Doctor Who series 11 has been careful to ease viewers into the traditions of the BBC sci-fi series, only gradually introducing key parts of the show’s mythology such as the sonic screwdriver and the Tardis.
But in episode four, Arachnids in the UK, another regular feature of the BBC sci-fi series was reintroduced: the Doctor’s ‘psychic paper’, the seemingly blank page inside a leather wallet that uses telepathy to give the Time Lord fake identification when trying to get inside sensitive locations.
Blink and you’ll miss it, but Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor flashes the psychic paper at wannabe US President Robertson (Chris Noth) when the pair first meet, before giving him a (fairly flimsy) cover story about why they’re all in his hotel.
“Crisis investigators – you just ran out of a room really quickly looking really scared,” she says.
“Tell me exactly what’s going on, omitting no detail no matter how strange.”
It’s easy to miss the psychic paper in this scene, as the Doctor only briefly opens it and never explains its purpose. In fact, some viewers might assume the gag is that the Doctor moves so quickly that Robertson can’t see it’s a blank page, but it’s great to see the gadget return to the series nonetheless.
Introduced by showrunner Russell T Davies when Doctor Who returned to TV after a hiatus in 2005, the psychic paper was intended as a sort of “get out of jail free card” for the Time Lord, granting him access while streamlining the story (unlike the classic serials, the Doctor rarely has to break his way out of a prison cell).
The paper also had other uses aside from providing fake credentials. It was able to receive messages for the Doctor (the Face of Boe, UNIT and Alex Kingston’s River Song were among those to use this feature over the years), act as currency (the Doctor used it to access London’s Tube network, while companions sometimes used it to buy things) or even send the Doctor alerts about news or security problems.
But despite its near limitless abilities, the psychic paper has been known to fail, once “shorting out” and showing only wavy lines when the Doctor told a lie too big (about being universally recognised as a serious grown-up, essentially).
It has also failed to convince geniuses, people with no imagination or anyone with some basic psychic training that what they were looking at was anything other than a blank piece of paper.
The psychic paper was also known to falter if the user’s mind wandered (John Barrowman’s Captain Jack Harkness, who had his own piece of the paper, accidentally used it to mention his gym routine to Billie Piper’s Rose Tyler), or when dealing with certain alien species (as happened in 2010’s The Vampires of Venice).
Since 2005 the psychic paper has been used multiple times by every modern Doctor (most recently in 2017 episode Empress of Mars). Given that history, we’d be very surprised if we didn’t see Whittaker whip it out again before the series ends.