Doctor Who’s series 12 finale The Timeless Children dropped a number of huge reveals – but one of these twists was actually first telegraphed by the show back in 1976.
The episode revealed that the Doctor is not a native Gallifreyan, but the latest incarnation of a mysterious being called the Timeless Child, from parts unknown.
The Child or ‘Foundling’ – the first being to ever regenerate – had many different incarnations, many of which were wiped from their mind by the Time Lords (specifically by a sect of Gallifreyans called The Division).
This means that there were in fact an unknown number of incarnations of the being we now know as the Doctor before the ‘first’ (as played by William Hartnell from 1963-66).
Huge reveal, right? But this twist is not without precedent – as RadioTimes.com previously predicted, The Timeless Children has links to the 1976 Doctor Who story The Brain of Morbius, starring Tom Baker as the Doctor.
In that story, the Doctor engages in a “mind-bending contest” with the Time Lord criminal Morbius, using an advanced apparatus to engage in a literal battle of wits. As he struggles against the powerful Morbius, the machine displays the Doctor’s face, then that of his previous incarnation (as played by Jon Pertwee), followed by glimpses of the second (Patrick Troughton) and first (William Hartnell) Doctors.
But it doesn’t stop there: the machine then displays eight more faces.
Though some fans have argued that these eight faces depicted past incarnations of Morbius, the intention of the Doctor Who production team at the time was absolutely that these were pre-Hartnell incarnations of the Doctor.
“It is true to say that I attempted to imply that William Hartnell was not the first Doctor,” producer Philip Hinchcliffe told Lance Parkin, author of 1996 reference book Doctor Who: A History of the Universe. “We tried to get famous actors for the faces of the Doctor, but because no one would volunteer, we had to use backroom boys.”
The eight faces actually belonged to script editor (and Brain of Morbius co-writer) Robert Holmes, Doctor Who’s production unit manager George Gallaccio, production assistant Graeme Harper, director Douglas Camfield, production assistant Christopher Baker, writer Robert Banks Stewart, director Christopher Barry, and Hinchcliffe himself.
But this idea of multiple Doctors existing pre-Hartnell was difficult to integrate into Doctor Who canon after later story The Deadly Assassin established that Time Lords were limited to 12 regenerations.
The Timeless Children, though, finally confirms the ‘Morbius Doctors’ as canonical by establishing them as incarnations of the Timeless Child – in fact, we even get another brief glimpse of those eight faces in the episode, when the Doctor overloads the Matrix using the vast power of her many past lives.
After 44 years, we finally have the answers. Well, some of them. Because while the mystery of the Timeless Child is now solved, this reveal poses another big question: just how many lives has the Doctor led?
Given what we now know the Doctor joined up with Time Lord secret police The Division, only to have their mind wiped (possibly more than once), the ‘Morbius Doctors’, and the incarnation played by Jo Martin, could be just the start of it…
Doctor Who will return to BBC One this festive season