How dare he?!
Where were you when he did it? When our big time showrunner took Doctor Who history and twisted it? Suddenly, our precious numbering system of Doctors was compromised! A never before seen incarnation popping up out of nowhere, an unlikely intruder! Just the excuse his detractors needed to rake him over the coals once again. The ego of the man! The thing we’d seen during his three series… The history of the show, changed forever more. Now, it’ll–
Oh, no no no. I’m not talking about the Timeless Child.
I’m talking about when Steven Moffat brought in the War Doctor! What a difference a showrunner makes, eh?
It got me to thinking about how circumstances and especially skill play an important part when it comes to big moves, or earthshaking developments in a show like Doctor Who.
When it came time for Doctor Who‘s 50th anniversary, Steven Moffat had to alter his plans quite a few times when crafting the anniversary special. In the end, since Christopher Eccleston prove ultimately unavailable, Moffat chose to reveal a hidden incarnation of our beloved character and insert him in between McGann and Eccleston.
My lead paragraph could easily have represented the prevailing mood of all fandom, because this character really did come out of nowhere, threatening to upend the Gallifreyan applecart, and divide fandom….
If not for the fact that it was Moffat who skillfully put it together, and that he cast John Freakin’ Hurt in the role of the War Doctor.
When you’re operating with a reputation for being pretty much the best writer of Doctor Who over the last 30 years — the Robert Holmes of this era — you can get away with a lot. Honestly, I don’t remember anyone complaining about adding the War Doctor into the timeline. There may well have been people who were unhappy with the development, but I never heard about it.
In that case, it all came about because in a time sensitive situation where an important actor was not available — for a big event. The term “desperate” could easily come to mind. But things went ahead, and it was marvelous.
Only six years and five series later, Chris Chibnall decided to put his stamp on the program with another earthshaking development in the form of the Timeless Child. He’d already destroyed Gallifrey… again (after RTD), and focused on bringing in his own extra Doctor from the past. But he went one step further, by retconning the Doctor’s entire history. It was now revealed that the Doctor was not a Time Lord, and did not come from Gallifrey, or even this universe. And was possibly the oldest creature in all of creation.
Evidently, seeing those extra faces on screen in The Brain of Morbius, young Chibnall thought they needed explaining. In the end, the Doctor was, in essence, a very different character to the one we thought.
It was the definition of bold. It divided fandom more than any development in the show’s past. But again, circumstances. This time, the showrunner had a checkered history and was not regarded by most as a top-quality writer. The prevailing mood heading into the Series 12 finale was less positive than at any time in 21st Century Who. The execution of the finale, the presentation of the Doctor, and the reveal of the Doctor’s past did not go over well with much of the fan base.
But the Timeless Child concept in itself is fascinating. Maybe part of the problem was shoving it into Doctor Who the way it was, amidst slaughter, chaos, a muddied story, and the reveal delivered by a raving lunatic? So the question must be asked: would we have accepted it a little more readily if it had come from someone else? Someone like Russell or Steven?
There have been direction changes in the show before, such as with Jon Pertwee. Gallifrey has been destroyed before. We’ve seen a previously unknown Doctor before. Even a Doctor who lived 4.5 billion years in one story. We’ve seen most of this before, and done really well. Chibnall just went one big step deeper into the water.
So was the concept itself really that bad?
Or was it the circumstances along with the execution?