Who Mysteries: The Doctor’s Human Origins
Connor Johnston investigates the validity of canon by weighing in on this long-debated mystery.
Another series, another story arc and another resolution… though some mysteries always remain! In the closing moments of last year’s epic finale opener – “Heaven Sent”, the Doctor uttered the words that saw the fandom explode in hysterics of paranoia and speculation:
“I confess; I know the Hybrid is real. I know where it is, and what it is. I confess, I’m afraid. You can probably still hear me… so just between ourselves… you’ve got the prophecy wrong. The Hybrid is not half Dalek. Nothing is half Dalek. The Daleks would never allow that. The Hybrid destined to conquer Gallifrey and stand in its ruins… is me.”
Of course “Hell Bent” then took the Hybrid arc down an incredibly unexpected path, but not before taking the opportunity to further meddle with the eager minds of the fandom with this suggestive (yet in no way confirmative) dialogue, that has only sought to reopen speculation stronger than ever:
“By your own reasoning, why couldn’t the Hybrid be half Time Lord, half human? Tell me, Doctor, I’ve always wondered. You’re a Time Lord, you’re a high-born Gallifreyan. Why is it you spend so much time on Earth? It makes perfect sense, and you know it. Am I right? Is it true?
Does it matter?”
So as it stands, the mystery regarding the Doctor’s biology remains tantalisingly open. Today however, in a bid to cover all the bases of speculation and interpretation, I’ve set myself the tasks of not only investigating the validity of the mystery, but also challenge how confident we are in established canon, before finally weighing the consequences that may occur if complete closure was ever given.
The very notion that the Doctor could ever have been partly human was first derived from pieces of dialogue in Paul McGann’s Doctor Who TV Movie, specifically the development that the Doctor’s ‘great secret’ was that he was “half human on his mother’s side.”
In response to the development, Russell T Davies has always asserted that, although he doesn’t like the idea, it shouldn’t simply be ignored either:
“I don’t like the half-human thing. He certainly isn’t half-human, but it’s less interesting to say it simply doesn’t count…. Like it or not, the Doctor was half human. Everything in that story says he was half human, so you can’t not count it. I don’t think we can ignore it.”
And of course RTD is correct, we cannot just ignore a plot development of the Doctor’s history just because we don’t particularly approve of it. It’s for these reasons alone that I often take umbrage when people contend that they ‘decide to not count sections of established canon’ – because it’s just not the way it works. Of course people have their own interpretations and head canons on certain background plots – but once something is established, it’s cemented for good. However valid RTD’s point is however, I’d pose the question whether or not it technically applies in this situation….
Is the TV Movie canon in the TV show universe?
Before you raise your pitchforks – let’s examine this question a little further. Here’s what we know to be canon in regards to the established TV show universe:
- Paul McGann is the Eighth Doctor, as depicted on screen in John Smith’s diary in “Human Nature” and then later seen (either by original portrayal or archival footage) in “The Next Doctor”, “The Eleventh Hour”, “The Day of the Doctor”, “The Name of the Doctor” and “The Night of the Doctor”.
- He was seen regenerating into John Hurt’s “War Doctor” in “The Night of the Doctor”.
- The Eighth Doctor’s Big Finish Audio Adventures have more or less been canonised, as have most of his companions, through dialogue uttered in “The Night of the Doctor”
In this respect, neither the events of the TV Movie nor his TV companions (Grace Holloway and Chang Lee) have been explicitly mentioned or referenced in the TV Series. Now I do have a secret love affair with the TV Movie, despite its faults, it is a solid piece of Doctor Who and deserves any affection that it gets – but given the evidence at hand it does technically leave it open to interpretation in the way it is referenced or ignored in the lore of the show.
Some may recall, in 2014 Steven Moffat posed a simple exercise to challenge us, excite us and possibly encourage Whovians who hadn’t taken up the opportunity to do so earlier, to dive into the worlds of Classic Who and investigate. His challenge read:
“Here’s a question I tried on some Doctor Who fans recently, and we were all a bit startled by the answer, when it finally emerged – if we got it right. Okay; keeping in mind that everything you know for sure is probably wrong, answer me this: in which story is it confirmed, definitively, that the Doctor is not human?
Now before you jump up and yell An Unearthly Child – sorry, but wrong. He makes it clear he’s not from this time, and seems to indicate that he was born on another world, but he never says he’s an alien. He could, just as easily, be a human being from the far future, born on some colonised world. Indeed, most of his conversation in the early days would seem to confirm that he thinks of himself as human, and he even explicitly states that he is, at least once.
So come on then. To your DVD collection. In what story do the wise men and women of the BBC stop fudging the issue, and make our hero Not One of Us. I’m not talking about him having remarkable abilities or attributes – we’ve always known he’s not ordinary, that s fair enough. Spider-Man’s not ordinary, but he’s not an alien. And I’m not talking about series bibles, or internal memos or retconned continuity – when did the Doctor Who production team stop hedging their bets and make him alien?”
The exercise of course, as with most of what Steven says, was totally misunderstood by a vocal and… charismatic selection of fans who used the challenge as a way to poke holes in the showrunner’s knowledge of the show. Nowhere does Moffat actually say that the Doctor could still be, or could perhaps be turned into, a human, but he raises an interesting point: It actually took a while for the Doctor to explicitly be confirmed as an alien – 4 years into the show’s run, even.
Since then, it’s been made obvious multiple times – The Third Doctor’s binary vascular system and non-human blood in “Spearhead from Space”, The Fourth’s declaration to Sarah Jane of ‘I’m not a human being; I walk in eternity’ in “Pyramids of Mars”, it goes on! – But it wasn’t until Patrick Troughton’s “The Evil of the Daleks” that the Doctor was first referred to as ‘non-human’. In the story the Doctor passes through the arch which converts humans into Dalek-ized zombies and remains unaffected – which biologically asserts that the Doctor is not compatible with the human gene. He then moves to say ‘I don’t come from Earth, Jamie. I’m not human.’
The reason I’ve included this section in the article today is not to disprove any suggestion that the Doctor may have origins that connect to humanity, but instead point out what the challenge awakened me to: that we need to think about why we assume what we do about the show before you get stuck on something being an established fact. This realisation exposed the fact that we really don’t know if the statement the Eighth Doctor made in the TV Movie is true or not – because technically the show has never explicitly denied that he was ‘partly human’. We can truly never just *be* certain of anything in Doctor Who.
Would it work?
Doctor Who was built on questions – the Doctor himself has been shrouded in a constant mystery surrounding him for over 2000 years of travelling through time and space. Some questions crave answers and others have been accepted as ones that will never be addressed in a bid to retain the mythic and enigmatic nature of the Doctor. However, in recent times Moffat has shown that he’s neither afraid nor hesitant in contributing to the mythology of both the show and the Doctor’s past – as is his right as much as it has been the right of many writers before him that have done the same.
Today we’ve explored various suggestions from across decades of Doctor Who history, and noted examples that point to suggestions that the Doctor is partly human as well as others that point to the complete opposite. It must be remembered that however watertight any of this evidence feels – it can be disproven and made invalid by two terrifying words… Two words that could send the Whoniverse into an abyss of death and chaos: ‘RULE ONE’.
All jokes aside, if the hints of “Hell Bent” proved anything it’s that it seems the mystery of the Doctor’s biology will remain a mystery for the foreseeable future – which luckily allows ample time for us to engage in discussion and speculation on the subject. However, just because it’s a route that hasn’t been tackled now doesn’t mean it will remain untouched in the times to come… that is to say just because it could happen, does that mean it should? Ultimately, like the debates regarding a female Doctor or a male companion – we can’t really, none of us, have an informed opinion to answer definitely yes or no. Like the other aforementioned examples, whether or not a plot involving the Doctor’s biology would be successful depends on the quality of its execution – and that alone.
He is a rebel, a healer, a wise man, a warrior…. To many he is a hero, to many he is tyrant… He is great and he is terrible, and no storyline that reveals the true nature of his biology will ever change that. He’s the Doctor, and that is all that will ever be important.
“It makes perfect sense, and you know it…. But does it matter?”