Doctor Who’s cleverest uses of codenames

From Panic Moon to Torchwood, Doctor Who has a long history of covering up its secrets with codenames and anagrams...

Sacha Dhawan as The Master in Doctor Who

Even before it was revived in 2005, even before the internet or colour TV itself, Doctor Who was a show that had to protect its secrets whether they be the identity of a new companion, details of a shock twist or the even the return of the show itself.

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Luckily, in a practice dating back to 1965, Doctor Who has a nifty way of making sure neither the press or its fans manage to spoil the show: codenames, most of which are actually clever anagrams. Here, of course, we present a history of those codenames.

Don’t you just love that Panic Moon episode starring Leon Ny Taiy, or Barack Stemis? Confused? Y.A.N.A.

Barack Stemis

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At the end of Doctor Who’s twelfth revived series, fans were quick to spot an unusual credit among the pre-announced finale cast – a character called Fakout, played by Barack Stemis.

Noting the similarity between Fakout and the expression “Fake Out”, anagram-aware Whovians began playing around with the letters of the actor’s name until they’d assembled an ominous phrase….”Master is Back.”

And indeed he was! In the grand tradition of Anthony Ainley et al (see below), Sacha Dhawan’s renegade Time Lord was sneaked into the credits ahead of his “surprise” return, and fans could happily pat themselves on the back for spotting him. Though the “real” Barack Stemis who cropped up on Twitter may have been a little perturbed…

Mastering the Radio Times

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In the days before every conceivable scintilla of information about Doctor Who could be examined online, the place most fans got any details from was Radio Times magazine (ahem, you’re welcome). Cast lists and credits would be studied and the producers knew this.

So in 1988’s Remembrance of the Daleks, the production team knew full well that listing a character as being played by Terry Molloy would tip off fans that Davros, creator of the Daleks, was back. So in the cast list they provided to Radio Times for that week, they billed the actor as Roy Tromelly. Sylvester McCoy was the Seventh Doctor in that story but the practice was in place with the Fifth and even the Fourth, too.

Some 29 years ago, Fifth Doctor (Peter Davison) story The King’s Demons in 1983 co-starred James Stoker. It’s an anagram of “Master’s joke”. The year before saw it happen twice: both times with the Master and both times playing on the name of the actor, Anthony or Tony Ainley. In Time-Flight the Master was credited as being played by Leon Ny Taiy. In Davison’s very first story, Castrovalva, the newly regenerated Fifth Doctor believes he has found sanctuary and a friend in the form of the gentle, mumbling, wise old Portreeve, played by Neil Toynay.

No such codename or anagram trickery was needed for Tony Ainley’s first appearance in the show as nobody even knew that the Master was going to appear in The Keeper of Traken. Ainley co-starred in this Fourth Doctor (Tom Baker) story as Tremas, the father of Nyssa. But in the last moments of the tale, Tremas was killed by the Master, who took over his body. Tremas should’ve seen it coming: his name is an anagram of Master.

And now, the tradition is continued with the likes of Barack Stemis. Doesn’t it make you feel all warm and fuzzy inside?

Mean Town

Pearl Mackie as Bill Potts in Doctor Who

Pearl Mackie’s companion Bill was certainly a city girl – but how could the bubbly Twelfth Doctor’s best pal have ever been credited as “Mean Town” before she was announced? She was so nice!

“It’s an anagram of Ten Woman,” casting director Andy Pryor told RadioTimes.com. “Series ten, and also the tenth companion of the modern series.”

OK then – that makes more sense.

Men On Waves

Jenna Coleman Clara

When Jenna Coleman originally auditioned for the role of Clara Oswald, she had to tell friends, family and even her agent that she was auditioning for something called Men on Waves, which sounds like some sort of ‘80s band. She told Radio Times, “I worked out that Men on Waves is an anagram of Woman Seven, because this is the seventh series. Weirdly, seven is my lucky number and this is my seventh job.”

Clearly, the Woman_Number formulation is the gift that keeps on giving, Doctor Who codename-wise.

Panic Moon

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Similarly, when Karen Gillan went for the part of Amy Pond, the whole thing was so secret that she couldn’t even tell BBC Reception what she was there for, and have to pretend she was auditioning for a show called Panic Moon – an anagram of ‘companion’. 

Though now we’ve said it, Panic Moon does sound like an iconic Doctor Who location, doesn’t it?

Torchwood

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Probably the most significant codename in Doctor Who history was used back in 2005, when the very biggest secret of them all was the show itself, with everyone wanting to know what the revived series would look like. This meant that the production team had to go so far as to relabel the few videos of the show that had to leave the office with a codename: Torchwood, an anagram of Doctor Who.

Russell T Davies ended up liking the title so much that he seeded it into Doctor Who, leading to it eventually taking on the form of a spin-off series (previously intended to be called Excalibur) starring John Barrowman.

And speaking of Barrowman, Torchwood wasn’t his last sojourn into Who-themed codenames. When his character Captain Jack Harkness made a surprise return in 2020, Barrowman revealed to RadioTimes.com that his grand re-entry to Doctor Who was disguised with a pseudonym based on his former co-star Billie Piper.

“I had a codename,” Barrowman told us. “Funnily enough I can’t remember what the codename was but I think they can tell you from the script – oh yes, my codename was an anagram of Rose Tyler.”

Short of hard evidence, our guesses are Roy Lester, Rory Steel, Errol Stye, Terry Leos, Les Torrey…answers on a postcard.

Y.A.N.A.

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Codenames are not just restricted to auditions and top secret footage – they’re worked into the show too. One of the most famous uses in Nu Who is Y.A.N.A, first referenced in 2007’s Gridlock when the Face of Boe tells the Doctor: “You Are Not Alone”. Not exactly obvious, but it does serve as a cheeky nod to the true identity of Professor Yana eight episodes later, who turns out to be the Master. Top marks to anyone who put two and two together.

Missy

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A less subtle, but equally as mysterious, codename was used in series eight for Missy: an enigmatic woman who would pop up now and again and chew the scenery with anyone who had just died. It eventually turned out, of course, that Missy was short for Mistress, the female version of Master – heralding the revelation that the Doctor’s arch-nemesis had regenerated into a woman.

A secret hidden in plain sight… and not the last Master codename we’d be treated to once Sacha Dhawan rolled onto the scene. Actually, how many of these codenames are just the Master?

Mr Razor

John Simm - The Master
John Simm – The Master
BBC

OK, at least one more is just the Master.

While it was spoiled by an early trailer, John Simm’s return as the Master in 2017 was a huge moment for Doctor Who, with the evil Time Lord tearing off the rubber mask of “Mr Razor” to reveal his identity to his later self Missy.

But was there a clue that Missy could have picked up on that this strange figure was the former Mr Saxon? The Old English for knife, seax, is the genesis of the term (and name) Saxon – so Mr Razor is really just another way of saying “Mr Saxon,” right?

That sneaky, sneaky Master… though we might need to talk about the fact that he’s called himself “Mr Knife” twice now.

Kevin the Dalek

Jodie Whittaker in Doctor Who (BBC)
Jodie Whittaker in Doctor Who (BBC)

Look, they can’t all be winners.

Ahead of the debut of Doctor Who’s 2019 New Year’s special Resolution cast and crew had to refer to the new-look Dalek as Kevin, to keep the tinpot terrors’ return to the sci-fi drama a secret. The only problem? Guest cast including Nikesh Patel didn’t realise it was a codename, especially when Jodie Whittaker got so attached to the name that she kept calling the Dalek by it…

“I didn’t realise it was a secret code name until my first day on set,” he revealed on Twitter.

“After accepting the part I have a quick phonecall with Wayne Yip, our brilliant episode director, who’s already started filming in Cardiff,” he explained. “He asks if I have any questions about Mitch. We talk accents. I really want to ask him if the baddie is called Kevin, but I bottle it.”

“We run our lines, and Jodie keeps the code name, thinking it sounds hilarious,” he says. “It does! Unless you’re me, in which case you hear the Doctor – with gusto – deliver the killer line, ‘I’m coming for you, KEVIN!’ and start to wonder if you’re missing something.”

In the end, director Wayne Yip broke the news to Patel during filming that Kevin was actually a Dalek. Maybe it wasn’t such a bad codename after all…

The Doctor’s Wife

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Neil Gaiman’s The Doctor’s Wife is not just an episode title, it’s actually a reference to a fake episode title. Back in the ’80s, producer John Nathan-Turner was so paranoid that someone in the production was leaking information to fanzines, that he invented a fake serial title to see if he could catch them out.

That title, of course, was The Doctor’s Wife, a cover-up for what would eventually come to be one of classic Who’s best stories, The Caves of Androzani.

David Agnew and Robin Bland

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Codenames were not only used to fool viewers and the press. In the 1970s they were used more to fool – or at least pacify – the BBC. For at the time there was a rule preventing producers and script editors on the show, who were then BBC staff, commissioning scripts from themselves. But sometimes it was necessary to break the rule because of production problems or because scripts went wrong and had to be replaced at the last moment.

Most famously, the 1978 Tom Baker story, The Invasion of Time, was a last-minute script written to replace another serial that was going to cost too much to produce. It’s famous because it’s the story where a huge amount of time is spent walking around a Tardis that was revealed to have a lot of brick walls and look a great deal like the nearest location the show could find.The Invasion of Time was written by script editor Anthony Read and producer Graham Williams but it was credited on screen and in Radio Times as being by David Agnew. Williams again collaborated on a “David Agnew” script in 1979, this time City of Death with Douglas Adams.

There were several other occasions when the only solution to a script problem was for the production team to work together to write a new one. But there was also one time when it was done just a little less harmoniously. Terrance Dicks so objected to rewrites of his 1976 story, The Brain of Morbius, that he insisted his name be taken off it. Script editor Robert Holmes asked what name he wanted used instead and Dicks reports that he just said to make it “a bland pseudonym” before hanging up the phone. To this day, Doctor Who episode guides credit The Brain of Morbius to writer Robin Bland.

The first codename

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Perhaps the very first example, certainly the first to have been revealed outside the programme, is apparent actor ‘Sydney Wilson’. Again, there’s no such person. But back in 1965, when Doctor Who itself was only two years old, there was a story called The Rescue. Sorry to spoil it 47 years later, but don’t trust Bennett. He may seem to be the good guy trying to protect Vicky (Maureen O’Brien) from the evil Koquillion, but he’s got another agenda. He is Koquillion and that little surprise would’ve been wrecked by the cast list.

Consequently, for Desperate Measures, the second of this two-part story, Koquillion was credited as being played by Sydney Wilson. It’s a combination of the names Sydney Newman and Donald Wilson. Newman was a BBC drama boss and Wilson was a producer who led the development of Doctor Who in its very earliest days. Sneaky stuff…

And finally, the codename that never was

John Simm Master
John Simm and Alexandra Moen in Doctor Who (BBC)

Given just how many secret anagrams The Master, has, when John Simm took over the role in 2007 fans had their eyes peeled for any clues – and there appeared to be one! In the show, his alias Mister Saxon (teased in earlier episodes before his grand arrival) could be rearranged to spell “Master No. Six,” a reference to the five previous on-screen incarnations of the Time Lord (including Derek Jacobi, who regenerated into Simm’s incarnation).

Or so we thought – because apparently this particular “codename” was just a coincidence, and wasn’t intended by showrunner Russell T Davies to dub Simm as the sixth version of the Master. In a way, it makes sense – turning “Mister” to “Master” isn’t quite the level of wordplay we’ve come to expect from these names.

Still, there may be some more hints in this alias. As fans have noted, Mr Saxon’s fictional first name Harold is derived from the Old English name Hereweald, which roughly translates as Master of the Armies – pretty appropriate given this incarnation’s billions of Toclafane drones and plans for outer-space conquest.

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Doctor Who returns to BBC One in late 2020/early 2021 – check out what else is on with our TV Guide