Why does the Doctor LOOK human?

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Guest contributor Vincent-Philippe Lauzon believes it’s all about perception.


Amy Pond: You look human.
The Doctor: No, you look Time Lord. We came first.
– Series 5, The Beast Below

When I first saw that exchange, it felt like the fourth wall was broken: the characters admitted the Doctor looked human unlike other aliens.

I always assumed he looked human because it would be boring to have the main actor get buttered up with some latex prosthetic every week: it would make the character harder to relate to. I assumed it was a legacy of the inception of the show, in the 1960’s, when it was quite common to have aliens looking Caucasian and speaking with a Californian accent. But with that line, the fourth wall was broken: a Doctor’s companion found it odd that the Doctor looked human while being alien.

In this article, I would like to discuss reasons why I believe the Doctor looks human and how it could affect the future of the show.


For me, the odds of Time Lords looking like humans are slim at best. Why would they? According to Rassilon in The End of Time Part 2, Gallifrey’s civilization is over a billion years old. Ours is about ten thousand and our species, the Homo sapiens, is a few times older. So why would a species, having lived so long as a civilization, look anything like one who spent most of their collective existence hunting animals?

For me, Time Lords don’t look anything like humans. They probably do not look like evolved mammals either. Not a human with some wrinkles on the nose or dots on the neck, but something completely different.

So why do Time Lords appear human?

My favorite personal theory is that they look human because we are the ones looking at them! Using something similar to the TARDIS’ chameleon circuit / perception filter, the Time Lords alter our perception to appear as humans. This is why the Doctor can walk in antiquity dressed with a pin stripped suit or on a space station wearing a 90’s leather jacket while nobody raises an eyebrow: to them he appears differently, blending with its surrounding.

So why do Time Lord’s look different when they regenerate?

Because they do look different… underneath and inside (psychologically that is) and the perception filter reflects that. I find this theory much more plausible than thinking of the Time Lord as an evolutionary convergent species compared to humans (given that plausibility is a flexible concept when talking about a science-fiction show featuring an alien traveling in a blue box).

How does it work?

Like every good thing in science-fiction, and especially in Doctor Who, less explanation is better. It could either be a TARDIS feature, like automatic translation, some technology the Doctor is wearing or even a natural ability of the Time Lords. The important thing is that, so far, it has always been on.

How could it impact the show?

Imagine a scene where one character, let’s say a temporary companion, catches a glimpse of the real Doctor’s look because the perception filter goes off for a second. Preferably we wouldn’t really see his true appearance and it would remain a mystery. The character would first get completely confused then once he/she understands, he/she would grow scared of the Doctor and wouldn’t believe his/her own senses anymore. This could be a test of trust during the episode.

Actually, this could be extended to explain why most aliens don’t look too alien and why most planets look like England’s countryside. The TARDIS helps the traveler to relate to their environment by altering their perception.

It could offer a twist in a story where the alteration forbids all characters but the Doctor to understand something crucial about their environment.

In the end, it wouldn’t change anything drastically. A look is just a look and it could be brought in a story just to explain how Time Lords were able to perform covert missions easily and how that ability has allowed the Doctor to explore the universe easily. It would mostly add a nice layer to the Doctor’s myth.


I think that the Doctor looking human is fine. Actually, it allows for his characterization to be quite alien at time since we can always relate to him in some way, while having him look like a green man would create a larger gap and force the characterization to compensate by having his behavior closer to humans’. I can’t imagine how Doctor Who’s conventions would look like if the Doctor was a green alien!

I do believe though, that bringing the theory I just exposed in an episode to explain the oddity of Time Lords looking like humans would add a nice touch to the Doctor’s myth. The same way that the broken Chameleon’s circuit, explaining why the TARDIS looks like a 1960’s police box, was a nice touch adding a layer to the show’s universe.

Do you think that explanation would fly? Or would you have a more plausible one? Leave a comment!