Multi-Doctor episodes are the best. Strangely, however, there seems to be some confusion about this. A sizeable contingent of fans hold that those Doctor Who episodes in which incarnations of the Doctor meet one another are “indulgent” and “complicated”; that they should be saved for the occasional round-numbered anniversary, and rationed out like sugary sweets. This idea is poisonous buzzkillery, and its adherents have lost their way: multi-Doctor stories are the lifeblood of the show, and we can never have too many of them.
Received wisdom holds that the returning of previous Doctors will bore, confuse, or alienate casual viewers, but this is patent nonsense: the multi-Doctor anniversary specials include some of the most straightforwardly entertaining and accessible of all Doctor Who stories. Indeed, they’re particularly suitable for casual viewers or fans new to the classic series, since they serve as crash-courses on the actors’ approaches and their incarnations’ traits, all of which are necessarily amplified and cast into sharper relief by the presence of multiple iterations of the same character in one story. Moreover, each of the classic multi-Doctor stories – The Three Doctors, The Five Doctors, and The Two Doctors – are among the most watchable serials of their era. What better way to acclimatise viewers to the Doctor’s three most questionable incarnations – the Tory, the one with the celery, and the strangler – than by showing them contending with an increasingly grey and grumpy Patrick Troughton? Like the “Treehouse of Horror” episodes in The Simpsons, a multi-Doctor story represents an oasis of guaranteed mad entertainment even when it’s in a subpar series.
A young relative of mine, who had started watching Doctor Who late in the Matt Smith era – a particularly rich time for multi-Doctor stories – once asked me a question while waiting for an early Capaldi episode to air: “Which Doctors are in this one?” Not Doctor – Doctors. It was assumed not only that this was a perfectly reasonable question to ask regarding a random episode, but also that a given episode’s particular combination of Doctors was the most important datum for a prospective viewer to ascertain. On bleak and blasted message boards, middle-aged fans argue amongst themselves about how many continuity references normal people will be able to handle, whipping themselves into fearful paroxysms over the impact they imagine too many recurring elements might have on the viewing figures. You never get ten-year-olds watching Doctor Who and calling for the elimination of its unique elements. Ten-year-olds are smarter than that.
Steven Moffat pretends to have reservations about multi-Doctor stories, but secretly he also thinks they’re the best. This is demonstrated neatly in an interview he gave late in 2013. “It seems like every bugger is playing the Doctor, more-or-less all of Equity,” says Moffat, who’ll have written seven of the show’s eleven multi-Doctor stories by the time of his departure. “It’ll have its own Spotlight section next,” complains the writer who established the idea of the Doctor revisiting their old faces. “I think, quite soon, it’s going to go back to a militant ‘There’s one Doctor and that’s who he is,'” continues Moffat, as another compartment of his brain is busy planning a Matt Smith cameo as the emotional climax of Peter Capaldi’s debut episode. “He’s one man with many faces, he’s not a committee of people with unusual hair,” says the man whose first produced Doctor Who script featured five Doctors. “Because we had John Hurt as well,” the writer notes, remembering that he has just created a new Doctor to appear solely in multi-Doctor episodes. “So very shortly, we’re going back to just one Doctor,” concludes Moffat, who will use a recast First Doctor as the centrepiece of his last series finale. Pretend all you like, Steven: we see you.
Some people complain about Peter Capaldi being “overshadowed” by Matt Smith in his first episode, or by David Bradley in his last. This is nonsense: a lead actor cannot be overshadowed by a guest, and even if this does occur for the duration of an episode, that only makes the episode more fun and unique, and the series it’s in more varied and structurally interesting. The vast legacy of Doctor Who, too frayed and complicated for any individual to apprehend fully, is its greatest asset and most fascinating characteristic; it is what allows it to access that rare sublime of sheer textual magnitude. The show’s past should not be swept under the rug, but treated as the unique resource it is – something to draw from, or rework, or refute. It is not some sacred, perfect, closed text – it’s alive, and dynamic, and ready for a fight.
There are many types of multi-Doctor story, and though they sometimes overlap, they appeal for different reasons. Regeneration episodes, for instance, generally feature two Doctors, but these are a mechanical component of the show’s self-renewal rather than one era’s introspective meditation upon another. On the other hand, “The Night of the Doctor” constitutes an excellent example of multi-Doctor storytelling: it might not involve Doctors meeting, but the fact that it leads into “The Day of the Doctor” – the sheer craziness of placing the Eighth Doctor in a 2013 context – means that it’s Doctor Who at its best, engaging with its history in fascinating ways that would be unimaginable for any other show. Similarly, Doctor Who and the Curse of Fatal Death isn’t a multi-Doctor story in the conventional sense – rather, it’s four regeneration episodes compressed into one, which gives it such a density of different Doctors that it feels like a big introspective anniversary special. (There is no distinction to be drawn between “proper” television stories and charity sketches – if it’s live-action and has the Doctor in it, it’s a canonical Doctor Who episode, and anyone who disagrees is a CIA operative.) Episodes where Doctors have adventures together are the most straightforwardly entertaining type of multi-Doctor story, but there are many other ways to leverage the show’s rich past and the Doctor’s revolving identity – and some of these can be downright esoteric.
The whole idea of slotting a new instalment in between the events of two specific existing stories is already a bit peculiar. Works of serial fiction generally don’t need signal their precise chronological setting, relying instead on the axiom that each new thing takes place after the previous one (the word “prequel” didn’t enter common usage till 1999). Because of its context-intensive nature, this kind of chronologically hyper-specific storytelling normally appeals solely to fans, which means that it can only become prominent in media with small but intense followings – in other words, superhero comics (along with a few other multi-author fantasy settings, such as the Star Wars Expanded Universe and Magic: The Gathering). There are some counter-examples aimed at the mainstream, like Orson Scott Card’s Ender in Exile (set after Ender’s Game but before Speaker for the Dead), but this sort of thing is seen as unusual and extraneous: when Disney announced that the Captain Marvel film would be set in the 1990s of their cinematic universe, it was enough to make people sit up and take notice, and it seems that you need a film series as popular as Star Wars in order to attempt something as convoluted as Rogue One.
The idea of doing this sort of ultra-inward-looking, context-heavy writing regularly in a long-running live-action TV series is absolutely ludicrous: the rapid evolution of televisual storytelling and technical standards becomes a serious obstacle, as does the pragmatic complexity of putting characters on-screen compared to putting them on the page. This is the magic of multi-Doctor stories: the format of Doctor Who (ie, regeneration plus time-travel) turns something that’s normally quite reasonable (ie, a show’s former star returning for a guest appearance) into something so inconceivably convoluted that it would never happen otherwise (ie, an episode in which multiple, completely different-looking actors share scenes while simultaneously playing the same lead character at specific stages in their life, in scenes set between the events of existing episodes stretching back towards the dawn of television). The Doctor is Zeno’s paradox reified from thought-experiment to lived experience: the only way to accommodate all the multi-Doctor stories that will eventually be told is to conclude that each incarnation has a literal eternity of off-screen adventures. To see something as fractally navel-gazing as an average DC Comics crossover get broadcast on BBC One, for the viewing of millions of actual normal people, is absurd. To see it do this and go down well is almost unbelievable. And yet, despite all their silliness, multi-Doctor stories give the show a legitimate avenue to examine and comment upon itself in genuine, decades-spanning depth.
A key ingredient of true brilliance is the achievement of the utterly impossible. For example, if someone in 2016 told you that there would soon be a TV show in which the voice of a resurrected David Bowie trapped inside a gigantic tea-kettle offers gnomic clues to Special Agent Dale Cooper’s evil doppelgänger as he attempts to hunt down a Lovecraftian demon-matriarch, you would likely think that your new companion was unwell, and smile and nod until you could make your escape. The fact that this literally happens in the eleventh episode of Twin Peaks: The Return – the fact that this is a show in which things as inconceivable as this can occur – is precisely what makes it such a fascinating and entertaining piece of television. There’s nothing as fresh and invigorating as witnessing something you’d never have believed, and in this modern world of ours, the most marvellously improbable and dreamlike ideas often involve some flagrantly strange use of copyrighted elements, or the resurrection of dead actors. Likewise, if someone in the 1990s told you that a Christmas special broadcast on BBC One in 2017 would explicitly be set in between two scenes in the fourth episode of a particular low-budget science-fiction serial from 1966, you would have reason to be sceptical. I can think of no higher praise for Doctor Who than the fact that “Twice Upon a Time” can be described as a fairly normal episode.
Prequels often involve an element of “setting up the pieces” for their originary text. The final sequence in Revenge of the Sith is perhaps the clearest example: to a notional viewer unfamiliar with Star Wars, it would seem like a lengthy cavalcade of arbitrary and specific changes to the status quo; most viewers, however, will recognise it as the precisely-calibrated lead-in that it is. Every multi-Doctor story is like this all the way through – they can be watched on their own terms, yes, but there’s another level on which to enjoy them: their efforts to weave themselves into a precise location within a narrative which has already transcended them. A poorly-written multi-Doctor story can be bad in truly spectacular ways (eg, the First Doctor wandering around with an adult Susan, neither of them mentioning the fact that he abandoned her, for no particular reason, on a war-ravaged post-apocalyptic Earth), but a well-written one (eg, the War Doctor, in his darkest hour, hearing the sound of his own future TARDIS) can attain a truly symphonic quality.
In Lawrence Miles’s novel Alien Bodies, the Eighth Doctor finds himself at an intergalactic auction where the prize is his own future corpse. Steven Moffat called this end-of-chapter reveal “the best cliffhanger he’d ever read”, and, as many have observed, his subsequent tenure as head writer of Doctor Who features quite a few storylines interestingly evocative of Alien Bodies. After the broadcast of “The Pandorica Opens”, Miles expressed regret that his book had made the Doctor a “fetish-object”: that he seemed to have initiated a trend wherein “the Doctor becomes the subject of Doctor Who rather than its medium”. While I don’t dispute any of this, I think that Miles overlooks one crucial detail: there’s nothing wrong with fetishism. It’s a perfectly legitimate aesthetic preference, just like Miles’s own wanting the Time Lords to be frightening and cosmic rather than stuffy and academic. And nothing embodies this vision of fetishism better than multi-Doctor stories – indeed, Alien Bodies, with its elegant and poetic use of the Third Doctor, and its daring incorporation of the Doctor’s final incarnation, is a strong contender for the status of best multi-Doctor story in any medium. Despite its many echoes and imitators, Alien Bodies has seams yet to be mined. When Miles says that he remains proud of the Third Doctor prologue, but that the book would have been better without the twist, he misses the fact that the prologue and the twist work for exactly the same reasons.
There are perfectly good reasons to obsess over the Doctor. Fixating on heroes (real or imaginary) can obviously lead some people to unhealthy places, but the Doctor isn’t a hero – or rather, their heroism has little to do with why the Doctor is interesting. I don’t just mean that they solve problems using their mind rather than violence, or that they embody a spirit of rebellion that contrasts with the authoritarianism common to heroes: I mean that the Doctor is best understood as a bizarre textual artefact, quite unlike anything else in fiction. What started out as a supporting character in a 1963 BBC teleplay has mutated and evolved into a seemingly indestructible agent of anarchism, whose experiences constitute a sedimentary cross-section of human culture throughout the years of the series’s existence, and who has individually experienced and remembers this entire process. Characters like Sherlock Holmes, James Bond, and Batman have similar mythic status, but only on a gestalt level – they’re each fractured across innumerable adaptations, reimaginings, and parallel universes.
Perhaps the single most compelling thing about Doctor Who is this transcendently weird notion that it’s all one story – that the interminable eight-part black-and-white videotaped serial from 1965, the weird Marvel Comics backup strip from 1984, the avant-garde radio dramas with Paul McGann, and the big-budget cinema event with John Hurt all theoretically represent one narrative, forming the sequential, lived experience of a single character. There is really nothing else like this. Star Trek comes close to matching Doctor Who in some respects, but it’s too segmented, its sense of wonder and vastness split between discrete shows and numerous heroes, while its all-American militarism feels like something the Doctor would and should dismantle. Michael Moorcock’s Jerry Cornelius stories have that rare element of a unifying protagonist who evolves wildly across an endless proliferation of experiences and genres, but being literary and experimental, they lack the tangible substance of a singular live-action diegesis. Perhaps all those infinitely generative live-action sci-fi settings can be explained as fitting into a hierarchy of perspective: Star Trek is a boundless cavalcade of stories told via the perspective of a civilisation. Star Wars is a narrative sprawl of similar scale told via the perspective of a family. What makes Doctor Who really unique is that it achieves the same thing via the perspective of an individual.
Thanks to a lucky combination of an anthology format, a spacetime-travelling premise, the absence of a singular or even primary author, and the early appendation of the regeneration concept, the Doctor has accidentally achieved proper mythic status while remaining a concretely individual character, bringing subjectivity to the infinite. Like a newly-discovered particle, the Doctor should be subjected to careful examination, and the best way to achieve this is to collide them, at immense velocities, with lots of different things – including themself. Doctor Who is fascinating, and some of us happen to like it being about Doctor Who. Multi-Doctor stories add an additional layer of complexity: not only can they be set anywhere in time and space, they can also be set anywhere in the Doctor’s life. They are to Doctor Who what Doctor Who is to normal television.
It’s also worth noting that this primacy of multi-Doctor stories is largely exclusive to Doctor Who’s television incarnation. It’s trivial to get the old actors together for a few hours to record yet another Big Finish crossover audio, and there are so many novels and comics with different Doctors bumping into each other that it’s an utter non-event. This sort of thing is vastly more effective on-screen, in live-action, where the sheer fact that you’ve gone to the trouble of getting Peter Davison and David Tennant to film a scene together in the TARDIS console room gives the result a certain tangibility. The immense technical and logistical challenge of achieving a live-action multi-Doctor story serves as a limiting factor which means they can never become dull the way they can in every other medium.
One of the best aspects of Doctor Who is the fact that you can select any story and validly, meaningfully examine it in the context of any other. As an example, let’s take two random stories: the Second Doctor serial The Enemy of the World and the Eighth Doctor TV film Doctor Who. These stories are officially, canonically meant to represent events experienced by the same character. Given that, do they have any interesting resonances or contradictions? It may be helpful to filter everything else out for a moment, and imagine that these are the only two instalments of Doctor Who. What links them? The Enemy of the World is set in 2018, and features Patrick Troughton in a double role as both the Doctor and the Mexican dictator Salamander. The film, on the other hand, takes place in 1999, and revolves around the Master’s attempts to use the Eye of Harmony to transfer his mind into the Eighth Doctor’s body. Salamander is not mentioned in the film, but assuming that the character was the same age Troughton was when he played him, Salamander must have been born around 1971, and been around 28 when the film took place. What was Salamander doing that New Year’s Eve? When the Master opened the Eye of Harmony and sent a gravitational distortion rippling across the Earth, did the young Salamander feel it, and experience a moment of fear? Did this experience change the course of his life in some way – perhaps influencing, in some way, his eventual scheme to engineer volcanic eruptions for political gain? Salamander’s resemblance to the Second Doctor is never explained – could it have something to do with the same process by which the Master stole the Doctor’s body? Could Salamander be someone who used the same technology to steal the Second Doctor’s body, only to lose control of it later? In the film, the Doctor is revealed to be half-human on his mother’s side – could the presence of a human who looks exactly like the Doctor’s second incarnation be connected to this? Are Salamander and the Doctor long-lost twins, with one taking more strongly after their alien father, like Wilbur Whateley and the Dunwich Horror? In The Enemy of the World, Salamander is defeated when he gets sucked out of the TARDIS doors and into the time vortex; and in the film, the Master is defeated when he falls into the Eye of Harmony within the TARDIS: what is the relationship between the time vortex and the Eye of Harmony? If they are connected, could Salamander and the Master meet? Would they join forces, or would the Master steal his body next? Again, all of these connections are just examples. The Enemy of the World and the TV film have no particular relationship: you can examine any story in the light cast by any other, and an endless profusion of storytelling and science-fictional possibilities will present themselves. When fans talk about a series’s “lore”, what they really mean is “stuff that’s particularly interesting when considered in relation to other instalments”.
Because it’s all one story, the latest episode is always part of the same thing as An Unearthly Child, episode one; it’s a single extended chain of adventure, an infinite canvas. With this in mind, even bland and boring episodes can be oddly compelling, because we know that they’re still hardwired to this vast textual web, never more than one careless line of weird dialogue away from reshaping the entire thing. This is the most rewarding thing about Doctor Who: when a new episode airs, you’re not just getting one new thing to think about – you’re getting as many new things to think about as there are stories to examine in the new episode’s context, and vice-versa. Doctor Who is a show whose semiotic density and utility as a sandbox of ideas multiplies with each new story. And nowhere is this quality expressed so strongly and clearly as in multi-Doctor episodes.
Getting audiences to perceive multiple texts as an interdependent, solid block of meaning – to perceive them, in other words, as a text – can be quite a complex thing. In prose, the writer is the one who binds texts into a sort of canon – Arthur Conan Doyle’s 56 short stories and four novels are the only Sherlock Holmes stories that really “count”. In the collaborative medium of live-action, however, it’s generally the actors who fill this defining role. Film sequels and television seasons can swap out writers and directors freely, and as long as the lead actor – or at least their supporting cast – remains the same, audiences will accept them as continuations. Replace the cast, however, and viewers are almost guaranteed to treat the new work as essentially unrelated – a new version. The simple reality that the same actor filmed scenes as the Doctor for both Castrovalva and “Time Crash” links them on the level of co-authorship: it makes the latter indisputably canonical, and obligatory for future fans and scholars to take seriously, like somehow getting Arthur Conan Doyle to stamp your new Holmes story with a seal of authenticity.
In 2013, Matt Smith had so much fun working with David Tennant on “The Day of the Doctor” that he briefly reconsidered his decision to leave the show. The actors pitched Moffat an idea for the next year: a multi-Doctor series, with five Tenth Doctor episodes, five Eleventh Doctor episodes, and three episodes starring both. Perhaps they were half-joking. Probably they were under the influence of alcohol. It’s easy to dismiss the idea as ridiculous. And yet… taking a moment to consider this proposal seriously: how fresh and strange and exciting would this kind of reinvention be? I don’t think I’d trade Capaldi for it, but it’s a close call. The Doctor is always a destabilising force – their gravity distorting any situation they enter, tearing down regimes, reshaping other characters’ lives – but what would a status quo with more than one Doctor look like? If multi-Doctor stories were freed from the responsibility of being massive events, and allowed to become a more regular aspect of the show, they might develop in strange new ways. In 2017, after taping a majestically authentic conclusion for the new mixed-media version of Shada, Tom Baker said that he’d like to play Jodie Whittaker’s assistant. He was joking, maybe, but Jesus Christ: stop for a moment and imagine actually sitting down to watch ten hour-long episodes of adventures with the Thirteenth Doctor and the Curator. What would that actually, really be like? Doctor Who is often at its best when breaking its own rules, but one that it’s never dared break is the requirement that each era, each Doctor, must die and be replaced: what happens when the show finally devours its own tail? There are sound arguments for why Doctor Who should stick to the latest Doctor – the bleeding edge of the future, cleaving into the infinite, is obviously the most fertile ground for storytelling – but that also makes it a status quo, and Doctor Who is all about destroying those. It’s only a matter of time until someone dares.
Pretty much everything that makes multi-Doctor stories great also applies to multi-Master stories – it’s just that those are far rarer. Consequently, we get quite a good glimpse into what a multi-Doctor status quo might be like in “The Doctor Falls”, which has the Master and Missy living together for two weeks – a time-skip which defuses the tension and momentum that generally carry multi-Doctor stories. When you’re shacked up with your past or future self, and there’s no immediate threat, what do you do? How do you fill the time? Indeed, the Genesis of the Cybermen two-parter is a perfect example of how multi-Doctor stories should be approached – with the Master serving as a walking manifestation of Missy’s brutal past, and Missy offering the Master a window into the terrible beauty of his own future, it’s a perfect use of multi-incarnation path-crossing for real dramatic storytelling. (Returning to the brilliance of the impossible: “The Doctor attempts to reform Missy by taking her on adventures, and they land on a colony ship near a black hole” is a pretty great pitch, but it’s only when you add “…the John Simm Master also happens to be there” that it becomes deliriously, thrillingly bizarre.)
Stories involving “alternative Doctors”, however, are fundamentally inferior to multi-Doctor stories. Considering that what makes Doctor Who unique is that it’s literally all a single sequence of events, experienced by an individual, there’s a sense in which any time and energy invested in a Doctor who isn’t our own “prime” version is sort of wasted. Granted, individual stories have made good use of alternative Doctors – notably a couple of the Unbound audio plays – but these tend to run out of steam quite quickly. Robert Shearman’s proposed Jubilee prequel focusing on the alternative Sixth Doctor would certainly have been good, but it also would have lacked one of the fundamental appeals of Doctor Who. Give an alternative Doctor meaningful development, and it becomes frustrating that none of it matters to the “real” Doctor; attempt to give the alt-Doctor too much prominence, too much of an existence away from the original, and their lonely disconnectedness becomes distracting and frustrating; you risk the fatal spectre of Original Character Donut Steel. The idea of encountering one’s definitive past or future self is much more powerful than that of meeting one’s counterpart from another universe, or a different timeline. It’s telling that fan theories about divergent, explicitly “non-canon” stories like The Infinity Doctors, Scream of the Shalka, or the Peter Cushing films tend to revolve around finding ways to connect them to the show’s prime continuity.
One popular fan theory holds that Doctor Who and the Curse of Fatal Death takes place in an alternative timeline, with Paul McGann’s Eighth Doctor presumably regenerating off-screen into Rowan Atkinson’s Ninth Doctor. While this is a bit healthier than simply writing the special off as “not canon” (which is the single lamest way to engage with it – the only stories that deserve such treatment are the politically abhorrent, and even those can be salvaged sometimes), it still has the problem that it segregates the episode into its own bubble, stripping it of any real relevance. A better interpretation is that Atkinson’s Doctor is the ninth incarnation in a future regeneration cycle, which allows the special to be reconciled seamlessly with mainline Doctor Who – perhaps Joanna Lumley is the one who regenerates into the Curator. While we’re at it, it’s worth pointing out that the three incarnations which the Doctor burns through in the middle of The Curse of Fatal Death each spend some of their lifetime off-screen, either behind the Zektronic Beam Controller or just around the corner, which means that they can all be conveniently time-scooped and have an unlimited number of adventures without contradicting the special. It’s a common joke in Doctor Who fandom to call Withnail and I an Eighth Doctor / Shalka Doctor crossover, but it’s much more satisfying if Withnail, the Shalka Doctor, and the Quite Handsome Doctor are all the exact same incarnation, and a definite canonical phase in the Doctor’s future. Richard E Grant’s regeneration in Curse of Fatal Death takes on new tragicomic dimensions if we imagine that the memories flashing through his mind, Caves of Androzani-style, involve fighting the Shalka and getting called a ponce by a drunken Irishman. And the Victoria Wood sketch with Jim Broadbent gains unexpected depth if you treat it as an illustration of the Shy Doctor’s character development.
Similarly, Mr Bean has a great deal more pathos once you’ve figured out that it’s a show about the misadventures of a future Doctor whose meddling has led the Time Lords to prosecute him, scramble his memories, and exile him to Earth again. The show also makes a great deal more sense when read as a Doctor Who story – I mean, come on: its opening sequence literally, unambiguously portrays an eccentric British man-child alien with a tweed suit and a whimsical, obviously fake name being beamed down by a spaceship in front of St Paul’s Cathedral. And that was before the actor was cast as the lead in a live-action Doctor Who episode written by Steven Moffat. Atkinson’s regeneration scene is much more affecting if you understand that you’ve already seen fifteen episodes’ worth of his Doctor’s bumbling misadventures.
Teatime Brutality argues persuasively that the Doctor Who canon does not and should not exist. While this is clearly the healthiest position on the subject, I don’t entirely agree: I think that the Doctor Who canon should exist, because it’s an enormously entertaining idea in its own right. Declaring something “canon” is a fundamentally absurdist action, and should always be seen as one; the less plausible the declaration is, the better. The same applies to “non-canon”: boring people might use it to exclude anything they perceive as strange or ill-fitting, but the term offers an especial delight when used to delegitimise popular texts. When declaring something non-canon, always punch up. If someone says “Dimensions in Time isn’t canon”, I just tune them out, but if they say “City of Death isn’t canon”, I am instantly intrigued. The idea of canon is fun and weird, and should be enjoyed as such – as a tool to corrupt and pervert the authoritarian structures which some people try to assemble from fiction, and to sincerely elevate the marginal and bizarre to sanctified status. To be perfectly clear, I’m not suggesting that we should call dodgy spin-offs or fanfics canon as a joke; I am suggesting that we should genuinely, seriously consider them canon, and analyse and evaluate them accordingly. In order to get the most out of the absurd, you have to truly commit to it. When I say that I believe Mr Bean is a future incarnation of the Doctor, and that The Curse of Fatal Death should be considered the canonical final adventure of Mr Bean, I am being entirely sincere, and think that Doctor Who fandom would be a much healthier and more pleasant space if this were made official. This is the crux of my adherence to the concept of canon: not only do I think that Mr Bean is the Doctor, I also think that the sort of people who use canon as a tool for gatekeeping and bullying should be forced to accept such ideas and incorporate them into their monolithic, joyless conception of the show. The moon’s an egg, fuckers. Stick that in your canon and smoke it.
Considering how much fun it would be, it’s shocking that no Doctor Who episode has ever retconned an existing character to secretly have been the Doctor. There’s the Watcher, the Valeyard, Merlin, the Dream Lord, and the Curator – all of whom are intriguing characters, and punch well above their weight in terms of the amount of time and energy fans have expended in thinking about them – but each one is introduced in the very same story which reveals them to be the Doctor, and even then only somewhat ambiguously. The closest we’ve come is that time someone wrote to Doctor Who Magazine to ask Steven Moffat if he thought that Goronwy in Delta and the Bannermen was a future Doctor, and he agreed that it made sense – now that’s more like it. This sort of retcon would require very little effort to execute but have a gigantic impact on the canon, leaving obsessive wiki editors battling for an eternity. If I were in charge of Doctor Who, I’d do this constantly until I got fired.
Here’s a prime example of a missed opportunity: several years before being cast as the Doctor, Peter Capaldi guest-starred in the episode “The Fires of Pompeii”, portraying Roman father Lobus Caecilius opposite David Tennant. Moffat, deciding to weave this production quirk into the text, had the Twelfth Doctor realise that he had subconsciously regenerated to resemble Caecilius as a reminder of his duty to save people. This is… fine, but d’you know what would’ve been better? If it’d turned out that Caecilius was literally the Twelfth Doctor all along, perhaps using a chameleon arch to turn himself into a human as part of some unseen adventure. Reinterpreted as a multi-Doctor episode, this standard-issue romp reveals fascinating new layers of meaning: Capaldi’s underwritten interactions with David Tennant suddenly crackle with cosmic significance; the fact that Caecilius has fallen in love with a human woman, Metella, and fathered two children, Quintus and Evelina, becomes momentous and thought-provoking, hinting at radical untold stories; and the epilogue, where Quintus pays his respects to a statue of the Tenth Doctor, becomes captivatingly ironic. Compared to this, the explanation Moffat used is quite dull; it leads nowhere. (But at least it doesn’t outright contradict the idea that Caecilius is the Doctor: it’s still possible that the Doctor regenerated to match the appearance of a man whom he didn’t realise was his own future self, and indeed, this would be very much in keeping with Moffat’s fixation on ironic time loops.) Not only should we make more intentional multi-Doctor ones – we should make more accidental ones, too.
Being quite obsessed with the art of the multi-Doctor story, Moffat took it upon himself to solve each of the format’s major problems during his tenure, writing his fannish theories into the show’s text, shoring up the logic of previous multi-Doctor stories as well as laying more solid groundwork for future ones. Generally, in multi-Doctor episodes, returning Doctors look older and greyer than they did during their own eras; Moffat solved this in “Time Crash”, which reveals that meeting oneself can “short out the time differential” – the Doctor’s physical age fluctuates when they meet their future selves, only to “snap back” when they return to their proper time. (It’s as if the Doctor’s past incarnations somehow continue to age within them, and this age is reflected back at them when they actually meet those incarnations again – all very Dorian Gray, which raises interesting questions about the possibly occult nature of regeneration. Certain novels hint that the Time Lords somehow stole their immortality from the Great Vampires. Perhaps a close enough reading of the multi-Doctor stories will reveal mind-rending truths about the Yssgaroth.) The “time differential” explanation not only makes allowances for older Doctors to return in future, but also retroactively, playfully explains all such instances which occurred in previous multi-Doctor episodes. (Well, except for those scenes in which we see a returning Doctor looking strangely old before meeting their future self, as Troughton and Pertwee do in The Five Doctors prior to getting time-scooped; presumably the shorting-out carries backwards somehow.)
A slightly deeper problem with multi-Doctor stories is that all but the earliest participating incarnation should logically have complete memory, and therefore foreknowledge, of what’s happening. Moffat’s early thought on this problem, as posted on rec.arts.doctorwho, suggests that this is indeed the case – that the Second, Third, and Fifth Doctors in The Five Doctors are all essentially performing a script, living out the events in which they’ve already seen themselves participate. It’s an interesting model, but dramatically it’s quite limiting – give a character full awareness that they lack free will, and the story will invariably be drawn into a meditation on the nature of free will, which most multi-Doctor stories clearly aren’t. Moffat eventually changed his mind, solving the problem definitively in “The Day of the Doctor”, which states that a time-traveller will generally be unable to remember events experienced in the proximity of their own future selves. This neatly sidesteps the interminable question of free will, expanding the palette of multi-Doctor interactions to include the full spectrum of human drama and power dynamics. The temporal mechanics are unclear, but that’s fine in science fantasy – it’s an excellent handwave. Moreover, the episode makes it clear that this rule is somewhat plastic, which neatly accommodates all occasions, past and future, where the Doctor does remember meeting their future selves.
Among certain types of fans, it’s wearisomely common to fantasise about the current Doctor regenerating back into an earlier one. Moffat renders this explicitly possible in “The Day of the Doctor”, where the Curator, an elderly man played by Tom Baker, informs the Eleventh Doctor that he will one day find himself “revisiting” a few of his past faces. This is a tricky moment, as it inadvertently puts fuel in the engines of reactionary fandom. Generally speaking, when a previous Doctor returns, they should always be playing their own incarnation – having them play a new one decouples the portrayal from its historical context, forecloses the fun textual challenge of weaving a new story into old continuity, subverts the unique bittersweetness of regeneration by making it reversible, and is redundant to Moffat’s own “time differential” explanation for the actor’s ageing. It’s certainly an interesting addition to the toolkit, but it should be used very sparingly – for example, to give Tom Baker a mythic send-off as a far-future Doctor.
The only instance where Moffat’s multi-Doctor engineering doesn’t quite pan out is in “Twice Upon a Time”, where he attempts to explain the First Doctor’s resembling David Bradley rather than William Hartnell by having the Twelfth Doctor observe that his face is “all over the place” because he’s resisting regeneration. This doesn’t even work on the episode’s own terms: Ben and Polly look similarly dodgy, but presumably they’re not in the throes of regeneration, and the Twelfth Doctor is regenerating but looks perfectly normal. Moffat’s explanation was also undercut immediately on a franchise level – a series of Big Finish audios starring Bradley’s Doctor, and set way back during his travels with Susan, had already been announced by the time the episode aired. A truly good explanation of the Bradley face would accommodate all of this, as well as extending to why the First Doctor looked like Richard Hurndall that one time. On a deeper level, the idea of partly-regenerated Doctors clashes with the clear elegance of the regeneration system – Bradley is clearly playing the First Doctor, not some First-and-a-Half Doctor. Since it’s a one-time explanation heavily reliant on the episode’s plot specifics, it has no extensibility, and doesn’t quite ring true or stick in our minds. The truth is evidently closer to the “Time Crash” explanation: other aspects of the Doctor’s appearance – not just his apparent age – can fluctuate and “snap back”, generally around the time they encounter one of their future incarnations. This also fully explains all past and future instances of a Doctor returning and looking a little bit different. Come on, Twelfth Doctor: think it through.
Interestingly, when Moffat is writing his multi-Doctor stories, he tends to make it explicit that they’re set just before the end of each returning Doctor’s life. While this likely emerges from a simple desire to have returning favourites be able to remember and reference as many as possible of the events we’ve seen them experience, it also has the curious effect of turning each incarnation’s final days into a bardo-like intermediary state where the Doctor is highly likely to encounter their other selves and attain spiritual progress. It’s like the Watcher subplot in Logopolis, except it makes literal rather than symbolic sense: when the Doctor’s death again draws near, the TARDIS – or perhaps just the universe – shows them the ghosts of Doctors future. This fits particularly well with the atmosphere of the First Doctor’s reappearances in The Three Doctors and The Five Doctors, both of which show him wandering round a mysterious garden never seen in any other episode. The Second Doctor’s final moments are similarly shrouded in mystery, with the bizarre fan theory of Season 6B taking root in his elided regeneration scene. Multi-Doctor stories have always implied that each incarnation somehow spends their last days in some abstract spiritual state, where an infinite number of multi-Doctor stories can take place; Moffat just makes this a little more explicit.
Another great aspect of multi-Doctor stories is that they’re inherently very funny. This can be intentional, as in Moffat’s skilful character comedies, but it’s just as often accidental: the sheer concept of multi-Doctor stories is so baroque and involved that even the terrible ones are gold. The density of the character’s overlapping and repeating perspectives means that the torturous pretzels of tortuous logic we can divine from them go fractal. When the Fifth Doctor smiles blandly at his long-lost granddaughter and doesn’t bother actually speaking to her, it’s astonishingly, bizarrely inert, and it only happens this way because the script has already given her a big reunion moment with the First Doctor – a set of circumstances so far removed from anything in the world of normal drama television that the only possible response is to laugh. On a basic level, there’s just something viscerally hilarious about the idea of treating the Doctor’s sequential incarnations as discrete coexisting characters – a situation so convoluted that silly fan terminology is not only helpful but necessary to explain what’s happening. “Sarah Jane says hello to the Doctor” isn’t a funny statement, but “Sarah Jane says hello to the Third Doctor” somehow is. This juxtaposition – where the Doctor’s incarnations are aware of their own locked-off sequential nature, yet also continue to appear in new stories – has a quality that only Paul Magrs really seems to understand: both absolutely ridiculous and actually quite magical. “Hello, I’m the Doctor” is fine, but “Hello, I’m the Third Doctor” is brilliant.
There are many models of how time-travel might work, and several narrative conventions for telling stories about it, each with its own set of rules. Most multi-Doctor stories (as well as most Steven Moffat stories, what with the significant overlap) adhere to the model known as the bootstrap paradox. The name comes from “By His Bootstraps”, a short story by Robert Heinlein. The story follows Bob Wilson, a young student who is accosted in his bedroom by a strange man, and then another, before escaping into a portal to arrive thirty thousand years into the future. The post-apocalyptic world’s dictator manipulates Wilson into travelling back in time, where he discovers that those two strangers were his own future selves. After his attempts to derail or change events fail repeatedly, Wilson flees back to the future, where he dominates the post-apocalyptic locals in an attempt to safeguard against the dictator’s machinations. The story ends, of course, with Wilson realising that the dictator was himself: he has attained supreme power through circular time-travel, with no leverage at all – lifted himself by his own bootstraps.
Just what is it that makes the bootstrap paradox so appealing? To understand this, we must first consider the alternative. A time-travel story in which events are mutable can quickly devolve into incoherence as characters’ actions result in forked timelines, cancelled futures, and multiple co-existing versions of everyone, with no easy way to keep track of them. All of these things can be entertaining, but they’re complicated, messy, and not necessarily rewarding. The characters in Red Dwarf frequently encounter other versions of themselves, from the past or future or other universes, but these are eventually treated more as an infinite sea of possible selves, with the show free to contradict or erase them, or discard them for a punchline. In other words, it’s very easy for time-travel stories to collapse into slapstick nonsense – a context in which it is difficult for the audience to believe that what they’re watching means anything. When Marty McFly changes the past to make his parents rich, what the fuck happens to the versions of his parents in the old timeline, or the version of Marty who grew up in the new one? It does not bear thinking about.
Bootstrap-paradox stories offer a very different sort of pleasure: a world in which time-travel is possible, but everything still slots neatly into place. You can explore the past and the future, set out on great quests and have exciting adventures, but in the end, everything you’ve done will resolve with the fluid motion of clockwork. If you go to the past, you’ll find you were always part of it. You might perhaps get stranded somewhere, but there’s no existential risk of erasing yourself or destroying the universe. Bootstrap-paradox stories take the abstract, hazy confusion of time-travel and develop it into a straightforward, tangible, digestible system. Despite its name, the bootstrap paradox involves no internal contradictions: it’s an elegant and coherent system, allowing events to cause themselves via time loops, recursively and seamlessly. When an object is sent back in time and becomes itself, or a person is sent back and becomes their own ancestor, the result is a story that’s completely logical and self-consistent but humanly impossible to process. It’s the arbitrary and mystifying truth of the Big Bang, that baffling something-from-nothing which lingers always at the back of our minds, rendered personal and accessible, packaged in a form we can more easily think about. By enabling an event to cause itself, the bootstrap paradox allows us intimate contact with the majestic, unknowable mechanisms of the universe – the sourceless delirium of the feedback loop. It brings the infinite close enough to touch.
There are a multitude of ways that a character in a science-fiction or fantasy story can meet themself, and some are more dramatically satisfying than others. For example, if you meet your future self and consequently change history, averting their existence, then they were never really you in the first place. The same goes for counterparts from parallel universes, not to mention the glorified twins produced by cloning: they may be extremely similar to you, but they’re still fundamentally not you. Sentient aspects such as Tyler Durden are a more satisfying way to tell this sort of story, but occupy a limited status in the hierarchy of realness – they’re only figments. And stories which take a more mystical and ambiguous approach to doppelgängers are generally symbolic, with little to say about the literal nature of the characters involved. When a time-traveller in a bootstrap-paradox story encounters themself, however, it is very definitely them, in their actual past or future. There is something incredibly powerful about the idea of coming into contact with Another who is still definitively, undeniably, literally Oneself. Such an encounter can be funny, or strange, or chilling, depending on the goals of the particular story. When two Doctors are on-screen together, the air between them crackles with the substance of every intermediate adventure – say what you will about “Twice Upon a Time” as a story, but the central dynamic has incredible charge: every moment from Power of the Daleks through “The Doctor Falls” is suspended between them, simultaneously fated and memorised. Again, this spark is what stories about alternative Doctors lack.
As with much fantasy and science fiction, there’s also an element of simple wish-fulfilment. On one level, the bootstrap-paradox story is the narcissist’s ultimate escapist fantasy: being able to talk to oneself, or fight oneself, or have weird sexual tension with oneself are all interesting story ideas, and multi-Doctor episodes have great fun with them. There’s also the vain fantasy of having a relationship with oneself, which is the story of Heinlein’s “—All You Zombies—”, as well as its faithful film version Predestination – a top-notch B-movie that shows one extreme direction this type of story can take. Moffat frequently returns to this idea of self-creation via time-travel, simultaneously a dream of independence and self-sufficiency and an illustration of the interconnectedness of the individual with society and the universe. (His ur-text, The Time-Traveller’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger, is shot through with this type of thing, a perfectly consistent clockwork mechanism of tragicomic ironies, crushing inevitabilities, and farcically-withheld secrets; it’s no wonder Moffat repeatedly ransacked it for Doctor Who ideas.) On a less obvious level, and perhaps accounting for some of their subconscious appeal, bootstrap-paradox stories fulfil the fantasy of sheer leisure: to discover that someone is your future self is to gain all their experience, their knowledge, and their achievements – you still have to put in the effort, true, but the pressure of having to achieve that is reduced to zero once you know for certain that it’ll happen. We daydream about being in multiple places at once – about getting work done without giving up recreation or relaxation – and bootstrap-paradox stories are the most satisfying realisation of this idea: you get to see someone else doing something, but know with certainty that it’s you who’s (eventually) doing it. There is also the fantasy of exemption from responsibility: express dismay or confusion at your other self’s actions or beliefs, and you can have your cake and eat it, both entirely and simultaneously. (On a very different note: while I can only speak from my own experience, I think the bootstrap-paradox story also holds a particular appeal for the neurodivergent mind. The limitless narrative possibilities of time-travel, combined with a comprehensive system of logic and a guarantee of complete reconcilability, is especially enjoyable for those of us who happen to be wired with an unusual inclination towards collecting and charting certain sorts of information.)
Generally, which model of time-travel a given Doctor Who story follows is left to the discretion of the writer: there are no overall rules, and whenever one is introduced, it’s guaranteed to get broken before long. However, multi-Doctor stories are a little different: since regeneration makes each Doctor a distinct character in their own right, the show can’t simply discard or erase these superfluous doppelgängers the way Red Dwarf does – these celebratory guest appearances are expected to fit, and make some degree of sense with the overall character. This effectively compels multi-Doctor stories to follow Heinlein’s bootstrap-paradox logic, even as the episodes on either side of them vary time-travel rules as deemed fit. As a pleasing result, every multi-Doctor episode is both a direct sequel and prequel to itself. (There is, as always, room for exceptions. In particular, the multi-Doctor story’s elegant bootstrap-paradox conventions are precisely why it’s so shocking when the Third Doctor dies on the planet Dust in Lawrence Miles’s novel Interference. But this works because it’s a jarring exception to a generally firm rule. It’s a great moment, and an impressive tonal mission statement for the line, but in terms of the diegetic story, it doesn’t actually lead anywhere.)
Despite all the satisfying elements of the bootstrap-paradox story, it is rooted in a fundamental cynicism. Most of us know what it is to be powerless: from birth to death, we’re herded through a labyrinth of education and work, family and relationships, social obligations and responsibilities. The bootstrap paradox takes this very real, potent, inescapable dynamic – the idea of the mortal caught in the cruel machinery of compulsion and coercion; late capitalism, if you like – and elevates it to cosmic status. When we read stories about the utter fascistic rigidity of past and future, they hit home because they reflect an essential and relatable truth about humanity and extend it to the eternal. This is why Alan Moore constructed his 615,000-word magnum opus Jerusalem – a book whose heroes die, explore heaven and hell, become ghosts, and travel across billions of years – around the logic of the bootstrap paradox: it captures something fatally true about the human condition. And it also happens to serve as a much more satisfying and elegant explanation for the Doctor’s inability to solve every problem than the show’s inconsistent waffling about “fixed points in time”.
Regeneration offers a compromise between the fantasy of literal immortality (ie, living forever) and the substitute immortality which is actually available to us (ie, biological reproduction). The Doctor gets to partake in the tragic drama of old age, the poetry of the fraying mind, and the passing of the torch to the next generation… but they also get actual eternal life. The mechanics of multi-Doctor stories synthesise the narrative power of death with the narrative potential of life.
As such, regeneration is also the ultimate fantasy of abdicating responsibility: you get to continue existing, but the person who has to worry about all your problems isn’t you any more. It’s got all the advantages of suicide and none of the downsides. And if you’re not satisfied with your gender or physical appearance, well, we can do something about that, too. Is it any wonder that stories which combine bootstrap paradoxes with regeneration are so intensely fascinating? Multi-Doctor stories allow us to explore what it’s like to come into contact with a radically different, totally irreconcilable Other who is still literally you: they take the real human experience of changing over time and ride it all the way to the asymptote. Interestingly, when the triumvirate of Ben Aaronovitch, Andrew Cartmel, and Marc Platt developed the idea that the Doctor was more than just another Time Lord – that in the character’s distant past, before being the First Doctor, they had been something else, a being of unknown identity and origin – the name the writers assigned to this shadowy figure was “the Other”. This resonates interestingly with multi-Doctor stories’ focus on confronting oneself as another, and – in light of my earlier diagnosis of the Doctor as being not a hero so much as a bizarre textual artefact – hints at further avenues of potential thought. (However, it is imperative that the Other’s true identity must never actually be revealed: the sheer disruption this question poses to the show means that literally every conceivable answer is hilarious, and that is too precious a waveform to collapse.)
We all change over time, but for most of us, personal evolution is a one-way trip. Because the Doctor also happens to be a prolific time-traveller, however, their incarnations are unmoored from the chronology of the surrounding world, which means that each one of them is functionally a walking era. When we see the War Doctor on-screen, we know that he has experienced every classic Doctor Who episode, and that every BBC Wales episode lies in his future; and we know that he is not far, one way or the other, from weary and dutiful violence. If the Third Doctor steps into a room in any planet or any year, the surrounding events become enmeshed in 1970s British culture and glam rock and Buddhism. It’s only when a Doctor has died and regenerated that their era begins to settle – it’s only once we’ve witnessed a Doctor’s end that we can really see the shape and themes and meaning of their story.
Moffat’s novelisation of “The Day of the Doctor” – the final text of the Moffat era, from a certain point of view – concludes with the Thirteenth Doctor, who is posing as a medic, giving Cass Fermazzi the bandolier which the War Doctor will later take from Cass’s body. Having seen Cass die, the Doctor knows that she cannot help; the best she can do is get to know her a little in the past. When she sees the bandolier, the elements of her history click into place, and the Doctor knows that she must facilitate them. It’s an appropriate note on which to end – Moffat’s stories are riddled with bootstrap paradoxes, of course, but that serves to illustrate part of their point: the sheer undeniable complexity of the universe’s clockwork motion, in all its monstrous neutrality. La Jetée is the best time-travel film largely because of how it draws on this same undercurrent of deterministic tragedy. Time-travel offers a mesmerisingly potent novum for science-fiction storytelling, but the bootstrap-paradox variety infuses this with an inescapable harshness that gives it the coppery tang of reality.
As the multi-Doctor story is a particular subset of the crossover, it’s worth examining precisely how these two genres relate. A crossover is any story that unites elements of discrete works of fiction. The interest of a crossover is inversely proportional to the tonal and structural compatibility of its source texts. The Marvel Cinematic Universe films are obviously very lucrative – and it’s good that they’ve helped acclimatise audiences and studios to the idea of sprawling intertextual storytelling – but for anyone interested in the surrealistic juxtaposition of the crossover, they’re pretty dull: all component films and TV series are explicitly engineered to fit the MCU™, and nothing too unusual or experimental gets past the drawing board. This is the crossover as bell curve, flattening everything towards a median tone, style, and story template calculated for maximum profit. It’s a universe where everything is solidly okay, and if the machine glitches and lets through something like Iron Man Three – a film that’s actually interesting and has a personality – the fans will hate it because they’ve been brainwashed into perceiving deviation as a flaw. At their worst, crossovers are a force for homogenisation: a coldly inevitable development in the corporate leveraging of intellectual properties.
The best crossovers are not planned in advance. Their object is not to squash new works into a certain mould, but to combine existing universes, fusing wildly different stories together. In terms of the sheer volume of interesting stuff it can give us to examine and think about, a creative crossover is one of the most efficient things a series can do – it instantly blends one entire corpus of texts into the diegetic world of another, and vice-versa, tearing down boundaries to open up wild new storytelling possibilities. The gold standard for cinematic universes was set by Universal Studios: it began in 1931 with Tod Browning’s Dracula and culminated in 1948 with Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. The studio’s ad-hoc merger of their Dracula, Frankenstein, Wolf Man, and Invisible Man series was a shambolic, improvised mess, and that’s exactly why it was great. The fascination of the crossover lies in the awful majesty of universes being welded together: history is never as interesting as when great leviathan masses of it are sparking off each other, unleashing the quakes and eruptions of continuity drift. Universal’s free-wheeling stitched-together mess – a Frankenstein monster in its own right, a Stoker-Shelley-Wells bastard homunculus for the 20th century – remains infinitely more engaging and interesting than the cookie-cutter product of Kevin Feige’s Marvel Method conveyor belt. The characters in the Universal monster movies live in a polytheistic world of primordial chaos, without borders or straight lines; the characters in the MCU are trapped in a cold and monotonous cosmos ruled by a fascistic demiurge.
Multi-Doctor episodes admittedly just fuse stories which are already officially set in the same universe. In this sense, they function more like Avengers films than Universal monster ones. However, the sheer length of time and breadth of production history that multi-Doctor stories can traverse – the diversity of authors whose works they can combine – mitigates against this. A crossover between two separate series is like a portal between two planets, suddenly giving both an entire world of new stuff to think about, but a multi-Doctor story is more like a portal between two disparate points on a Möbius-strip megastructure: we already knew, on an intellectual level, that these were indeed part of the same thing, but the sudden pulse of semiotic proximity hammers that truth home with the force of vertigo. Doctor Who often functions more like a genre, format, or medium than a series. The totemic significance of the “bigger on the inside” mantra is fitting: Doctor Who contains multitudes. It changes enough that a crossover between two corners of Doctor Who can be just as alienating, strange, and thought-sparking as a crossover between two completely unrelated works. A meeting between the main characters of The Mind Robber and The Twin Dilemma is no less bizarre to watch than one between the main characters of The Simpsons and The X-Files. Not only does Doctor Who have – in multi-Doctor stories – a built-in facility for engaging with its own past eras, but it also changes enough over time that it can cross over with those eras in genuinely interesting ways.
In addition to this, Doctor Who is the single text with which it’s best for others to cross over. A typical crossover merges only two series: it’s a limited measure, and it still leaves them basically isolated from the rest of fiction. But a crossover with Doctor Who is bigger on the inside: it takes a sealed, finite, self-contained text, and cracks it wide open, freeing its events to interact with an infinitude of others, adding an unlimited number of juxtapositions that can now meaningfully be discussed. Once a story has crossed over with Doctor Who, its universe will continue expanding as long as the Doctor Who universe does. The show’s immortality is unique, but it’s also infectious.
As merging canons is generally fun and interesting, it follows that any attempt to dismantle or segregate them is tedious and wrongheaded. Surprisingly, Lawrence Miles’s novel Dead Romance is guilty of this, in an example of the very rare bad Lozzerian-Milesian idea. The book implies that the various Doctor Who lines – the TV show, the Virgin New Adventures novels, the Eighth Doctor Adventures novels, etc – all take place in different universes. Granted, the way that Miles presented this idea – with the Time Lords creating a miniature bottle-universe in which to hide, possibly to escape from a higher layer of Time Lords doing the same thing, in an endless Matryoshka-doll sequence – was characteristically brilliant, but this works just as well without segregating the different lines. This segregation takes away one of the most fundamentally appealing functions of Doctor Who – the way that you can take two very different stories by very different writers in very different eras and instantly click them together in your head. Subsequent writers almost universally ignored the bottle-universe concept, and Miles later acknowledged that they were probably right to do so. Interestingly, even Dead Romance itself hedged against the initial bottle-universe concept by hinting that history can “leak” from one bottle to another – a convenient solution to the segregation problem – but at that point it’s basically admitting that chopping vast swathes of stories off from the main continuity wasn’t a very good idea in the first place.
Much like Brian Eno’s comments about music, Scott McCloud’s analysis of comics is often insightful enough that it can be abstracted to reveal essential truths which transcend any one medium. In Making Comics, McCloud suggests that all artists can be sorted into one of four broad schools according to their creative impulses: classicism, animism, formalism, and iconoclasm. Classicists and animists share a respect for tradition, with classicists valuing art for its own sake and animists judging it more by how it reflects life. Formalists and iconoclasts share a disrespect for tradition, but the same dichotomy: formalists are inward-looking, interested in art for its own sake, while iconoclasts are outward-looking, more interested in how art relates to the real world. Multi-Doctor stories offer direct lines towards satisfying most of these cravings: classicists can appreciate the careful recreation of classic visuals and character dynamics, animists can enjoy the warmth of beloved characters and dynamics returning, and formalists (admittedly the best-served here) can appreciate seeing entire eras and all their structural and textural qualities collide and merge in potentially complex and illuminating ways. The iconoclasts, with their dedication to simplicity and vitality, are the only group without an obvious reason to like multi-Doctor adventures – they presumably constitute a sizeable proportion of the “keep moving forward, don’t look back” brigade – but even they might be entertained by the ways in which multi-Doctor stories often fumble or misrepresent aspects of previous eras. And make no mistake, there is a real pleasure to be had there: I could never fully trust someone who didn’t love the perplexing and singular glory of the Richard Hurndall Doctor. Additionally, an unironic side-effect of imperfect recreations is that they cast the original in a better light: David Bradley was very good overall, but those gruff staccato line-readings make you appreciate the high, clear, imperious humanity of William Hartnell like never before.
With each series being broadly self-contained, and each era functioning largely on its own terms, the conceit that Doctor Who is all one big story sometimes slips from our minds. Multi-Doctor stories are the necessary counter-balance to this: the vertiginous electric shock forcefully reminding us that Black Orchid is literally a thing that happened one time to the main character of “Gridlock”. By linking disparate corners of Doctor Who directly, multi-Doctor episodes reinforce the bonds that hold the whole thing together. They remind us that we are not watching a normal television series, and help to ensure that it will never slide into being one. Continuity references are boring – they’re too easy. If you want to engage with the John Nathan-Turner era, don’t just have the current Doctor say “this reminds me of something that happened in Arc of Infinity” – have them literally meet the Fifth Doctor instead. Doctor Who is a very silly television series: treasure it.
Some fans hold that a Doctor’s run is not really complete until they have faced the Daleks, or the Cybermen, or the Master. I would extend this status to multi-Doctor stories: allowing a Doctor to confront their future selves, and in turn be evaluated by them, is the essential epilogue to any incarnation’s life cycle, and it’s a shame when any Doctor doesn’t get this chance. The current Doctor is almost always the least interesting one, because turning on your television and seeing them in a new live-action adventure is a mundane and realistic thing. Absence makes the heart grow fonder: as a Doctor recedes in our rear-view mirror, they historicise; mythologise; grow dense with meaning. The sheer structural strangeness of having multiple versions of the same narrative-deforming hero participating in the same drama means that multi-Doctor episodes tend to exaggerate and amplify the traits that make each incarnation unique. As a result, returning actors often find themselves playing broad, caricatured versions of their Doctors. However, this is not a flaw – it’s just another kind of Doctor Who story: one grounded not in conventional drama so much as televisual folklore and myth. Multi-Doctor stories are evergreen; there is no evidence to suggest that they lose their impact with repetition or frequency. This belief stems from the destructive fallacy that it’s possible to have too much of a good thing, or that some abstract notion of “specialness” achieved through artificial scarcity is preferable to plenitude.
Are multi-Doctor stories indulgent? Nostalgic? Inward-looking? Perhaps. But Doctor Who, with its strangely living and accessible past, is uniquely equipped to perform this sort of textual deep-diving, and its anarchist leanings are the perfect thing to make such excursions fresh and estranging rather than tedious and imitative. Let us call, then, for a multi-Doctor accelerationism. We must immanentise the ouroboros. This is our Hurndall Masterplan. The show has spent long enough hurtling forwards, speeding from one adventure to the next, seldom looking back. Those rare moments when it crosses its own trajectory remind us how vast and unknown this world really is, and how little of it we’ve seen. They triangulate something in the darkness. If we drill down to the core, what will we find?