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Posts Tagged ‘The Name of the Doctor’

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 [How young and naïve I was when I wrote this – A]. 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. 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’.

The Who family. Or not.

The Who family. Or not.

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?

'I've just got to seed a long-running plotline, then we can go and "dance".'

‘I’ve just got to seed a long-running plotline, then we can go and “dance”.’

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.

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So, how did you do? Personally I managed to get through the whole of the week without picking up any spoilers. Well, any new spoilers, but we should probably leave that until later on. If you haven’t seen The Name of the Doctor yet, there will be explicit Spoilers later on, so pay attention and stop reading when we get to the pantomime dame.

New evidence that sonic over-use can mess up Amazon US's delivery schedule.

New evidence that sonic over-use can mess up Amazon US’s delivery schedule.

I fear that three years’ exposure to Moffat scripts and particularly his brand of season finale (and, by the way, doesn’t it feel weird that this was still technically only the end of Matt Smith’s third season as the Doctor? With all these mid-series breaks, it feels like he’s done four or five) has innoculated me to the majority of his tricks and games, because while The Name of the Doctor was dazzling and breathtaking while I was first watching it, I’m already getting the distinct impression that there was less going on here than met the eye.

That said, judged just on first impressions, Moffat writes a brilliant season finale – much of the time this felt like the 50th Anniversary Special had come six months early. I couldn’t decide which moment in that opening montage stunned me most, seeing a colourised William Hartnell, revisiting that notorious Dragonfire moment, or realising they’d actually found someone else prepared to wear the sixth Doctor’s costume. As usual there were big ideas and potentially format-shifting concepts being casually chucked about, winning reappearances by favourite characters, and some really good jokes.

But, then again, wasn’t it just the Doctor finding himself in some obscure metaphysical bind, with the universe as we know it falling to bits, and sanity being restored only through the Doctor doing something timey-wimey and his friends going to great lengths to preserve him? I’ve seen that in both the previous Moffat series conclusions. It’s all a bit abstract, and  – potentially worse – thoroughly Doctor-centric. Perhaps Moffat’s most brilliant achievement is to find a way to sneak what are essentially fanfic stories onto BBC1 on a Saturday night.

That said, you have to admire his legerdemain – for this story to work, it really needs a villain of substance. The fact that the Doctor’s adversary is the famed Great Intelligence gives its presence a heft that goes some way to make up for the fact that we’ve no idea what it fundamentally is, who its new friends are, or how they function together. The fact that the Intelligence was reintroduced half a dozen episodes ago works the trick of concealing how arbitrary its powers on this outing are.

I was all set to criticise this episode for being ridiculously over-hyped in terms of ‘the Doctor’s greatest secret is finally revealed’ and ‘prepare to question everything you thought you knew about the Time Lord’, but of course I was looking the wrong way: the final scene of the episode came as a total surprise, and… oh, look, we’ve reached that cut-off point I was talking about. Spoilers follow the dame.

dame

(The beautiful thing about that photo, is that if you don’t know who it is it’s almost impossible to tell.)

Part of me is quite pleased John Hurt made his debut as… well, is he playing the Doctor or not? Definite mixed messages, but the credits say he is. So let us refer to him as the Lost Doctor. Anyway, I heard that Hurt was coming as the Lost Doctor about ten days ago, the news was all over certain bits of the internet and while I’m slightly annoyed to have had the climax semi-spoiled for me, at least I can now write about the appearance of the Lost Doctor with a clear conscience.

The reaction to the Lost Doctor’s introduction that I read seemed to be almost wholly negative, most of it – unfortunately – on the grounds that ‘another regeneration has been pointlessly wasted’ – I gave my opinion on this sort of thinking a few years ago and don’t really want to go through it again. Criticising Moffat for behaving as if he’s the boss of Doctor Who also strikes me to be missing a small but key fact: namely, that he is the boss of Doctor Who.

My instinctive assumption was that Moffat had written a script for the three 21st century Doctors, and that Hurt was involved only because Christopher Eccleston had declined to take part: he was, basically, filling in for a Doctor unable or unwilling to participate in an anniversary special. Well, if nothing else, a brilliant actor like John Hurt is a better replacement than unused footage from an abandoned story or film inserts making heavy use of idiot boards.

However, having seen how the Lost Doctor has been introduced, I’m not quite so sure he’s just standing in for the ninth Doctor: there seems to be a bigger story involved here, with this being a very distinct and unusual incarnation. The obvious conclusion to jump to – and I wouldn’t be surprised if Moffat were going to wrong-foot the audience again – is that the Lost Doctor comes from the heart of the Time War, between the McGann and Eccleston incarnations. (Funny: it did occur to me ages ago that, prior to The Next Doctor‘s flashback clips, there was no on-screen confirmation that the Eccleston Doctor was McGann’s direct successor.)

The implication seems to be that the Lost Doctor has somehow lost the right to use his own name, due to some terrible crime or other he committed. (Could this be the use of the Moment to destroy Gallifrey and the Dalek fleet?) Who decided this? The other Doctors? If nothing else the suggestion that ‘the Doctor’ is not so much a name or title as a status that can be earned or lost is a curious one – but not totally without precedent.

Yes, I’m thinking of The Brain of Morbius and its bevy of previously-unhinted-at pre-Hartnell incarnations. Did they also lose the right to the title ‘the Doctor’, or did they simply predate the adoption of it? Personally I suspect the latter – thus, when the Time Lords refer to ‘the first Doctor’ in The Three Doctors they really mean ‘the first incarnation of this particular Time Lord to call himself the Doctor’. One consequence of this would be that the eleventh Doctor is actually the nineteenth incarnation overall.

The Thirteen Life Rule dogmatists have probably turned purple and fallen over already, and are doubtless pointing out that Mawdryn Undead not only reasserts the regeneration limit but specifies that the Doctor has only eight left, effectively ruling out any pre-Hartnell incarnations. I concede that The Brain of Morbius and Mawdryn Undead appear to explicitly contradict one another – but then again Mawdryn Undead appears to explicitly contradict most stories from the UNIT era, and not many people seem willing to take its side in that particular tussle.

Anyway, the precise details of the regenerative process are still somewhat shrouded in mystery, and there have been hints that the limit of thirteen is not wholly inflexible. Taking a title instead of a name seems to have been an unusual occurrence amongst Time Lords, and usually the mark of a renegade. Could something so significant have an effect on the regenerative cycle, to the point of resetting it? I am probably either indulging in a wild flight of continuity cop fantasy, or over-thinking, or both.

I am virtually certain that none of the above will be addressed in the 50th Anniversary Special. To be perfectly honest, just the prospect of seeing John Hurt as an (apparently ‘bemused’) incarnation of the Doctor, not to mention the return of the Zygons – and of course David Tennant – has me quite excited anyway. All right, so for me, this series has flopped more often than buzzed – but the potential for greatness is integral to every second of this show. I just hope that potential gets realised as much as it should come November the 23rd.

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