A Matter of Memory
By James Cooray Smith
Originally published in Celestial Toyroom Issue 448
Doctor Who fans, or at least certain kinds of Doctor Who fans, are obsessed with in-story continuity and what “counts” and what doesn’t (that which the semi-literate might term “canon”). And nothing messes with Doctor Who continuity like a multi-Doctor story, i.e. a story in which Doctor Who meets himself, but from a time when he was played by a different actor.
(“Canon”, incidentally, is a noun, despite fandom’s insistence on using it as an adjective. It is derived from the Ancient Greek “Kanon” verb meaning “to rule”, i.e. to make a decision with regards to inclusion. The adjectival form is “canonical”.)
There have only been five multi-Doctor stories on telly (six if you count “The Trial of a Time Lord”), and each raises differing, overlapping continuity issues that are not easily parsed or resolved. The big question(s) they all prompt is “Do past Doctors remember the events of multi-Doctor stories; if not, why not and if so, how does that work then?”
I’d been idly meaning to write something on this topic for rather a long time. By which I mean about twenty years. But I was prompted to think “seriously” about actually typing it all out by the transmission of the (glorious) Doctor Who Fiftieth Anniversary special “The Day of the Doctor”, which seemed to add rather a lot of interest to the discussion.
And then, just as I was dotting an i (or maybe crossing a t) on my scribbles on the topic Steven Moffat, who is, after all, actually in charge of Doctor Who and everything, went and addressed the issue in his Doctor Who Magazine column.
And I didn’t quite agree with what he said.
This obviously means I had to, if not start again, then certainly rejig a few things in order to refer to his views. So bear with me. This is where it gets complicated.
In the years following 1972’s “The Three Doctors” fandom at large assumed, for the sake of simplicity and clarity if nothing else, that the First and Second Doctors must have either a) forgotten or b) been made to forget their participation in the events of “The Three Doctors” when they were (as the Second Doctor phrases it) returned to their “bit(s) of our timestream”.
On the face of it, that makes sense. A Doctor who has seen his own future and is able to recall it might try and avoid it, or at least disrupt it accidentally.
It is perhaps an unavoidable natural process related to moving up and down one’s own timestream. (After all, in “The Trial of A Time Lord” Part One the Valeyard suggests that the Doctor’s amnesia is “possibly a side effect of being taken out of time”. Which is a similar [non] explanation in relation to a similar event.)
Alternatively, “The War Games” gives us a precedent for the Time Lords wiping people’s memories and, as referred to for the last time in “The Three Doctors” itself, the Doctor’s own exile to Earth involved some (inconsistently described) blocks in and erasures of his memory.
After all, the Pertwee Doctor does not spend the events of the Omega crisis smugly sure it’ll turn out okay, so he obviously can’t remember having done all this twice before.
So far? So simple. Then the next multi-Doctor story came along.
In “The Five Doctors”, (written by Terrance Dicks, who commissioned and edited “The Three Doctors” and wrote more than a little of it) the Second and First Doctors clearly remember the events of “The Three Doctors”, and we know this, because they say so out loud more than once.
Box Out: Companion Piece
A side issue of all the memory man stuff, is that fans have often been prompted to ask questions about whether companions remember the events of multi-Doctor stories. On the face of it, this is an odd question, as only Jamie and the Brigadier are in more than one each, and the former is only a phantom in "The Five Doctors". Nevertheless, the question has been asked.
It’s been prompted by two things. Firstly, in "The Two Doctors", Jamie knows all about Time Lords despite never having heard of them in "The War Games", his final serial as a regular character, which we would naturally assume to antedate the events of "The Two Doctors" from Jamie’s perspective. Fandom traditionally answers this problem by referring to ‘Season 6b’.
This is a retcon explanation for how Doctor Who can be played by Patrick Troughton in stories taking place after “The War Games”. It was first advocated in Virgin’s Doctor Who – The Discontinuity Guide in 1994 and has gained wide acceptance in fandom since its publication. Briefly, this theory held that immediately after the end credits of “The War Games” the Time Lords either changed their minds or were revealed to have been play-acting for an audience unknown and then sent the Second Doctor off on missions. Terrance Dicks, who wrote “The War Games” and “The Five Doctors”, ultimately accepted the theory himself, and wrote two BBC Doctor Who novels (“Players” and “World Game”) that portrayed events during this time of the Doctor’s life. The problem with this is not that it can’t be made to work by bending continuity inside out. It can. But so can anything else. The problem is that it’s dramatically and emotionally wrong. Try watching "The War Games" Episode Ten and then telling yourself it’s not the end.
According to ‘6b’ the Jamie of “The Two Doctors” is an older Jamie who has rejoined an older Second Doctor some years after “The War Games”, a solution that Dicks accepts in the pages of “World Game”.
Another, less convoluted way round it is to accept the idea proposed above that the Doctor’s past now happened differently to how it played out on television and that we therefore shouldn’t expect the details of these two serials to match, any more than we expect “The Eleventh Hour” to magically contain Amy’s parents once we’ve watched “The Big Bang”.
(Interestingly, advocates of the ‘6b’ idea never seem to notice that “The Three Doctors” (4x25m) “The Five Doctors" (1x90m) and “The Two Doctors” (3x45m) between them add up to roughly 14x25m worth of material. I.e. a post 1985 twentieth century series of Doctor Who’s worth. If there is a fourth Troughton series, it’s these episodes together.)
More complex is the matter of Sarah Jane. Although Sarah appears in “The Five Doctors” and briefly meets The Fifth Doctor when she does so, she doesn’t refer to this in 2007’s “School Reunion”. She instead makes references to how she came to believe that the Doctor died after leaving her behind in “The Hand of Fear”.
How can these be reconciled without assuming that she has somehow, by accident or design, forgotten the events of “The Five Doctors”?
It’s actually pretty simple and all on screen. But is quite difficult to spell out.
In “The Five Doctors” a Sarah Jane from after “The Hand of Fear”, and after K9 and Company: “A Girl’s Best Friend” meets and adventures with a Third Doctor who is implicitly from between “The Monster of Peladon” and “Planet of the Spiders”. She knows this is a ‘past’ Doctor, so this meeting wouldn’t necessarily stop her from, in later years, coming to believe that the Tom Baker Doctor had died.
“But surely,” you say, “she meets the Fifth Doctor?” Well, yes. But only sort of.
After the Third Doctor and Sarah arrive in the Tomb, Sarah stands with and speaks to the Fifth Doctor’s companion Tegan (but we don't see what they say) but that's before Davison’s Doctor arrives in the Tomb with Borusa. So Tegan is unable to point at him and say that he is her Doctor or even find the common reference point of him being ‘after’ “All teeth and curls”.
The moment the Fifth Doctor does arrive in the Tomb everyone but Borusa and the Doctor(s) is frozen in time. Sarah and Tegan don't talk again after that onscreen and they don't have the space to talk offscreen. (We never cut away from the Tomb.) The gaggle of companions are unfrozen after Borusa becomes a statue and Rassilon goes away. Then everyone says goodbye at the end. This is what happens when Sarah meets the Fifth Doctor.
Sladen, a thoughtful performer, delivers this line to indicate that Sarah is confused, as if she is in the process of realising that she hasn't actually met the person she is saying goodbye to. (Which she hasn't.)
The Pertwee Doctor, of course, does not get the chance to explain, as moments later everyone is returned to their proper place in time and space. Just taking the words on the page, but even more so when you take into account how it is played, Sarah Jane has not grasped that the cricket fella is yet another Doctor, and her confusion at Pertwee's gag underlines that. Other readings are possible, but it seems to me to be the most prominent one in the text itself.
So there you go, nothing in “The Five Doctors” stops Sarah believing the Tom Baker Doctor later died and nothing in “School Reunion” means Sarah Jane must forget the events of “The Five Doctors”.
The First recognises the Third as he arrives in the Tomb of Rassilon shortly after him, and then later asks “Where’s the little fellow?” in reference to the Second. Soon afterwards, the Second and Third Doctors’ relationship picks up where it left off in “The Three Doctors”, with them bickering. Long before this, the Second has told a nostalgic Brigadier “Don’t forget Omega!” a direct reference to the events of the earlier serial.
So clearly, the First and Second Doctors do remember the events of the ninth anniversary jamboree, yes? Because we see and hear them do it. That’s inarguable. And bear in mind that the fan assumption that they wouldn’t was also an ex post facto imposition anyway. It was always itself a retcon (and, to be fair, a judicious application of Ockham’s Razor).
The problem with this, of course, is that again the later Doctors (and this time there’s three of them, to borrow a phrase) don’t recall solving the whole Borusa/Rassilon problem on the last go around. The Fifth Doctor is genuinely surprised that Borusa turns out to be the villain, which he wouldn’t be if he’d done this three times already. (He also, surely, wouldn’t have suspected Borusa of being the traitor in “Arc of Infinity”, he’d have known, three times over, that Borusa’s betrayal was coming a bit later on?)
So, the First, Second and Third Doctors remember “The Three Doctors” during “The Five Doctors”, but the Second, Third and Fifth Doctors don’t remember “The Five Doctors” during “The Five Doctors”, despite them having done this already once, twice and three times each, right?
A year and a bit later, the Second Doctor is back in “The Two Doctors”. Again the latest Doctor in the story shows no recollection of having been through these events before. Initially the script suggests that this is because history has changed and the Second Doctor died on Space Station Chimera, but this is quickly passed off as a red herring and replaced with something much less interesting in plot terms. There is also an off-hand mention of how the drug Dastari has given Doctor Two affects the memory. This works as a handwave for the purposes of this story alone but doesn’t help us in relation to any others.
(This story does, though, make clear that occasional contact between incarnations of the Doctor is an inevitable result of his lifestyle, and not just something that happens in extreme circumstances, by having the Sixth Doctor say “When you travel around as much as I do, it’s almost inevitable that you’ll run into yourself at some point”. A far cry from “The Five Doctors” claim “… it only happens in the gravest emergencies”. But then much of “The Two Doctors”, especially the ending, seems like it’s setting up the Troughton Doctor and Jamie as recurring guest stars for late 1980s Doctor Who, and maybe this more casual explanation is meant to facilitate that.)
We can skip lightly over “Dimensions in Time”. Not because it doesn’t ‘count’ (whatever that means) but simply because the various Doctors don’t actually meet one another in it. They just sort of… Well, whatever it is that is happening there. Yes.
This brings us to 2007’s “Time Crash”; a splendid one-set, one-scene piece in which the Tennant and Davison Doctors bicker in a manner reminiscent of the Second and Third.
At the beginning of the story, the Tennant Doctor is surprised that the Fifth has appeared, but by the end he is specifically able to save the day because he can remember the story from when he was the Fifth Doctor.
Let’s run through that for a second time, after all the Doctor did.
At the beginning of the story the Tennant Doctor cannot remember being the Fifth Doctor in this story, but at the end of the story he can.
What this more or less proves is that The Tennant Doctor’s memories adapt around the change in his own personal history that meeting himself inevitably involves. His own personal timeline is rewritten by meeting himself.
At the beginning of the story he can’t remember it once but by the end he can remember it twice. This is literally what happens onscreen.
This actually ties in nicely with another aspect of “The Two Doctors”. When the Troughton Doctor is infected by Androgum DNA the Colin Baker Doctor worries that the effects of this will eventually reach him, and at the middle of Part Three we do see this begin to happen. This is another example of a multi-Doctor story demonstrating the possibility of the Doctor’s own personal history being rewritten. Yes, it is averted, but the later Doctor is aware that the actions of Dastari (which are prompted by the later Doctor and Jamie’s interference in Chessene’s plans) in hybridising the past Doctor could result in a timeline where he has lived his life in-between as a Time Lord Androgum cross.
In later Moffat stories, such as “A Christmas Carol”, "The Wedding of River Song" and "Night and the Doctor: Good Night", we see that mere humans (e.g. Kazran Sardick and Amy Pond) can (just about) cope with the multiple overlapping sets of memories that result from having lived multiple versions of their own life, so it would be odd if Time Lords couldn’t. We also see both Amy and Kazran react to their own history changing and in the process changing their memories, but without it involving significant changes to where they are and what they are doing in their present. (Amy is still going to marry the same man and on the same day in both the reality where she has parents and the one where she doesn’t.)
Is this perhaps the final piece of puzzle? Is this why the Second and Third Doctors remember “The Three Doctors” in “The Five Doctors” but not “The Five Doctors” in “The Five Doctors” from the last time around? Because the events of these stories, involving as they do the Doctor’s past colliding with his present/future rewrite history on the fly?
This is what we see in microcosm in “Time Crash”. The later Doctors can’t remember the last time these stories happened to them until the end, because the whole thing hasn’t happened yet. The change to the Doctor’s own personal history is still in progress. This also fits neatly with the Sixth Doctor’s belief that it is possible his earlier self was killed on Space Station Chimera and means that there is jeopardy for the Doctor’s past selves in the Death Zone or on Omega’s World. That they have a future self does not mean they cannot die.
And yet, in his recent DWM column Steven Moffat himself proposed a different answer to my original question, and made detailed reference to the stories above and his own "The Day of the Doctor" in doing so.
Steven proposed that the past Doctors did forget the events of multi-Doctor stories, but remembered them again in later multi-Doctor stories and that this was due to the low level telepathic field that Time Lords share (which he compared to wi-fi) meaning that past Doctors gained some of the memories of their other incarnations due to proximity. This was offered as an explanation that also covered why the First and Second Doctors remember “The Three Doctors” in “The Five Doctors” and how The Second Doctor knows Jamie and Zoe’s ultimate fates in the same story. It also covers why the Smith Doctor does not seem to remember meeting The Curator when expecting to die in “The Time of the Doctor”.
(It would also suggest that proximity to the Valeyard should mean the Sixth Doctor will forget most of trial scenes in "The Trial of a Time Lord".)
Bearing in mind this explanation, let’s look at “The Day of the Doctor” itself, a splendid example of having your cake and eating it with regards to this question (and indeed most other things).
“The timelines are out of sync. You can’t retain it”. the Smith Doctor tells Doctor Hurt as they celebrate saving Gallifrey. This seems to offer a natural (rather than forced-upon-him) explanation for how the Doctor could forget such extraordinary events, as I posited thousands of words ago. It perhaps ties in with the Tennant Doctor’s comment earlier in the story that having “three of us [together] could cause some pretty serious anomalies”. Maybe the forgetting and the anomalies are part of the same problem/solution?
And yet, earlier in the story the Tennant Doctor is outraged that the Smith Doctor cannot remember events in 1562 from when he was, er, him and Smith doesn’t offer out of sync timelines as an excuse. Earlier still, as the portal between the twenty first century and 1562 opens, the Smith Doctor says “I remember this… almost remember,” muddying the waters still further.
Also of interest is how, unlike previous stories in which past Doctors reappear alongside the series’ presents star, there’s no difficulty in pinpointing when “The Day of the Doctor” happens for the Tennant Doctor. At the beginning of “The End of Time” the Tennant Doctor recalls marrying Elizabeth I, something that happens in “The Day of the Doctor” and in the presence of Doctors Smith and Hurt, neatly placing this story between that one and “The Waters of Mars”.
But hang on, that means the Tennant Doctor has already been shown to remember the events of “The Day of the Doctor” in a story made four years before it. This is really very swish of Mr Moffat, but it causes problems for his “forgetting and local wi-fi” theory of Time Lord memories, because it means he can’t forget what happened when he was with The War Doctor and Doctor Smith, because we have seen him remember it already.
Furthermore, in “The Five Doctors” the Second Doctor refers to “Omega” when talking to the Brigadier on twentieth century Earth, which is before he’s in close proximity with his other selves. So the “wi-fi” explanation won’t fly for that one. On top of that, in “The Time of the Doctor” the Smith Doctor recalls being given the Seal of Rassilon in the Death Zone by The Master. This happened to the Pertwee Doctor in “The Five Doctors”. If the ‘past’ Doctors’ memories of events in multi-Doctor stories leave their heads and are only returned when they’re in close proximity of their future selves, then how can he remember this? He can’t.
The “wi-fi” explanation also, to be honest, doesn’t work terribly well for the scene with the ‘phantom’ Jamie and Zoe in “The Five Doctors” itself.
Why so? Well, even if the Second Doctor had somehow picked up on the Third’s memories (and that this point in the narrative he doesn’t yet know he’s in a multi-Doctor story) and thus knew Jamie and Zoe’s ultimate fate, surely he wouldn’t have taken the risk of killing them by stepping into the Schrödinger’s force field with which they present him?
After all, if the Second Doctor is, as he has to be, from before “The War Games” then even if he (temporarily) knows what eventually happens to Jamie and Zoe, he has a Jamie and Zoe travelling with him. Presumably sitting in the TARDIS in 1983 wondering how much longer he’s going to be at this shindig of the Brig’s and speculating why they weren’t invited for canapes. It could be this Jamie and Zoe that are behind the force field and the Doctor would be risking their deaths to do as he does in that scene.
This means that the Second Doctor of “The Five Doctors” must come from some unspecified time after “The War Games”. Which is also impossible.
Are you still with me?
There is also a broader problem with this. Yes, the “wi-fi” idea is articulated in ”Dalek”, “The Sound of Drums” and “The End of Time”, and all of them make clear that the Doctor ought to be aware of the presence of other Time Lords when they’re on the same planet as him. (This doesn’t seem to be the case in the twentieth century series, so we can assume it’s something that is only so post Last Great Time War.) However, other stories seem to suggest that this telepathic “wi-fi” field doesn’t apply when those two Time Lords are in fact the same Time Lord.
In “Time Crash”, the Davison Doctor not only does not recognize Tennant s being himself, but does not even recognize him as a Time Lord. Indeed he suggests Tennant is a fan-- “One of that LINDA lot!”-- and therefore implicitly human. Or maybe an Abzorbaloff.
In “The Next Doctor”, Tennant’s Doctor believes it perfectly plausible (at least initially) that Jackson Lake is a future incarnation of himself; and in “The Day of the Doctor”, it is the Curator's face that the Smith Doctor recognizes (and indeed vice versa) they do not achieve mutual recognition through “wi-fi”.
Further support for the Doctor's inability to recognise himself via telepathy is found in "The Five Doctors", were the First Doctor does not recognise the Fifth as being a future Doctor ("Who might he be?") but does recognise the Troughton and Pertwee incarnations as such, but only because he remembers meeting them before.
All these examples seem to suggest that Time Lords are automatically telepathically aware of one another unless the Time Lord in question is themselves, not especially if the Time Lord is themselves.
In such cases, telepathic contact must be deliberately initiated, as shown in “The Three Doctors” (note that despite being in close proximity, the Pertwee Doctor does not have the Troughton’s awareness of the situation on Gallifrey until after their first telepathic conference).
This suggests that very far from there being a “wi-fi” effect, multiple incarnations of the same Time Lord in the same place are telepathically oblivious to one another unless they make a deliberate effort not to be. This may, in fact, be a biological safety method to guard against the very problems caused by crossing one’s own time-stream in the first place.
So Steven’s theory, which he openly invited his fellow fans to quibble with, so I don’t feel too bad about doing so, doesn’t quite work. Not in reference to the actual TV stories. Including the ones he wrote.
So, what have we got?
Let’s take the re-writing your own history hypothesis I came up with above and apply it to "The Day of the Doctor".
Given that we know the Tennant Doctor doesn’t forget marrying Elizabeth I with past and future hims as witnesses, and given that we also know that the Tennant and Hurt Doctors will forget saving Gallifrey because we are actually told this, then the “timelines out of sync” explanation refers only to the saving of Gallifrey, but not the preceding story with the Zygons. (Possibly this is somehow related to the time lock or the parallel pocket universe into which Gallifrey is dumped. I don’t know.) So, the events of "The Day of the Doctor" do, like "The Three Doctors", excetera, have an impact on the Doctor’s personal history, and confirmation is in the story itself.
When all the Tennant, Smith and Hurt Doctors are held in the cell at the Tower of London the Tennant Doctor says to Doctor Hurt: “It must be really recent for you? The Time War. The last day. The day you killed them all”.
It doesn’t occur to Smith or Tennant’s Doctors that Doctor Hurt could be from during the Time War, presumably because the events are, as the series has stated more than once “time locked” and travel in and out of them, even time travel in and out of them, is meant to be impossible. He has to be from after.
What this has to mean is that, as far as the Tennant Doctor’s memory is concerned, he carried on being John Hurt for some time after the Time War ended. Otherwise, there would be no time/place for the Hurt Doctor to visit his future selves from.
Except that we see Doctor Hurt regenerate (most of the way) into Christopher Eccleston immediately after he leaves his future selves in the gallery. This leaves no time between the Last Day of the Time War and him regenerating.
It’s a strange inverted echo of the Second Doctor/"The War Games"/"The Five Doctors" problem and again it strongly suggests that the simple act of the Doctor meeting himself unavoidably produces changes to his own personal history. (This is something that we know is possible because in "The Day of the Doctor" itself an incredulous Tennant Doctor asks his next self “You’re not actually suggesting we change our own personal history?” He’d hardly ask this question if it was actually impossible to do.)
The Doctor(s) saving Gallifrey also confirms this. While the story tries hard to suggest that this might have been what secretly happened all along, and that the Doctor has been wrongly carrying guilt for centuries, this isn’t particularly tenable. In "Dalek" the Eccleston Doctor says that he “saw” the Time Lords burn and in "The Day of the Doctor" itself, the Tennant and Smith Doctors repeat that.
Because the alternative is burning.
And I’ve seen that.
And I never want to see it again.
Surely meaning that the first time round, Gallifrey really did burn and the Doctor(s) do alter history when they save it.
As fans we’re tying ourselves in knots because of a simple fannish need. To know that Doctor Who happened as we saw it. But Doctor Who itself tells us that characters’ own personal histories can be rewritten, meaning that events cannot have transpired exactly as we saw them onscreen. We also see that cancelling out or altering certain events in someone’s past doesn’t necessarily have an impact on their present self’s personality and location. (I.e. surely an Amelia Pond with parents wouldn’t experience the events of “The Eleventh Hour” in the way they unfolded onscreen). Thus the Doctor can change his own personal history without it having an enormous impact on what we see in the present.
So, there you go. The Doctors do (usually) remember the events of multi-Doctor stories, excepting that time they saved Gallifrey at the end of the Last Great Time War, and the reason we don’t see the Doctor's remembering events from past Doctor adventures prior to them happening is because those events change the course of the Doctor’s own personal history, sometimes in small ways and sometimes in massive ways.
The events of “The Three Doctors”, and the changes to the Doctor’s past that resulted meant that the First and Second Doctor’s lives unfurled differently, the Second Doctor that we see in "The Five Doctors" has certainly lived this altered history. This Second Doctor was caught by the Time Lords and sent on his way without Jamie and Zoe, but he didn’t regenerate immediately afterwards. At some point before or subsequently, possibly after history had changed again, he, along with Jamie and Victoria ran missions for the Time Lords.
Because of the events of “The Day of the Doctor”, the War Doctor saved Gallifrey (although he forgot he did) and regenerated into the Eccleston Doctor earlier and in different circumstances.
And so on.
What we have on DVD and CD is the Doctor’s original personal timeline, not the altered one created by anniversary specials. It is the Doctor’s life as we have seen it, but not as it happened.
What’s the first thing we see after the Doctor(s) save Gallifrey? A sugar lump dropping into a cup of tea. Causing ripples. Repercussions. Things have changed.
Which, of course, means that no Doctor Who is canon(ical). So probably best just to throw all those discs away now.
(With Thanks to Ralf Collie, for additional insights)
James Cooray Smith's book The Black Archive #2: The Massacre is available from March 2016 from Obverse Books