With 60 years of Doctor Who lore under our belts, how much do we really know about the most mysterious being in the cosmos?
According to Doctor Who lore, the oldest question in the universe is simple, and hidden in plain sight: “Doctor who?” And for fans of this classic SF series, the mystery of the main character’s identity is quite literally in the name, and dates back to the very first episode. We don’t really know who the Doctor is, and yet – remarkably – quite a lot has been revealed since 1963.
When we first encountered the Doctor, all we knew was that he came from “another time, another world,” and that he and his granddaughter were cut off from their own people “without friends or protection.”
And this is the only Doctor Who lore that fans were afforded prior to the 1966 story ‘The War Games,’ where the Doctor was forced to summon the help of his own people, the Time Lords, in order to solve a problem too big for him to handle.
But it came at a price. The Doctor, it turned out, was something of a wanted man; he had stolen his time and space machine the TARDIS in order to escape the confines of Time Lord society – a technologically-advanced civilisation which swore not to interfere in the affairs of other planets, but vowed to observe only from afar. The Doctor was bored of this way of living, and wanted out.
And this piece of Doctor Who lore was reinforced in the 2013 episode ‘The Name of the Doctor’ where viewers actually got to see the First Doctor and his granddaughter Susan steal the TARDIS from Gallifrey. But it was revealed that the Doctor’s future companion Clara had actually interfered with this event (having entered his time stream) and coaxed the Doctor into choosing a more rickety Type 40 TARDIS.
And so, for many years, Doctor Who lore stated that the Time Lord left his home planet out of boredom, although it was later revealed in the 2015 episode ‘Heaven Sent’ that the truth was much deeper than this. The Doctor ran away because he was scared – a confession that was forced out of him by a mysterious creature known as the Veil.
What is less clear, though, is what the Doctor was doing on Gallifrey before he acquired the TARDIS. We saw a brief glimpse of him as a child in the 2014 episode ‘Listen,’ where he was hiding in a barn on Gallifrey, and crying out of fear. We also know that he belonged to the Prydonian Chapter of the Gallifreyan Academy, where one of his fellow students was a man called the Master – a one-time friend who would later become his enemy.
Moreover, the 2007 episode ‘The Sound of Drums’ added a bit more colour to this particular piece of Doctor Who lore, where it was revealed that the children of Gallifrey were invited to look into the Untempered Schism – a crack in reality – which would either inspire, frighten, or turn a person insane. The Doctor, apparently, ran away from the Schism in fear.
But whether or not this was connected his so-called “blackest day” remains unclear. This is another piece of Doctor Who lore which was referenced in the 1972 story ‘The Time Monster,’ where the Doctor recounted a tale from his childhood in which he sought solace from a hermit who lived near his house, which was perched halfway up a mountain.
“He’d lived under this tree for half his lifetime, so they said, and had learnt the secret of life,” the Doctor explained. “So, when my black day came, I went and asked him to help me… All bleak and cold, it was. A few bare rocks with some weeds sprouting from them and some pathetic little patches of sludgy snow. It was just grey. Grey, grey, grey…
“He just sat there silently, expressionless, and he listened whilst I poured out my troubles to him. I was too unhappy even for tears, I remember. And when I’d finished, he lifted a skeletal hand and he pointed. Do you know what he pointed at? … A flower. One of those little weeds. Just like a daisy, it was. Well, I looked at it for a moment and suddenly I saw it through his eyes. It was simply glowing with life, like a perfectly cut jewel, and the colours… the colours were deeper and richer than anything you could possibly imagine. Yes, it was the daisiest daisy I’d ever seen.”
So whatever the truth behind this piece of Doctor Who lore, it is clear that the Doctor’s childhood was rife with fear and unhappiness. And when Doctor Who lore was expanded in the 2020 episode ‘The Timeless Children,’ it began to make more sense.
‘The Timeless Children’ posited that the Doctor actually came from a different dimension, and that he had originally been a little girl. She had been taken by a traveller called Tecteun, who experimented on the girl after she discovered her ability to regenerate. Tecteun then learned the secret of this regenerative ability, and transplanted it into the people of Gallifrey. Time Lords, it turned out, acquired their regenerative abilities from the Doctor.
And it’s fair to say that this particular piece of Doctor Who lore split the Doctor Who community, but it’s not a revelation that’s set in stone. It was made by the Master, after all, who isn’t known for his truthfulness. Moreover, he acquired the information from the Matrix – the Gallifreyan data deposit – which can be easily manipulated to display events which never actually occurred.
But one of the objections to ‘The Timeless Children’ (and indeed to any new piece of Doctor Who lore) was that it revealed too much about the Doctor’s backstory. The main character is meant to be mysterious and unknowable, after all – even though ‘The Timeless Children’ raised more questions than it answered.
For example, viewers still haven’t been told what the Doctor’s early adult life was like. ‘The Timeless Children’ stated that he had been involved in a shadowy organisation known as the Division, and the 1988 story ‘Remembrance of the Daleks‘ inferred that the Doctor had been instrumental in the creation of time travel technology, alongside the high-ranking Time Lords Omega and Rassilon.
And he did have a real name – a name which was known only to the Doctor and somehow related to the “time of chaos” on Gallifrey. To date, the only people who are confirmed to know this name are the Statue of Nemesis, Lady Peinforte, and the space archaeologist River Song. But he did let slip in ‘The Happiness Patrol’ that his college nickname was Theta Sigma.
So there we are. As you can see, Doctor Who lore is actually quite rich, even though the Time Lord’s real identity is still shrouded in mystery. But do we know too much about him? Or do we still know too little? Let me know in the comments below.