The Timeless Child rewrote Doctor Who’s history and lore – but William Hartnell wasn’t supposed to be the first incarnation of the Doctor at all.
Doctor Who fans were shaken by the Timeless Child retcon, which revealed William Hartnell was not the First Doctor – but pre-Hartnell incarnations were always part of the plan. Doctor Who‘s continuity has always been pretty crazy, and that’s a feature, not a bug – because showrunners have tended to make it up as they went along. Doctor Who only came up with regeneration, for example, because William Hartnell was ill and recognized it was time to leave.
Doctor Who season 12 rewrote the show’s entire show, revealing the Doctor is in fact the Timeless Child – a being who predates Time Lord society, and potentially originates from another universe. That means there have potentially been multiple pre-Hartnell incarnations of the Doctor, given the mysterious traveler through time and space has been retconned to over five billion years old. Viewers are divided over the Timeless Child retcon, with some hoping current showrunner Chris Chibnall will abandon the idea in season 13 while others are willing to wait and see what the Doctor’s new origin will be.
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Doctor Who Magazine‘s recent special, Writing Doctor Who, contains a reference to the original script from “The Power of the Daleks,” the first Patrick Troughton story in which the Doctor’s companions struggled to deal with the idea of regeneration – originally called “renewal.” In one scene, the Second Doctor dives through a chest full of trinkets, reminiscing – more for the benefit of long-term viewers than the companions, because he recalled stories from the Hartnell era to reassure them he was the same person. The original script includes a moment when the Doctor looks at a ring that doesn’t fit him, and notes he was wearing this “the last time I was renewed.” The line was never read during filming, however.
This is an intriguing comment, because it suggests many of the truths fans cling to about Doctor Who – such as the very idea William Hartnell was the First Doctor – are more fragile than anybody thought. When Doctor Who first came up with the idea of regeneration, Hartnell was never supposed to be the first incarnation of the time traveler. Rather, he was meant to simply be the latest Doctor. Oddly enough, that means the Timeless Child retcon has restored a concept to canon that is older than the creation of the Time Lords themselves.
No doubt the Doctor would be amused to see history come full circle in this way. It’s clear Chris Chibnall intends to build on the Timeless Child retcon in season 13, potentially giving Doctor Who the emotional arc the Jodie Whittaker era needs. Only time will tell whether Doctor Who fans conclude the retcon is worth the change to continuity and lore.
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