Is his name really Doctor Who? The history of the Time Lord's moniker - and showrunner Steven Moffat's view
Radio Times's Patrick Mulkern looks into the 55-year muddle and asks Moffat about putting the cat among the pigeons once more
“I am that mysterious adventurer in all of time and space known only as Doctor Who.” That’s how Missy introduces herself in the latest episode, World Enough and Time. She’s play-acting as the Doctor on a rescue mission, but insists, “It’s his real name… I grew up with him and his real name is Doctor Who.”
She goes on: “He chose it himself, you know, trying to sound mysterious. And then he dropped the ‘Who’ when he realised it was a tiny bit on the nose.” The Doctor cuts in, “Bill, she’s just trying to wind you up.” I’m amused to imagine that is the effect Steven Moffat is hoping to have on fans…
The Doctor being called “Doctor Who” is something that aficionados with tight sphincters can get very het up about. “The character is called ‘The Doctor’ and the programme is ‘Doctor Who’,” they’ll cry to anyone who’ll listen. But it isn’t as easy as all that. In fact, it’s always been a bit of a muddle.
The mystery was set up way back in episode two The Cave of Skulls in 1963, when kidnapped teacher Ian Chesterton mistakenly calls William Hartnell’s character “Doctor Foreman”. The Doctor mutters, “Eh? Doctor who? What’s he talking about?” And moments later outside the Tardis, Ian says, “Who is he? Doctor who? Perhaps if we knew his name we might have a clue to all this.”
Here (below) is how it appears in a late script revision, presumably added by script editor David Whitaker, the brilliant writer I credit with establishing much of the series’ early ethos...
In those very early days, he came close to being called “Doctor Who” in The Singing Sands, episode two of Marco Polo (1964). This is an extract from the rehearsal script, which underwent a last-minute rewrite by David Whitaker when Hartnell suddenly fell ill and had to be written out of the action. Otherwise, we might have heard Marco Polo saying this…
Part of the confusion is that in many of the early books the lead character was named Doctor Who or Dr Who. Here’s a page from the first Dr Who Annual published in 1965...
And here’s the Prologue from the 1965 novel Doctor Who and the Crusaders, written by none other than David Whitaker. If it was good enough for him...
Also within the bubble of the two 1960s Dalek feature films, Peter Cushing introduces himself as “Doctor Who”. Despite all this, from the beginning, within the drama unfolding on television, the character has always been referred to as “The Doctor” – with, as most fans know, one glaring exception! In 1966, episode one of The War Machines ends with the despotic supercomputer Wotan hissing: “Doctor Who is required.” Then in episode two (below), Wotan’s minion Professor Brett announces: “Top priority is to enlist Doctor Who.”
It’s been suggested that towards the end of the Hartnell era there had been so many changes of writers and personnel that they’d forgotten he wasn’t supposed to be called “Doctor Who”. In the same mid-60s period there are other close examples. In The Highlanders, Patrick Troughton’s Doctor poses as the Germanic “Doctor von Wer” (Doctor of Who). And in the following serial The Underwater Menace (below) he signs a note “Dr W”.
But these are more in the vein of in-jokes. Many’s the time over the years there’d be a play on that. Someone would ask, “Doctor who, did you say?” etc. In The Daemons (1971) Jon Pertwee’s Doctor pretends to be the great wizard Qui Quae Quod (Latin versions of “who”).
Much of the confusion arises from the plain fact that down the decades the general public, the media and many of the programme’s makers called the lead role Doctor Who. “Who’s the new Doctor?” could easily be misconstrued; “Who’s the new Doctor Who?” would not be.
Most of the actors thought they were playing Doctor Who too. In 1972, Pat Troughton told Radio Times: “I’d loved the way Bill Hartnell played Dr Who, but I knew I couldn’t possibly do it like that.” Peter Capaldi loves being Doctor Who. In 2014, he told Radio Times his first year had been “just fantastic. You wake up every day and you’re Doctor Who.”
You can’t blame them. Most of the stars reading their scripts saw their stage directions and dialogue set up with DOCTOR WHO. Here’s an example from the camera script for Pertwee’s Terror of the Autons (1971)...
This trend was stamped out around the time that Tom Baker’s Doctor came in. Here’s a memo from script editor Robert Holmes addressing the issue with regard to the latest dismal Annual.
Nevertheless, for years in each episode’s end credits and in Radio Times billings the character was billed as “Doctor Who” or more commonly “Dr Who”.
It was only in the 1980s, when Peter Davison was cast as the fifth Doctor, that our hero started to be billed on screen as “The Doctor”. This remained in favour until 2005, when Christopher Eccleston was billed as “Doctor Who”.
When David Tennant came along, with his fan’s hat on, he immediately asked to be listed as “The Doctor”. And I think that’s how it’s remained ever since.
I had a discussion with Steven Moffat about this very subject earlier this year and sent him some of these examples. I’m highly amused that, at the end of his tenure, he’s tossed a large cat among the pigeons and addressed the issue in the programme himself. Maybe the Doctor did once call himself “Doctor Who”. Maybe Missy is teasing about “his real name”. But what does the outgoing showrunner have to say…?
Steven Moffat: Well not that it matters in the slightest what I think, nor is it remotely canonical, but since you ask, here we go…
Missy is winding up Bill, and the Doctor is amused and pleased at the choice of name. Have you seen the many ways he dresses? He is not at home to Mr Subtlety – I think he’d LOVE being called Doctor Who. And because Peter has always wanted to say that’s his name, and I serve at the pleasure of the Time Lord, here we all are.
However, I am firmly of the belief that this real name is unknown, and that he goes by the title Doctor. I also believe that was the original intent of Doctor Who’s creators, and that Doctor Who was never intended as anything other than the title and the premise of the show. It is a question, nothing more. They just left off the question mark, that’s all. I don’t know why. Maybe they ran out of letraset, or an interesting cat walked past. Doesn’t matter, that is what I believe, I hope it’s what you believe, and that is forever that.
Except of course my belief is entirely wrong. And so, probably, is yours.
Look, if we’re going to take continuity seriously (and anyone who even reads this surely must) then his name IS Doctor Who.
Sorry, but yes it is. Put down that chair. It’s an actual canonical fact. He was called Doctor Who on screen, in the proper BBC show. It’s mentioned, twice, in the William Hartnell story The War Machines. The Mighty Hartnell himself performed the script without complaint and no character on screen is surprised by the name or disputes it. Doctor Who – that’s his name.
Later the Patrick Troughton Doctor calls himself Doctor von Wer (German for Doctor Who) and the Jon Pertwee Doctor builds his own car with WHO on the licence plate. These are facts. You can check.
Continuity is continuity. You can’t just ignore the bits you don’t like. (Blimey, my nose just grew six inches!)
So there you go. His name is definitely Doctor Who.
Except I believe it definitely isn’t.
I will continue to believe this, despite the fact that I’m definitely and canonically wrong.
I also believe in all three contradictory versions of Atlantis presented on Doctor Who and the two different fates of the Marie Celeste. I entirely accept both versions of the Loch Monster as the one and only. I believe the Doctor has both one heart and two hearts. I believe he is a human from Earth and a Time Lord from Gallifrey. I believe he built the Tardis himself and also that he stole it from someone else, and that Susan is really his granddaughter, and also that she isn’t.
Above all, I believe that embracing a hundred impossible contradictions elevates Doctor Who from a simple TV show to a myth retold and reinvented by every generation. And since myths can last for ever, let’s all be happy about that.
His name is Doctor Who. You’ve known that since you were a child. Except of course it isn’t. Though secretly. you’ve always known it is.
I hope that clears everything up.
PS. If all this really bothers you, good news. Missy has explained. He briefly flirted with the idea of being called Doctor Who, then abandoned the idea, with occasional slip-ups. Sorted, move along, Atlantis next.