The canon of Doctor Who: it’s the single tapestry binding the threads of more than 50 years of sprawling plotlines, character arcs and alien origins. Through all the many many works created by hundreds of writers over both modern and classic eras, it’s the official party line on what really happened in the Whoniverse.
But there’s a slight problem with it: it doesn’t exist. Despite being the longest-running science-fiction television show in the world, and arguably the most important in the UK, Doctor Who hasn’t ever officially said what counts as canon – and what doesn’t.
Glancing at Who’s stablemates, this is even weirder. Just take a look at Star Wars. Throughout its 40-year history, all its stories in all formats have been granted either ‘canon’ or ‘non-canon’ status.
Although overthrown now, at one point the franchise categorised every tale from a galaxy far away in the Holocron continuity database hierarchy. All Star Wars materials on the higher levels (ie the films) overwrote any contradictions that arose with the lower ones (ie games or cartoons). Simple.
It’s a similar story with Star Trek. Original creator Gene Roddenberry specifically outlined that everything fans saw on screen was part of the franchise’s lore, but that everything else didn’t count towards the continuity of later shows.
But when it comes to Doctor Who? Fans can’t be sure. Do the books, comics or Big Finish audio products truly ‘matter’? Do these wider adventures have any bearing on the main Doctor Who show or not? And what happens when different eras, and episodes, of the TV show contradict one another?
There’s no official answer. And for good reason: it’s likely the BBC doesn’t want to rule out Who’s extended universe, but, as a public corporation, they’re unable to say that fans need to purchase material outside the show to complete the story.
As we’ll explain later on, this model of (dis)continuity is far from a bad thing. But it can be extremely confusing to work out a single, coherent Doctor Who story. Even if you take the simplest view that only the TV shows are canon it won’t take long before massive contradictions materialise.
For instance, how was Atlantis demolished on three separate occasions? Why did The Doctor – a Time Lord – say he was only half-human in the 1996 TV movie?
That’s before things get really complicated. Namely: what happens if a TV episode references events or characters from the wider Who world?
For example, The Night of The Doctor. During the course of this 2013 mini-episode, fans saw Paul McGann’s Eighth Doctor toast “Charley, C’rizz, Lucie, Tamsin and Molly”, all companions who began life in his Big Finish audio adventures.