To Know Thine Self: What can or can’t the Doctor know about his future selves?

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Guest contributor Mike Falino investigates.

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One of the most exhilarating aspects of belonging to any fandom is re-watching (or re-reading) your source material over and over again, in hopes of new insight. Whether you uncover bits and pieces you’ve missed even after multiple visits, or simply some new way of looking something. This recently happened to me upon re-watching The Day of the Doctor for the, well, many-eth time. Basically, what can or can’t the Doctor know about his future selves.

“These are my replacements? A dandy and a clown…” – First Doctor

The heart of my revelation is that the Doctor, upon meeting future versions of himself, can’t actually know which number incarnation they are unless it is specifically addressed. This idea struck me when the Eleventh Doctor jumps through the timey-wimey hole in the sky and meets his old self, Doctor number ten. Immediately, Eleven recognizes Ten, which makes sense, but Ten doesn’t know he’s meeting a future version of himself until they compare their sonics. But even then, Ten has no reason to assume that the future Doctor he is interacting with is his direct replacement. Unless there’s some as of yet unexplained “Time Lord sense” that would specifically allow this, which I doubt, we must assume that the Doctor can’t know which number regeneration he’s talking to. More on this specific instance later.

When the War Doctor arrives he obviously knows neither of his future selves, yet they both turn white as ghosts at his arrival. Again, the Doctor (or Doctors) obviously knows his previous selves, but there’s no way of knowing his future selves. The War Doctor has no reason to believe Eleven isn’t his direct replacement, or Ten follows thereafter.

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In all the instances where the Doctor meets his previous or future selves, there’s never an onscreen moment when the order of themselves is made clear amongst them. In The Three Doctors, the First Doctor comments on his “replacements” being a dandy and a clown, and while he’s certainly right that they are his replacements, he technically doesn’t know that they are his second and third incarnations. The only thing he could assume is that since there are no other Doctors present, that they are most likely his second and third selves, but even then, he can’t actually know which is which. The Time Lords know which is which, and how many there are, but the First doesn’t. In the long run, he can’t know that either of his replacements aren’t his seventh or ninth incarnations. Even the Second Doctor can’t know that the Third is who he is.

This idea of the Doctor not necessarily knowing which exact future incarnations he meets holds true in The Five Doctors, as well as Time Crash. Ten acknowledges the Fifth Doctor because he recognizes him, but the Fifth has no way of knowing Ten isn’t Six, Nine, or Twelve. This leads me to the only hiccup in my little theory, the Tenth Doctor.

Both Ten and Eleven knew who the War Doctor was, obviously. While the fans were in the dark about this “lost incarnation”, all subsequent Doctors, including Nine, knew full well which incarnation they were. Likewise, both Ten and Eleven knew that Ten’s little “vanity issues” may have masked a regeneration, but that it still counted as one. So that means the only Doctor to know exactly which future incarnation he was talking to was Ten. This now goes out the window with the Doctor’s new regeneration cycle. The Doctor, during any further instances of the Doctor meeting incarnations of himself, can’t actually know which number it is, well, except maybe the twenty-third…

Oh, one more thing. The timey-wimey stuff above wasn’t the only insight I had. Actually, it’s not insight so much as “I-don’t-care-I-love-Doctor-Who”. Right as the War Doctor is about to push the big red button, even after he has seen the men he will become, the Bad Wolf interface talks him down. I never noticed how Billie Piper’s voice changed subtlety. Maybe it’s just me being a fanatical Whovian, but I believe at that very moment, Bad Wolf became Rose Tyler. At least in some way. The way she spoke to him, what she said, was Rose. At least I like to think so. Of course, only one short hop further leads me to my favorite theory. Maybe, just maybe, a certain one-time all-powerful Bad Wolf is to thank for everything!

Step back in time...