Doctor Who: Past Lives

Every now and again, Doctor Who releases a multi-Doctor story. It’s always fun to watch the Doctor interact with some of their past lives. More often than not, there’s a lot of sniping, some jokes at each others’ expense, but an eventual, if grudging, respect.

It tells us a lot about the character. The scenes and stories where the Doctor has to interact with their younger selves can show us how the character has grown. What has the Doctor learned, what are they still learning, and what can they learn from their past?

I think it is beyond simply the desire to see the old actors back on screen again that makes multi-Doctor stories so popular. It is a chance for the show to dip back into its roots, a chance to see what worked in the past, and try it out with a modern audience.

So, let’s take a look back at some of the best Multi-Doctor stories from the series and have a think about what we learn from each of them. If you haven’t seen all of them, it’s probably a good idea to check them out!

The Two Doctors

I have a feeling this story might appeal to Steven Moffat era fans. There are quite a few “Timey-Wimey” elements as well as a bunch of hilarious one-liners. This story really delves into the consequences for the current Doctor when something happens to the Doctor’s past self. Time echoes up through the regenerations, and as the Second Doctor falls pray to certain influences, so too does the Sixth.

In this story we get something of a common theme in multi-Doctor stories. Often (though not always) we find the younger Doctor (the older actor) getting the better of the older Doctor (the younger actor). Here, the Second Doctor ends the episode with a bit of a triumph over the Sixth, and there are plenty of moments where he demonstrates he is a bit cleverer, too.

I do wonder if this has something to do with the perception that the older actor must be playing the wiser character. Even if, in canon, the younger actor is portraying an ‘older’ character. Or, does it have more to do with nostalgia? People remember the previous Doctor with fondness, and so would like to see them do well. Having the newer Doctor prove how clever they are and, by implication, insist on how stupid the old Doctor was seems a bit mean.

We see this play out in The Three Doctors.

The Three Doctors

Here, the First Doctor, the youngest of all, is something of a consultant. He watches everything from afar, with a little disdain all the while. Some of this was due to Hartnell’s health conditions at the time. But, this was the first multi-Doctor story (and still one of the best) and as such it set a precedent.

This story focuses on the relationship between the Second and Third Doctors, and does so in a remarkably balanced way. It is tempting with a multi-Doctor story to favour one over the others, but here Two and Three are balanced out quite nicely. They bicker, they annoy one another, but, ultimately, they do learn from one another.

It is interesting to note that after this story, the Third Doctor does become a little less up tight. This may be down to Pertwee settling into the role fully and being more comfortable with it, but in the fiction, it is nice to assume he learned from his younger self.

Where things get a little more confusing is in the Five Doctors…

The Five Doctors

There had been plans to fully integrate the Fourth Doctor into the story, and drafts of scripts and story outlines exist to that effect. Alas, due to Tom Baker deciding against being involved, the story shifted a little towards the Fifth Doctor. But, had they kept to it, we might have had a more interesting idea to look at.

Baker had been so cemented in the role that revisiting his Doctor would unavoidably taken over the whole show. Given that Baker has something of a big personality, and was one of the most popular actors to ever play the part, it might have upstaged Peter Davison.

Yet, the story does its best to shuffle between the Doctors and, for the most part, keeps the separate. It is only towards the end that they interact and we see a lot of the old bickering start up again. Once more, it is the First Doctor who must act as babysitter to the Second and Third.

Time Crash

Written by Steven Moffat, Time Crash was the first multi-Doctor story of the modern era. Though not a full length episode, it is an interesting thing to consider. We see a lot of Steven Moffat’s self deprecating humor projected onto the Doctor, pointing out the flaws and discrepancies perceived in the classic era. All while also making fun of Peter Davison being old and fat.

We would see some of this return in Twice Upon a Time. I’m never quite sure how to feel about this brand of humour. It often comes across as an attempt to deflect any criticism that might be flung at the show by saying “yes, we know, things were different back in the day, but now we’re making fun of it so it’s fine”.

Once again, we would see this made much more explicit when the Twelfth Doctor meets the First. But, for something completely contrasting, let’s take a look at the Fiftieth anniversary…

The Day of the Doctor

The Tenth and Eleventh Doctors interactions are, for the most part, fairly cordial. They get on quite well and don’t bicker quite so much as other incarnations have done. Moreover, they both act incredibly uncomfortable around the War Doctor.

Though it begins with the Eleventh Doctor mocking the Tenth’s appearance and dress, they very quickly find common ground. I got the impression that given Tennant’s popularity, Moffat was hesitant to fully comit to as an offensive stream as he gave Davison.

The character who is treated most sympathetically is the War Doctor. A character to whom the audience has no connection at this point. Which makes sense; you want to build the tension and make that connection. Meanwhile, the Tenth and Eleventh Doctors have had most of their development at this point. They’ve had their highs and lows, so all that’s left for them in most of this episode is showing off a bit.

This is, I think, the closest Moffat comes to treating a Doctor with some level of gravitas and complexity. He comes close again with the Twelfth Doctor at times, but still maintains distance through humour. Not to say humour is necessarily bad, but it is rare we get to really know the Doctor’s fears, inner thoughts, and concerns.

Twice Upon a Time

In many ways, this story almost didn’t exist. Indeed, Steven Moffat wasn’t even sure he was going to write the Christmas Special, by all accounts. There are plenty of jokes, plenty of interesting moments, but the lasting memory is of how the First Doctor is presented.

Many of the social and political ideologies of the 60s were superimposed on the Doctor here and a lot of people more knowledgeable than me have critiqued this in detail. Was the Doctor really as big of a sexist as he is presented here? I don’t know if that argument has a lot going for it.

David Bradley’s portrayal is the best thing about this episode. He does it with a dignity and gravity we rarely see. In the moments of emotion that do happen, he delivers them with the skill and finesse for which he was cast.

Indeed, this episode feeds into a theory of mine about the Steven Moffat era. That is that Moffat saw his version of the show as a continuation of the classic series, and not a continuation of the Russell T Davies era. Or, at least, that is where he felt most comfortable as a writer. But, that is a topic for another time.

This is perhaps one of the few multi Doctor stories where the First (and youngest) Doctor is treated as such. Twelve maintains his authority and much of the dialogue is dedicated to putting down the First Doctor, or mocking his character. Not that Twelve doesn’t get some fun poked at him, too. But it does sometimes feel a little mean spirited.

Other Media

There are countless multi-Doctor stories across other media. Audio, books, and comics have all delved into this rich vein. And, depending on how you count characters like the Valeyard, there could be even more.

One that I particularly enjoyed was Big Finish’s ‘The Light at the End’, a special written for the Fiftieth Anniversary. It’s very silly, while trying to be very serious at times. It has all the usual hallmarks of Big Finish’s complexity, and while it’s nowhere near perfect, I think it’s worth a listen.