Philosophical Reflections on the Doctor Who 50th Anniversary Special

by David Kyle Johnson

Doctor Who is the longest-running science fiction television show on the planet – possibly the longest running television show period. It chronicles the adventures of “The Doctor”, a time traveling alien who traverses all of time and space in his TARDIS – a spacecraft that looks like a 1960s era London police box that is “bigger on the inside” (i.e. smaller on the outside). It debuted in 1963 with the episode “An Unearthly Child” and celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2013 with a special episode, “The Day of The Doctor,” which aired on BBC One but was also simulcast in theaters throughout Europe and America.
Doctor Who has such staying power for, I think, a couple of reasons. One is that, since The Doctor can travel anywhere in time and space in his TARDIS, two episodes are rarely alike. One episode will be hard-core spaceship science fiction, the next will be a horror/monster story set in present day Earth. One will be a Western and the next will be a history lesson. Although technically Doctor Who is science fiction, it has dabbled in almost every genre; there really is something for everyone.

Is The Doctor Still The Doctor?

The show also stays fresh because the cast is always changing. New companions are continually joining The Doctor in adventures and then eventually going back to “regular life” (although we’ve seen that no one’s life is “regular” after meeting The Doctor). In addition, The Doctor is continually changing. As a Gallifreyan Time Lord, upon suffering a mortal wound, The Doctor can regenerate; his cells repair by spontaneously replacing themselves, and at the end of it he comes out looking like (and acting like) a new man (played by a new actor). The First Doctor was a crotchety old man traveling with his granddaughter, the Eleventh Doctor (who headlined the 50th) was the youngest yet – a bowtie wearing large-chinned whippersnapper with a quirky personality. In the meantime he’s been our favorite pleasant uncle (Third), a cricket player (Fifth), a jelly-baby loving absent-minded comedian (Fourth), a clown (Sixth) and Moe from The Three Stooges (Second).
One tends to wonder: is each version of The Doctor numerically the same singular person? Of course, they have different personalities, but you’ve had different personalities, too. I bet you and your eight-year-old self are a very different kind of person. But you are still the same singular person, right? If you wronged someone when you were eight years old, it would be your duty to apologize to them today because it was you that wronged them. Along the same line, one wonders: if The Doctor did something morally wrong as one version of himself, would later versions be obligated to right that wrong? The “Twelfth Doctor” (played by Peter Capaldi) certainly seems to think so, as he expressed his intention to right some of the past wrongs that his previous incarnations were responsible for in the last 2000 years.
In the fourth chapter of “Doctor Who and Philosophy: Bigger on The Inside”, I argued that indeed each regeneration of The Doctor is the same singular person (at least if the concept of personhood is coherent to begin with). But, in the lead up to the 50th anniversary special, it seemed my conclusion was in danger of being falsified.

Must I Buy New T-Shirts?

At the end of “The Name of The Doctor”, the episode which sets up the 50th anniversary special, we became aware of the existence of a hitherto unmentioned version of The Doctor played by John Hurt. The episode ends with the words “Introducing John Hurt as The Doctor”, but in the episode’s closing dialogue, the 11th Doctor indicates that, although this new character is the same person, he is not “The Doctor”.

The 11th Doctor: Clara, you can hear me. I know you can.
Clara: I don’t see you.
The 11th Doctor: I’m everywhere. You’re inside my time stream. Everything around you is me.
Clara: I can see you. Your different faces are here.
The 11th Doctor: Those are my ghosts. My past. Every good day, every bad day…
Clara: (Spotting a mysterious figure) Who’s that?
The 11th Doctor: Never mind. Let’s get back.
Clara: No, who is he?
The 11th Doctor: He’s me. There’s only me here; that’s the point. Now let’s get back.
Clara: But I never saw that one. I saw all of you. 11 faces, all of them you. You’re the 11th Doctor.
The 11th Doctor: I said he was me. I never said he was The Doctor.
Clara: I don’t understand.
The 11th Doctor: My name, my real name—that is not the point. The name I chose is “The Doctor.” The name you choose—it’s like a promise you make. He’s the one who broke the promise… he is my secret.
The Figure: What I did, I did without choice…
The 11th Doctor: I know.
The Figure: …in the name of peace and sanity.
The 11th Doctor: But not in the name of the Doctor.

We learned more about this non-Doctor figure in a small prequel teaser episode called “The Night of The Doctor”. It seems that, after trying to stay out of the Time War, the eighth version of The Doctor (played by Paul McGann) became convinced that he must intervene to stop it. He realized, however, that to do so he must cease being The Doctor because, as The Doctor, he “will not fight”. To him “The Doctor” is synonymous with “The Good Man”. Instead he must become a warrior. “I don’t suppose there’s any need for a Doctor anymore” the Eighth Doctor said before regenerating. “Make me a warrior…”
Although the credits this time introduce John Hurt as “The War Doctor,” it seemed that, contrary to my previous conclusion, each reincarnation of our favorite Time Lord is not necessarily identical to The Doctor. This would be good news for fans. Online, one of the biggest worries was that all this John Hurt business was going to mess up the numbering. It is well established in the Doctor Who universe which number belongs to each Doctor: William Harnell is the first, Patrick Troughton is the second… and Matt Smith is the eleventh. But if John Hurt comes after McGann, doesn’t everyone after McGann have to move down one, making Matt Smith the 12th Doctor?
Do we all need to buy new t-shirts?
Not necessarily. If John Hurt’s character is not The Doctor — because “The Doctor” is (by definition) “The Good Man” and John Hurt is, instead, a warrior — then no renumbering is needed and Matt Smith is still the eleventh version of “The Doctor”. True, Matt Smith is the twelfth incarnation of the nameless Time Lord who took on the “Doctor” persona, but he is only the eleventh incarnation of that man to do so. In short, despite what the credits suggest, John Hurt is not “The Doctor”. Instead he is, let’s say, “The Warrior”. But if that is true, now we wonder…

Who is The Warrior?

Before the airing of the 50th, I thought back to past episodes for clues regarding his identity. In the 23rd season of the original series, during the sixth Doctor’s reign, The Doctor was put on trial in front of the High Council of Gallifrey and prosecuted by a man named “The Valeyard”. The big reveal in the episode is that The Valeyard is actually—wait for it—The Doctor! As The Master (the Doctor’s arch enemy) puts it:

There is some evil in all of us Doctor, even you. The Valeyard is an amalgamation of the darker sides of your nature…

The High Council made a deal with The Valeyard to adjust the evidence against the Doctor; in exchange the Valeyard would get “the remainder of The Doctor’s regenerations”.
Of course, The Master also says that the Valeyard is “somewhere between [The Doctor’s] twelfth and final incarnation.” If that’s true, The Warrior can’t be The Doctor. The “The Night of The Doctor” clearly established that The Warrior is between the eighth Doctor (Paul McGann) and the ninth Doctor (Christopher Eccleston). But it’s unclear how hard and fast we are bound to a single line in a single episode of the 23rd season. After all, the eleventh Doctor once said he could regenerate 507 times (in “The Death of the Doctor”, an episode of The Sara Jane Adventures) even though it is well established that Time Lords are limited to 12 regenerations. And in “The Brain of Morbius” (a Fourth Doctor story), we see the images of 3 previous incarnations of the Doctor (William Hartnell, Patrick Troughton, and Jon Pertwee) before we see eight other faces intended by that episode’s producers and script editor to be earlier incarnations of The Doctor. (That would make Tom Baker the Twelfth Doctor!) We are dealing with 50 years of television here, people — sometimes writers play fast and loose with the details to get the story that they want.
What’s more, in “The Name of the Doctor” the Great Intelligence mentions that, before the end of his life, the Doctor will be known by many names: “The Storm, the Beast, the Valeyard”. To me, at the time, this sealed the deal. I might have told myself that line was written by writers leaving a clue about The Warrior’s identity, knowing it will be found by observant super-Whovians like myself. But upon watching the 50th anniversary special, I realized that I could not have been more wrong.

Seeing the 50th Anniversary Special

I was lucky enough to get tickets to a theater showing of the Doctor Who 50th Anniversary Special, “The Day of The Doctor”. It was amazing! Not only was the show itself spectacular, but watching for the first time what undoubtedly would become a classic episode of Doctor Who with a large contingent of fellow Whovians, many of whom were dressed in costume (I was Matt Smith’s doctor) was an experience unlike any other. The special itself was exciting, had a great story, was peppered with references to the show both new and classic, and was really funny. Watching Matt and David play off each other was magnificent and the special had everything wonderful about Doctor Who. It even did a great job of making fun of itself.
Initially, my only complaint was I didn’t understand how and why all 13 doctors showed up to save the day at the end. Don’t get me wrong, it was great to see them all again, but I just didn’t understand how and why they all needed to be there to save Gallifrey — or even how they knew they needed to be there. But after a little reflection (and watching it again at home) I figured it out. The necessary calculations to place Gallifrey in a “parallel pocket universe” would take “hundreds and hundreds and hundreds” of years; and the line “I started [that calculation] a very long time ago” was followed immediately by the arrival of The First Doctor “warning the war council of Gallifrey”. Given this, we are supposed to realize that our protagonist(s) visited The First Doctor. They had him start the necessary calculations in his TARDIS so that those calculations would be completed 1200+ years later. (Unlike before, when programming the sonic screwdriver to disintegrate the Tower of London prison door, a mere 400 years was not enough.) They then visited all the other previous incarnations of The Doctor, and told them when and where to be. Brilliant! So now my only complaint is that we didn’t see any of these meetings; but of course that likely would have broken up the action — and spoiled the surprise of seeing them all unexpectedly together at once during the show’s climax. Regardless, this was clever time travel sci-fi at its best!
I also spotted a bit of modern philosophy in the 50th, in the form of Doctors’ solution to the Zygon dilemma. By erasing the Zygons’ and the humans’ knowledge of who they were, The Doctors actually placed them in something analogous to what contemporary philosopher John Rawls called “the original position under a veil of ignorance”. Rawls argues that how fair and just a society is can be determined by how closely its laws and rules cohere to what he calls the “principles of justice”. The principles of justice are the principles that would be agreed upon by a group of people about to enter a society unaware of who they would be in that society. Rawls argues that such a group would agree to the most fair and equitable principles possible; they would protect each individual in that society equally because, for all they know, they could end up being any one of those individuals. As The Doctor(s) point out: “The key to perfect negotiation [is] not knowing what side you are on.” Of course, we are not told the conditions of the treaty that the humans and Zygons draw up, and I will leave it to you to find out what Rawls suggested the principles of justice are.
But perhaps my favorite moment came when Tom Baker made a new unique appearance as The Doctor towards the end. Apparently, the Doctor is destined to one day again take on one of his favorite faces (Tom Baker’s) and retire curating the special secret UNIT sci-fi time travel museum in London, located in a secret vault in the National Gallery, called “The Undergallery”.

Do We Have to Renumber the Doctors Now?

The 50th definitely put my Valyard hypothesis to rest. The Valyard was not even mentioned, and The Warrior’s story was completely tied up in The Time War. There is no way he had an opportunity to go prosecute the 6th doctor at a trial, and he had no reason to want The Doctor’s remaining incarnations. But the 50th did provide us with information sufficient enough to settle the big question: is The Warrior The Doctor? Do we have to renumber The Doctors?
Now the numbering of the first eight doctors has been pretty much set in stone; we watched each one regenerate into the next. There is no wiggle room to sneak in another. But when the show rebooted into 2005, we didn’t see the regeneration of the eighth doctor (played by Paul McGann). We just saw Christopher Eccleston playing a recently regenerated Doctor, and assumed he was the next one – the 9th. Subsequently, we thought, David Tennant was the 10th and Matt Smith was the 11th. But, as we have already seen, in “The Day of The Doctor” (and the mini-prequel “The Night of The Doctor”), the existence of a regeneration between McGann’s doctor and Eccleston’s doctor was established – one played by John Hurt. If this incarnation is The Doctor, that makes him the 9th Doctor, which would make Eccleston the 10th Doctor, Tennant the 11th, Matt Smith the 12th, and Peter Capaldi the 13th. Again, this is a big deal because, for Whovians, each Doctor’s number is practically his name.

Does Authorial Intent Settle the Matter?

Now, Steven Moffat (the current lead writer and executive producer of Doctor Who) assured us that renumbering will not be required. In an interview with BBC America he suggested that John Hurt’s character “is an anomaly, and therefore doesn’t count.” So you might think that the issue is settled and no more argument is needed. But this is not necessarily the case.
In aesthetics, the field of philosophy that includes interpreting art, there are different views regarding what determines the meaning of an artwork. Intentionalists suggest that the intentions of the creator of an artwork determines the meaning of an artistic work. If this is right, then presumably it is a done deal. Moffat says John Hurt is not The Doctor, and that’s that. But there are plenty of non-intentionalists who would disagree, and they have some pretty convincing arguments.
If intentionalism is right, then the meaning of many works of art – perhaps most of them – are forever lost, because the artists are long dead and gone and never revealed their intentions. Worse yet, this makes the meaning of art static; a work of art can only have the meaning its author intended, and it cannot change over time as society around it changes and the work becomes relevant in different ways. Weirder still, the meaning of an artwork can change at the whim of the artist’s intention, even though nothing about the work of art or anything around it changed — like when J. K. Rowling decided, after Harry Potter was complete, that Dumbledore is gay. Worst of all, intentionalism may misunderstand the very nature of art – as something that is presented, in the context of other art works, for public consumption and interpretation. (For more on these arguments, see Ruth Tallman’s chapter in my book Inception and Philosophy.)
Now, that’s not to say that there aren’t good intentionalist counter arguments to these points—there are. But even if you are an intentonalist about other art, you might still agree that a non-intentionalist approach is most appropriate for Doctor Who. Why? Because it doesn’t have one single creator. As the BBC special “An Adventure in Space and Time” taught us, the show was originally the brain child of the BBC’s Sydney Newman, and much of the show was originally shaped by producer Verity Lambert. The Daleks were an invention of Terry Nation. Doctor Who does not have one creator; there has been as much change over in the writing and producing staff as there has been in the cast over the years. Moffat is only the latest in a long line. So it would seem odd to give him unquestioned authority about the meaning of Doctor Who — even regarding his own episodes. After all, Moffat is perfectly fine going back and reinterpreting some of the episodes of his predecessor, Russell T. Davis. (I highly doubt that Davis thought his Doctors were actively suppressing memories of a lost incarnation that looked like John Hurt.) What makes Moffat immune from such reinterpretation himself?
This is not to say that all interpretations of art, or of Doctor Who, are on equal footing; interpretations that are inconsistent with the content of the artwork itself are not legitimate. But if this is right, we have to look to the canon of Doctor Who to settle the renumbering issue. We can’t rely on what Moffat says outside of the show to tell us what we should think. We have to look to the 50th anniversary special itself. If Moffat does not want John Hurt to be counted as one of the Doctors, the story he tells has to entail that he is not.

The Function of The Doctor

Now, one might wonder how it is even possible for John Hurt not to be The Doctor. If Matt Smith’s character is the same person as John Hurt’s (which the show established and Moffat admits), but we know that Matt Smith’s character is The Doctor, how can John Hurt’s characters fail to be The Doctor? If A=B, and B=C then A=C right? But “=” in that equation is expressing something about numerical identity — being the same singular thing. “The Doctor” does not. It has what philosophers would call a “functional definition”.
Things that are functionally defined are defined in terms of their inputs and outputs – how they behave. For example, anything that keeps time is a clock – whether that thing be a small object on your wrist, a large object on the tower, or a gold thing on a chain in The Doctor’s pocket. Whether it be made of gears and springs, or made of computer chips – if it keeps time, it’s a clock. And, in an effort to establish his interpretation into the canon (which, as the head writer, he has every right to do), Moffat’s writing suggests that “The Doctor” is defined in exactly the same way.
As we saw before, Moffat’s stories have established that “The Doctor” is not the main character’s name; instead it is a title — a description or persona he took on by making a promise to be a certain kind of person — a “good man” as The 9th Doctor put it. In the 50th, we even find out what that promise is: “Never cruel or cowardly. Never give up. Never give in.” So the fact that John Hurt’s character is the same person as Math Smith’s doctor doesn’t mean that he is The Doctor—anymore than the fact that you are the same person as your eight-year-old self means that you, right now, are a school boy/girl.
Presumably, not every person could keep that promise and be The Doctor. To be The Doctor, one also has to be the same person as the time lord that we know and love. Clearly John Hurt’s character is the same person. So now the question is, does his character keep that promise? Does he function in that way? If he does not, then he is not The Doctor and we do not have to renumber. But if he does…

John Hurt is The Doctor

John Hurt’s character is called “The Doctor” throughout the episode, and he is in the lineup of 12 at its end. Now, that doesn’t settle the issue, but what does is the fact that John Hurt’s character keeps the promise; thus, in every meaningful way, John Hurt’s character is The Doctor. If he had pushed the big red button and killed all the Time Lords, including the children, thus committing genocide (as he perhaps did in another timeline), he would not have been “The Good Man”. But John Hurt’s character fought against the urge to push the big red button from the beginning, and ultimately did not; he did not give up on finding another way or give in to taking what seemed like the only way out. After all, when John Hurt’s character observes “at worst, we failed doing the right thing, as opposed to succeeding in doing the wrong” (which prompts Clara to call him the “life and soul”) — and after Matt Smith calls Hurt’s character “Doctor” in return for his “it has been an honor and privilege” compliment — Hurt himself describes his character as “The Doctor” because he “tried to save Gallifrey, rather than burn it”.
Of course, at the beginning of the episode, the War Doctor says he does not deserve to be called The Doctor by the interface because he has “been fighting this war for a long time. [He’s] lost the right to be The Doctor.” As Matt Smith’s Doctor observed in “The Time of the Doctor”, he did not call himself “The Doctor” during The Time War. But, the thing is, even though he feels this way at the beginning, it seems that the primary aim of the entire special is to show that, contrary to his own opinion, John Hurt’s character is The Doctor — “The Doctor on the day that it wasn’t possible to get it right”. It seems to me that Moffat has the same problem as Matt Smith’s Doctor himself, who tells John Hurt’s character that he was just “pretending you weren’t The Doctor when you were The Doctor more than anybody else.”
So, when you interpret Doctor Who on its own merits, it seems undeniable that John Hurt is The Doctor. As big of a fan as I am of Steven Moffat and his stories, if he intended for this story to close off the possibility that John Hurt’s character is The Doctor, so we don’t have to renumber – as wonderful as the 50th anniversary is in every other way – he failed in that respect.
John Hurt is the 9th doctor, Christopher Eccleston is the 10th, David Tennant is the 11th, Matt Smith is the 12th and Peter Capaldi is the 13th. Right now, as I write this, I am looking at the cover of a Doctor Who magazine (Issue 464, October 2013) that calls Capaldi the 12th doctor. That doesn’t mean that he is; after all DWM is not cannon. That just means that few have watched the episodes that closely, including those at DWM. And, in practice, I doubt this reality will be formally recognized. People will still go with the old numbering. But I, for one, would like a poster of Capaldi’s Doctor that simply reads, “Lucky Number 13”.

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