The Difficulty of Continuity in Doctor Who
By Jim Smith
Ian: ”Doctor, I don’t understand this at all. We saw the Daleks destroyed on Skaro, we were there!”
Doctor: “My dear boy, what happened in Skaro was a million years ahead of us in the future.”
The Dalek Invasion of Earth, Episode 2
***Warning: if you are new to the series, this article may be somewhat spoilery.***
Doctor Who is a television show that, while, built around an amazing concept, that of a traveler in time and space, it also is fraught with the threat of continuity problems. In any given story the circumstances of not only where, but when have to be established. Unfortunately, sometimes the When is left out, and while you have a pretty good idea of the continuity of events in the Doctor’s life, when it comes to the others that he encounters in his travels, including his companions, the continuity gets kind of fuzzy.
To wit: consider everyone’s favorite archeologist, River Song. They live their lives in reverse order. As the Doctor gets older, she gets younger. The first time they met (from the Doctor’s perspective) was in Silence in the Library during the David Tenant years. She knew him VERY well, and he did not know her at all. Her deeper connection to the Doctor is revealed when she whispers in his ear. The Doctor explains to Donna Noble that she told him his name, and that there is only one circumstance where he is allowed to reveal it. He never explained that statement, but the internet was on fire with rumors that she was his wife, and he hadn’t married her yet, and that the meeting was out of synch with their lives. There were rumors she would become a permanent companion and a few drawings of the TARDIS with a “just married” banner trailing a string of tin cans surfaced on the internet as well.
In The Impossible Astronaut, the Doctor and River sit in a café and flip through their diaries, seeing which experiences they have shared already. That, in my estimation would be the most awkward dinner table conversation ever. “Hi honey, have we been to Callufrax yet? Why no, we haven’t, what happened on Callufrax? Sorry, can’t tell you … no spoilers.” (BTW, a little nod to classic Whovians, Callufrax was another name for Earth after the Time Lords re-located it during the sixth Doctor’s time … if you have no idea what I am talking about, it is from the Season long story arc “Trial of a Time Lord” and well worth hitting up in your Netflix queue)
As a matter of fact, we have seen the Earth destroyed twice in Doctor Who. First, in the first Doctor serial called “The Ark”, which shows the Doctor visiting with the people escaping the Earth just before it’s destruction, and again in the ninth Doctor story “The End of the World”, where he is on a special satellite which is there to give a god view of the event. We have seen the earth invaded multiple times by Daleks, Cybermen, Autons, Zygons and a host of others with varying degrees of success, and the odd plague or two.
Sometimes, story writers try to fix what they see as continuity problems, but they often just end up creating more. For instance, in War of the Daleks, one of the eighth Doctor novels, John Peel tries to explain why the Daleks history seems tied in knots. The first Doctor defeats them when they invaded Earth, the fourth Doctor traveled to their home planet of Skaro to hinder their development, and the seventh Doctor actually destroyed their homeworld. However, the Daleks just won’t seem to die as they factor into the story of the Doctor Who TV Movie, which is the only appearance of the eighth Doctor on screen (though there are rumors that he might be in the 50th anniversary episode).
Entire books have been written to attempt a continuity of Doctor Who, and there is an entire website devoted to a chronology of the Doctor’s life, including all television and print adventures, all of which the BBC considers canon.
So, when you are watching Doctor Who, don’t get turned off by the confusion the time travel element might introduce. After all, as the tenth Doctor says in Blink, time isn’t a linear progression, but rather when viewed objectively from the outside it is a “big ball of wibbly wobbly, timey wimey … stuff.” There are enough cosmological theories about time on the internet to make your head ache, your eyes go fuzzy and drool to drip on your keyboard. If ever you start having time issues while watching Doctor Who, just repeat these simple words: ‘that was then, this is now” and take two neotrinos and call me in the morning.