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This is the last part 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, part two here, part three here, part four yonder. 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.
Theory 6: The Last Doctor -or- The Crisis of Infinite Doctors
In the 1985 event comic Crisis on Infinite Earths, the shared universe of DC Superhero comics underwent one of its many reboots, its timeline being being rewritten, ostensibly to make it more inviting for new readers, freed from the baggage of decades of continuity. Among the big changes that occurred during this series — and non-comic fans may have a hard time believing this — was that they killed off Barry Allen, the Flash.
See, as comic fans know but others probably don’t, in the DC universe, with very few exceptions, superhero identities get passed down over time from one hero to another. Superman has always been Kal El, last son of Krypton and Wonder Woman has always been Diana of Themyscria, but there’s been like four Green Lanterns (Even leaving out the fact that there’s a whole corps of them out in space and always has been), three Batmen (I know, right? Bruce Wayne was dead for a while so Dick Grayson took over, then when Bruce came back, he decided to let his former sidekick keep the gig so that he could focus on setting up Batman franchises in other weirdly noir cities), four Flashes, and like eighty-five Robins. Public perception (and this has shifted a bit thanks to the successful 1990s and 2000s animated adaptations of various DCU properties) locked the characters into their Silver Age versions for decades, but in the comics, Dick Grayson hasn’t been Robin in 30 years.
During the course of the Crisis, Barry Allen, the second Flash (But the one you’ve heard of; the original Flash, Jay Garrick, dated from before the superhero comic market shrunk around the time of World War II), sacrifices himself to save the Earth, using his speed powers to contain the destructive force of an anti-matter weapon. At the time, the writers deliberately left themselves a loophole, however (as close as I can tell, this loophole isn’t actually something they exercised when Barry Allen returned to continuity twenty years later): Barry Allen could travel in time. In fact, he did it in his second adventure as The Flash: thanks to his super-speed, he could simply outrun time itself. And this was their “out” in case they ever wanted Barry to return: they had the option of revealing that in the fraction of a second before his death, the Flash had slipped forward in time. But, of course, this wouldn’t be a clean escape. Causality still required that he die at his appointed hour that the Earth might survive. Which means that a returned Barry would have to live with the knowledge that he was on borrowed time, and some day he would have no choice but to run backward in time and meet his fate (Hey, did you know that there’s a Grim Reaper Flash whose job it is to chase down speedsters whose times have come? Comics are weird.).
But why did I just spend like 500 words talking about comic books in an article about Doctor Who? Well, doesn’t that bit about “He already knows that his death is preordained at a certain fixed point in the past and though he can run and run for as long as he likes, he knows that no matter what, some day he’s going to have to face up to his fate and go make his appointment with destiny” sound a bit familiar? Like it’s the first five minutes of The Wedding of River Song? And also the middle of The Name of the Doctor?
Let us then, for a moment, imagine that this pattern will come around one more time: The Doctor knows that his future is set, and as much as he runs, he has an appointment with destiny that must be kept. In light of all of that, who is the Warlock?
He’s the Time War Doctor. Of course he is. Everyone knows that. Everyone’s known that from the moment The Name of the Doctor aired. There’s never been any real doubt about it.
Which is curious, because here are all the clues in the actual televised material and trailers that reference the Warlock, the fall of the Eleventh, the battle of Trenzalore, the first Question and the secret the Doctor will take to his grave:
- .(This was written before the release of the latest trailer which features Probably-Bad-Wolf Rose telling Probably The Warlock (Or maybe that’s a misleading intercut) that “The Moment is coming”, and clips of the Dalek armada and the ruined Time Lord cidadel)
Yeah, I got nothing. There’s nothing. Not a word. Not an electronic sausage. There is literally no evidence that The Warlock is the Time War Doctor (Okay. One of the costume designers said it in an interview. So that’s that sorted then.). But everyone is so sure. Every single fan-made trailer assumes that the plot of The Day of the Doctor is “We revisit the Time War”. Every fake review of the DVD release explains the plot as “We revisit the Time War.” Everyone knows that’s what’s going to happen.
But let’s distinguish this claim from one that is invariably presented as part and parcel: that the Warlock is a missing incarnation of The Doctor who falls between Paul McGann and Christopher Eccleston. That Eccleston was actually the tenth Doctor, Tennant the eleventh and Smith the twelfth, such that consequentially, Capaldi will be the thirteenth and final Doctor.
This is not the same as asserting that the Warlock is the Doctor who fought in the Time War. And here’s my proposal for why:
It is the last day of the great Time War. The Doctor has The Moment. All the prophecies tell us that he will use it to end the war, destroying Gallifrey and the Daleks alike, and sealing away all the horrors of the war behind an impenetrable Time Lock. All the quantum superpositions will collapse, all the probability curves will flatten, every event of the war shall become fixed in time, with its beginning and end pinned down within the confines set out for them.
On Gallifrey, the high council of Time Lords awaits news. The Visionary uses her strange Time Lord senses to see beyond time at the cost of her own sanity. She has predicted what will come to pass. Lord President Rassilon presides over the meeting and asks his chancellor what news there is of The Doctor.
Disappeared, my Lord President.
The Doctor, we may assume in his eighth or ninth incarnation, is missing. Taken at its most basic, we have a general notion of how things will unfold: the Doctor, having learned that Rassilon means to win the time war at the cost of all corporeal existence, flees Gallifrey with The Moment, then uses it to destroy Time Lord and Dalek alike, somehow escaping the holocaust himself to eventually find himself in the basement of a London department store in 2005.
We know nothing about how the Doctor himself managed to survive the conflagration. He has repeatedly asserted that nothing could have escaped, but his own survival belies this. And indeed, he is not alone. As time ripped itself apart, one lone soldier Dalek fell to Earth in the twentieth century, and the Emperor’s badly-damaged command ship too escaped destruction, finding itself some time near the two-thousandth century. The Master, using a chameleon arch to turn himself biologically human, escaped during the early years of the war, taking refuge in the SIlver Devestation near the end of history. Dalek Khan would later force his way through the Time Lock, at considerable cost to his body and mind, and then leave again with his creator, rescued from the jaws of the Midnight Child.
The prevailing opinion is that some element of the nature of The Moment meant that, as in the eye of a hurricane, the place from which it was activated was protected from the devastation it unleashed. This is a fine possibility so far as it goes. We know nothing at all about the nature of The Moment, so one guess is as good as another.
But suppose that the Moment offered no such protection — that the one who used it would be no safer from its effect than Gallifrey or the Dalek armada. How else might we account for the Doctor’s survival?
As I said, the conventional view is that the Doctor has “disappeared”, from the point of view of the High Council because he has stolen away to use The Moment.
But what if that’s not it?
What if the Doctor has disappeared because the Doctor has done what the Doctor always does, what he’s been doing all his lives? What if the Doctor ran?
But that doesn’t fit the facts, you may well say: we know the Doctor uses The Moment to end the war. He freely admits to having made the final conflagration happen.
True. But what if it’s not the same Doctor? Let us suppose that the Doctor who has disappeared from Gallifrey with the Moment is either the Paul McGann incarnation or the Christopher Eccleston incarnation — leaning a bit toward the former. He knows what he must do to save all of creation from the horrors of the war and the horror of what his own people have become. But it’s not the act of a man like The Doctor. No, if he does this, it will be the end of him, regardless of whether or not the Moment destroys him.
What does the Doctor do when Ood Sigma summons him to Oodsphere to warn him of the impending return of the Master and of Gallifrey? He goes off and spends a year having a good time out in the universe. What’s his first instinct when Dorium warns him of his inescapable fate at Lake Silencio? He calls an old friend, planning to rush off for years of adventures before he’s forced to meet his fate. So the Doctor does what he always does: he runs. But the Time War must end. Rassilon and the Daleks must be stopped. But by who?
Well yes, of course.
In The Eleventh Hour, the recently-regenerated eleventh Doctor is momentarily overcome by his residual regenerative energies. He coughs up a golden mist. This is not wholly unusual; the same thing happened to his predecessor in The Christmas Invasion, and in its prequel mini-episode, which I’m told is called Born Again, but I’ve always just heard referred to as Pudsey Cutaway (After the mascot of Children in Need, the charity for which the minisode was produced). But what’s interesting this time is his reaction: “This is too soon. I’m not ready, I’m not done yet.”
It may mean nothing. Just a bit of momentary confusion. Or perhaps it means something else. Perhaps he has seen a hint of what the future holds for him, and he’s frightened that he’ll reach his next life before he’s “done”: there is something he knows he must do before he regenerates again.
In his final incarnation, mortally wounded at the battle of Trenzalore, the Doctor finally breaks his oldest oath and reveals his oldest secret. He still has The Moment, has kept it hidden all these years. He seals his TARDIS with his own name — the name he gave up so many years ago — because he is no longer The Doctor, and uses the temporal anomaly created by the process of his own death to slip back through the time lock into the last day of the war. He takes the place of his younger self — perhaps this is what precipitates his eighth regeneration — and unleashes the inferno.
But what then do we make of the whole “Oldest question” and “Running from all my whatever” stuff?
The Doctor’s life is an open wound. Simeon threw himself into it like an infectious bacteria. Clara threw herself into it like an antiseptic. The Doctor threw himself into it because that’s the sort of thing he does. And now all the days of the Doctor’s life are collapsing.
We know very little about the Doctor’s childhood. We know he had a wooden cradle decorated with Galifreyan script (A Good Man Goes to War). We know that he lived in a house on the side of a mountain, in front of a hermit (The Time Monster), and we know that as a child, he was taken to the Continent of Wild Endeavour in the Mountains of Solace and Solitude, and was made to gaze into the Untempered Schism, wherein he beheld the full and raw power of space and time. This may be what he would later describe (in The Time Monster) as his blackest day.
In the blackness of that day, we’re told, he went to visit the aforementioned hermit, and told him his sorrows. And the hermit pointed to a small flower, and the Doctor learned suddenly to see the world through the old hermit’s eyes.
So, later, I got up and I ran down that mountain and I found that the rocks weren’t grey at all, but they were red, brown and purple and gold. And those pathetic little patches of sludgy snow, they were shining white. Shining white in the sunlight.
Two perspectives and the same outcome. The Doctor looked into the schism, and he ran from what he saw there. The Doctor visited the old hermit, and he ran in joy at the beauty he saw. This is the fundamental duality of The Doctor: the unbridled hedonistic joy that leads him to wander the universe, and the haunting fear that chases him through time and space.
I had been about to simply say “Maybe the Warlock reached back through the Untempered Schism, as Rassilon had to the Master, and contacted his younger self, giving him a glimpse of the future.” But now that I’ve gone back and found that quote from The Time Monster, I kinda want to suppose that maybe the Warlock was the old hermit.
The hermit is universally assumed to be the same Time Lord who uses the name K’anpo Rimpoche in Planet of the Spiders. This is reasonable. The Doctor mentions the hermit earlier in the episode, sees an image of him when he looks into the psychoactive Metebelis Crystal. And he identifies K’anpo as his old teacher or guru. But it is not absolutely explicit that the hermit of The Time Monster is the guru of Planet of the Spiders, only extremely likely. There’s a certain beautiful symmetry to the idea that the young Doctor looked into the untempered schism, saw something in his future that made him recoil in horror, then turned in desperation to his own older self, who taught him to run.
You mentioned this is the last part of the series. Does that mean… That this is the one I’m going with? Well. I’m still not sold on the whole “He’s the Time War Doctor” thing. How could it be so obvious and also completely unsupported by so much as a single televised sentence? It’s just too pat. All the wishful thinking in the world won’t make it so.
But the rest of it? Gosh I am in love with the basic outline of this idea. There’s more:
AMY: You know what I said about getting back for tomorrow morning? Have you ever run away from something because you were scared, or not ready, or just, just because you could?
DOCTOR: Once, a long time ago.
— The Beast Below
Doesn’t that sound like an intimation that the Doctor is running not from something he did but from something he knows he has to do?
So this is my final analysis. Clara Oswald walked all of the Doctor’s timeline, and saw all eleven of his incarnations without seeing The Warlock. The Warlock is not the Doctor’s hidden past: he is the Doctor’s hidden future. At some point in his life, I am going to say before he left Gallifrey. I am even going to say “As a child, on the blackest day, when he looked into the Schism,” he caught some glimpse of a horrible deed his future self would unleash. And he has kept that future a secret all his lives. And ever since that day, he has run, as far and as fast as he can, desperate to avoid the path that will turn him into The Warlock.
On the fields of Trenzalore, at the fall of the eleventh, when no living creature can speak falsely or fail to answer, a question will be asked. A question that must never be answered. Silence will fall when the question is asked. The first question. The oldest question in the universe, hidden in plain sight. The Doctor has a secret he will take to his grave. The question he has been running from all his lives.