important as the events unfolding on screen, then what is important is our belief in those involved. If nothing is important than everything is important and the only way to differentiate is the conviction of those involved – is that not how continuity is formed? We become attached to moments because they mean something to the characters involved and thus, we believe them and elevate their importance.

So when Patrick Troughton’s Doctor is hoisted on his own petard and ultimately forced to live amongst the race that brought him face to face with his greatest fear, the identity-crushing, pedantic Time Lords, it’s something of a victory that he’s allowed to continue to exist – and that’s some incredibly storytelling.

Holmes was having none of it.

In calling out for help from the Time Lords, he may have been taken prisoner, placed on trial for the crime of interference and sentenced to exile but Holmes wanted a retrial.

the deadly assassin

In The Deadly Assassin, the Time Lords under his command were not a holier than thou, omnipotent monastic order keeping the peace through maintaining the status quo but a race of hypocrites who were eager to protect that image at all costs – who, thanks to this dichotomy, on the odd occasion, produced renegades like the Master, Omega and the Meddling Monk.

In Holmes’ eyes, the two aren’t mutually exclusive. So while some contemporary fans tend to assume some sort of degeneration had happened between the events of The War Games and The Deadly Assassins – taking away some of the awe and magnificence (less we forget Jan Vincent-Rudzki’s visceral reaction to Holmes betraying what had come before by muddying their robes), Holmes simply made the discrepancy between appearance and reality their defining characteristic.

However, there is a difference in laying the track while the train is in motion and then, once the job is complete, standing back and looking at the route taken. Holmes himself is somewhat guilty of trying to bend continuity to fit the events on screen. When speaking about a perceived continuity error in The Two Doctors, Holmes, somewhat disingenuously – although he certainly has the authority to change the Doctors past – points back to these previous serials as a reason why such an error existed, he said:

“When I wrote ‘The Two Doctors’, it was no mistake that the Troughton Doctor knew he was being controlled by the Time Lords. The theory which myself and other who worked on ‘Doctor Who’ began to conceive was that the Time Lords were in dual control of the TARDIS all the time. The first trial was a mockery, a public relations exercise, because the Doctor had become involved too close to home and something had to be done about him. That’s why he is almost half-hearted about attempting to escape, which normally he never was. He knew that they were in complete control and had been all along. To operate as sneakily as this, you would have to be corrupt, and that’s what came later, when I was the script editor. Did they not condemn the Doctor to exile for interfering in the affairs of other planets? And yet who had sent him on these missions? They had!”

There’s a lot to unpack here.

Firstly, it changes everything. It implies that the Second Doctor wasn’t a carefree adventurer who got ‘bored’ with myopic viewpoint of his betters, but an agent of those he sought to escape from. It contradicts years of bitterness towards the Time Lords from the Third and Fourth Doctors, and, is itself contradicted by events in The Deadly Assassin where he is largely allowed to meddle in the affairs of the Time Lords, rather than being an unwilling agent of them.


What’s important here is that it’s not Holmes simply looking to close a loophole but is attempting to fit the type of changes he made in the past head in the direction the show was slowly turning towards. The nature of who the Doctor was, where he’s going and his place within the universe would go on to be fertile ground for the show to explore in the future; the Third Doctor was forced into the role of a makeshift hero while chiding at the smallness of UNIT’s concerns; the Fourth Doctor was unfettered by any convention – to the point of absolute arrogance in the face of cosmic threats; the Fifth and Sixth Doctor’s turned inwards and explored the notion of a fallible Doctor before subsequent Doctors went back to looking at his place within a wider universe – and just how powerful a threat he was to it.

What should become clear then is that the lessons imparted by continuity from Dicks and Holmes are largely historical accidents and retroactive appraisal – by being cavalier with the past Holmes created some of the best Doctor Who stories ever produced – Again we must defer to Terrance Dicks – who cares about continuity if what’s unfolding on screen is so gripping? –  what does it matter as long as there is evil in the universe that must be fought, and the Doctor still has a part to play in that battle.