Doctor Who and Retconning TV in an Age of Streaming

‘Doctor Whos’ current series is splitting its fandom. In the recent episode Fugitive of the Judoon, showrunner Chris Chibnall has introduced us to a new incarnation of the Doctor played by Jo Martin, and the internet is scratching its head to try and work out where this can possibly fit into the timeline of the character as we know it. But many have also asked: does it really matter that much?

Shameless ‘Doctor Who’ fan that I am, I’ve been puzzling over this as much as anyone. The riddle has got deeper since Chibnall released a statement assuring us that Martin is the real deal and not a parallel version of the character. And the episode seemed to be doing everything to point us towards this being a version of the Doctor before William Hartnell – the first actor to play the character back in 1963. Even this, however, has its problems. Classic Doctor Who aside, episodes as recent as The Name of the Doctor, Listen and Twice Upon a Time made clear indications that Hartnell was indeed the first Doctor. Of course, Martin’s Doctor may be something else entirely that I can’t predict. But, the fact of the matter is, if Chibnall doesn’t make this fit within established continuity, I will be upset.

Am I unreasonable to think like this? Many have scorned this attitude and insisted that Chibnall can do what he likes and need not worry about the past. They bring up countless examples of when continuity has been retconned in the show as evidence that Chibnall can do this if he wants. According to these fans, the show is constantly evolving and so should be more concerned with telling good stories in the present than being held back by its past.

It sounds like a noble and legitimate position to take, but frankly, I think this attitude does TV a terrible disservice. In fact, the show’s past is more important than ever before. We’re in an age when people will binge shows start to finish and thus be aware of everything that’s come before (or, in this case, since 2005 at least). To compare with examples from ‘Classic Who’ (as many have) is hardly relevant. When writer Terry Nation retconned the Daleks’ origins in the 1975 serial Genesis of the Daleks he wasn’t expecting most viewers to have even seen the more-than-ten-year-old story which he was rewriting, let alone remember it well enough to spot the contradictions. Serials were not repeated and were not expected to be seen again. But does Chibnall expect viewers not to have watched The Name of the Doctor or Twice Upon a Time (which is the most recent story from before his time)? Not only are they recent, they’re also readily available to viewers everywhere right now on the various platforms that stream the show. More than ever, the show’s past matters.

What’s more, I can’t abide this idea that respecting the show’s past is some kind of constraint on its present. The insinuation is that those who care about the past are just silly fanboys and fangirls, who value lore over good storytelling. But I would argue that not paying heed to something established earlier on is bad storytelling. In any story. And although the role of writing ‘Doctor Who’ frequently changes hands, that is primarily a behind-the-scenes change that shouldn’t impede the viewer’s experience. If a viewer is confused why an episode is contradicting something from a couple of series’ back, then the answer can’t be: ‘because it’s Chibnall in charge now and it was Steven Moffat before’. The series isn’t rebooted with every new showrunner; it’s still the same story. And, again, this is more applicable to post-2005 ‘Doctor Who’ than ‘Classic Who’. Because ‘Classic Who’ did have an element of ‘character reset’, made up of standalone serials without carefully planned character arcs for the Doctor or companions. Nowadays, by contrast, the show has continuous storylines and character arcs that are interwoven into the episodic stories.

But, leaving aside ‘Classic Who’, it might be argued that Moffat proved retconning is worth it in the popular 2013 special The Day of the Doctor, in which he created the character of the War Doctor. Indeed, I like this episode a lot. But whilst there was indeed a ‘retcon’ in the strictest sense of the word, it was one that was done carefully enough to not actually contradict anything that had gone before. In fact, the episode is a perfect example of why the past is not an impediment to good storytelling, but a key part of it. It shows how the past can be changed if that’s necessary to tell whatever story the current showrunner wants to tell. Moffat used the past skilfully, challenged what we assumed to know about it, and developed the Doctor’s character in the present in the process. And it is because The Day of the Doctor respects the past that it manages to be so good. It rewrote what we thought we knew, but it took the care to show why what we thought we knew was wrong. And if Chibnall does that with whatever he’s doing now, then that could be ok. But I don’t see why fans should settle for anything less.

The amazing variety that can come out of ‘Doctor Whos’ individual episodes and distinct eras is one of the show’s main strengths, but what also makes it special is the fact that they are still part of the same story. To pretend otherwise simply cannot make for a good story. If a sequel to a novel contradicts the original, a reader is more likely to find that frustrating than praise the writer for ignoring the past in the name of a ‘good story’. TV may well have a reputation for long-running shows that become inconsistent for behind-the-scenes reasons, but that is not in any way something that should be aspired to, or treated like an acceptable norm. Especially not in an era where viewers are both able and prepared to watch the whole story from the beginning. It’s not good storytelling to ignore the past, it’s lazy storytelling.

Good luck Chibnall. Don’t mess this up.


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Samuel Savelli

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September 2021
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