A Guide to Doctor Who’s Confusing Canon

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How do we determine what is canon in Doctor Who? Guest contributor Nick Ferrazza takes a look.

“Wibbly Wobbly, Timey Wimey”

In its long run of almost 50 years, Doctor Who has produced a wide variety of stories across television, books, audio, comics and much more. Also over these 50 years it’s seen more writers, producers, directors and actors come and go than you can count, so it’s understandable that some of these stories can have slight, or occasionally huge contradictions with one another. But what exactly is canon in the Doctor Who universe? How do we determine which stories fit into the Whoniverse and which ones don’t? The purpose of this article is not to give a distinct list of stories that are canon and those that are not, but merely to discuss what canon means in terms of Doctor Who and to draw attention to stories that prove problematic when trying to decide on the true canon of the show.

What is this ‘Canon’ of Which You Speak?

First off, it’s important to discuss exactly what this term ‘canon’. Canon could loosely be described as the stories that make up the ‘true’ Doctor Who story. On the other hand, non-canon is essentially stories that, while including the Doctor, his companions, monsters or other characters from the franchise, do not actually fit into the Doctor who story and therefore shouldn’t be considered to be ‘true’.

Perhaps it would be easier if I gave some examples. Now bear with me for a moment while I sidestep into other popular sci-fi franchises, Star Trek, Star Wars and Transformers, to give examples of some different types of canon if you will. Star Trek, like Doctor Who, has expanded far beyond just our television screens and has spread into books, comics and many other forms as well. However, the owners of the franchise Star Trek TV series should be considered canon and anything else is therefore non-canon. Then there’s Star Wars which has established a clear list of its canon across the various mediums that it is presented, essentially saying that everything is canon unless it’s overruled by another, more significant story. Finally there’s Transformers which considers everything under its banner to be canon in some capacity with the inclusion of parallel universes, so if something contradicts the main story, it therefore takes place in a similar, but slightly different continuity.

Canon in Doctor Who however is not so clear. The writers have made little or no effort to tell us what is and isn’t canon, producing a never-ending debate over what’s canon in the Whoniverse. Because of this, it is seemingly impossible to give a clear list of what fans should consider canon and so therefore I will take a different approach and break canon down into its different levels across Doctor Who fandom.

Books, Comics, Audio Stories, Games etc.

gunpowder plot promoWhile in most cases it’s fair to say that nothing in what I will be referring to as the ‘expanded universe’ (i.e. everything other than the TV series) contradicts the show, some of these stories do, more than occasionally, contradict one another. Take for example the Adventure Games which in its second series brought us the story of ‘The Gunpowder Plot’ which, needless to say, tells the story of the 11th Doctor, Amy and Rory’s role in the events of the Gunpowder Plot. However, the Virgin Missing Adventure ‘The Plotters’ gave an account of the 1st Doctor, Ian, Barbara and Vicki’s involvement in these same events in such a way that the two cannot possibly be reconciled to fit in with one another. Therefore, it could easily be argued that only one of these can be considered canon, but which one? The true answer to this question we may never know, so all that can be done in these circumstances is for the individual fan to decide for themselves what is and isn’t canon.

Then of course there are stories from the expanded universe which have been adapted into TV stories. Take for example the Virgin New Adventure ‘Human Nature’. In this story the 7th Doctor found himself being pursued by an evil family of aliens. His only means of escape was to remove his Time Lord essence and replace any memories he has of being a Time Lord with memories of being an English boarding school teacher in 1914. Sound familiar? Well it should do, because in 2007 it was adapted into the two-part, 10th Doctor television story ‘Human Nature’ and ‘The Family of Blood’, leaving fans with a dilemma. Both stories were important in the lives of their corresponding Doctors, but only one can be canon. Are we really to believe that the same thing happened to the Doctor twice and he never realised?

A similar problem is presented with the Big Finish 6th Doctor story ‘Jubilee’ which later became the 9th Doctor story ‘Dalek’, and the 10th Doctor comic story ‘The Lodger’ which later became a television story of the same name featuring the 11th Doctor. Similarly there’s the unfinished 4th Doctor TV serial ‘Shada’ which was later adapted into an 8th Doctor webcast of the same name. It might just be easiest to consider the televised story the canon one in these cases, but can we even consider the TV series canon?

The TV Series

doctor-rose-series-1-promoSo you’re probably sitting there thinking to yourself, “at least we know that everything in the TV show is canon,” but do we really? The TV series itself has contradicted itself many times over. An example of this is the Doctor’s age which is frequently changing from story to story. One moment he’s ‘several thousand years old’, and then the next he’s 903. I’m not going to go too much into this, but if it interests you I would suggest reading this great article posted by Thomas Capon to learn more.

Then of course there’s the debate over whether or not the new series is canon. Why wouldn’t it be, you ask? Well believe it or not, there are those who still refuse to consider the new series canon even after stories such as ‘School Reunion’, ‘Human Nature’ and ‘The Eleventh Hour’ which all seem to clearly state that the 2005 series is a continuation of the original 1963 series, so why should anyone think otherwise? Personally, I don’t know the answer to this question because I’m not one of these people. Perhaps the new series just lacks that classic series charm that some people first fell in love with; we may never know.

Believe it or not though, there is evidence to suggest that this is in fact the case. The new series isn’t canon. Aside from the issues created, once again, by the Doctor’s age, there’s also the issue of the Human / Time Lord Metacrisis. In the series 4 finale ‘Journey’s End’, the Doctor says that it’s impossible and should never happen, even going as far as to say what a terrible thing it is, but then during the 1996 movie (which may or may not be considered part of the classic series), the Doctor states that he himself is half human. Since then, the IDW comic series ‘The Forgotten’ has attempted to fix this by saying that the 8th Doctor was lying, but this solution is still problematic at best. And there’s the issue of the entirely different accounts of Mars space program in the late 21st century as first depicted in ‘The Seeds of Death’ and then once again in ‘The Waters of Mars’, both stories having vastly different views on it.

Then there’s a little story called ‘Death Comes to Time’. Starring Sylvester McCoy, this flash story was released as a webcast on the BBC’s website. What’s so important about this story? Only the minor fact that the Doctor dies at the end of it. So obviously it’s non-canon right? Well it may surprise you to know that some fans actually consider this story to be canon and therefore see the TV movie and therefore the revived series as non-canon.

Final Thoughts

Throughout this article I have presented various examples of issues in Doctor Who’s canon, or lack thereof. I haven’t even discussed problems like season 6B, the Target novelisations or Scream of the Shalka, but I would suggest that fans go and research these topics if they wish to know more about Doctor Who’s canon. I guess the only way that it can truly be described is with those famous words uttered by the 10th Doctor himself, “Wibbly wobbly, timey wimey”, but wait, perhaps this is the answer. Perhaps we’re all considering this whole canon thing in to literal of a way. This is a show about time travel after all. What’s to say that with all the paradoxes, aborted timelines and alternate universes, plus all that time meddling and interfering that the Doctor is famous for, that stories can’t repeat themselves? Who’s to say that the Doctor didn’t meet Guy Fawkes in his 1st incarnation and then again in his 11th incarnation and that somewhere in between, one of his adventures altered the original cause of events? Maybe he or someone else has even altered his own timeline a little, whether intentionally or otherwise, so that he found himself living through the events of ‘Human Nature’ twice. We may never know the truth about canon, and this debate may go on forever, but at least we can be thankful for the wide range of stories that we’ve received over these almost 50 years of Doctor Who.