The multiverse, the OED dependably informs us, is “a hypothetical space or realm consisting of a number of universes, of which our own universe is only one".
Of course, we barely need telling that now. These days, we’re all multiverse experts. We’ve had Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, where a gaggle of Spider-Men, Spider-Women and, erm, a Spider-Pig from different universes bunch up to save our reality from the Kingpin.
Then there was last month’s Spider-Man: No Way Home, which deftly retconned Sam Raimi’s and Marc Webb’s Spidey movies into the MCU. And arriving later this year is Andy Muschietti’s The Flash, which will introduce Ben Affleck’s Batman to Michael Keaton’s Caped Crusader, forging some connective tissue between the DCEU and Tim Burton’s duplet of Bat movies.
Add to that, Marvel’s upcoming Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness and Michelle Yeoh starring as a woman who exists across multiple realities in March’s Everything Everywhere All at Once and 2022, it seems, is shaping up as the year of the multiverse. With that in mind, and given that the most recent series hinted at the possibility of other universes, is Doctor Who ready to embrace its own limitless possibilities?
Despite its lengthy TV life, the show has only dabbled with parallel universes, as this multiverse thing used to be called.
Third Doctor story Inferno had the Doctor and Liz shifted to a parallel Earth where the normally homey UNIT is now a fascistic military force headed up by the murderous Brigade Leader, while 2006’s Rise of the Cybermen/The Age of Steel had the TARDIS materialising in a Britain where zeppelins pepper the sky, and Jackie Tyler is a moneyed fashionista with a Yorkshire Terrier named Rose. As the Tenth Doctor mused a few episodes later, “There are billions of parallel universes all stacked up against each other.”
It’s odd then that the show has had so little time for these billions of alternate universes. If, as the Doctor told Jackie, "every single decision we make creates a parallel existence", it’s probably safe to say there’s a universe where Sarah Jane Smith decided against investigating the disappearance of those scientists in The Time Warrior, so never met the Doctor and was never gifted K9 or adopted Luke.
There’s likely a universe where the Hartnell Doc never did quit Gallifrey and graduated instead into one of those handsomely-collared Time Lord bureaucrats our Doctor loathed so much. Maybe there’s even one where there’s a Brigadier John Benton calling the shots at UNIT.
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The multiverse concept opens up a myriad of storytelling possibilities for Doctor Who. Just as the MCU-attached Tom Holland Spider-Man films have now made the previously unconnected Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield movies part of the same Marvel Studios continuity, could TV Doctor Who somehow find a way to make the 1960s Dalek movies canon?
After all, Jennie Linden and Roberta Tovey are both still with us. Could our Doctor meet an older Barbara and Susan and be told about a universe where an old man named Dr Who independently invented a time travelling machine he named TARDIS? Could Peter Cushing’s Doctor finally be made legit?
With No Way Home positing that characters with the same name and same basic destiny don’t necessarily have to look alike (or indeed be played by the same actor), this could open the door to recasting classic era characters, without it upsetting continuity nuts.
Nu Who has often resorted to clunky justifications to explain any physical differences when heritage characters have turned up. 2007’s Time Crash explained away the Fifth Doctor looking 20 years older because, as the Tenth says, “the two of us together… shorted out the time differential.” Twice Upon A Time, meanwhile, rationalises David Bradley not looking completely like William Hartnell by having the Twelfth Doctor tell him: “You're mid-regeneration, aren't you? Your face, it's all over the place!”
Yet a multiverse would allow Doctor Who to tell stories with a brand new First, Second, Third, or whatever Doctor, without needing contorted explanations as to why they don’t look exactly like they used to. It would give the show freedom to cast a fresh Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart, a new Sarah Jane Smith, a different Vislor Turlough, and allow its makers to radically reimagine some of those classic era characters.
And with actors who are still alive, there’s the chance to welcome them back into the Doctor Who fold. If Russell T Davies ever has the 14th Doctor popping in on Rose and the metacrisis Doctor in that parallel reality, who else could he people that universe with? Is there a nonagenarian Ian Chesterton out there, one who didn’t follow Susan home that night in 1963? Could there be a Tegan Jovanka whose car didn’t break down in 1981 and is still asking passengers if they want “chicken or beef”?
Consider a Polly Wright who, after getting out of the secretarial game in the 1960s, became one of the world’s most celebrated fashion designers… And maybe there’s an Ace somewhere who didn’t create a time storm in her bedroom, and escaped Perivale in a far less dramatic manner. What kind of life would she have had if she hadn’t crossed paths with the Doctor on Svartos?
When fans talk of what makes Doctor Who great, they often refer to the “flexibility of the format”. Imagine how much more narratively limber Doctor Who could be by exploring the unending potential of the multiverse. It means nagging continuity slips can be explained away (three explanations for the destruction of Atlantis? Hey, it was three different universes!), and it means old Doctors can theoretically return without some convoluted reason as to why they look x amount of years older. Hell, we could totally buy it that the Curator was a parallel universe version of the Fourth Doctor, who never did fall from Jodrell Bank.
Doctor Who’s mythology is already immense after close to 60 years – but embracing the multiverse could make it infinitely bigger.