Why the Doctor Became So Important
Something a lot of Doctor Who fans have noticed as a trend since 2005 is that the Doctor has become the most important person in the universe. Time and time again, the world is saved just because the Doctor is so famous, important, and special.
While the later series did some work to critique this approach, it has still generally remained a major theme of the series since its revival. There are fans who enjoy it, and those who do not and then there are people who are indifferent. But, as a theme, I do find it interesting and worth looking at. So, let’s ask the question; why has the Doctor become so important?
Old and New
Back in the classic series, the Doctor was, generally, just a traveller. A wanderer in the fourth dimension, accidentally stumbling into major events. For most of the series, the Doctor was considered an annoyance by the Time Lords, called upon occasionally to do some dirty work.
There were a couple of times where the Doctor was a big deal. In The Three Doctors, the Time Lords are under attack by Omega and call upon the Doctor for help. There is a mischievousness about the manner in which this is done, however. The Doctor is an easy mark, almost a disposable tool to the Time Lords, but they do put a lot of effort into him.
Later, he is brought in again by the Time Lords to avert the creation, or at least divert the development of, the Daleks. This was, according to Russell T Davies, the first act of the Time War. Still, this is simply a secret mission and the Doctor is a useful tool to their ends.
With The Deadly Assassin, things start to move ever so slightly. Due to an obscure rule, the Doctor manages to avoid prosecution by the Time Lords by submitting his candidacy for Lord President of the High Council. Coincidentally, at the end of this adventure, all other candidates are dead. When we return in The Invasion of Time, thanks to a technicality, the Doctor has indeed become the Lord President!
When the Five Doctors rolls around, the Doctor’s old teacher Borusa has been elected president. His long standing ‘friendship’ with the Doctor leads him to use the Doctor as, again, a tool for his own ends.
So far, many of these instances have been coincidences and lucky (or not so lucky) happenings. When the Seventh Doctor’s era really gets going, deeper hints were made.
Andrew Cartmel, the script editor at the time, had plans to reveal secrets about the Doctor’s origins. In Remembrance of the Daleks, while discussing The Hand of Omega, the Doctor refers to its creation on Gallifrey…
DOCTOR: The Hand of Omega is a mythical name for Omega’s remote stellar manipulator, a device used to customise stars with. And didn’t we have trouble with the prototype.
Later in the same story, the Doctor gives a speech, listing his titles and responsibilities. It is, perhaps, the first time we see the Doctor as a mythic figure.
DOCTOR: This is the Doctor, President Elect of the High Council of Time Lords, Keeper of the legacy of Rassilon, Defender of the Laws of Time, Protector of Gallifrey. I call upon you to surrender the Hand of Omega and return to your customary time and place.
This theme would be explored even further in the Seventh Doctor’s time. Stories like Battlefield, Silver Nemesis, The Curse of Fenric, all contain allusions to the Doctor’s wider identity.
PEINFORTE: Doctor who? Have you never wondered where he came from, who he is?
ACE: Nobody knows who the Doctor is.
PEINFORTE: Except me.
Cartmel had plans for more to be revealed about the Doctor’s past and significance, but the show was cancelled before any of it could be unveiled. There are books and audio dramas that deal with some of the concepts he would have used, but as far as the TV series goes, that was it for a long while.
The Oncoming Storm
When the show returned in 2005 we start to see an uptick in the mythologising of the Doctor. It begins in the first episode, Rose, where we meet Clive. He is something of a light hearted stereotype of the old school Doctor Who fan. I can imagine Russell T Davies himself probably had a shed in which he kept his Who memorabilia, much to the amusement of his husband.
Clive explicitly states that ‘the Doctor is a legend woven throughout time’. He paints the Doctor with poetic language and lets us know that this man is dangerous, and incredible all at once. This very much sets the tone for the series in some ways. As it happened so early on, it’s still lingering in the back of our minds by the time we reach the finale and the Doctor reveals more about himself.
DOCTOR: Do you know what they call me in the ancient legends of the Dalek Homeworld? The Oncoming Storm. You might’ve removed all your emotions but I reckon right down deep in your DNA, there’s one little spark left, and that’s fear. Doesn’t it just burn when you face me?
And things only grow from there. With secret societies both terrestrial and extraterrestrial dedicated to the Doctor, stories passed around, the famous ‘Jesus Doctor’ moment from Last of the Time Lords; it just kept going. The question is why?
A legend in real life
You have to remember that the people writing Doctor Who now were fans of the show growing up. Both Davies and Moffat have talked extensively about their love of the show when they were young and how it had an impact on them.
It perhaps makes sense that the Doctor might become this very legend. If you grew up seeing the Doctor chase away the terrifying monsters, save the world, and be brilliant and funny the whole time, that will leave an impact.
If you look at how both Davies and Moffat write the Doctor, you do get the sense that they see the character very much as a metaphor for the show itself. Now, yes, it may go too far on occasion and the show has had to pull back on it a few times.
Of course, it also has to be acknowledged that in the show the Doctor has done some incredible things that will get you noticed. If the show didn’t at least do a nod to that it would be strange. As it stands, the later series have become a little more critical of this view from time to time and the Doctor has had to face the consequences of his legacy.
The Eleventh Hour
Take a look, for example, at The Eleventh Hour, Steven Moffat’s first episode as show runner. Here the Doctor lands in Amelia Pond’s garden and enchants her with silliness and out of this world concepts. Together they see an eye look through the wall of her bedroom, and he seems to save her from it. Then, he disappears, leaving her to grow up imagining what this strange man was and to build him up in her mind. It is not until she is an adult that the Doctor returns and she can join him on adventures once more.
Doctor Who, the show, crashed into people’s homes when they were young in the 60s, 70s and 80s. It brought amazing stories and ideas to the minds of children and invited them to join the adventure. But then it went away, it disappeared for a long time. All those children grew up remembering the old man in his blue box who came to stop the monsters.
Then, one day, the Doctor came back. By now, the children had grown up, become writers, and were now offered the chance to join the Doctor’s adventures themselves. It is, perhaps, the perfect metaphor for the show.
As Moffat’s run has continued, though, he has become somewhat self reflective at times. Episodes like Into the Dalek seem to be a metaphor for how he was loose inside Russell’s machine, making adjustments and changing things.
Chris Chibnall’s relationship to the show as a youngster is somewhat well documented. He was, famously, seen critiquing the show on national television and telling Pip and Jane Baker what’s what. Obviously, he’s had a lot of time to change and grow since then.
Will Chibnall have a similar attachment to the Doctor as a metaphor for the show? Or, are audiences tired of that? It remains to be seen. With all the changes already being made to the format and behind the scenes makeup of the show, it wouldn’t surprise me if things shifted.
It’s a new era for Doctor Who, but the people writing it are still, mostly, those who grew up with it. And if you grew up with a hero, it’s hard to not idolise them. You see it in comic books as well when long time fans get to write their favourite characters (or make their favourite version of a character come back and supplant the current one because the one they grew up on was “more iconic”).
I remain optimistic about the coming Chibnall era, and this is one area I will be keeping an eye on.