Guide to the Doctor Who 50th Anniversary

Whatever is going to happen this weekend for the Doctor Who 50th Anniversary, it is expected to be big.  Clearly it is pulling together a variety of threads from many years of the show.  If you’re less than a die hard fan but have still seen some of it, this might be helpful, particularly if you’re only a new-Who fan.  Also potentially helpful for friends of Whovians who are a bit baffled by the whole thing.

I wrote this in part because I was told my commentary on “Night of the Doctor” was helpful, and because I can totally envision my Dad shaking his head at my Facebook posts about the 50th Anniversary.

Why Such a Big Deal?

First, we’re fans, and we make a sizable deal out of anything.

Second, very, very few shows last 50 years.  That’s legitimate cultural news.  It’s the longest sci-fi series in history.  It’s older than Star Trek both in overall years (Star Trek started in 1966 vs. Doctor Who in 1963) and in seasons, even if you count all of the Star Trek series as one, which you totally shouldn’t.

That’s relevant enough for to have a fluff piece on the topic yesterday.  It was definitely fluff, but it was still CNN.  That totally makes it news, just like when they show a cat playing a piano or a baby on a Roomba.

Third, no matter how weird you think your American friends are, I am sure it’s nothing compared to what is going on in Britain right now.  I was there in 1996 when the failed Fox reboot aired, and it was practically a national holiday.  Every magazine in the grocery store referenced Doctor Who.  If it was a magazine that you wouldn’t expect to address a TV show, it offered something like “cookie recipes for your Doctor Who party.”

I am so not making that up.

More recently, when the episode “Name of the Doctor” was set to air, there were protests in London by fans fearing they would reveal the Doctor’s name, which has never been spoken on camera.

As an aside, the show didn’t, although I’m sure showrunner Steven Moffat used that title specifically to wind people up.  He seems to think it’s clever.

Paul McGann as Doctor #8, 1996
Paul McGann as Doctor #8, 1996, “The Enemy Within.”

Wait, Fox tried to remake Doctor Who?

Forget I said anything.  When I saw it with friends in Britain, we were literally wincing, snickering and occasionally yelling.

It’s titled “The Enemy Within,” Which I can only guess refers to a secret group of writers bent on tanking this project by making it horrifically not Whoish.

More commonly it is referred to by names such as “The Fox Pilot,” “The American Version,” and “That Really Crappy Movie with Paul McGann” (whom we love, for the record).

We generally file that experience away with watching Highlander 2: we keep telling ourselves it just didn’t happen.

Name/Night/Day of the Doctor?

The last episode to air to date was “The Name of the Doctor,” in which an enemy wishes to gain the Doctor’s name, although only as a password to enter the Doctor’s final resting place (as a time traveler, this can happen.  Deal).  Here there is access to the Doctor’s entire timeline.  Screw that up, and you screw up every moment in time where the Doctor has saved the day.

The Doctor himself cannot safely enter the timeline, but his companion, Clara, does.  As she ricochets among incarnations of the Doctor, we see all of the versions we are familiar with…and one we aren’t, played by John Hurt.

“Night of the Doctor” is a flashback to the regeneration that created this unknown incarnation.  It’s six minutes long and can be found here.

“Day of the Doctor” is the official title of the anniversary special.

Doctor #8, "Night of the Doctor"
Paul McGann as Doctor #8, 2013,”Night of the Doctor”

Who’s the Doctor in “Night of the Doctor?”

Paul McGann, Doctor #8.    Which means, damnit, you kind of have to ignore the above advice and accept the Fox pilot episode existed.

However, I’ve always gotten the impression that while McGann’s Doctor is canon, the pilot episode isn’t.  It’s for the best.

And Which Doctor Was in “Name of the Doctor”?

Matt Smith, Doctor #11.  He has been playing the role for the past three years.  “Night of the Doctor” is a significant prequel.

Is John Hurt Really Playing the Doctor?

Yes.  But that’s where things get tricky.  Up until now, we have only ever known of 11 Doctors, and we number them accordingly.  But in “Name of the Doctor,” we learn there is another incarnation, but Doctor #11 makes it clear he does not acknowledge him as a “Doctor.”

So we appear to have 12 incarnations, but only 11 Doctors, which makes for a cool plot without telling us we’ve screwed up our numbering system all these years.

“Night of the Doctor” seems to confirm what many fans have guessed: John Hurt’s incarnation comes after #8 (McGann) and before #9 (Christopher Eccleston, the first Doctor of the new series.)

I may start calling him #8.5.

Skittle Daleks
In recent years, the Daleks have started a PR campaign which includes friendly colors like a pack of Skittles.

Why Doesn’t He Get to Be a Doctor?

Because he committed double genocide.  Oops.

We’ve known of this since the very beginning of the new series: the great Time War broke out between his people, the Time Lords, and the Daleks, the most favorite Who villains ever, for reasons I have never understood.  As it threatened to destroy more and more of time and space, and with no other apparent options, the Doctor destroyed both races, expecting that he would also die in the process.

But he didn’t.

In “Night of the Doctor,” Hurt’s Doctor explains what he did was “in the name of peace and sanity.”  Doctor #11 replies “But not in the name of the Doctor.”

What’s with the Incarnations Anyway?

What has become one of the centerpieces of Doctor Who was created out of necessity.  In 1966 William Harnell, who played #1, became too ill to continue the role.  The show, however, was a tremendous success.  How do you continue Doctor Who without a Doctor?  It had already been implied he was an alien.  Now we learn these aliens can “regenerate” when approaching death, which conveniently adjusts their appearance (and somewhat their personality) every time it happens.

Weren’t There only Supposed to be 12?”

In 1976, it was stated in the episode “The Deadly Assassin” that Time Lords could regenerate 12 times (which means 13 incarnations, for the logic-challenged).  This was in the context of the Doctor’s nemesis, the Master, having run out of regenerations and now looking for a body to steal. That scenario, incidentally, was also prompted by circumstance: the Master hadn’t been seen since 1973, when the original actor died in a car accident.  Rather than just regenerating him, they turned it into a plot point.

In 1976, were only on Doctor #4, so 12 seemed a safe bet.  But now we’re on Doctor #11, which is turning out to really be incarnation 12.  And in the Christmas episode this year, he  will regenerate into Doctor #12 (13?), played by Peter Capaldi.

So what now?

Interesting question.  New series creator Russell T Davies stated in an interview they were not sticking with the 12 regeneration limit.  He even joked in an episode of a spin-off series that the new number was 507.  I cannot, unfortunately, find a copy of that interview, and now Davies insists it was all a joke.

The fact is that 12 regeneration limit is really, really ingrained into the mythology of Doctor Who.   In mid-October, Moffat reaffirmed the 12 regeneration limit, but then suggested that we’ve somehow been counting things wrong, which I don’t think makes sense to anyone.

““I think you should go back to your DVDs and count correctly this time,” said Moffat, “there’s something you’ve all missed.”” (source)

That’s where I’m getting worried.  I fear Moffat is trying to do one of his “clever” twists that come off about as well as those done by M. Night Shaymalan.

They’ve done all sorts of things with “regeneration energy” of late.  Does that have something to do with it?  We’ve seen a couple copies.  Is that involved?  I hope not.  It’d be a lame deus ex machina to get us out of the 12 regeneration conundrum.  Personally, would be fine with just ignoring the 12 regeneration rule.  But if you’re going to stick with it, be smart about it.

But It’s Canon…

Doctor Who has never been great with continuity.   This is a show where one of the major characters apparently didn’t know what year she was from.  Sarah Jane Smith claims to have been from 1980, when she was in contact with a group called UNIT, led by the Brigadier.  But, in another episode, we learn the Brigadier left UNIT in 1977.  The conclusion?  Sarah Jane must have been confused.

You can find those issues all over the place.

And let’s not forget the whole Paul-McGann-doesn’t-seem-to-actually-have-a-canon-episode, as we seem to be (thankfully) ignoring the failed pilot.

We’ve never been huge on canon.  This is not Star Trek, and we are not Trekkies.

Don’t screw this up, Moffat.  Please be good, not “clever.”


  1. If the Fox movie was canon, then we’d have to deal with the “half-human” crap and the Master turning into a glow-worm. Until I read this post, though, I didn’t know it had an official title other than “Fox Movie”.

    You’d know this – when the Master returned to the modern series (the first time), did we get any backstory on how the Derek Jacobi incarnation came to be?

    I saw the bit where Moffat said we miscounted the incarnations. He could possibly be referring to the duplicate Tennant doctor? Technically, while we did see Hurt’s regeneration at the end of DotD, we didn’t see him become Eccleston (due to his unwillingness to participate, but still).

    They’ll come up with something that breaks the rules, and I don’t particularly mind that. The Master has broken the 13-incarnation limit how many times now? In a universe where one Timelord casually regenerates into a new body -because she’s bored-, I’m sure there’s some body part of Rassilon that can be a suitable MacGuffin for this purpose.

    Bring on Capaldi! I am excited to see an acerbic Doctor again.

    1. Author

      Yes, Jacobi was explained! The Time Lords gave him a new set of regenerations (although they don’t explain how…I’ve always thought they must have sacrificed some Gallifreyan red shirt, otherwise, why don’t Time Lords always give out extra regenerations?) in exchange for him helping in the Time War. They do not say how many regenerations the Master currently has.

      I loved his return so much. I said I really didn’t want to see the Master unless they could do it properly, but they really thought through how it could feasibly happen.

      I don’t like how the Daleks were brought back (although the single escapee in “Dalek” was fine). It made the genocide largely pointless. I don’t like how the Time Lords briefly came back, although the new timeline suggests we will see them again, and I’m fine with that.

      But the Master’s return was perfect. You escape the obliteration of the Gallifreyans by not being Gallifreyan. And they had already shown us the technology earlier in the season (“Family of Blood”)

      In “Stolen Earth,” Tennant partially regenerates after being shot by a Dalek. To stop the full process, he sends the “regeneration energy” (which is its own brand of stupid, IMHO) into the severed hand Harkness has been running around with for two(?) years. This leaves us with two Tennants wandering around, and Rose gets to bring the double home with her to the alternate dimension she now lives in.

      I hated that plot then (which I explain here:, and I hate it more now.

      Worse, if Wikipedia is right, Moffat originally decided that the incident would NOT count as a regeneration. It cites the fourth season DVD collection as its source, presumably in the commentary.

  2. I have a theory about the “Doctor’s Daughter”, Ginny (Jenny?) She’s on LIfe one… or on the same life as Tennant (I think she was reproduced from Tennant…) At any way, I don’t hold with the duplicate Tennant thought pattern (that they’ll go back and follow alternate Tennant and Rose (he only had ONE HEART! obviously that means he can’t regenerate… or something…) that a friend of mine thinks will happen. but he’s an idiot, so follow that for what it’s worth. HA! I’m not sure I remember the Tennant hand actually regenerating into another Tennant… and Cap’n Jack carrying a hand around for that long was almost enough /squick/ to make me love him a molecule’s amount less. I feel I would have stumbled over more fan fic/porn if the hand had regenrated into another Tennant whilst in Cap’n Jack’s possession…

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