The BBC’s original plans for the Doctor did not involve the Time Lords – and their initial vision of Doctor Who was also very different.
The Doctor’s original origin story in Doctor Who didn’t feature Time Lords at all. Doctor Who season 12 shocked fans by retconning the Doctor’s history, revealing she is not a Time Lord at all – but rather is the Timeless Child, a being who may well predate the universe itself. It’s a revelation that has somewhat divided the fanbase, with some hoping that season 13 will erase this idea from continuity through some storytelling sleight-of-hand, while others are curious to see what will come next for this plot line.
What has been largely forgotten, though, is that Doctor Who has always been changing and evolving. The concept of regeneration – so central to Doctor Who, in that it allows the series to continually reinvent itself – was only dreamt up when an ailing William Hartnell knew it was time to move on, and it was originally called “renewal.” The Time Lords themselves were a clumsy retcon, introduced in 1969’s “The War Games” but only really fleshed out in 1977’s “The Deadly Assassin” (which was actually remarkably controversial at the time, because viewers didn’t initially take to the portrayal of Gallifrey). The extent of Doctor Who‘s evolution becomes clear looking at documents produced by the BBC back in 1963, as discussed in Doctor Who Magazine‘s recent special, Writing Doctor Who.
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In May 1963, BBC staff writer C.E. Webber drafted general notes and background on what was then called “Dr. Who.” What is striking about these notes is that Webber clearly believed the driving narrative of the series should be the attempt to unravel the mystery of the Doctor’s character, explaining the show’s title. This first version of the Doctor was envisioned as an ambiguous figure, his memories clouded and confused, who had been given his name because he had no recollection of who he truly is.
“He remains a mystery. From time to time the other three discover things about him, which turn out to be false or inconclusive. (i.e. any writer inventing an interesting explanation must undercut it within his own serial-time, so that others can have a go at the mystery). They think he may be a criminal fleeing from his own time; he evidently fears pursuit through time. Sometimes they doubt his loss of memory, particularly as he does have flashes of memory. But also, he is searching for something which he desires heart-and-soul, but which he can’t define. If, for instance, they were to go back to King Arthur’s time, Dr. Who would be immensely moved by the idea of the quest for the Grail. This is, as regards him, a Quest Story, a Mystery Story, and a Mysterious Stranger Story, overall.“
Webber’s own idea of the Doctor’s background is fascinating, even if the ideas were dropped. He imagined the Doctor as originating from sometime around the 50th century, and that he had traveled back in time with the express purpose of rewriting history. The Doctor’s “secret intention” was to find a perfect past, and preserve it, thus destroying or nullifying the future. Sydney Newman, the BBC’s Head of Drama, didn’t like the idea of the Doctor as such a reactionary; he wanted the Doctor to become a father figure instead.
What is fascinating, though, is how some of these elements were indeed woven into the show in the end. The 50th century was substituted by the Time Lords, but – like Webber’s imagined enemies – they opposed the Doctor not just because he had stolen a time machine, but because he does nothing but interfere in history. The quest for a perfect time was dropped, as was an anti-progress narrative, but the core principle – of the Doctor as an interventionist who had reacted against the “authorities” – was retained. It really is fascinating to see how different the original ideas for Doctor Who were, and yet how they had a lasting influence on the series’ evolution.
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