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‘Doctor Who’ Is a Convoluted Mess I Still Love

Doctor... who?

James Pardon/BBC Studios/BBC America

I am a totally over-the-moon fan of Doctor Who. I’ve stuck with it through thick and thin, highs and lows, and beyond. But if I’m being honest, totally honest, Doctor Who is a convoluted mess, and it has me worried for the future of the show I love.

Warning: In the words of River Song: Spoilers. This article will discuss heavy spoilers, including the recent revelation concerning the newly regenerated Doctor. If you haven’t watched the very latest episode, don’t go any further. You have been warned.
Josh Hendrickson dressed up as the 10th and 11th Doctor
I probably should be more embarrassed by these photos than I am.Julia Hendrickson / Review Geek

Before I get into the mess that is Doctor Who, let’s get into my pedigree as a fan. I’ve been watching Doctor Who since the Eighth Doctor. Yes, I saw the TV Film, and as a wee child, I liked it and wondered when we’d get more. That was in 1996, and the answer ended up being “not until 2005.” A long wait, wherein I almost forgot about the Doctor entirely.

But in 2005, Doctor Who made a triumphant return, and I fell back in love. Fanatic love, you might say. I own a dozen sonic screwdrivers and several Doctor Who coat replicas and have gone to multiple Halloweens dressed as numerous Doctors. But the biggest cap in my feather may be that I spent my own wedding dressed as the Tenth Doctor, in a custom suit and an official replica of his iconic brown trench coat.

Yeah, I’d probably fit right in with that LINDA lot. But I’m worried. Not because I don’t love Doctor Who anymore, I do despite some very low lows in recent years. I’m worried because the show is now a convoluted mess. And the latest change somehow managed to make it worse.

Modern Who: A Simple Beginning

Five coats from the 'Doctor Who' series and a half dozen sonic screwdriver toys
Five coats from four different Doctors. Josh Hendrickson/Review Geek

Doctor Who has been around for a long time. The first episode aired on November 23rd, 1963. In the beginning, it had almost no mythos. You had an old man, his granddaughter, two unwilling companions, and a time machine. Over the course of several decades, the writers added more and more details, fleshing out the universe and the nature of the Doctor. Then it went off the air in 1989. It returned for one brief TV Film meant to relaunch the show in 1996. That failed, but a second attempt took off in 2005.

The content from 2005 is often referred to as “NuWho,” partly because it’s very different from the classic show that came before it. But it’s not a remake in a whole new continuity. It follows the same story and stars the same Doctor. Thankfully, since it had been off the air for so long, the show wisely reintroduced all the concepts slowly.

In the beginning, here’s what you needed to know: The Doctor, despite looking like a human, is an alien. He’s a Time Lord, and he can travel through time and space with his ship called the TARDIS (Time And Relative Dimension In Space). That TARDIS is somehow bigger on the inside and looks like a small Police Box. If the Doctor is dying for nearly any reason, he can choose to “regenerate.” That process completely rewrites his DNA, healing all wounds and changing how he looks and even facets of his personality. He’s still the same person, with the same memories and the same underlying ethics. But he might be more short-tempered, happier, more organized, or prone to forgetting whether he started a list with 1 or A.

That last bit is a convenient SciFi excuse to change the lead actor anytime the current one wants to move on from the role. And a fair bit better than “he got plastic surgery,” if you ask me. That was all you really needed to know, which is already a lot. But with decades of mythos, things could easily get convoluted. Slowly the show has reintroduced more and more of the original concepts, but that’s not the problem. The problem is the revisions of Modern Who lore that started not long after launch.

Last of the Time Lords, Or Not, Or Maybe Yes

The Doctor Who Logo

Let’s start with the status of the Doctor as a Time Lord. The Time Lords aren’t a race of people so much as a creed (depending on the year…). They’re from the planet Gallifrey, and it’s more or less established that while all Time Lords are Gallifreyan (with maybe some possible exceptions), not all Gallifreyans are Time Lords. The Time Lords are the ones that get to travel through time and space and regenerate. Except they usually don’t travel through time and space because of a policy of non-interference. Leave the timeline be, as it were.

That’s all confusing, but NuWho made a wise choice to sidestep that. When Doctor Who launched, the 9th Doctor (we’ll get into numbering in just a bit) announced something tragic: he’s the last of the Time Lords. His entire planet was destroyed—by him. To stop a war between the Time Lords and his greatest enemies, the Daleks.

That sidestepped all the confusing Time Lord stuff. You don’t really need to know their history, policies, governance, or anything else the show introduced over the years because they’re gone. But they didn’t stay gone. By the time the 10th Doctor left the show, we had learned at least one other Time Lord had survived, the Master (the Moriarty to the Doctor’s Sherlock). He dies forever. And then comes back. And then dies forever. And then comes back for the 12th Doctor. And then died forever, for reals this time, only to come back for the 13th Doctor. And now he’s maybe dead again.

But, oh, it gets more confusing from there. By the time we leave the 11th Doctor, we find out the Doctor didn’t really blow up his planet. He hid it in a pocket of space outside the universe. So there are Time Lords, after all, but they are lost forever. But then the 12th Doctor’s run tells us they escaped and are just at “the end of time.” So now they could be back! They can travel in time, after all. And by the end of the 13th Doctor’s run, they are all dead again. Sort of. Maybe. Probably not. It’s hard to say.

How Many Doctors Are There Again?

A still of a 'Doctor Who' episode showing The Master
OK Kid, this is where it gets complicated., James Pardon/BBC America

You may have noticed that I refer to the Doctor as “the 10th doctor” or the “13th Doctor.” That’s an official convention that refers to the various versions of the Doctor played by different actors. The 1st Doctor is the very first one seen at the start of the show in 1963, played by William Hartnell. When Patrick Troughton took over, he still played the Doctor, but in the real world, we refer to him as the 2nd Doctor to differentiate the two eras.

That continued through the relaunch of Doctor Who. When the show left the air in 1989, we were on the 7th Doctor, played by Sylvester McCoy. He appeared briefly in the TV Film 1996 episode before handing the reigns over to the 8th Doctor, played by Paul McGann. Then the show relaunched, and we were introduced to the 9th Doctor (Christopher Eccleston) with no explanation as to how the 8th Doctor regenerated.

All of this matters in-universe because it is established in the show that Time Lords can only regenerate 12 times for a total of “13 lives.” When we hit the 13th Doctor, either the story would have to stop, or the show would need to find a way around the rule. With each regeneration, fans began to anticipate what it would mean.

But again, NuWho made things more convoluted. Quickly. At one point, the 10th Doctor regenerates… into himself. Rather than a new actor taking up the role, David Tennant continued on for the rest of the season. He used some sciencey trickery to force the regeneration to heal his life-threatening wounds but keep his face. Did that actually count as a regeneration? No one knew for sure.

When Matt Smith took over the role after David Tennant left, officially the BBC referred to him as the 11th Doctor. So maybe the 10 to 10 regeneration didn’t count? During the 11th Doctor’s run, we find out about a Doctor we’d never seen in the show. He existed between the 8th and 9th Doctor and was masterfully played by John Hurt. He doesn’t get a number, though, and is instead referred to as the “War Doctor.” By the end of the 11th Doctor’s run, things are clarified. The 10th to 10th regeneration DOES count, along with the War Doctor, of course. So the 11th Doctor (played by Matt Smith) is, in fact, the 13th Doctor and can’t regenerate. At least not without the help of the Time Lords, who are currently stuck in a pocket universe.

But the show must go on, so through some wibbly wobbly timey wimey convenientness, the Time Lords return just long enough to grant the Doctor a new set of regenerations. How many? Unclear. And Matt Smith’s officially 11th (actually 13th Doctor) regenerates into Peter Capaldi’s officially 12th Doctor (actually 14th Doctor). It should all be clear from there, right? Take the official number and add 2 for the in-universe reality.

And then along came the officially 13th (actually 15th) Doctor, played by Jodie Whittaker. During her run (yes, her, for the first time, the Doctor regenerates into a female), we find out something new in an arc referred to as “the Timeless Child.” The 1st Doctor wasn’t actually the 1st Doctor. The Doctor isn’t even a Time Lord, but in fact, predates the Time Lords. We meet a new Doctor from before the 1st Doctor (referred to as the Fugitive for reasons I don’t have time for), we see an original incarnation (maybe, we think), plus a half dozen more. And there may be even more. The Doctor just doesn’t remember any of these incarnations before the 1st Doctor. The numbers literally don’t mean anything anymore.

And if you think the latest head writer, Chris Chibnali, is retconning crazy things out of the hat, here’s the crazy part: he isn’t. Several classic Doctor Who episodes implied that the 1st Doctor wasn’t the 1st Doctor. And that the Doctor is actually an ancient figure responsible for the formation of the Time Lords. That was part of the “master plan” for a full reveal before the show went off the air originally.

But the beauty of the relaunch was dumping (or at least ignoring) some of the super complications that made everything hard to follow for all but the most hardcore fans.

It’s Still Going To Be Convoluted

It’s actually not uncommon for new Doctor Who writers to ignore bits they don’t like and pretend it never happened. An episode of the Fourth Doctor implied that there were previous Doctors before the 1st. That went ignored until now—now it’s cannon. The Eighth Doctor suggested he is half human. Totally ignored and completely disproven. The destruction of Atlantis was shown multiple times with different causes. And so on and so on.

When the “Timeless Child” retcon happened, it was controversial. And remains so. With Russel T. Davies taking back over as head writer (he was head writer for the 9th and 10th Doctor), many hoped he would wave away the Timeless Child storyline or just ignore it. And that we’d have a return to the simple numbering of Doctors. But we’ve already seen that things are just going to get more convoluted. And here are the latest spoilers.

In Jodie Whittaker’s last episode, the Doctor regenerates as expected. The BBC had already announced the next actor to play the Doctor, Ncuti Gatwa. Naturally, many expected to see Whittaker’s 13th Doctor regenerate into Gatwa’s 14th Doctor. But that didn’t happen. Instead, first, the Doctor regenerates into the Master (it’s complicated). Then the Doctor Degenerates (what?) back into the 13th Doctor. Then we get one more regeneration sequence. When the Doctor finishes regenerating, Davide Tennant appears. The actor who played the 10th Doctor.

What’s going on? It’s not totally clear yet, though the night’s episode did lay out a few potential clues. Still, all we have are guesses. But what does that mean for the number system? Does the Master regeneration count? Does the 13th Degeneration count? We have an out-of-universe official answer. Officially David Tennant is playing the 14th Doctor. For three special episodes. And then, the Doctor will regenerate again into Gatwa’s 15th Doctor. Forget in-universe numbering. It’s so confusing.

I Don’t Know How to Introduce New Fans Anymore

Here’s the thing. I still love Doctor Who. I watched the latest episode with bated breath and even resubscribed to AMC just to do so. Every Easter Egg (all 1,000 of them) was a joy that made me smile. And the final words from Whittaker’s Doctor were sheer perfection. I’ll be the first to admit that the 13th (actually, who cares anymore) Doctor’s run was marred by bad writing from a bad writer. Whole seasons went by with only a few good moments, and the very best episode was the last.

But there’s always something new to look forward to in Doctor Who. Russel T. Davies is taking back over as head writer, and his previous run was phenomenal. The 60th Anniversary is next year, and it should be interesting to watch with David Tennant back (among other fan favorites).

But I don’t know how to introduce new fans to the show anymore. A decade ago, I would have told anyone interested in watching Doctor Who to start with the 9th Doctor. That series did a great job of slowly introducing the lore, mythos, and concepts. But now those episodes are dates and the many (many) fart jokes fall flat, let alone the very bad special effects.

Five years ago, I would have suggested starting with the 11th Doctor instead. Although it didn’t introduce the concepts as smoothly, it did serve as a reset and did attempt to “teach new fans.” Plus, the stories and effects were better. But what’s the point now that none of it matters? I’ve written thousands of words just covering two aspects that are convoluted beyond reason. It gets worse the closer you stare. I can’t even tell you to start with the next three specials. We’re not keeping David Tennant as the 14th Doctor long. In fact, in the trailer above, you’ll briefly see Ncuti Gatwa as the 15th Doctor.

And starting in 2023, I’m not even sure where to tell a new fan to stream Doctor Who. That’s now a convoluted mess where the only way to watch most (but never all) of the show is to subscribe to at least three services.

Doctor Who is in desperate need of a reset. It doesn’t need to change the heart of the show or even the mythos. It might be better if the Timeless Child storyline is hand-waved away as a bad dream, but that’s not my main concern. At this point, you keep track of way too many concepts that are changing far too fast and too often.

I miss the Doctor being the Doctor. The person who helps because someone asked. Showing a companion or two the wonders of the universe simply because the universe IS wonderful. Putting right what once went wrong… sorry, no. That’s Quantum Leap.

In an ever-ongoing effort to expand the mythos of Doctor Who, we’ve been given a spaghetti mess of conflicting history that no new fan will ever make heads or tails of. I hope with the 15th (or whatever the number he is), the Doctor gets back to basics. Travel the universe. Be brilliant. Be a Doctor.

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Josh Hendrickson Josh Hendrickson
Josh Hendrickson is the Editor in Chief of Review Geek and is responsible for the site's content direction. He has worked in IT for nearly a decade, including four years spent repairing and servicing computers for Microsoft. He’s also a smart home enthusiast who built his own smart mirror with just a frame, some electronics, a Raspberry Pi, and open-source code. Read Full Bio »