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This is part three in a series of articles speculating on the content of the upcoming Doctor Who fiftieth anniversary special “The Day of the Doctor”. Part one can be read here, and part two here. Some elements of this post may be considered spoilers for the preceding 50 years of Doctor Who, and will reference noncanonical statements presented in trailers and interviews.
So far, I’ve laid down some territory about roughly half of the scope of the question “So what’s the deal with John Hurt being credited as The Doctor?” I have proposed that the Hurt character, who I’ve been calling “The Warlock[lit. “Oath-Breaker”, from Old English wærloga, from wær (promise) + loga (liar)]” because I enjoy it, is some previously undocumented incarnation of the Doctor, but that there is some confounding factor that makes him something distinct from the set of thirteen incarnations specified as the allotment of a Time Lord by the events of The Deadly Assassin. I have further proposed that The Warlock is a feature of the Doctor’s timeline from a point before the first serial of the classic series, but not necessarily precluding the possibility that he is actually “native” to a later point but in some manner crossed the timeline of the much younger pre-television Doctor. We have yet to discuss two more elements of The Warlock’s mystery: How did he break the promise of the Doctor’s name; and what does it mean for the Doctor to have stripped this part of himself of the title?
“He’s not a warrior.” “Then why is he called ‘The Doctor’?”
Among those who are convinced that The Day of the Doctor will be a revisitation of The Time War, it’s generally assumed that the act which the Doctor takes to have “broken the promise” is the use of something called “The Moment” to end the Time War, destroying Gallifrey and the Dalek Armada.
But this would be passing strange. The Doctor has shown a distinct reluctance toward genocide in the past, obviously, he hasn’t been above it in desperate situations. And he’s never made a secret of his role in the end of the Time War. But if “This one time I committed genocide,” isn’t a sin so great that it would cost the Doctor his name, what could be?
Fortunately, we actually have a direct and straightforward example of exactly what kind of sin would be so great that it would cost the Doctor his name:
Look, three options. One, I let the Star Whale continue in unendurable agony for hundreds more years. Two, I kill everyone on this ship. Three, I murder a beautiful, innocent creature as painlessly as I can. And then I find a new name, because I won’t be the Doctor any more.
In The Beast Below, the Doctor is faced with what he thinks is an impossible choice: having discovered that the millions of people aboard Starship UK are beholden to an enslaved Star Whale for their continued survival, he believes his only option is to lobotomize the innocent creature, that it will lose the capacity to experience suffering in the face of the torture performed against it (Fortunately, Amy Pond finds an alternate solution). The Doctor explicitly grants that such an act would break the promise of his name.
A nice, straightforward answer, to be sure, though what can we make of it? Very straightforwardly, we can say that one candidate for The Warlock’s sin might be “He lobotomized a Star Whale.” But, of course, I think we can claim with absolute confidence that “He lobotomized a Star Whale” isn’t it. So what then? What’s the key element to killing the Star Whale?
The obvious possibility is that the Doctor would be sacrificing an innocent, intelligent creature. But it seems like there must be more to it than that. After all, innocents have been sacrificed as a result of the Doctor’s actions before, and indeed, his willingness to place others in a position where their sacrifice becomes necessary is often levied against the Doctor by those who question his morality. That he has refrained from personally pulling the trigger may well be an important moral distinction, but is it sufficient distinction to elevate this particular act all the way to oath-breaking?
Maybe, I suppose. But it would be nice if we could wring out perhaps just a hair more meaning. What is it that Amy says about the Star Whale?
What if you were really old, and really kind and alone? Your whole race dead. No future. What couldn’t you do then? If you were that old, and that kind, and the very last of your kind, you couldn’t just stand there and watch children cry.
Amy, who at this point has spent comparatively little time with the Doctor, has intuited much about his nature and finds the parallels to the Star Whale obvious. Could this be the key distinction that places the planned killing of the Star Whale in direct violation of the promise? That it entailed not simply killing an innocent, but killing something so like himself?
But before we get too far lost down this rabbit-hole, there is another thing to consider. In explaining his refusal to acknowledge The Warlock by his own chosen name, The Doctor explains that “A name is a promise.” We know that Moffat has long been fascinated by the meaning behind The Doctor’s name; in the early 1990s, back when the USENET forum rec.arts.drwho was a place where people could meet and discuss and think about things (And also Yads), rather than a dank basement populated by six middle-aged men shouting “Why won’t you acknowledge that I’m smarter than you?” back and forth (and also Yads), he posted the hypothesis:
Here’s a particularly stupid theory. If we take “The Doctor” to be the Doctor’s name – even if it is in the form of a title no doubt meaning something deep and Gallifreyan – perhaps our earthly use of the word “doctor” meaning healer or wise man is direct result of the Doctor’s multiple interventions in our history as a healer and wise man. In other words, we got it from him. This is a very silly idea and I’m consequently rather proud of it.
Very proud indeed, as River Song more-or-less explicitly confirms it in A Good Man Goes To War. So let us assume that what a modern English-speaking person means when they use the word Doctor is derived from the Name of “The Doctor.” The Doctor says that a name is a promise. Now, what comes to mind when you put those two notions together? Well, I don’t know what pops into your mind, but the thing I think of is the phrase Primum non nocere.
“First, do no harm.” That’s a paraphrase of the key dictum from the original form of the Hippocratic Oath, modernizations of which are to this day used as a sort of oath of office for medical doctors[The oath says a bunch of other things, but I think this is the key point. I guess maybe “I will not cut for stone,” might be relevant for the Star Whale, but I really don’t see it generalizing]. Can we draw any conclusions from this?
Tricky. It’s not as if the Doctor has a perfect track record on the “do no harm” front. He kidnaps a pair of schoolteachers; he deliberately starts a war between the Daleks and the Thals; he leaves a hunter trapped in a cave with angry undead soldiers; he gets engaged to a widow under false pretenses then abandons her; he gets a government official killed; gets a number of French royalists killed and blows up a house, and that’s just the first (Yes, I know Planet of Giants is the second season. I just really wanted to include blowing up the house.) season. Or the way that he, dying from Judas Tree poison, reflects on the images of his predecessor’s companions as a sort of cavalcade of people whose lives he’s ruined. We might propose that the Doctor never sets out to deliberately do harm. Even then, I think there’s plenty of edge-cases — say, the long series of “Actually, Ace, the whole reason we came here was because I’m at the critical stage in a convoluted masterplan to murder one of my recurring villains and/or traumatize you into being a better person” serials of season 25. And whatever we can explain away, it would be deeply unsatisfying for The Warlock’s secret to be “Couldn’t rules-lawyer his way into finding a technicality that made this abominable act not count.”
What are we left with, then? What is the nature of the promise the Name implies, and how could The Warlock have broken it? Let’s step back in time just a bit and consider the character deeded to Steven Moffat by Russell T Davies.
In the 2005 season of Doctor Who, one of the immediate complaints, for there were many, about this revived Doctor was that it seemed he was hardly ever the direct agent whose actions resolved the plot; rather, he would at the critical moment, be restrained or overcome, or ill-positioned, and the actual saving of the day would fall to someone else: Rose; Jabe; Charles Dickens; Mickey; Rose again; Cathica; Pete; Nancy; The
Deus Ex Machina Heart of the TARDIS; Rose again. Of course, much the same could be said about the first season of the classic series, when The Doctor was generally reluctant to get involved at all. I would submit that, for Russell T. Davies, the key to the character of the Doctor could be summarized thus: The Doctor is the person who makes other people better. It’s Rose who tips the anti-plastic solution onto the Nestene Consciousness, but only because The Doctor inspired her to see herself as more than the uneducated wage-slave from the council estate; Nancy acknowledges her son and Jack stops the German bomb because The Doctor convinces them of the importance of doing the right thing; Rose moves heaven and earth, becoming the Bad Wolf and transcending time and space to save the man who showed her a “better way to live your life.”
The Doctor “makes people better,” and despite a few token nods (notably in The End of the World, The Unquiet Dead, The Parting of the Ways and New Earth) at the inevitability of death, the Doctor always chooses life when it is not at the expense of others. In Genesis of the Daleks, he is almost incapacitated with indecision at the process of destroying larval Daleks, thereby averting their initial creation. In The Deadly Assassin, though he hopes the Master has not survived his defeat, he qualifies the statement with “And there’s no one in all the galaxies I’d say that about.” Indeed, later in “Doctor Who” (1996), he desperately tries to save The Master, even after his attempts on the Doctor’s life, his apparent murder of the Doctor’s friends (They get better), and the near-destruction of the Earth at his hands — much later, the Doctor would beg a mortally wounded Master to survive by regeneration. The Master, heretofore a consummate survivor, chose instead to will his own death: the Master is fundamentally the Doctor’s opposite. Ursula in Love and Monsters, Astrid in Voyage of the Damned and River Song in Forest of the Dead are all given back a kind (It bothers me greatly that I seem to be the only person in the world who objects to the fact that The Doctor refuses even to consider any attempt to do something similar for those trapped in the Cloud in The Bells of St. John. Also, I will chime in to say that although I personally would not like the “rescue” he gave Ursula, I would even less like for someone else to make the choice for me that “I’m not going to save you because I don’t think the life you’d have would be worth living, so I am going to instead let you die.”) of life, even though many reasonable viewers (but explicitly not the characters involved) would find such existences anathema. He even does this, as a punishment, to the Family of Blood.
In a certain sense, it is this propensity for survival which defines the Doctor. As I mentioned near the beginning of this series, the simple fundamental laws of television mean that The Doctor can not die. It is this fact of The Doctor’s existence which most sets him apart from the humans with whom he interacts. The new series has traded heavily on defining the Doctor as the last survivor of the Time War. He laments this to Rose in School Reunion: “You can spend the rest of your life with me, but I can’t spend the rest of mine with you. I have to live on. Alone. That’s the curse of the Time Lords,” and this would later lead him to stand aside when Rose has the opportunity to make a proper life with the mortal, non-regenerating Metacrisis Doctor in Journey’s End. River Song would echo the sentiment in The Angels Take Manhattan, wryly observing the necessity of hiding her own pain because of her romantic involvement with an “ageless god”, a statement which would foreshadow her seemingly cavalier response to the death of her own parents. (That said, there are exceptions; The Doctor performs a mercy-killing of Kamelion in Planet of Fire and tries to euthanize Lytton in Attack of the Cybermen, though the latter is arguable (They are interrupted before it becomes clear if he would actually kill Lytton, or simply try to free him), and the former involves a robot whose capacity for individual thought is not entirely clear).
And this brings us back around to the Hippocratic Oath(There are two other points in the oath which might make for an interesting angle: first, the requirement that the oath-taker look upon the sons of his mentor as his own brothers, and second that he share his knowledge only with those who have sworn the same oath. It’s easy enough to imagine that betraying a fellow Time Lord would count as breaking the first, and giving Time Lord secrets to a lesser race would violate the second. These are both interesting possibilities, but I see nothing to mark either of them out as particularly likely). Notably, the well-known phrase “First do no harm” does not actually appear in the oath itself, which says something closer to “Abstain from doing harm.” Among the things the oath does say, however, is “I will neither give a deadly drug to anybody if asked for it, nor will I make a suggestion to this effect.” It may be relevant that what The Doctor proposes doing to the Star Whale is, essentially, a surgical procedure for the purpose of making the Star Whale brain-dead, and that may be a hint that the critical betrayal that would cost him his name here is the violation of his oath as a doctor. For this reason, I suspect that The Warlock broke the Hippocratic oath by deliberately using his skills and powers to change someone for the worse, killing them in a literal or metaphorical sense. And more, I suspect that the victim of The Warlock’s malfeasance was in some unique way like himself.
Oh no, has it come to that? Regenerate, yet unregenerate
Of the questions with which we began this lengthy analysis, one yet remains. The Warlock was stripped of The Name of the Doctor (it is at least possible that he never actually held the title; a strictly literal interpretation of the dialogue allows for the possibility that the name-promise which The Warlock broke was not the promise of The Doctor, but the promise of some other name: The Warlock may, technically, have broken the promise of the Doctor’s original name, and took on a new promise, becoming The Doctor. Such a twist goes against the general sense of the scene, but does not, strictly, contradict the dialogue). But what does that mean?
Plainly, we are talking about something more than ceremony. Clara Oswald, forked into myriad copies throughout time and space, meddled in the lives of eleven incarnations of the Doctor, but did not encounter The Warlock. Simeon likewise dissolved himself throughout the Doctor’s lives, seeking to turn all his victories to defeats, but The Warlock clearly did not require Clara’s intervention to set his life back on its proper track. Clara asserts that the Doctor with whom she travels is the Eleventh, and he does not contradict her. The Daleks(Day of the Daleks), Cybermen(Earthshock) and Attraxi(The Eleventh Hour) each review the past lives of The Doctor, but we see no trace of The Warlock. The Doctor’s human counterpart in Human Nature sketches dreamt faces of his past lives, but not The Warlock, nor does his face appear alongside the others produced by the scanning device the Doctor uses in Vincent and the Doctor. The Time Lords do not summon him to their aid in The Three Doctors, and in The Five Doctors, the fifth and first Doctors assert that there are only five versions of themself. Even that most problematic of serials, The Brain of Morbius, does not show the face of The Warlock among the past incarnations. No, it is not until the Doctor’s timeline begins to unravel as a result of the Eleventh Doctor disappearing, as it were, into his own crack, that The Warlock appears. What has The Doctor done to The Warlock? Here, precedent will be of little enough help, and we must, frankly, shoot blind. Here are some possibilities I have come up with:
- In The War Games, Image of the Fendahl, and The invasion of Time, the Time Lords have the capacity to excise things from the web of time, making them seem outwardly as though they “never existed”. Exactly what this means is a bit vague; it appears that even such excised events can still have an impact. If this application of Time Lord power is akin to the effects of the temporal cracks seen from The Eleventh Hour through The Pandorica Opens, we know that, though it defies our linear, human understanding of causality, “People fall out of the world sometimes, but they always leave traces. Little things we can’t quite account for. Faces in photographs, luggage, half eaten meals, rings. Nothing is ever forgotten, not completely. And if something can be remembered, it can come back.” It could be that The Warlock was excised in such a fashion, and that his continued existence within the Doctor’s timestream is a similar sort of “trace”
- The Doctor may have altered his own past to erase The Warlock. Crossing one’s own timeline is often said to be dangerous in the extreme, as in Father’s Day, The Parting of the Ways, Smith and Jones, The Fires of Pompeii, The Girl Who Waited, The Angels Take Manhattan, and Journey to the Center of the TARDIS, with consequences which could range up to and including the summoning of man-eating flying time-monsters. Contrariwise, in Hide, the Doctor explicitly claims that most paradoxes resolve themselves naturally, and it is intimated in Father’s Day, that much more substantial breaches of causality may be done safely if one has access to the full powers of the Time Lords. Rose Tyler likely possesses memories (Father’s Day) of events which were subsequently erased from the timeline, as do Captain Jack Harkness, Martha Jones and her family (Last of the Time Lords), Amy Pond (Flesh and Stone, The Big Bang, The Wedding of River Song) and Rory Williams (The Big Bang, The Girl Who Waited, The Wedding of River Song), and Clara Oswald (Journey to the Center of the TARDIS, albeit those memories were not her own but telepathic “leakage”). By analogy, we can reason that even were he paradoxed out of existence, The Warlock would still remain a part of the metaphysical realm generated from the Doctor’s timestream.
- The Doctor has pointed out several times a basic correspondence between history and memory: he cites it in Cold Blood, The Pandorica Opens, and The Big Bang at the least. Indeed, Time Lord stewardship of history in The Deadly Assassin, The Invasion of Time and The Trial of a Time Lord seems to be paired with a certain uncertainty about their institutional memory: they seem oddly ignorant of not only their own technology, but their own history, are glib about redacting their own historical records, and their major electronic knowledge base consists of a matrix created from the digitized minds of dead Time Lords, used both to record their past and predict their future. If memory and history are, at least for a Time Lord, linked, then it may be possible that a Time Lord could repress the very reality of a past trauma in the same way that a traumatized human could repress the memory of an event
None of these possibilities particularly stand out, and there are myriad other, equally vague possibilities. For the purpose of speculation, therefore, I can go only so far at this point as to aver that I suspect that The Warlock is not merely kept secret and forgotten, but has by some means been partially excised from the Doctor’s past.
So, three posts in, I’ve laid down some ground rules for how I interpret the evidence and what I think is likely. In the remaining parts of this series, I’ll get on with proposing some specific scenarios.