History, mythology, literature and the Time War

Captain Jack (John Barrowman)Back in 2006, I wrote a post about alternate ways of looking at science fiction continuity. Specifically, I talked about reading Doctor Who as a mythology, just like any of the more conventional mythologies we’re familiar with: Greek or Egyptian or Norse or Chinese.

(A word of warning: this will be easily my most anorackish post since then. This post is all about Doctor Who.)

In particular, I brought up a point my mythology professor at university had stressed repeatedly: a myth exists in all its forms. At the time I was using that maxim to explain why it’s okay that in “The Brain of Morbius” the Doctor had eight incarnations before the one played by William Hartnell, but in all other onscreen references Hartnell’s Doctor was the first.

Lately I’ve been thinking more about other ways to read Doctor Who.

Let’s talk about the Time War.

When Doctor Who returned in 2005, the production team always intended it to be narratively a continuation of the classic series, rather than a “reboot” like Battlestar Galactica, but at the same time they understood that the 26 years of continuity the programme had accumulated during its original run could easily prove offputting to a target audience that for the most part wasn’t even born the last time a new episode aired (discounting the Fox TV movie) and might not have ever seen an episode of Doctor Who.

So Russell T Davies introduced the concept of the Time War, a marvellous plot device that allowed the production team to jettison (just like a reboot) the morass of overwhelming continuity in which the programme had become far too bogged down during the last decade of its original run, while still allowing the sense of history that could only be maintained by having the same main character (and a few other returning characters too) and setting the series in the same universe as the original programme–and also restored a key element of Doctor Who’s appeal that the classic series had gradually lost over the years, the vaguely ominous sense of mystery around the character of the Doctor.

As slowly revealed over the course of series one, the Last Great Time War was fought between the Time Lords and the Daleks, and ended when the Doctor initiated some great conflagration that destroyed all Daleks (apart from a pair of survivors whom the Doctor encountered that series), but also consumed the Doctor’s homeworld in fire and wiped out all the Time Lords except for the Doctor.

And at the end of series one, that’s all the Time War was (note I say, “all it was”, not “all we knew about it”–that’s important)–the war in which the Doctor destroyed Gallifrey and the Time Lords in order to also destroy the Daleks before they could take over all of time and space. (Additionally, we’d been shown that the war had, to one degree or another, disrupted the existence of several alien species caught up in its devastation.)

In series two, more was added to the war. An elite cabal of four Daleks–the Cult of Skaro–had escaped the holocaust at the war’s end by removing themselves from our universe entirely and travelling to an alternate dimension, taking with them a Time Lord prison with a huge army of Dalek soldiers locked inside. In series three, more was added to the mythology: the Time Lords had resurrected the Master to fight for them in the war, but when the Master was present to witness the Dalek Emperor take control of something called the Cruciform, he became certain that the Time Lords’ defeat was imminent, and fled to the literal end of the universe and hid himself by turning himself human (and thereby escaping whatever the Doctor did that ultimately destroyed the Time Lords).

Let’s also look at why we’ve been told about these events of the Time War. In series one, knowing that the Doctor had been responsible for the destruction of both the Time Lords and the Daleks allowed the programme to re-establish its main character as the lonely wanderer without any last resort to turn to beyond his own resourcefulness that he had been when Doctor Who first came on the air, as well as providing the Doctor with his Last of the Time Lords survivor guilt that’s been his central emotional arc throughout New Who’s run (especially when he learnt that wiping out his own people hadn’t also wiped out the entire Dalek race). And we were told about the Nestene and Gelth races being devastated in the war because we needed a justification for their respective invasions of Earth. In series two, we were told about the Cult of Skaro because the Cult and their army returned to our universe in order to launch an invasion of 2007 Earth. And in series three, we were told about the Master because he turned himself back into a Time Lord and took over the planet Earth in the year 2008.

Everything we’ve been told about the Time War, we’ve only been told because it’s directly relevant to what’s onscreen right now.

This might seem that I’m somewhat stating the obvious, but–apparently I’m not.

Whenever the question is raised in fan discussion about what people would like to see in future Doctor Who episodes, there’s always a significant faction of people who say they want to see the Time War covered onscreen. The most popular scenario for this is a miniseries starring Paul McGann, since many people (quite rightly) feel that ninety minutes just wasn’t a fair shake for McGann’s tenure as the Doctor and it’s entered fanon that it was the McGann Doctor who fought in the Time War, and that the conflagration that ended the war triggered his regeneration into the Eccleston Doctor.

Here’s the thing, though–anyone who thinks it would be a good idea to put the Time War onscreen is completely missing the point of the Time War in the first place. And here’s where we get into the issue of perspective and how we read Doctor Who.

Fandom tends to approach continuity as a matter of history. That is, the starting point for any treatment of continuity is to pretend the Doctor Who universe is “real” and the events chronicled in it really happened and should all ultimately fit together the same way we expect events in a history textbook to fit together.

This is a great approach if you’re, say, trying to retcon apparent contradictions in continuity–theories as to why the Doctor apparently only has one heart in 1963’s “The Edge of Destruction” but then has had two hearts in every reference since, or why the second Doctor and Jamie are running errands for the Time Lords when we flashback to them in 1984’s “The Two Doctors” even though during their original run in the programme (1966-69) the Doctor was a wanted fugitive from the Time Lords and Jamie didn’t even know of their existence (except for a brief period of an hour or two before his memory was wiped), simply wouldn’t make any sense unless we treat the Doctor’s world as real and the events it depicts as part of his “history”. These apparently contradictory things “happened” in the same universe, and we just have to “figure out” how they could both come to be.

But then we come to something like the Time War, and fandom continues to apply the history rubric because, quite simply, it doesn’t occur to anyone not to apply it. From this perspective, the Time War happened in its entirety–including all the events the production team haven’t thought of yet–at some point in the Doctor’s personal history between the events of the Fox TV movie and “Rose”. When the Doctor shows up in “Rose”, it is already “true” that the Cult of Skaro escaped the Time Lord-Dalek genocide by departing from our reality; it is already true that the Time Lords resurrected the Master to fight for them, and that the Master was present when the Cruciform fell to the Dalek Emperor. That it’s not until New Who episode two that we learn that Gallifrey has been destroyed, or episode six (I think) that we hear the phrase “Last Great Time War”, or episode 26 that we first see the Cult of Skaro, or episode forty that the Master tells us of his participation in the war and his ultimate cowardice, is simply that this is when this information is revealed; it’s still been true all along. And by this logic, it’s okay to put the Time War on TV, because it’s simply showing us “what happened.”

But that’s not how I approach the Time War at all. To me, it seems the best perspective to take in this instance is to look at Doctor Who not as history, but as literature, and to see the Time War as the plot device it is. RTD needed a way to get rid of all the Gallifrey continuity baggage, to give the Doctor a strong sense of darkness, mystery and isolation, and to add some real emotional resonance to the storylines of “Dalek” and “The Parting of the Ways”. So he came up with a war between the Time Lords and the Daleks in which the Doctor is ultimately responsible for the destruction of both species. A year later, he needed a way to set up a shooting war between an army of Daleks and an army of alternate-universe Cybermen in our very own modernday London, so he came up with the Cult of Skaro and their escape from our own universe. And a year after that, he needed a reason why the Master would turn himself human and hide himself at the end of the universe without even a memory of his true identity, so he decided that the Master had fought in the Time War and was present at some climactic moment where it seemed Dalek victory was certain.

Which should make it obvious why showing us the events of the Time War would be a very bad idea (beyond the other unanswerable objection, that so long as the Time War remains in the mind’s eye it enjoys a majesty and depth that eight hours or so of television could never hope to live up to). In all likelihood RTD had no idea when he wrote “The End of the World” (where we first learn that Gallifrey has been destroyed) that the Master was present when the Dalek Emperor took the Cruciform (or that the Dalek Emperor even took the Cruciform in the first place, or what the heck the Cruciform is), and even if he did, it doesn’t matter, because it remained only in his head and therefore could be completely wiped out if he thought of a better idea. The specific events of the Time War we learnt about in “The End of the World” or “Dalek” or “The Parting of the Ways” or “Doomsday” or “The Sound of Drums” remained totally malleable until we reached those episodes because there was no actual record of the Time War. A Time War episode or miniseries would critically damage that narrative freedom.

Putting the Time War onscreen demands that RTD or, now, Steven Moffat thinks of every story he ever wants to tell of the war’s aftermath right now–and that he think of everything he’ll need to lay the framework for that story. And furthermore, it demands that any future producer who wants to tell a story of the war’s consequences then fit that story into the framework they’re laying down.

And even if they manage to do that, the Time War miniseries has still destroyed a good deal of the mystery and dramatic tension of New Who’s Time War episodes. The miniseries faces a choice: either it will show us the Cult of Skaro escaping with the Time Lord prison, or it won’t; or it will show the Master fleeing from the fall of the Cruciform and hiding himself at the end of the universe, or it won’t; or it will show us the Doctor dashing back to the Panopticon and retrieving the Rod of Rassilon just before he hits the “blow up Gallifrey” button on the TARDIS console, or it won’t. If it doesn’t show us these things, then “Doomsday”, “Utopia” and the finale of the 2012 series all have these incredibly contrived feelings of being retcons; but if it does show us these things, then firstly, it destroys the oppressive sense of finality that the Time Lord-Dalek genocide possesses since, unlike the Doctor, we already know about all the survivors (“Well, one day the Cult of Skaro will return; and one day the Doctor will meet the Master again.”), and secondly, it means that we already know exactly who’s in that strange silver sphere, or who the Doctor’s going to find at the end of the universe, or just why he’s sent his companion to go fetch that funny-looking rod-thing from the bowels of the TARDIS when the Black Guardian is about to collapse the whole Mutter’s Spiral into a black hole.

Similarly, there’s (I assume deliberately) never been any hint as to how the Doctor destroyed Gallifrey, the Time Lords and the Daleks (beyond the Doctor saying they “burned”, which could just as easily be metaphorical), which is always the first thing I want to point out whenever people restart the discussion of “Which Time Lords are most likely to have survived?”* People say things like, “Well, Romana is certain to have survived because she was in E-space!” or, “Drax seems a pretty good bet to have survived because, first, he wouldn’t have any motivation to go back and fight in the war to begin with, and second, he would have too good a self-preservation instinct.” But if we have no idea how the Time Lords died, we don’t know what they could have possibly done to protect themselves. If the Doctor dropped some sort of time-traveller seeking virus down the time vortex, it wouldn’t matter where in the universe Drax or K’anpo or the Rani or the Meddling Monk were, the virus would find them. Until last year, no other Time Lords survived, because that had been repeatedly established; and since last year, just the Master survived.

(When someone asked, “Which Time Lords are most likely to have survived?” my answer was always, “The Master, because he’s the only one the general audience will remember. And then, on an outside chance, Romana. And then none, because the two of them already cover any story they could possibly tell.”)

I’ve had people who want to see the Time War miniseries tell me they “just want to see what happened”, which I think sums up the conceptual divide quite nicely. To me, none of it happened until the writers come up with a story that warrants giving us another little snippet. And I think that’s just the way it should be.


PS This doesn’t mean that the Time War should never be further explored. I’ve said before that I think an excellent format for a treatment of the war would be a “Tales of the Time War” series of novels or other media, similar to the Tales of the Clone Wars series of Star Wars novels, where each novel focuses on the story of a specific participant in the war and the role they play.

*This is distinct from the discussion of “Which Time Lord would you most like to have survived?”, which can be a fun one but is over fairly quickly–“Romana because she’s nifty.” “The Rani because she’s nifty.” “Commander Maxil purely for shipping purposes.” “Oh, and let me also add–Romana, damn it.”

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8 Responses to History, mythology, literature and the Time War

  • Luana Arrrr says:

    Found your piece via your crosspost in LJ’s Doctor Who community — it’s interesting. I guess coming from a writer’s perspective, it always seemed obvious that the Time War and everything that stemmed from it were plot devices. I think that’s why I’m just really tired of the Daleks (they’re a flimsy crutch by this point) and Rose (one note, but hopefully this stint will flesh her out some more).

    Oh, what do I know? Maybe this is why I never really can understand fandom and shipping and such.

  • I says:

    Yeah, I’ve been wondering why an approach that seems so obvious to me apparently never occurs to a lot of other people in fandom, and I think the writer’s background has a lot to do with it. It’s a matter of our minds being used to breaking down storytelling devices like that automatically.

    Same with shipping–I’ve got no problem at all that people want to daydream/talk/write about the Doctor and Rose doing the nasty, but I’m always surprised when people don’t understand what a bad idea it would be to put the Doctor pursuing a romance with a companion onscreen beyond the unrequited sexual tension that was already done in series one and two.

  • mikailborg says:

    Besides which, what a wonderfully handy retcon for anything of those irritating continuity questions the show might have to deal with someday.

    “Hey, the Movellans weren’t CGI androids, they were hotties in spandex!”

    “Time War.”

    “Hey, they can’t destroy Atlantis, we already know how Atlantis gets destroyed!”

    “Time War.”

    “Hey, someone said that the UNIT stories were in the Eighties but I say they were in the Seventies!”

    “A wizard did it – I mean, Time War.”

    Really, it’s kind of a relief in some ways.

  • kishnevi says:

    Even if the Time War is a plot device, plot devices have a way of taking on a life of their own. Regeneration, after all, was simplyl a plot device to handle the change in lead actors, but it’s now one of the hallmarks of the Doctor and the Time Lords.

    I sort of want a onscreen description/dramatization of the Time War, but not really the complete War. Just the Doctor’s part in it, and whatever he did to bring it to a conclusion.

  • I says:

    Regeneration is a great example of what I mean. We still don’t see regenerations unless they’re mandated by necessity. The TV movie’s number one mistake was in awkwardly shoehorning a regeneration in, and New Who’s best (and probably for RTD, most obvious) decision was to omit the 8/9 regeneration completely, because it didn’t serve the story he was telling and would have just been gratuitous continuity. Plus, regeneration remains unexamined enough that it can be modified at will–in 1976, suddenly there was a limit to regeneration (contradicting “The War Games” and possibly the origin of the “Brain of Morbius” controversy), so that “The Deadly Assassin” could be told, and then in 2007 we suddenly discovered that, at least under certain circumstances, a Time Lord could halt his regenerative process.

    Whatever the Doctor did to bring the war to a conclusion would seem, to me, to be precisely the part of the Time War it’s most important not to show, both because knowing what happened will make it less impressive than not knowing, and because it’s one of the events that would place the most restrictions on future writers.

  • Nicole says:

    When kids get a new toy or first try a new candy that they like, their first reaction is to do nothing but play with it or eat more and more of it, until they find they have become totally bored with it or have been made sick by it. (Not having children, I could be wrong in this, but I’m willing to go out on a limb based solely on my general knowledge.) I don’t think this instinct goes away as we grow up, we just learn how to control it, because we understand what the consequences will be if we do nothing but eat chocolate all day. (The notable exception to this being women during PMS, which it is totally acceptable to do nothing but eat chocolate all day!)

    As fans of the new Doctor Who show, we instinctively want more. We want to know everything we can possibly know about the Doctor, see every part of that universe we can lay our eyes on. But I agree with you on this one Ian, showing us the time war ultimately damages the show more than it could ever hope to please the fans. Not only does it horribly inhibit the future writers, showing the time war would also kill the sense of mystery that makes it so intriguing in the first place. And it’s the past of the story, meaning it wouldn’t advance the arc at all, it cannot possibly teach us anything about the characters that we haven’t already been shown or will be shown when relevant, and showing the results of the time war will always be more interesting and useful than telling what us what happened. (Universal Writing Rule #1: Show, don’t tell.) And let’s be honest, has anyone ever really be satisfied with a prequel?

    Perhaps it would be something good to go back and do once the current incarnation of the show has been cancelled, a final nod to the fans to give them a spectacular ending to mull over until someone else comes along to resurrect the franchise. Doing it now could never do anything but disappoint most to the fans who will have imagined it a different way. And even those fans who would invariably pleased to have gotten what they wanted would only be happy with it for a little while. Instant gratification rarely stands up to the test of time and since Doctor Who is the type of show that could run on for a while (say 25 or so more years, for example), eventually even people who originally liked it will probably come to be disappointed by it and what it does to the series. Of course, none of these silly facts will stop the impulse to want more, but I think anyone who really considers the issue would come to the same conclusion you did.

    And I think it’s totally hilarious that it didn’t occur to you that as a writer you understand stories differently than other people.

  • I says:

    Gee Nikki … so it’s possible to provoke long, thesis-based comments about science fiction shows out of you, too. 🙂

    Great and, frankly, very insightful essa–I mean comment.

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