It was massive. Absolutely massive. In fact, the most recent Doctor Who instalment was so big that the return of Captain Jack Harkness – something fans have waited over a decade to see – wasn’t even the main talking point. But that’s what Fugitive of The Judoon pulled off, revealing that a seemingly ordinary Earthling played by Jo Martin was actually a past incarnation of the Doctor.
Unless you spotted the subtle clues hidden throughout the episode, the twist was probably a brilliant out-of-the-TARDIS-blue shock, a revelation bringing new depths to the Doctor’s character and blasting off a new series arc. And let’s not forget it was also a culturally significant reveal, Martin becoming the first non-white actor and the second woman to play The Doctor.
It was, however, a surprise that sent cloister bells ringing across areas of the Whoniverse. Even before the episode ended, select viewers had accused showrunner Chris Chibnall of exterminating the show’s well-worked canon, claiming there’s no way Martin’s incarnation of The Doctor (Doc Martin, anyone?) could fit into the character’s timeline.
However, there’s just one problem with this argument: Doctor Who has never had an official canon, let alone one that makes any sense.
This isn’t to claim the Chibnall nay-sayers haven’t raised an interesting debate. With what we know so far, even the council of Time Lords would struggle to pinpoint exactly where in Who’s history Martin’s Doctor first materialised.
Sure, it’s plausible she fits in between the Second and Third incarnations, with viewers never seeing the regeneration between the two Doctors on screen, or that she’s pre-First Doctor. This latter explanation would explain A) why the inside of Martin’s TARDIS sports a similar style to earlier interiors, and B) why Martin refers to the TARDIS as a ‘ship’, a favourite phrase of Hartnell’s First Doctor.
But it would be reasonable to argue this explanation completely ignores the show’s continuity. After all, previous episodes established that not only does The Doctor have 13 lives and 12 regenerations, but that Matt Smith’s incarnation was the final version of the Time Lord (well, before he was gifted a new regeneration cycle, anyway).
If that’s to be believed then there’s simply no space for Martin in the timeline: starting with Hartell’s Doctor and ending with Smith’s (counting The War Doctor and David Tennant Meta-Crisis Doc), Who has already portrayed the 13 incarnations of the character’s first regeneration cycle on-screen. Any more Doctors and you throw the plot surrounding Matt Smith’s regeneration arc right out of the time vortex.
It’s a continuity contradiction that poses no easy resolution. Could Martin’s Doc originate from a parallel universe? Chibnall’s already shot this theory down. And if she is an incarnation before Hartell’s ‘Original’ Time Lord, why does she already have a police TARDIS, a machine we stolen by the First Doctor on Gallifrey in its ‘basic’, non-camouflaged form?
Whatever answer will emerge, the show looks set to take a leap of logic.
Yet here’s the thing: we should be even less surprised than we are confused. Doctor Who has a long history of timey-wimey discrepancies, from Atlantis being demolished on three separate occasions, to the Doctor – usually a self-described Time Lord – claiming he was actually half-human in the 1996 TV movie.
The show’s stars are fully aware of Who’s faulty continuity too.“It’s always baffled me why some things are absolutely immutable and other things aren’t,” Mark Gatiss previously told RadioTimes.com on the topic of Who canon, pointing towards 1976 episode The Brain of Morbius, which depicted previous incarnations of The Doctor (none of which shared a face with Jo Martin).
“Why is it immutable that the Doctor has 13 lives, and yet it’s not immutable that clearly the Doctor and Morbius are having a mental battle that shows previous Doctors?”
The questions keep on coming. Why do early episodes of the show depict The Doctor with one heart? Why have series one’s Reapers – creatures that feed off temporal paradoxes – never appeared again? And why do the Daleks have several origin stories?
Yet they’ll never be an ‘official’ solution to any of these continuity conundrums. Unlike other sci-fi franchises, nobody in Who has ever declared an authorised canon. Just like every character before her, Jo Martin’s Doctor isn’t ‘canon’.
And without an official canon, it’s up to fans to interpret what’s ‘real’ and what’s not – to disregard or include any story they feel like, be it from the main show, Big Finish audio adventures or beyond.
As I’ve written about previously, far from a weakness, this is the show’s greatest strength, allowing it to engage with viewers on every level. Doctor Who is the perfect TV show for any fan, be it somebody looking for a rich universe of perfectly interwoven stories, to those hankering for a simple space caper with a time-travelling police box.
With no official canon, you’re completely free to enjoy a continuity contradiction posed by Martin’s Doctor as another endearing quirk of the show’s longevity. After all, doesn’t such an oddity match the qurky charm of the show, from its erratic alien lead, to its unreliable yet invaluable TARDIS?
As the great Who writer Paul Cornell has said on continuity: “Not giving a toss about how it all fits together is one of Doctor Who’s oldest, proudest traditions, a strength of the series […]. Terrible continuity equals infinitely flexible format. It’s indefinability that results in that old ‘indefinable magic’.”
On the other hand, if you’d prefer a watertight continuity then nobody is stopping you from creating your own canon – and others theirs. Pull in pieces from the extended Whoniverse to explain Martin’s Doctor. Find a solution with your fellow fans over a pint before posting it on a dedicated Who forum. Blame it on the Time War. It’s your personal canon: anything can fit if you allow it.
Whether you think #DoctorWho ‘canon’, ‘lore’, ‘mythology’ or whatever you want to call it is either sacrosanct or a playground for the current producers to have some fun with, it’d be a far nicer fandom if we could all respect each others’ feelings towards it.
End of speech. ???? pic.twitter.com/Lh2QX7w7wi
— Revolution of the MindPROBE!! (@DrOho) January 30, 2020
And even though there’s not an obvious answer to how Martin’s Doctor fits into Who’s history just now, Fugitive of The Judoon was just the beginning. She will return – doubtlessly with a full explanation that will quell even the most committed continuity buffs.
But if not? As The War Doctor showed, the fandom will go on as it always has done. As Gatiss said: “[Doctor Who] will always find a way… People just adjust. There was a missing Doctor we didn’t know about – it didn’t stop the programme. Did it?”
Doctor Who continues at 7:10pm on Sundays on BBC One