I can’t honestly bring myself to believe that anyone really thought The Name of the Doctor would actually reveal the, er, name of the Doctor: Steven Moffat may enjoy stretching the format of Doctor Who until it groans under the strain, but even he wouldn’t destroy it completely. Finding out the Doctor’s ‘real name’ (I suspect we are now obliged to put that in inverted commas) would, in a strange way, be absolutely fatal to the appeal of the character, although the exact reason why is difficult to explain: it would be the equivalent of Sherlock Holmes settling down and getting married or, perhaps, Superman starting to wear a mask.
Thus has it ever been: a lot of the original paperwork for the series has been put back into circulation, as the golden anniversary draws closer, and there never seems to have been a serious attempt at issuing our hero with a conventional name other than ‘the Doctor’ (or, in production documents, Doctor Who). Nevertheless the series has played with the notion of exactly what it is that the Doctor writes down when signing his library card, and needless to say, a lot of this is wildly inconsistent.
For the first ten or twelve years of the series, the question of the Doctor’s name is rarely addressed on-screen in the series. He acquires (or, rather, is given) the pseudonym John Smith in The Wheel in Space, which he’s used on and off ever since, but this is clearly just an alias. However, in a couple of the early stories there appears to be on-screen evidence that his ‘name’ really is Who, as unlikely as that sounds: he signs notes ‘Doctor W’ rather than ‘the Doctor’, and adopts the alias ‘Doktor von Wer’ when pretending to be German. More interesting (not to say notorious) is the cliffhanger to part one of The War Machines, in which the computer WOTAN declares that for its plan to succeed ‘Doctor Who is required’.
Well, I suppose you could say all this constitutes ‘case closed’ as far as the name issue is concerned, and there is, obviously, a lack of direct contradictory evidence. That said, as we’ve already seen, the Doctor is wont to use aliases sometimes, and one has to wonder where WOTAN is getting its information from: there is plenty of wriggle-room here for the various ‘Doctor Who’ references in the text of the series not to constitute a smoking gun.
And, let us not forget, here we are dealing with black-and-white Doctor Who, the earliest days of the series where its continuity and mythology are still in the process of being established. There does appear to be evidence that our hero is called Doctor Who. There is also evidence that he only has one heart and an unlimited number of regenerations, and that the TARDIS shell can have holes cut in it by very ordinary alien tech, none of which even the most dedicated old-school fan would suggest is ‘really’ the case. Digging one’s heels in over the ‘Doctor Who’ thing in particular is an odd position to take.
While there is hardly any direct evidence to contradict the ‘Doctor Who’ references, there is plenty of indirect material to work with. Once the Time Lords appear on the scene, the Doctor’s name becomes a bit more of an issue, as one would expect them to know what it is and use it. The show gets round this rather neatly, by hardly naming any of its Time Lord characters prior to 1976! (This chimes rather nicely with the presentation of the Monk on his appearances in the 60s.) The only ‘named’ Time Lords prior to The Deadly Assassin are Omega (a marginal case) and Susan (definitely a retcon – and probably not her real name either).
Terrance Dicks touches on the name issue in a couple of novelisations, not that these strictly count: the Doctor at one point is reluctant to tell his name to the Brigadier, partly because names have a special significance for Time Lords and are not lightly divulged, but mainly because the Brigadier will never be able to pronounce it (a gag Terrance may have lifted, consciously or not, from the Star Trek episode This Side of Paradise, where Spock gets a similar line). On another occasion a visiting Time Lord refers to the Master by his real name, which Terrance finds himself unable to represent using the English language and instead describes as ‘a mellifluous string of syllables’, or words to that effect.
However, The Deadly Assassin and its heirs are filled with Time Lords, many of whom are named, and none of said names are particularly challenging to the tongue: even leaving the possibility that some of these people are not full Time Lords, Borusa definitely is, as was former President Pandak. Just another example of The Deadly Assassin‘s rampant iconoclasm, I’m afraid. Tellingly, everyone addresses the Doctor on-screen by his title, even those of his superiors who know him relatively well.
There’s an attempt to redress the balance when Romana is introduced, as she does have a long and relatively difficult-to-pronounce name, Romanadvoratrelundar, which is then chopped down for convenience. However, she objects to this, which suggests it hasn’t happened before – so it doesn’t seem to be the case that Time Lords routinely have a full, complex formal name, and an abbreviated everyday name.
In The Armageddon Factor, we learn the Doctor’s school nickname was Theta Sigma (hey, there are worse possibilities), which is another neat way of dodging the issue, but from this point on the series settles down a bit – the issue of the Doctor’s name is barely ever addressed, even when the question of his actual identity becomes an element of the plot (as in Silver Nemesis). Pretty much the only exception to this is a gag in the opening episode of The Trial of a Time Lord where the Doctor appears to be about to casually reveal his full name unprompted, only to be interrupted at the crucial point (from memory, the dialogue goes something like ‘I may write a paper – Ancient Life on Ravalox, by Doctor -’ ‘Doctor, look!’) – I wish the very best of luck to anyone trying to reconcile this with the current ‘the Doctor’s true name is a dreaded secret which must never be revealed and which he will go to tremendous lengths not to say out loud’ position.
Nevertheless, that seems to be where we’re at. It seems to be a trope of the 21st century series, and Moffat in particular, to take things that were the unarticulated subtext or conventions of the old show and write them into the text of the new incarnation – this runs from elements like the Doctor’s character, to changes in the appearance of recurring monsters. And the same has happened with the mystery of the Doctor’s name, which has gone from being just one of those things to a universe-shaking secret. To be fair, Moffat has been setting this up for six or seven years – the ‘terrible secret’ idea makes an appearance in The Girl in the Fireplace, after all – but one still gets the sense of him writing himself into a corner: he can’t actually reveal what the secret is, can he?
Perhaps this explains why The Name of the Doctor feels like it fails to deliver, almost as if Moffat’s grand plan is something he’s making up as he goes along. Certainly, the situation on Trenzalore which is shown on-screen does not appear to match the one described by Dorian a series earlier (again, from memory: ‘…no creature may speak falsely or fail to answer…’, which certainly doesn’t seem to be the case!), although if the universe is going to collapse as a result of the Intelligence corrupting the Doctor’s timeline this would definitely count as ‘silence falling’.
One thing The Name of the Doctor does do, by the way, is flatly and directly contradict the ‘his name is Doctor Who’ position. The episode makes two things clear: the Doctor’s tomb will only open if his name is uttered, and it’s River who eventually does so, off-screen (so it doesn’t matter who says it). Crucially, when the Great Intelligence goes into its ‘Doctor who? Doctor who? Doctor who?’ routine, the tomb stays shut: so ‘Doctor Who’ can’t be the name on the dotted line. River makes it clear that she says the real name, and only because no-one else was going to.
So maybe The Name of the Doctor did tell us something new after all. It’s a small thing, but at least that’s one possibility eliminated. Whether the whole mystery-of-the-name issue is now resolved (or as close to resolved as a Steven Moffat script gets), basically being just a lead-in to the mystery of John Hurt’s missing incarnation, remains to be seen. I rather suspect it is, because there’s a limit to the number of interesting stories you can tell about a mystery you can never, ever resolve.