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Doctor Who Canon and Me; or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Virgin New Adventures

We science fiction fans are a weird bunch really. We enjoy the worlds of fiction we visit more than the normal folk out there. Potentially it’s because our worlds are ‘other’, which is pretty cool when you think about it. Perhaps it’s just our coping mechanism. We put more time in and very arguably get a lot more out of it too. We form moral codes and world views on the beautifully simple, good, and powerful heroes we grow to love and then aspire to be or emulate. So, it’s no surprise that we spend so much of our time debating what a show like Doctor Who should and shouldn’t be. Who he or she is. Where they started. Where they’re going. And where they’ve been. And of course, what all that means.

An unfortunate side effect of approaching your 60th birthday is that not everything always seems to add up. Something you said when you were 23 might seem garish to you on your 50th birthday. This of course doesn’t mean that it didn’t happen and wasn’t valid to you at the time. And just because you’ve changed your mind now, does that mean that what you said isn’t still valid to somebody? And reflectively should or could it still be to you? And when it comes to it, some people even liked you best when you were 23. Or 24 even. Or even as a spotty 15-year-old! Apply this to a television show of a similar age and the answer is that it absolutely is still valid to somebody and when you’ve a following the size that a certain Time Lord does then they will have something to say about it if you think otherwise.

Thus evolves, in one so long lived, the need for consistency: a Bible of sorts, a list of dos and do nots. And a recorded history. It’s especially important to be grounded in a world without limits.

But it’s not easy, is it? Doctor Who has had more fathers and mothers than any other major sci-fi property combined and that’s without even stepping away from your television set. Think of the books and audio books. The audio dramas and comic books. The Weetabix packets. Not to mention the short stories and annuals. From 1964 onwards, there’s always been some extended fiction and it didn’t so much slow down when the show left our screens in 1989 as it dramatically exploded.

And these stories don’t even have the common decency to be in sequence most of the time. No, they expect us to work out where or how or even if they fit in. The depth of options to pick for a Doctor Who fan is something to be celebrated but the more stories and authors you add, the more difficult it becomes to work out how they could all work as a whole.

So here are your options, Doctor Who fans. You can enjoy each story, or not, on its own merits assuming it just is, or obsess over how the next blasted story works when William Hartnell said it was impossible in 1965. It was always going to be a bit of a no-brainer, wasn’t it?

It All Started Out as a Mild Curiosity in a Junkyard…

To discuss what Doctor Who canon has and does mean to me, I feel I should explain where my journey began.

I was born in 1987 which made me two when the show got cancelled. You won’t hear any memories of my first sighting of a Dalek on screen here because even if it were on, I was far too preoccupied working out what my feet tasted like to take it in. For those of us growing up in the dark times, the experience is different to that of both the older generation who knew what that meant and the younger generation who can’t imagine the show not being there. I was more aware of Tom Baker for his role as Puddleglum in the BBC’s adaptions of The Chronicles of Narnia through hand-me-down VHS tapes as a child than as Doctor Who because the show was popularly known by those around me as an embarrassing relic of old TV — with those wobbly sets. Whenever I hear that often-repeated expression, I still get flashes of my childhood imagining of a painted wooden slab representing a bush, twanging as it wobbled in the wind behind the Doctor on an otherwise bare set: the show itself could never be anywhere close to as badly designed as my imagination told me it must be, based on the insults of common conjecture. Equally, my first encounter with Christopher Eccleston, my default first Doctor, was through Religious and Social Education classes when watching him play developmentally delayed Derek Bentley, in the dark and tragic Let Him Have It, far flung from the confident grin, leather jacket, and booming laugh we all grew to know and love him for.

I was 18 when Doctor Who came back, and it was more through coercion from my mum with tales of Daleks and hiding behind the sofa in the ’60s that I even gave it a go. I dutifully bought the stupidly bulky Series 1 TARDIS boxset when it came out in Woolworths and much later picked up the Series 1- 4 DVD boxset. But I wasn’t in love. I liked it but it wasn’t ‘must watch TV’ for me, like it was for much of the nation at the time.

It was only when Matt Smith arrived on the scene that I became the obsessive Doctor Who fan that I am today. He was more alien, more exciting, more off the wall. I bought my first classic Who, the first of Tom Baker’s stories somewhere around 2011. But I didn’t watch it at first. The idea of those wobbly sets still haunted me, and 26 seasons and a movie are a lot to take on board.

The fever continued to grow, however, as Series 6 and then 7 were released and across the following two years I not only watched Season 12 but enjoyed it immensely and began what has become an incredibly cost- and space-consuming hobby.

I first looked to complete the series on TV. The classic show was canon (otherwise why did they call Eccleston the Ninth Doctor?); I had to have all the chapters, it stood to reason. I gradually made my way through the various singular and boxset releases of the DVD collection, picking up bargains where I could as I went. The lore of the classic show is well known by most fans. The mystery of the Doctor unravelled completely organically as a succession of individual ideas. The Doctor was a time traveller, always, with a blue box, always. But he became a Gallifreyan, a Time Lord, and the Champion of Time through different authors. He was a crotchety old man, then a tramp. Then James Bond, an authoritative child, everyone’s big brother, and a master manipulator. From a probable human from the year 3000, to a definitive alien, to a 50/50 split and back again. Most of these ideas have no right to work together but they do. We as fans have made sure of that and a picture of Sylvester McCoy is synonymous with one of William Hartnell. We understand, accept, and celebrate them as the same character. I completed my Who pilgrimage in 2019, determined to make a good use of another year without a new series. I filled in gaps, rewatched classics and forced myself through some difficult seasons. It was an experience. I learnt lots and enjoyed more.

But I won’t pretend my eye didn’t begin to wander before I finished the main series. No. Expanded media had beckoned some years before and my views on many of those Doctors had already been strongly forged.

Do You Know, I Once Traveled for Centuries Without Ever Knowing Where I’d Materialise Next?

I became aware of Big Finish around the same time my interest peaked with Series 5 and started listening to a few of the Paul McGann audios. I wasn’t sold at first and certainly missed the visuals. Big Finish wasn’t canon anyway, I had read, so why bother?

The Light at the End in 2013 changed this. Not only was it the first I actually bought on CD (having things in hand has always made a difference to me) but it was fantastic. Paul McGann meeting Tom Baker? Where else would this be possible? Like most of Doctor Who, Big Finish just took a bit of getting used to, to really enjoy it and suffice to say those original McGann tales took on a whole new life when I had an ear for them. Big Finish was canon — after all it had to be: otherwise, why would the actors have so universally flooded back to make them? It gave Colin Baker the incredible run he never got on TV and it gave McGann a run full stop, upgrading him considerably on the dot of material he had so long had, and to some still has.

It’s my favourite arena of Doctor Who continuity. They’ve made more Doctor Who at this stage than has ever been made on television, and in my opinion, it’s been more consistent, more rewarding, and more exciting than any other output. And largely it all adds up inside the main continuity of the show. There are some wobbles I’ll allude to later and the most recent TV series featured a story which could arguably overwrite the McGann classic The Silver Turk (don’t worry, fan theory has it covered on this occasion at least) but overall, the output has remained respectful to the show throughout it’s 20+ year existence, and until recently at least, the show has returned the favour.

Okay Kid, This is Where It Gets Complicated!

Doctor Who was quickly overtaking most and then all of my previous fictional passions. Star Wars had been in ascendance with “The Rise of Disney” in 2015 and for a couple of films at least it held mutual status with Who before “The Last Disney Star Wars Film I Will Ever Buy” came out and Doctor Who became undisputed champion by a spectacular self TKO.

As I garnered a better understanding of the continuity of the audios, including the original BBC ones, and my collection continued to grow (bolstered by funds and space created by selling off the Dark Side of my collectibles), I turned my attention to the biggest, most difficult, and contradictory area of canon. The books had given me pause up until this point. Not only were they known to have intimidating and divisive continuities; they even argued with each other about it from range to range. The Eighth Doctor Adventures were a particularly frustrating range to get my head around at first. While the earliest Eighth Doctor stories for Big Finish were respectful of the previously released material, even referencing early book companion Sam on one occasion, by the 50th release, they were fully looking to assert the idea of separate timelines and realities.

Sam was retconned as a completely different (and utterly underutilized thereafter) earlier companion, Samson, and Zagreus leaves distinct impressions that multiple universes definitely exist between mediums. This assertion has cooled in the years following Gary Russell’s departure as producer and proportionately affects very little of what they’ve done but the references within do remain a frustrating blow to anyone trying to piece together the notion that everything exists within the same continuity.

The decision at the time to view the two mediums as separate arguably affects the Sixth Doctor even more. Between Big Finish and the Past Doctor Adventures, we have two separate and contradictory first meetings of Big Finish creation Evelyn and much-loved TV companion Mel. And while the Big Finish story The Wrong Doctors carefully tries to not step on the toes of the PDA Business Unusual in depicting Mel’s first story, earlier audio adventure The Spectre of Lanyon Moore didn’t take the same care in depicting the Brigadier’s first meeting with the Sixth Doctor which was contrastingly depicted in the same book.

The Eighth Doctor meets Romana in her third incarnation in the books but later in his timeline in the audios meets Romana II with no acknowledgement or reference to timeline disorder.

And the EDAs end with the Eighth Doctor alive but Gallifrey destroyed, something not mentioned or explained in the audios and directly contradicted later when the show came back. In The Night of the Doctor, McGann mentions his companions for Big Finish up until Molly (no love for the yet-to-exist Liv, Helen, Tania, and Bliss) with no mention of the book companions whatsoever, and in the novelisation of The Day of the Doctor, Moffat mentions all of those mentioned in the episode and a singular book companion, Fitz. Which was obviously really helpful for those trying to make sense of things. It’s all a bit of a mess really.

The earlier released Virgin New Adventures predictably don’t simplify things in any way. Not only is the tone different to anything we saw before or indeed after, featuring on occasion explicit violence, sex, swearing, and drug use, but even aside from the style it was contradictory. It’s unique in Doctor Who expanded media for having a heavy direct influence from people who had previously worked on the show in the form of Andrew Cartmel, Marc Platt, and Ben Aaronovitch who had all worked on the acclaimed Seasons 25 and 26. They all wrote individual books (to varying success) and wrote a guideline and overarching story which was similar to what they felt could have happened should it have remained on the air. Most of the famous or infamous story decisions within this are widely known by much of the fandom whether they’ve read Lungbarrow or not. The Doctor was loomed, not born, an asexual form of reproduction devised due to Time Lords being made infertile by a curse. Oh and he was reincarnated from a being called ‘The Other’ who was there at the foundation of Gallifrey, as important an individual to its origin as Omega or even Rassilon. It’s a wild and ambitious twist that I’m sure would never be attempted today, although I’m sure if a showrunner tried something like it, fans would at least give it a chance. As the VNAs concluded, out came the TV Movie with its assertion of the Doctor being half human so the ideas didn’t last long (and certainly weren’t upheld when the show finally returned).

So I certainly wasn’t going to get into that. With books from those ranges combining to make a library of more than 200 that couldn’t even agree with one another and prices for some of the scarcer VNAs spiking at over £100 for a paperback which sold originally at £4.99, it was a fool’s game.

So, what changed? Big Finish of course.

They chose to adapt some VMAs and VNAs. I thought, ‘I’ll get the ones they adapt and leave it there.’ They weren’t supposed to be good, but unfortunately for me they were. I now own a full set of VNAs and VMAs and an exceptionally good chunk of the PDAs and EDAs. A fool’s game.

My latest endeavour, the comics, are arguably even more problematic, the perhaps most famous example being the death of a 20-something Ace, meeting her demise some 30 years before she set up A Charitable Earth in her 50s. And there’s a shape shifting PI who most prefers living out his time as a penguin while travelling with the Sixth Doctor. And the Eighth Doctor absorbs the time vortex at one point and doesn’t have the good manners to even regenerate like the Ninth Doctor. It’s early days but I can’t see too many issues so far.

We’re All Stories in the End. Just Make It a Good One, Eh?

What all of this has taught me so far, other than the fact that I could have paid for the therapy I need to avoid making such rash purchases with the money I’ve spent acquiring it, is that trying to make sense of where things fit in, as fun as it is, is nowhere near as important as finding out how fun those things can be by themselves. And that the quality of stories isn’t in anyway limited to the medium in which it’s told. Despite how much of a mind-probe it is to try to understand how it can work, the far more enjoyable path is working out what you enjoy for yourself within those different mediums. I’ve gone from a new Who fan, to one who then preferred classic Who before deciding that Big Finish was his favourite version. In the past, I’ve despaired of talking penguins and deaths that make no sense, but the lesson I’ve learnt time and time again is that it’s the path of discovery that makes up more than half the fun. Those stories that pain you in principle are sometimes the best.

I mean, just look at Frobisher! He’s got no right to be but he’s great!

I discovered that regardless of medium there are as many Human Nature instalments as there are Fear Hers in terms of quality and while contradictions are frustrating, we do at least have one advantage over other franchises. Time travel is a great excuse for pretty much anything. If Russell T Davies taught us anything, it must be that.

Allow yourself to enjoy things in isolation and don’t let a fascination with a bigger picture drag you down. Don’t bemoan the current show being something that’s not for you, because there are thousands or stories already out there that probably are exactly what you want that you’ve never read or listened to or even heard of. Don’t get caught up in the how or the why. Don’t let a bad story or twist affect your love of a good one. Don’t gate keep. Enjoy. Let others enjoy what you don’t. That’s the kind of series the Doctor would want to collect and follow.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to organise my collection into chronological order. My journey’s not done yet.

Simon Smith

Doctor Who Canon and Me; or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Virgin New Adventures

by Simon Smith time to read: 12 min
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