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WHOops! When Doctor Who Gets It Wrong

Guest contributor Francis Milan looks at some of the mistakes over the years.

With a history spanning over four decades, and a fanbase who remembered every minute of it, the production team of the revived Doctor Who had little leeway when it came to Making It Up. Whereas it was once generally accepted that Susan named the TARDIS or that the Doctor was referenced as Dr. Who, now the mere mention of the Daleks being robots, or the TARDIS being spelled in lowercase letters (get your act together, DVD subtitle man) can have the community up in arms.

Times change when it comes to our tolerance of bloopers and canon blunders. Back in the early 60s, for example, the Peter Cushing movies were made; as wonderful as they were, could they happen today? Would the BBC have gotten away with selling the rights of Doctor Who’s format to filmmakers who would essentially tear it to pieces and start afresh? Almost certainly not.

These days, getting it right is the bane of the production team’s existence.

2005-doctor-who-billboard2005 was one of the most significant periods in the show’s history. Doctor Who was making a long-awaited return to our screens, with Eccleston and Piper at the helm of the TARDIS, and the Beeb ensured the whole world knew it. The advertis-o-meter was reading off the scale as the duo’s faces were pasted onto a billboards nationwide. Look at the photo to the right. Fans were outraged at the very sight of it. But why?

Are you there yet?

Yup. The TARDIS doors – one of Britain’s most iconic thresholds – were opening outwards. Outwards! The forums exploded. The fandom was in disarray. Had 40 years of respectable, inward-opening TARDIS doors just been reduced to nothing? What if the Doctor and Co materialised inside a cupboard?!

idiots-lantern-number-plateWhether I exaggerate or not, the mere fact that a concern was raised somewhere in the dark depths of the web about a billboard backdrop goes to show that the fidelity of Doctor Who matters. Throughout New Who’s début series, blunders continued to be made. In World War Three, what did Rose mean when she advised Jackie to check the middle shelf for vinegar when there were only two shelves in the unit? The next year, in The Idiot’s Lantern, the Doctor and Rose intended to take their scooter for a spin around the streets of New York – so why did it have a British number plate? That’s irresponsible, Doc.

There are issues which stem from an inconceivably long timeline of fairly strict canon. Who could forget the Metebelisgate? Just last year, Matt Smith’s mispronunciation of the word ‘Metebelis’ (a planet Pertwee fans will remember well) motivated many a viewer to write to Doctor Who Magazine expressing their scorn. The Eleventh Doctor’s stressing of the ‘TEB’ syllable differed from that of the Third Doctor’s, who had originally opted to strain the ‘BEE’ syllable. Something left viewers feeling uneasy.

dr-who-hartnell-creditOf course, the classic controversy – the blunder which resurfaces with a vengeance time after time – is Dr. Who. Those early Who-makers must have wondered, back when creating the show, whether people would mistake the mysterious premise ‘Doctor Who’ to be our protagonist’s name, and ever since, the Whoniverse has been trying to shake it off. Three years into the original series, the Doctor was even referred to as Dr. Who on-screen… er, probably. In The War Machines, supercomputer WOTAN spoke the legendary line, “Doctor Who is required”. Wait, did he just…? Did he…? Woah. And in 1970, a cock-up in the title-sequence department gave serial The Silurians a Target-novel-esque prefix, as the story went to air as Doctor Who and the Silurians.

Do blunders like that grind your gears? Do you accept them for their charm? Or do you like to fix the errors with a continuity of your own?

In an infinite universe home to a man who knows all too well that anything’s possible, who’s to say that we can’t find a way, logical or otherwise, to explain Doctor Who’s sore spots? There’s always a way. The Third and Eleventh Doctors differ on pronunciation as they do on their taste for wine. The Doctor’s scooters are all fitted with psychic number plates. Mickey could have reorganised his kitchen cabinets during Rose’s 12-month absence. WOTAN’s an idiot.

This, for those who don’t know, is the wonderful world of retconning. Believe me, I was a member of the fandom for eight years before wondering what that term meant. For those who watch the show from a critical yet loving perspective, retconning is a way of life.

For when Doctor Who Gets It Wrong, there is a retconner there struggling to set it straight again. They keep the show on track, and reaffirm our faith in the logic of the Who universe. Where would the show be without them? Wallowing in a pit of half-baked misery. Though no-one would notice, I suppose, because there wouldn’t be any retconners there to notice. Nonetheless, we owe a debt to those members of the community who suggest a reason why Peter Cushing’s Doctor is canonical, or why, in the opening shot of Rose, America appears to be bathed in sunlight despite it being the middle of the night there. (Though no-one’s figured that one out yet – anyone?)

Retconners far and wide, I salute you. May we never have a worse habit.

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