The War Doctor’s regeneration was a sudden and unexpected event at the end of Doctor Who‘s 50th anniversary special. How does it fit into the main Doctor Who timeline?
For those of you who don’t know, the War Doctor is (technically) the ninth incarnation of our favourite Time Lord. Although he wasn’t introduced until 2013, long after the real Ninth, Tenth and Eleventh Doctors made their debuts. And they have all retained their numbering, as the Doctor is a bit coy about the incarnation that fought in the Time War; he’s the one that he (or she) doesn’t speak about. In a way, the War Doctor isn’t a real version of the Doctor at all.
Played by John Hurt, the War Doctor had to be slotted into the Doctor Who roster retrospectively, meaning that his first appearance – and his death – were hurriedly explained. We’ve mentioned in a previous article how he came into being, following on from the Eighth Doctor after he drank the elixir of the Sisterhood of Karn. But his death was a somewhat swifter affair, and it’s still not entirely clear how he died.
The key moment came at the end of ‘The Day of the Doctor,’ with the War Doctor taking off in his TARDIS. Suddenly his hands began to glow, and the resigned Time Lord said, “Yes, of course, I suppose it makes sense. Wearing a bit thin…” This is a reference to the First Doctor’s regeneration, where the dying Doctor made a similar comment about his own body. The implication was that time was simply catching up with him. He was, to all intents and purposes, dying of old age.
And whilst the plausibility of this can be debated (given that the War Doctor seemed to be in perfect health when he left in the TARDIS) the big question is, which body is John Hurt’s Doctor regenerating into? It’s strongly implied that he is turning into the Ninth Doctor (Christopher Eccleston) although this is never explicitly shown on screen. Eccleston had declined to appear in the 50th anniversary special, and even though an appearance could have been faked with CGI wizardry, the production team decided against it as it could have been misleading; they didn’t want to give the impression that Eccleston had actually joined them on set.
But if you look closely, you may see the faintest hint of the Ninth Doctor’s eyes as the regeneration process finishes…
It is very likely, therefore, that the War Doctor turns into the Eccleston’s Doctor at the end of the 50th anniversary special. Although, these days, there is a big question mark hanging over the Doctor’s incarnations, and when they all happened. The 2021 episode ‘The Timeless Children‘ made dramatic changes to the established Doctor Who canon, revealing that the First Doctor was, in fact, a little girl who was found at the gateway to another dimension on a mysterious alien world. She was rescued by a traveller and scientist named Tecteun, who sought to understand this child’s regenerative abilities.
As a result, the Doctor actually became fundamental to the founding of Gallifreyan society. But more importantly, in ‘The Timeless Children’ the young Doctor is seen to regenerate countless times as they are experimented on by Tecteun, and we know from ‘Fugitive of the Judoon’ that there are many other forgotten incarnations of the Doctor wandering the cosmos – incarnations that came long before William Hartnell.
So could the same be true for the War Doctor? It’s certainly possible that a number of other forgotten incarnations could have come between Hurt and Eccleston – and who knows, maybe a future showrunner will pick up on this plot point. Certainly, many people have speculated about the regeneration between the Second and Third Doctors over the years. The transition between these two Time Lords was never shown on screen, so it’s possible that the Doctor could have worn some other bodies before settling on the Jon Pertwee incarnation.
Most people, though, will settle on the established order of things – Patrick Troughton regenerated into Jon Pertwee, and the War Doctor regenerated into the Ninth. Searching for other explanations has the potential for all kinds of headaches, and re-numbering the Doctors is always a risky business. Think of all those tattoos that would need to be redone!
And whilst the War Doctor’s incarnation was one of the briefest in Doctor Who history, his story has been greatly expanded by the audio company Big Finish, who have produced a plethora of box sets chronicling his adventures during the Time War. Moreover, the company has started releasing a new series of origin box sets, subtitled The War Doctor Begins. The first of these picks up straight after the War Doctor’s first appearance in ‘The Night of the Doctor,’ and explains how he became the hard-bitten fighter that we see in the 50th anniversary special.
So, whilst the War Doctor’s regeneration may have been a swift and somewhat unexpected affair, it did bring some continuity to the Doctor Who timeline, if we accept that John Hurt was changing into Christopher Eccleston. In our next blog post, we’ll explore the departure of the Ninth Doctor – an event that took place some eight years earlier (wibbley wobbley, timey wimey.) See you there.
How do you think the War Doctor’s regeneration fits into the Doctor Who timeline? Do you think John Hurt was really regenerating into Christopher Eccleston? Let me know in the comments below.
Thirteenth Doctor scarf – order now from the Lovarzi shop!