Fast Return Switch #002: Putting a Monocle on the Canonical

Picking up from where we left off last time, this episode of the Fast Return Switch podcast addresses the issue of contradictions within a given canon of Doctor Who. How are we to keep them sorted in our heads? Should we bother to harmonize them in our heads, and if so, how might we go about it? Listen in for a bit of mulling, brainstorming, and philosophizing.



Putting a Monocle on the Canonical

Last time I talked about what canon is in Doctor Who. I’d like to take some time now to discuss interpretation of canon. Remember, there are many canons, and only the makers have control over what those canons are. We don’t. Whatever canon we happen to find ourselves in, we must accept. But although the fan doesn’t determine the canon, the fan can interpret the canon. And I do mean the fan—certainly the casual viewer couldn’t care less about the minute details of Doctor Who. But the fan is interested in that, and for the fan, I would say, canon interpretation is a worthy endeavor, because through it we not only get to know Doctor Who better and get a view of the larger story, but we also through canon interpretation are able to discover new things organically. But we can’t come at it willy nilly (or should I say wibbly wobbly?) Let’s talk about principles of interpretation, and specifically how we are to look at contradictions—is that too strong a word? How about “inconsistencies”—how we are to look at inconsistencies in a given canon.

The television canon of Doctor Who is immense. I mean, positively immense, developed over 50 years, and it continues to grow, like a Krynoid pod. As might be expected, then, we find all kinds of inconsistencies within it. There are not, however, as many as some claim there are. It’s rather impressive, actually, how much the whole television canon coheres. But if we are to consider it canon, those inconsistencies need ironing out. That is what they do with the Bible canon—numerous books written over centuries by dozens of different writers—and yet theologians make an effort to harmonize them into a unity.

Harmonization is the effort to provide scenarios by which two apparently contradictory statements can both be considered accurate. It’s an adjustment of differences to make them mutually compatible.

I’d like to hammer out a working system for the harmonization of the stories in a Doctor Who canon.

Let’s start with the three basic principles of canon:

  1. The Canon and the Canon Only (Sola Scriptura, as they say in the religious world). What I mean is that the canon (whichever one you are in) needs to be strictly defined and there should be no accretions to it. If we are talking about the TV canon, then that means that only the television episodes are to be considered canonical. We are not to borrow understandings from other canons. So, for example, if we are in the Big Finish canon, we could assume that an audio story would help explain the meaning of a television episode, because Big Finish accepts both audio and television as canon, but if we were in the television canon, we cannot assume that an audio story helps explain the meaning of a TV episode, because the audio story is not part of the TV canon.
  2. The Totality of the Canon (Tota Scriptura). This means that the entire canon must be considered, and no one part of it can be removed in order to resolve an inconsistency. We cannot, for example, disregard Mawdryn Undead in order to resolve the UNIT dating controversy or set aside the fact that the Doctor is called “Doctor Who” in The War Machines or eliminate the entire Steven Moffat era for whatever reason.
  3. The Harmony of the Canon (Analogia Scriptura). As a rule of thumb, we assume the canon’s coherence. When we have found what appears to be a contradiction, we should always explore possible ways in which the contradiction can be resolved. This is not to say that we disregard the indisputable fact that the original intentions of the writers of Doctor Who stories contradict one another, that their views are at odds. We know, for example, that when Robert Holmes wrote The Brain of Morbius, he assumed the Doctor had several incarnations prior to the William Hartnell Doctor and that Terrance Dicks, when he wrote The Five Doctors, assumed William Hartnell’s Doctor was the first Doctor. But those are real world conclusions. In the realm of the Doctor Who universe, we must assume consistency, or else we must assume that all of the stories are stand-alones, or at least that each Doctor Who era stands alone. But we have already noted previously that the Doctor Who creators connected their stories to the whole, and that by references new stories continue to link themselves to past ones. The principle of the harmony of the canon therefore dictates that, when we encounter what appears to be a contradiction, we must assume that we are missing or overlooking some key piece of data that, if we had it, would resolve the contradiction. Episode cannot be set against episode. All of the stories will cohere, and interpretations of individual stories will harmonize with the rest of the canon.

Here are some criteria for determining reasonable explanations for apparent continuity errors. For lack of a better name for them, I’ll call them Ringo’s Rules. But they form a standard by which we can interpret the canon and uphold the basic principles I just cited.

  1. Disregard the writer’s original intention. Under normal circumstances (i.e., when there is not an inconsistency), I would say that the writer’s intention should be taken into consideration. But in the case of continuity errors, the writer’s intention needs to be set aside. The inconsistency is difficult enough as it is without also throwing into the mix whatever was going on in the writers’ minds when they wrote it.
  2. The credits aren’t canon. Those words that come up on the screen at the end of the show are not to be taken as gospel, unless you want to accept that all the names on there are part of the Doctor Who universe, including John Nathan Turner. Sure, you could argue that only the character names should be considered canon, but they are sometimes misspelled, and really, Cyberman #2 is not a real name. It is better to set aside the credits for purposes of canon interpretation and forget about them. Why do I even have to have such a rule? Because some people think that “Dr. Who” is the character’s actual name, because it appears that way in the credits. This rule applies most obviously to the TV program, but credits appear on written works as well.
  3. Allow the canon to be its own interpreter. Every part of the canon is to be interpreted in light of the canon, comparing one part with another part. One portion of the canon is the key to understanding related portions elsewhere in the canon. We can use, say, World Enough and Time to interpret The Tenth Planet. Avoid midrash. That’s a Jewish term referring to a form of interpretation that explains biblical passages by crafting new stories. Don’t do that. The more elaborate your explanation, the more likely the TV show will contradict it in the future. Best to keep it simple.
  4. Not a single piece of data should be left out of consideration. Bring all evidence to bear on the subject, not merely selected parts.
  5. Preponderance of evidence determines the truth. Make a list of all data that possibly bears on the subject and consider them simultaneously. An answer for an inconsistency takes into account what most of the data indicates. Do not base beliefs on the exceptions.
  6. More explicit material interprets less explicit material. If two parts of the Doctor Who canon appear to contradict, we should choose the more explicit over the less explicit and allow the explicit to define the meaning of the implicit. To put it another way, interpret the unclear in light of the clear. When determining what the canon teaches on a particular topic, find the parts that CLEARLY address the issue at hand and make this the starting point of your doctrine. Once that which is clear is firmly grasped and understood, then proceed to study the parts that seem to be unclear. Here is an example: In Spearhead from Space, it is revealed that the Doctor has two hearts. But earlier, in Inside the Spaceship, Ian checks the Doctor’s heart and says that it is beating, making no mention of there being two. In this case, Spearhead from Space is the more explicit: the Doctor has two hearts. Inside the Spaceship does not explicitly say that the Doctor has one heart, so we should allow Spearhead from Space to take precedence here and to interpret the earlier story. In Inside the Spaceship, the Doctor has two hearts, but Ian just happens to notice only one. We could even bring in some evidence from, say, The Christmas Invasion or The Shakespeare Code, which shows that one of the Doctor’s hearts can stop beating from trauma or a serious injury, and suggest that this is what happened in Inside the Spaceship: one of the Doctor’s hearts stopped beating, which would explain why Ian did not notice the second heart.
  7. Among competing hypotheses, the one with the fewest assumptions should be selected. This is the principle usually called “Occam’s Razor.” The more elaborate the explanation for an inconsistency, the less believable it is. Simpler explanations are better. This is why, in the above example of the Doctor’s two hearts, the explanation that Ian did not notice the other heart is simpler than an explanation, say, that among Time Lords, the second heart is acquired after the first regeneration. There is more to assume there: namely, that Time Lords are not born with two hearts, something never established in the TV canon. Believing that Ian missed something requires no assumption except that he is human and unknowledgeable about Time Lord physiology. Simple.

There are a few explanations that can resolve most inconsistencies in any Doctor Who canon. I’d say four. Four that can fix most problems. Knowing these makes it easier to explain things without doing too much violence to the writers’ original intentions.

  1. History changed. Sometimes actual occurrences do not coincide with occurrences that happened earlier. A way to explain a continuity error of this kind is to say that a situation has changed because history has changed. It’s an established fact that history can be changed in Doctor Who. People have free will; their choices matter. So try that one. If there is evidence that a change has occurred, other than the inconsistency itself, even better. This is why it’s a huge mistake to assume that all of the Doctor Who stories in a canon are simultaneously true. There are some fans who believe this. They can’t all exist together. When the Doctor says, for example, at the end of Genesis of the Daleks, that he has delayed the development of the Daleks by a thousand years, there is no way that this has not therefore had an effect on the historicity of the previous Dalek stories. If they have not been completely erased, they have at least been altered significantly. Yes, they remain in the Doctor’s memory, but that doesn’t mean they exist in the timeline anymore. Trying to make all stories exist at the same time creates a huge number of contradictions that do not need to be there.
  2. People with limited knowledge make mistakes. Sometimes we place too much trust into what a character in the show says. People are known to be wrong on occasion. If the evidence suggests that someone doesn’t know something, go with that explanation. It’s realistic. This goes for even the Doctor himself. He is not omniscient. He changes his theories constantly. He can be wrong. So, for example, when he says in The Dalek Invasion of Earth that the previous Dalek adventure had taken place “millions of years ahead of us in the future,” he is probably guessing and mistaken. I’m sure he knows now.
  3. The Doctor lies. It’s a shame this one exists, but hey, he said it himself. So believe what the Doctor says unless you can’t. The Doctor sometimes lies or exaggerates. How to know when a statement is not to be taken at face value: If it makes good sense as it stands, and does no violence to our understanding of the way things work, then it can be understood as truthful and literal; if not, then perhaps figuratively, hyperbolically, or as an outright lie. It could also be a generalization or an approximation. But I would say to prefer the Doctor as a liar over someone else who has nothing to gain by lying.
  4. The TARDIS translator not only translates for the characters in the show but also for the viewers. What are we hearing when we have the volume turned up? For the purposes of the show, I would say that we are hearing what the TARDIS has translated for us. After all, we hear everyone speaking in English, just as the Doctor and his companions do. This knowledge can help explain a number of issues—for example, why we hear measurements in our own scale, or why the Ice Warriors call themselves Ice Warriors.

These four common explanations, I would guess, can explain 95% of the inconsistencies in the show. If you can think of any other common ones, let me know, and I may revise. If you are interested in canonicity and methods of interpretation, I hope this little guide comes in handy.