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Doctor Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Doctor Who Canon

The continuing story of Doctor Who that began on 23rd November 1963 and continues to this day has never been what you might call the most closely plotted of narratives. The very nature of serialised television, made by many various hands over the years, and the sheer amount of story produced means that contradictions are inevitable. Whether it’s the contradictory nature of the various explanations for Alantis sinking (from The Underwater Menace, The Dæmons, and The Time Monster) or exactly when the Third Doctor was running around with his army chums from UNIT, as fans we tend to cope with it.

In fact, we do more than that: we invent convoluted explanations as to why things do make narrative sense. Whole books have been printed, thousands of pages of fanzines written, and gigabytes of websites devoted to trying to make sense of 60 (-ish) years worth of storytelling. It’s not just Doctor Who; Marvel Comics would regularly award “No-Prizes” to readers who could explain apparent contradictions in their comics. In his forward to The Doctor Who Discontinuity Guide (1996), Terrance Dicks described continuity as whatever he “could remember about [his] predecessor’s shows…” and what his “successors could remember of [his]”. Doctor Who and Marvel Comics were never intended primarily for hardcore fans – so strict adherence to established “fact” was never as important as getting an entertaining story out to the audience. Besides, part of the fun of being a fan was sorting all this stuff out.

I, along with many others, accepted this. I understood how the show was made and that I shouldn’t worry too much about it contradicting itself. Luckily Doctor Who Monthly had its regular Matrix Data Bank column where some of these topics were covered (arguably at times making things even more complicated).

Naturally, opinions varied on what the accepted theories were, but what everyone agreed on  was that only contradictions within the TV show needed explaining. Doctor Who stories in other media, be they comic strips, choose your own adventure novels, or World Distributors annuals, didn’t matter. The TV show was the truth, the canon of the narrative; everything else was not real Doctor Who. The central character is not called Doctor Who like he was in those silly Peter Cushing movies or the strips in TV Comic (despite what WOTAN might think) and The Tenth Planet was set in 1986, not the year 2000 as the Target adaptation would have us believe.

And when the show left our screens in 1989, that was it. The story was finished. We had a complete story, to be analysed and enjoyed as we saw fit. Until June 1991, that is, when a fully authorised continuation of the story began. A series of books published by Virgin Books under the umbrella title: Doctor Who: The New Adventures.

Being aimed at a smaller audience, The New Adventures had much tighter continuity within itself than the television show that spawned them. We had an official continuation of the story that built on and expanded the established canon of the television show. Even better, this time stories in other media tied in. When the books introduced the new companion Bernice Summerfield, up she popped in the comic strip running in Doctor Who Magazine. This was unprecedented – never before had spin-off media from a TV or movie franchise been in lock-step. The continuing story of Doctor Who was in safe hands. Established canon would continue to grow and evolve; we knew what counted.

And everything was good, until the BBC decided to bring it back in 1996. The TV Movie from 1996 did more harm to my sense of what counted as canon than the Cushing films ever did… and it wasn’t the “half-human on my mothers side” line.

First of all the BBC decided to not renew the New Adventures’ licence. That in itself was okay, so long as the new set of books didn’t contradict anything that went before (and since they started commissioning writers from the earlier range, that appeared unlikely – but boy were some fans worried at the time).

However, a knock-on effect of this occurred in the comic strip and a story called Ground Zero. Up until the publication of this story, we were happy with the ultimate fate of the Doctor’s companion Ace as described in Kate Orman’s 1995 novel Set Piece: becoming Time’s Vigilante (hopping between time-zones on a motorbike). The Doctor had continued his adventures with Bernice (and later future-cop double-act Roz Forrester and Chris Cwej). This was my canon. This was the story I had been following since the show ended. And the story the comic strip had been part of.

Suddenly the comics strip is giving us a different final story for the Doctor and Ace, one that killed Ace off. To make matters worse, this story led into the continuing comic strip adventures of the Eighth Doctor. Two canons? Maybe neither counted; after all, the television show trumps all when we talk about established canon. Let’s see how the new series is coming along. We can watch that and stop worrying about the books and comic strips. Only, as we now know, there was no TV show forthcoming.

The latter part of the so-called Wilderness Years, following that one night in 1996 when Paul McGann dazzled us all, is odd when it comes to the Doctor Who canon. Being part of the audience of this material as it came out changed my relationship with the ongoing story. There were two distinct strands of narrative – the continuing comic strip and the BBC book range. These two strands soon became three when Big Finish hired Paul McGann to continue the Eighth Doctor’s adventures as audio plays. Who was the Doctor’s current companion: Sam (in the books), Izzy (in the comic strip), or Charley (in the audios)? Did all these stories actually slot together somehow? If they did, what about the climax of Ace’s story that was part of the established comic continuity? How did that fit in?

I remember thinking at the time that continuity had literally exploded.

And then, in the quiet after the explosion; as I picked through the debris of stories and ideas I realised it didn’t matter. The wonderful thing about Doctor Who is that it doesn’t make sense, not really. It’s about people travelling through time and space in a Police Box from the 1950s. Whether the person at the controls is called the Doctor or Doctor Who, or if his granddaughter is called Susan or Gillian – none of this matters.

And because none of it matters, it all matters.

It’s the stories that count and whether they thrill and amaze us. Whether they make us laugh or cry. The day Doctor Who continuity exploded and I learnt to stop worrying about canon was the day I started loving Doctor Who more than ever.

I even went back and watched the Peter Cushing films and read some old TV Comic strips. They were rather fun…

Leon Hewitt

Doctor Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Doctor Who Canon

by Leon Hewitt time to read: 5 min
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