Authority, Canonicity and Franchises: Doctor Who

Here, I’d like to share my thoughts on the relationship between franchises, authority and canonicity. We have situations now where franchises which have been running for decades are assigned an auteur, who often grew up with the franchise, who proceeds to tinker with the specific details created/developed by prior writers, to varying degrees of success. The examples on my mind these days are Doctor Who and Star Wars. Some familiarity with both franchises is assumed and, more plainly, recent spoilers will follow. I’ll start with Doctor Who since my thoughts on that subject are more straightforward.

So in the finale to the most recent series of Doctor Who, the Doctor and her entourage arrive on her homeworld Gallifrey to find the whole planet in ruins and all the Time Lords having been killed by the Master, who turned many of them into “Cyber-Masters”. He did this because he discovered “the truth” about Time Lord society.

Ancient Gallifreyans discovered a child below a dimensional rift who was able to regenerate their body upon death. They experimented on the child and distilled her regenerative abilities into a serum which they gave to select Gallifreyans, thereby creating the Time Lords as we know them. I actually think this is an interesting origin for the Time Lords and an appropriate addition to their long list of crimes. It gives yet more credence to my belief that the Time Lords are among Doctor Who’s greatest monsters. I can see this being the basis for one of the Doctor Who novels they released in the 90s, or even an audio play or something. On its own terms, it makes for a potentially interesting Doctor Who story set on Gallifrey.

The crux of the episode is the identity of the so-called “Timeless Child”. The Master lurks around the episode, saying that he knows the greatest secret ever and that everything we know will change (for, like, the… fourth time since 2005?). It might be interesting if the Master turned out to the be the Timeless Child, thereby giving him an excuse to commit a genocide (at least in his mind) but then there’d be the unfortunate implications that someone who was abused as a child becomes evil as an adult, which we could probably do without. No, the shocking twist is that the Timeless Child is the Doctor.

As a result, the Doctor is not actually a Time Lord and has never truly been a Time Lord. They have regenerated an infinite number of times before their first appearance in 1963. They’re an even older, more mysterious being from another dimension who is older than the millions-year old Time Lord civilisation. Worse, as far as I’m concerned, is that it removes what I consider the appeal of the Doctor’s character. The Time Lords, because of their ability to live many long, consecutive lives and their mastery over time and space, believed themselves to be a superior race, with the right to keep the secrets of time for themselves and rule over those they considered inferior. The Doctor looked at this civilisation and decided to leave it, to live within the universe instead of above it.

This twist, for the short-term gain of being a twist, throws away all that excellent, fertile characterisation, organically developed over the course of decades by successive writers and actors, building on what came before. It makes its main character the opposite of what she has been throughout her many lives. She is a being possessed of a unique and godlike ability, whose specialness comes from her inherent genetic superiority instead of the choices she made.

The above has been explored elsewhere by video creators, critics and other bloggers. I include it here in my own words largely for context (and partly, I admit, because I’m sick of Chosen One/destiny stories and wanted to express that disgust). I would like to explain how it relates to my thoughts on the aforementioned issues of authority and canonicity, as compared to each of the show’s bosses since 2005.

Chris Chibnall, the current head of Doctor Who is, like his two predecessors, a lifelong fan of Doctor Who. When Russel T. Davies revived the show in 2005, it was clear that he was familiar with the history of the series. He would often use iconic elements of the show, e.g. monsters like the Daleks and Cybermen, specific enemies like the Master and Davros and, where appropriate, terminology such as Time Lords and Time Vortex. Where these elements appeared, they would support the story and could even be its subject, but never to the point of showing off. If they were used as twists, it would be in the same way as in the Classic series, where the first part of a story might end with the Daleks, Cybermen, the Master or Davros appearing, at which point the credits would start. These moments worked to reveal the presence of these elements in a story, which would then proceed, with these characters as its antagonist. The on-screen titles at the start of a story would often be things like Resurrection of the Daleks or Revenge of the Cybermen, which reduced the twistiness of these moments even further. In other words, Davies seldom used these moments to contrive showy, ceremonious, “everything you know will change” situations. He might use them to challenge the Doctor’s perspectives on his old enemies (see Dalek and The End of Time) or to revise details he himself had established earlier in his tenure, but he never took the opportunity to alter the very fabric of the entire franchise the way his successors did.

Steven Moffat, who took the reins of the series in 2010 after Davies’ departure, would make more conscious use of the franchise’s history. Where Davies-era episodes largely eschewed reference to the franchise’s past outside of the occasional brief mention or his regular use of iconic villains/monsters, Moffat was much more inclined to throw out more overt references, such as montages of all (as it was at the time) his previous faces. To be fair, Davies did this too- once, in The Next Doctor, an episode near the end of his tenure where a man found a Cyberman data cylinder, which made him think he was the Doctor. There, that was a plot device more than anything else. A desperate man sees the Doctor’s heroism and adopts the persona in a TV writer’s idea of a coping mechanism for trauma. Moffat uses a similar montage in The Eleventh Hour, his very first story in charge. It works in the context of that particular regeneration story, where the Doctor’s identity is affirmed after a time of change. The Doctor, having been disempowered for most of the episode in the absence of his TARDIS and sonic screwdriver, encourages a threatening alien force to scan their database for the being known as the Doctor. They project the montage, then run away in fear.

This proved to be a thesis statement of sorts for Moffat’s Doctor. By the end of that season (The Pandorica Opens/ The Big Bang), the Doctor is standing in the middle of Stonehenge, raging at the heavens about how scary he is, daring all his previous enemies to come and have a go. That episode ends on a cliffhanger where they seal the Doctor in a cube for a thousand years, which would seem to undermine his ranting… until the next episode, where the Doctor’s absence has meant that every other planet in the universe has been destroyed, until he returns and kickstarts the universe. This kicked off a trend in 21st century Doctor Who, involving two key points: continuity, and the Doctor being the most important, most powerful, most knowledgeable person in the history of time and space. Davies often examined these as aspects of his Doctors’ character, as did the writers of the Classic series, but Moffatt made them his most vital characteristics, with his benevolence and friendlines attached to this core element of godliness and virtual invincibility. Teenage me thought all this grandstanding was very cool.

This is the main problem with Moffatt’s writing, to be honest. His more overt use of continuity isn’t all that distracting, at least not in the first half of his tenure. He wrote the franchise’s 50th anniversary episode, where the Doctor plucks his own planet out of its certain doom in the Time War. This came after eight years of the Doctor being a veteran of the worst war ever, where he destroyed his own planet and all the Daleks in order to save the universe. Davies, Moffat and other writers got a lot of mileage out of this event and in my opinion, it was appropriate at that time to bring the Time War arc (so to speak) to a close, so the Doctor could leave his genocidal past behind. Future writers were free to make use of the Time Lords as an active plot element if they so chose, although Moffat’s own efforts to do so were somewhat lacking, in my opinion.

The Timeless Child story takes the Time Lords out of the picture yet again, this time for good. They had certainly been antagonists in the past, largely as a consequence of the Doctor’s attitude towards their flaws, but now the Time Lords are a former ultimate evil who are dead and never really mattered anyway. All the hard work of the many people who worked on Doctor Who material, across all media, wiped clean by one writer. Or was it?

Doctor Who is owned by the BBC. The series has been an in-house production since its inception, with the new series being produced by BBC Wales. Over the years, many different companies have held licenses for various spin-off media. There’s Doctor Who Magazine (which publishes a comic), various comic series produced by licensed Comic Book publishers such as IDW and Titan Comics, the novelisations produced throughout the Classic series by Target (often written by whoever wrote the scripts for the respective story), original novels using Doctor Who characters and concepts published by Virgin in the 90s after the series’ 1989 cancellation, books published by BBC Books after ending the corporation’s relationship with Virgin right up until the present day and the licensed Doctor Who audio dramas produced by Big Finish productions starting late in the 90s and also running right up to the present (with previous Doctor Who actors in their roles wherever possible). The franchise sprawls far beyond television, but that is the medium in which it has the farthest reach. It is understandable, therefore, that the BBC considers the series the core of the franchise. Where there is a continuity conflict between the show and a book/comic/audio drama, the TV show takes precedence. In other words, only that which appears in the TV series is considered canonical.

What happens, then, when the man the BBC puts in charge of the series writes a story that not only changes the course of that particular few years of the show but also fundamentally changes the entirety of the franchise, past, present and future? Chibnall is just the one person currently in charge of the franchise in a medium that, however important and far-reaching and modern, is one single medium among many, just as every person who ever wrote a script for the show, an audio play or a comic, or the text of any given novel, is in charge of their particular corner of the franchise for the duration of that specific work. Each of those media has had their fair share of bad Doctor Who stories and I believe that each reader is perfectly entitled to embrace or disregard any aspect that they wish. Typically, when a writer writes something into the franchise that is widely reviled, it is ignored by later writers. A couple of lines in the 1996 movie said that the Doctor was half human, a detail which has been largely ignored since, even though Paul McGann’s Eighth Doctor is otherwise embraced across all media, even the show (see The Night of the Doctor). I suggest that consumers of fiction reject the absolute authority of official sources, especially where we are expected to consider one made-up story more or less made-up than any or all others.

The future of Doctor Who on TV is uncertain, partly but not exclusively because of the recent creative decisions I have discussed. The series’ viewing figures are ever dwindling and the Christmas special has been a New Year’s special for the last few years. Casting Jodie Whitaker as the Doctor was an excellent decision, rich with possibility for characterisation and plotting, but if the BBC decide to end the series soon, I expect an uncomfortably large amount of people will blame that decision and, worse, Whitaker as an actress, for such an ignominious end. It also severely reduces the possibility that the Doctor will be played by a woman again, which would mean that Whitaker’s Doctor will be known as The Woman Doctor Who That Ended The Series, even though the show’s defects come largely from a style of writing that prizes slick action sequences, snappy dialogue and melodramatic, world-changing twists over good old-fashioned, well-written storytelling. I sat down to watch Whitaker’s first episode (The Woman Who Fell To Earth) live, hoping that Moffatt’s trademarks, which had aggravated me for years, would be toned down. Instead, the episode was largely what I had become used to, building to a big, set-piece confrontation with a monster on a crane. In hindsight, the fact that Chibnall’s first title as showrunner was a play on another title, except Man had been replaced with Woman, really should have tipped me off. Moffat also made such superficial overtures towards feminist writing through dialogue, without actually changing the way he wrote and structured plots and characters.

Ideally, Moffatt would have been replaced by someone who wasn’t a middle-aged Doctor Who fan. I certainly feel like they should have had a female showrunner, too. I mean, Chibnall wrote four episodes of Doctor Who before he was put in charge, the last one of which aired five years before The Woman Who Fell To Earth. Most of the writers of Doctor Who have been male, but plenty of women wrote for the show in various media over the years, including several of the women who played companions. After all, the series’ first producer was a woman named Verity Lambert, who set down much of what defined the character at the development stage. Gender isn’t the be-all, end-all, of course, but wouldn’t it have been wise to start this new era of Doctor Who with a female producer who could set down what defines this new and exciting version of the character?

For my part, I have plenty of Doctor Who media to consume outside of the series. I looked up all the novelisations and original novels recently and there are way over two hundred, even excluding books published since 2005. There’s comics, of course, and the audio plays, which are still being produced. Sophie Aldred, who played the last Classic series companion Ace, wrote a novel recently, where Whitaker’s Doctor meets this earlier companion. This character was all over the novels after the show’s end and never really got a proper ending, so I’m really looking forward to that. I presume (and dearly hope) that Whitaker’s Doctor will appear in many comics and audio plays in the future. I may not watch Doctor Who again for a long time, but I’ll be reading it and listening to it for years to come.

So this Chibnall situation is what prompted me to put some of my thoughts on canonicity into words but for my next trick, I’m going to tackle a larger and even more convoluted canon- Star Wars. This a franchise where particular filmmakers’ changes to the series canon (both real and perceived) routinely spark a severe and bloodthirsty backlash, and I’d like to outline how my approach to canonicity fits into that situation.

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