In Doctor Who series 11’s fourth episode, Arachnids in the UK, Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor hints at her mysterious family life for the first time in a while, suggesting that she might have once had sisters when younger.
“Sisters. I used to have sisters,” the Doctor muses when meeting Yaz’s (Mandip Gill) own sibling. “I used to be a sister, in an aqua hospital. Actually turned out to be a training camp for the Quistin Calcium Assassins.”
Ignoring the second part of the anecdote, it’s an interesting admission from the Doctor, whose family life has remained shrouded in mystery over the decades of the BBC TV series – but what DO we know about her past? Has there ever been reference to her sisters before? And why is the whole thing left so enigmatic anyway?
To find out, why not revisit Stephen Kelly’s 2014 examination of the Doctor’s family life, as we’ve seen it presented in Doctor Who episodes…
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It’s hard to believe that the Doctor – a being who’s ancient and forever, who burns at the centre of time and can see the turn of the universe – was once a child. A sad, sobbing child, if 2014 episode Listen is anything to go by.
The Doctor’s childhood is a strange, confusing and mysterious area of Doctor Who mythology. Indeed, before CBBC commissioned The Sarah Jane Adventures in 2006, there was interest in a spin-off focusing on a young Doctor, an idea that Russell T Davies strangled in its crib. “Somehow, the idea of a fourteen-year-old Doctor, on Gallifrey inventing sonic screwdrivers, takes away from the mystery and intrigue of who he is and where he came from,” he once said.
In the actual show, the Time Lord’s early life is shrouded in secrecy – only ever opened up in snippets of dialogue. Put those snippets together, however, and you can construct a vague picture – one that is often contradicted by Big Finish audio stories, books and even the show itself.
First off: the basics. The Doctor was born on Gallifrey into a family of “wealth and privilege.” According to 1974’s The Creature from the Pit, the Doctor was born under the sign of “Crossed Computers,” the symbol of the Gallifreyan maternity service. (FYI: One theory put forward by the expanded universe books such as House of Lungbarrow is that the citizens of Gallifrey don’t give birth at all. Instead, they are grown in ‘looms’ and emerge from them as fully grown adults. I think we can agree that it’s a terrible theory.) As the Third Doctor reveals in The Time Monster, he grew up on a house perched half-way up a mountain.
Not much is known about the Doctor’s family. In Smith and Jones, The Tenth Doctor mentions that he had a brother. In The End of Time, as suggested by T Davies, the mysterious Woman is his mother, who the 1996 TV movie said was half-human. Everyone tends to ignore that last bit, mind.
If we knew more about the Doctor’s family then it might reveal why she was, as Madame de Pompadour once discovered, “such a lonely little boy.” In Listen, the young Doctor (then in a male incarnation) is seen sobbing in bed. He has run away from some sort of school, upset about something and doesn’t want the other boys to see. At a guess, the loneliness, the reason he cries “all the time,” is reminiscent of children who are sent to boarding schools. Perhaps he was forced to leave his family, or perhaps his parents sent him to Gallifrey’s Eton? Both would make sense, given that Time Lord society is often depicted as cold, pompous and fusty.
It’s also overheard that, “he’s not going to the academy, is he, that boy? He’ll never make a Time Lord” – those being the elite of the elite on Gallifrey, a planet with few job prospects. This chimes with what’s been said before: that the Doctor was a dunce.
According to 1978’s The Ribos Operation, the Doctor barely passed the qualifying exams to become a Time Lord, scoring the lowest possible pass mark – 51% – on his second try. Doctor Who books are full of tidbits about life at the Academy. The Doctor apparently underperformed on purpose (so as to not draw attention), or a joker who trapped a teacher in a time loop for a day and was part of a Hot Five band along with the Master, who – brilliantly – played the drums. As is always the case, though, the stuff written outside of the show is only as real as you want it to be.
Speaking of the Master: the Doctor’s arch nemesis is an important piece of the childhood puzzle. As recalled in The End of Time, the pair were friends, and used to play on the “estates” of the Master’s father as boys. In terms of TV canon, it’s unclear whether this was before they were classmates at the Time Lord Academy or during. In fact, the whole area of what age Gallifreyans apply for the Academy or whether they apply at all are pretty sketchy.
In the The Sound of Drums, for instance, the Doctor says that the pair were taken from their families at the age of eight to stare into the Untempered Schism – a sort of Total Perspective Vortex in which, through a tear in reality, you can see all of time – as a Time Lord initiation. But if, as established in Listen, the Doctor went to a school before the Time Lord Academy, how does that fit together exactly? Did he willingly apply for the Academy after school or was he taken from his family? It’s almost as if it doesn’t matter.
All in all, it feels like Russell T Davies had the right idea: those young years should only be touched upon lightly. Take the 2003 Big Finish audio story Master, which, while superb, claims that as children the Doctor accidentally killed a school bully, and then – through a personification of Death – transferred the memory of the murder over to a mini Master, causing his friend to take on all his guilt and pain, twisting him in the process. Beyond the fact that it contradicts The Sound of Drums, is that something you would really want set in stone?
If the Star Wars prequels have taught us anything, it’s that sometimes the mystery is best left mysterious.
Doctor Who continues on BBC1 on Sundays