One of the most debated aspects of Doctor Who has been on the subject of canon. Sometimes these have been simple topics such as discussing what individuals count as canon on other arguments over weather something counts or not especially when trying to figure out Doctor Who’s complex timeline. For the record the people associated with Doctor Who, be that the BBC or any of the various producers and showrunners over the years have never defined what the actual canon is. There has been some comments towards it such as RTD assuring us that the new series was a continuation of the classic stating “this is the same Doctor who….” Followed by a list of adventures from classic who including the 96 movie. (Something that was a debate with some still not classing the story as part of their Doctor Who) But by the same token the New Adventure Novels that were produced in the 90’s following the cancelation of the classic era were seen by some as an official continuation of Doctor Who, likewise for the most part the Big Finish audios feature the original cast.
Some might say that it is the TV series only that is the canon of Doctor Who. If this is the case then there should be no queries over the TV Movie or even Dimensions in Time! But what about Night of the Doctor. This seven minute episode brought back the 8th Doctor and lead into the events of Day of the Doctor. It was available on the red button and then released on DVD, does this count as TV? If it does then what about the fact that the Doctor makes reference to his Big Finish companions? Likewise some of these audio adventures have aired on BBC radio. Likewise in Time Heist we see a shot of Abslom Daak from the comic strips. These are more like little Easter eggs, references that the fans will get but nothing that will impede the understanding by the average viewer. This is mainly the reason why the TV series doesn’t place heavy references on other media and is probably the same reason the MCU films don’t have agent Colson appear despite his resurrection in Agents of Shield or why heroes such as Daredevil or Jessica Jones don’t show up at the end of Endgame.
So there doesn’t seem to be an official canon and, over the years, areas of each media has made references to each other. Bernice Summerfield from the Novels have appeared in Big Finish as has Frobisher, the shape shifting penguin. Likewise Evelyn Smythe, a sixth Doctor Companion appeared in one of the novels. So we have a world where nothing really ‘counts’. There is no official history of the Doctor or the universe he inhabits.
So what we have is everything thrown into this big messy ball of wibbly wobble timey wimmy stuff. And it is a mess. While some of this spin off media has done wonders for filling in blanks and in some cases improving characters there is a whole lot of continuity errors. For example we finally get a proper sixth Doctor regeneration story, three times, twice in novels and once in audio (although the two novels can exist together). Likewise we have multiple returns of Peri, regenerated and the unregenerate Masters, the events of Human Nature happening twice (sort of). That said, the TV series itself contains contradictions such as Atlantis, Uniting Dating, the Doctors age, etc.
It is perhaps better then to look at Doctor Who more as a mythology then canon. A source that can be used as a framework. There are certain elements that are essential to this myth rather similar to say Batman or Spiderman. For example since 1989 there have been various Batman movies. The Tim Burton, the Schumacher which continued the franchise, the Nolan reboot and then the Batman in the DCEU. Likewise we had the Raimi trilogy, the Webb films and the the MCU. These all draw on the mythology of the characters created by the comics. So as we see in the Batman movies, Bruce Wayne witnesses the murder of his parents and works towards become a crime fighter, getting inspiration from Bats as a costume to install fear in his enemies, his greatest foe being the Joker. For Spiderman it’s him gaining his powers through a bite from a mutated spider and losing his uncle. Although both original movie and the reboots tell these origins its interesting to note that in both the DCEU and the MCU the characters appear already established. Their origins are a well-known part of their mythology that we no longer need to see it.
With Doctor who it is a little different, the series has never had a hard reboot. The revival is a soft reboot, a continuation but it’s in the same vain as you could say, season seven or series eleven. The basic framework however is simple. The Doctor is a alien time traveller who goes around in a time machine disguised as a Police Box, can change his appearance and whose most notable enemy is the Daleks. This is the basic mythology, it’s what is in the mind of the average viewer. We see this in Rose when Rose looking for the Doctor online searches the internet and getting answers by tying Blue Box. This leads her to Clive who shows that the Doctor has various incarnations and seems to be able to travel in time.
Even his origins are not that important. We can say that he is a Time Lord from the planet Gallifrey (or at least as far as we knew up to series 12) but that the Doctor was a Time Lord was not known until the end of the second Doctor in 1969, six years after the show had started. Gallifrey doesn’t even get named until 1973, ten years after we first saw the Doctor. In the new series Gallifrey isn’t mentioned until the 10th Doctor story The Christmas Invasion, after two whole series. There have been a number of reasons given for him leaving Gallifrey, none of them are really that important. Outside the basics the mythology of Doctor Who is basically what can be remembered. And after nearly sixty years of episodes, comics, audios and books that is a lot of information.
So there really isn’t anything that is off limit in regards to the Doctor. We believed there were a certain number of Doctors but the Brain of Morbius, The Day of the Doctor and The Fugitive of the Jadoon shows us otherwise. Arguments over the fact that The Timeless Children contradicts canon seem to rather silly if you take in The Brain of Morbius where the faces we seen were intended to be previous incarnations of the Doctor. That fans since have either ignored this or retconned it to be the faces of Morbius is neither here nor there. By sticking to a strict canon the Morbius Doctors are the Doctor. Chibnall has simply dipped into the mythology of Doctor Who and pulled this bit out and woven it into his story telling. A worse case of going against ‘canon’ would be the twelfth Doctor suddenly and unexplained problem with soldiers in series 8. The fact that he refuses to take Journey Blue with him because she is a soldier. One of his best friends was Brigadier Lethbridge Stewart! He had no problem with other UNIT personnel such as Sargent Benton or Ross from The Sontaran Stratagem! That’s just soldiers not taking in other companions who carried arms such as River Song and in the novels Roz Forrester. It’s a characteristic added to the Doctor here simply to have tension between the Doctor and Danny Pink. It ignores the mythology of the series.
Let’s look at another mythical figure. Robin Hood. Yes we’ve had the hero appear in Doctor Who and most of the iconic framework for him is there. But there have been numerous movies and TV series all that take this framework and puts their own spin on it. For the record my favourite is Robin of Sherwood, notable for adding a Saracen character. Something that was added to the mythos of Robin Hood that such a character would appear in later adaptations. It’s taking bits from the mythology and writing a story around them. I’m reminded of what Eddie Izzard said of Robin Hood in one of his stand ups.
‘And also Robin Hood is a myth. It’s a myth, it is not true. It’s based on bits of fact.’
So where does that leave us when we are talking about what we include or dismiss. Well this is the reason I prefer the idea of a mythology rather that a canon. We can decide. We can dip into it and form our own history for the Doctor, take the bits of facts that we like and add them. It’s personal to each person. So if you want to include the novels then great. If when talking about how Mel joined the Doctor then Business Unusual gives you the story. If you don’t include it then maybe you have your own background in your mind. Hell you don’t even have to include everything from one media. Maybe you include some of the novels but not others. It’s all good. As for all the contradictions. Well you can ignore them or come up with some theory to fit them together. For me that’s half the fun.
And that’s where the idea of mythology comes in most handy. When discussing aspects of the show the media outside the TV show can help as a secondary source. It can add to the overall story in our world. Why would you want a strict canon telling you what you can and can’t count when it comes to the Doctor. Even my own mythology is constantly changing. For example I never use to include the comics and short stories but now if I’ve experienced them I add them to the story. In my mind, at the moment, the ‘Ruth’ Doctor fits between the second and third Doctor, this may change depending on series thirteen. How everything fits together is my own mythology. That why I prefer to use the phase mythos instead of canon.