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Does Tenet's twist ending take inspiration from a beloved Doctor Who arc?

By Lauren Coates

After a months-long battle with studios, theaters, and seemingly COVID-19 itself, Christopher Nolan’s mind-bending time-travel thriller Tenet finally hit theatres last week, and like many of his other works, the film has already ignited an internet wildfire of fan theories and breakdowns of its many twists and turns. To be fair, the analysis is very much warranted — keeping tradition with the rest of his filmography, Tenet is filled to the brim with science fiction jargon, hidden Easter eggs, and little moments that slip by until the second, third, or even fourth rewatch.

However, despite all of its claims of being "groundbreaking" and "mind-blowing," the film (either on purpose or inadvertently) borrows its final twist from one of the most well-known (and well-loved) science fiction franchises of all time: Doctor Who. As anyone even vaguely aware of the long-running British phenomenon will know, Doctor Who is a classic sci-fi show that follows the misadventures of "the Doctor," a 900-plus-year-old alien from the planet Gallifrey who uses their police box-shaped time machine (the TARDIS) to travel throughout space and time. 

While Doctor Who more frequently focuses on the alien aspect of the show, which means lots of “aliens have invaded earth” plotlines, the show is notorious for its complicated arcs that span anywhere from half a season to 10 years of the show’s lore, using time travel as a plot mechanism to keep fans hooked and pull twists from seemingly out of nowhere — until, of course, you rewatch everything and see that the clues were (usually) there all along. 

Over its 41-year run, the show has explored many a time-travel plot, and one of the most famous (and most tragic) bears a striking resemblance to the final twist about Neil (Robert Pattinson) and The Protagonist (John David Washington) at the end of Tenet. The story in question has played out in small bits over the course of several seasons of Doctor Who, but begins and ends in the Series 4 two-parter “Silence in the Library” and “Forest of the Dead.”

After being summoned to an alien planet by an unknown entity, the Doctor (at the time played by David Tennant) encounters a mysterious woman named River Song (Alex Kingston), who acts as if she’s known him for years despite the fact that (to her surprise) the Doctor doesn’t recognize her. She flirts, jokes around with him, makes references to events between them that haven’t taken place, and even carries a journal with a cover decorated like the TARDIS. 

Over the course of the episodes (and in between killer alien hijinx), it’s revealed that River was the one who called the Doctor to the alien planet, and that she knows him because she is also a fellow time traveler. While this is the Doctor’s first time meeting River, she’s been with him for centuries, and when the Doctor tries to sacrifice himself to save her and his companion Donna, River knocks him out and takes his place, knowing that if he dies saving her life, he won’t be alive to meet her earlier on in her timeline. 

Now, if you’ve seen Tenet, some of that may sound familiar. Two people, whose timelines run in opposite directions? One time-traveler carrying a mysterious trinket the other recognizes? One eventually sacrificing their life so that the other can go on to meet and recruit them in the future? It’s either a massive coincidence or Christopher Nolan is a big Doctor Who fan, because The Protagonist and Neil’s story and the twist ending in Tenet bear striking resemblance to River and the Doctor’s story in Doctor Who.

Like River, Neil is a mysterious figure from the future who, upon meeting The Protagonist for the first time, makes jokes and acts like they’ve known each other for years — even ordering his favorite drink, Diet Coke, despite the fact that The Protagonist believes they’ve never met. Fast forward to Tenet’s ending, and it’s revealed that Neil was recruited by a future version of The Protagonist, who sent him on this mission knowing it would be his last. Just like River, Neil carries an object (in Tenet’s case, a red trinket hanging off his bag) that The Protagonist recognizes, and just like River, he gives his life for The Protagonist, knowing that he must do so for the two of them to meet in the future. 

In both cases, it’s a tragic story of two close-knit companions whose lives are on opposite timelines doomed for disaster — albeit one is pulled from a 2020 big-budget action flick, and the other a cult TV show from the mid-2000s. Still, whether the plot similarities were intentional or not, the added knowledge of Tenet’s Doctor Who reference brings a whole new wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey layer to the viewing experience.