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SYFY WIRE opinion

Doctor Who's newest Doctor is canon, forever, and it can't be changed

By Ani Bundel
Doctor Who: Fugitive of the Judoon

Doctor Who Season 11, the first under showrunner Chris Chibnall, was historic from the start thanks to the ascension of the first female Doctor in the show's 50-plus year history. Surrounded by a diverse crew of companions, Jodie Whittaker's tenure began with solidly workwoman-like adventures. But the season was notable, nonetheless, for the series' willingness to explore what it means for women and people of color to travel through Earth's history and the casual micro-aggressions they face both then and now.

If that were all Chibnall did, it would be enough to secure his place in Doctor Who history. But with Season 12, he's gone further than anyone has dared to do in the show's 56 years.

Like showrunner Steven Moffat before him, he's shaken up the Doctor Who canon by adding in a past Doctor with Episode 5, "Fugitive of the Judoon." But this is not just any Doctor. Jo Martin (Fleabag) is the first black woman to play the titular Time Lord. And no matter what happens next, no matter how the series explains her existence, even if they erase her by next week, there's no undoing it, nor should there be.

By the show's own rules, everything that happens, no matter what or where, is canon, and therefore, so is she.

In 2003, the BBC announced it was putting Doctor Who back into production as a weekly series for the first time since the BBC canceled it in 1989. But showrunner Russell T. Davies and the production team were faced with a dilemma. When the show ended in 1989 after 30-plus years on air, it was on its seventh incarnation of the Doctor (Sylvester McCoy). Since then, there had been a decade and a half of content — just not on TV.

There had been an American movie that introduced an Eighth Doctor (Paul McGann), but it was the stories told through other media — comics, novels, and radio plays — that kept the fandom sated during this period. Much like Disney and Star Wars nearly a decade later, a choice had to be made. Did the show pick up directly where it left off in 1989, bring back McCoy to regenerate, and begin fresh with a new Eighth Doctor? Was all this material to be erased as "non-canon"?

Davies wound up starting the reboot with an already-regenerated Ninth Doctor, but this was bigger than just casting one actor. As Moffat later said at San Diego Comic-Con in 2008, by making this choice, it implicitly honored everything that came before: "It is impossible for a show about a dimension-hopping time traveler to have a canon."

In short, when nothing is canon, everything is.

Without any walls to gatekeep, fans couldn't say this or that story wasn't legal. So many multiverses spawn from every time-travel action, there is no way to argue what did or didn't happen. All stories, from YouTube shorts to multi-episode radio plays, are part of the Whoniverse. All timelines are valid.

Doctor Who: Fugitive of the Judoon

Two decades later, that fateful decision matters more than ever as Chibnall goes back in the chronology and adds a new Doctor to the lineup. He's not the first: Moffat himself added in the "War Doctor" for the 50th anniversary when Christopher Eccleston refused to reprise his role at the Ninth Doctor.

But even Moffat, who was famous for changing some of Doctor Who's most important tenets (like throwing out the "12 regenerations rule"), stayed within what one might call "the reboot lines." The War Doctor came after the Classic Who Doctors, a regeneration lost during the off-air years, as it were. Moffat's addition didn't take it beyond the established norm, either. Played by the late John Hurt, the War Doctor was a white man, like all that came before.

Chibnall, on the other hand, has smashed through those unspoken rules. He has done what no one had the nerve to do: establish the first black Doctor in Whovian history.

More importantly, his new Doctor isn't the Fourteenth Doctor, or from a future timeline. She is of the Classic Doctor era, so much so that her TARDIS interior is the old-school design. She's toting guns like the Fourth Doctor did back in the day, fighting being arrested by other Time Lords like the Sixth Doctor once was. She doesn't recognize the sonic screwdriver at first, suggesting she could be even younger than the First Doctor. (The first recorded instance of the sonic screwdriver was during the Second Doctor's time, but it didn't become a regular staple until the gadget-heavy Third Doctor years.) On the other hand, the Sixth and Seventh Doctors never used the sonic at all, so perhaps she is of their era.

What's truly exciting is that Martin's Doctor could be from anywhere in the series' history, from pre-First Doctor to post-Seventh. She could even be a number variant, where, in a different multiverse, instead of regenerating into an actor we know, the Doctor regenerated into her instead. (Imagine a universe where the Doctor regenerated into Jo Martin instead of Colin Baker!) By doing this, Chibnall argues he didn't create the first female Doctor in Whittaker, she's just another female regeneration, like any other.

Older fans may kick and scream that the lineup they've known for so long has now been upended so thoroughly. But there's no taking this back. This Doctor exists; she is official. And perhaps most stunningly, adding her was just that easy. It only took the smallest bit of imagination to suggest Jodie Whittaker is not the first female Doctor after all, but one of many that came before.

It's a historic decision, one that shakes up the entire layout of the show's space and time as fans know it. And because everything is canon, now she is, too.