Doctor Who The First Question

By Owen Quinn author o the Time Warriors and Zombie Blues

copyright BBC

It’s been fifty years coming! Tonight we may or may not discover the Doctor’s name and his greatest secret but did you know it’s been done before? Owen looks back twenty five years to the seventh Doctor’s battle with Nazis, Cybermen and the Lady Peinforte, a witch that knows his greatest secret, the secret that must never be told, Doctor Who?

It is the question that has been asked from the very first episode. Even then, the Doctor didn’t know or at least seemed not to. Ian Chesterton calls him Doctor Foreman and the Doctor mutters to himself, ‘Eh? Doctor Who?’. Whilst we learned that he was a Time Lord from Gallifrey who had stolen a magic box who was on the run from his own people, it seemed that was it. Now the question has become legend and is the first question, the oldest question in the universe and one that must never be answered. The answer terrifies the Silence who never want it revealed, so the Doctor must die before he reaches the Fields of Trenzalore where the question will be asked at the fall of the eleventh.

It seems a relatively new concept to most viewers but the question was tackled before. During the seventh Doctor’s era at the time of the 25th anniversary, Silver Nemesis saw the introduction of one Lady Peinforte played by Fiona Walker, a sorceress from the 17th century (see video below). It was revealed that she knew the Doctor’s secret and who he really was. In a battle that saw the Cybermen, Peinforte and Nazis race to possess the Nemesis, an ancient weapon of mass destruction from Gallifrey, the Doctor was almost revealed as he came face to face with the witch. She had previously encountered the second Doctor in an unseen adventure in which, somehow, she learned who he was. When they came face to face at the climax of the story, the question was asked: “Doctor Who? Have you never wondered where he came from, who he is?” Ace (Sophie Aldred) replies, “Nobody knows who the Doctor is.” Peinforte grins and answers slyly: “Except me.”

All of this was part of the Andrew Cartmel grand plan to reintroduce mystery to the character. We all thought we knew who the Doctor was, but did we really? As the old saying goes, you never really know anyone for sure and here it seemed the Doctor had a secret history. In the novelization of Remembrance of the Daleks, we saw flashbacks to Gallifrey when Omega and Rassilon gained the power of time travel for the Time Lords. Official history always said that these two were responsible but a third person was introduced. Known only as the Other, he was a shadowy figure that ensured that the event took place and when we later discover that the first Doctor had actually arrived on Earth to leave the Hand of Omega, another super weapon, for the Daleks to find, everything we knew went out the window.

It was indicated that the Doctor was in fact the Other and may at some point become this character from the dawn of Time Lord history itself. Other theories included that the Doctor had somehow become part of this character in an unseen adventure, almost a host of sorts, possibly at the moment of one of his regenerations  Could it be his life as a wandering traveller was merely his way of blowing off steam as the momentous events that shaped the future of the Time Lord race faded into the background? Was he the Other who had somehow become immortal and survived from that day,assuming a new identity to cover some secret?

We know from the Three Doctors that Omega had become trapped in an anti-matter universe when he was presumed dead and that Borusa is alive and well in the Tomb of Rassilon at the heart of the Death Zone in the Five Doctors. So why couldn’t the Other have survived too, getting the best deal of the three; the chance to live a life travelling the universe. Could the reason he left Gallifrey be because he was a relic from another time and couldn’t live the life other Time Lords did? Had he in fact changed his own past to lay traps for the Daleks by getting his first incarnation to drop the Hand of Omega in 1963 for the Daleks to avert the Time War itself? If so, then the Doctor’s first meeting with the Daleks has to be seen in a whole new light.

Up to Remembrance of the Daleks, we thought the Doctor and Susan were just killing time in the 20th century in an Unearthly Child but twenty five years later we discover the Doctor had been there to set the Dalek trap and yet he gave no indication he knew what the Daleks were in the second story ever. Could it be the Tardis took them to Skaro on their second trip because the Doctor, having set his trap, had to ensure his meeting with the Daleks began properly? Which means he did have control over the Tardis after all so this does play into the Other theory. He knew of the Cybermen in the Tenth Planet yet we had never seen him meet them before and they became his second target for mass extermination in the 25th anniversary season in Silver Nemesis.

The seventh Doctor reveals a second weapon from Gallifrey, the living statue called Nemesis that is a massive bomb. It knows who he is and again we never saw how he came to get her on television. Lady Peinforte wants the Nemesis and at some point she briefly had it because it told her the Doctor’s secret. The Cybermen also want the statue as do a group of neo Nazis seeking to restore the Reich. It all comes to a climax in an abandoned hangar where Ace is about to be killed if the Doctor doesn’t hand over the Nemesis to the silver giants. They have already killed the last of the Nazis so it’s down to a battle between Peinforte and the Cybermen with the Doctor caught in the middle. Peinforte threatens to reveal all if he doesn’t hand it over to her. However the Doctor doesn’t seem that worried when he gives the power of the Nemesis to the Cybermen. Losing her prize, Peinforte grows angry when she continues: “I shall tell them of Gallifrey, of the Old Time, the Time of Chaos.”. The Cybermen reply that the secrets of the Time Lords mean nothing to them and Peinforte has lost her bargaining chip. Even at the end when Ace asks him directly “Doctor, who are you?” he smiles and puts his fingers to his lips. Now we know that the grand plan would have gone nowhere as you could never reveal the true story of the character. But it worked so well at the time. That second when Peinforte says those delicious words, ‘Doctor Who?’ viewers were on the edge of their seats. Not bad for an era that was generally slammed at the time but is now rightly regarded as containing many classics and the blueprint for the Russell T Davies era.

It was also here we learned that at some point a ginger-haired Doctor would become Merlin in another dimension, something that came as a surprise to him. So we know at some point the Doctor will get his wish and become ginger. Indeed, even now the eleventh Doctor is surprised to learn that his name causes such fear in the universe and when he arrives on Trenzalore, no lies can be told and the truth will come out. But why? What is it? Can a name bring down creation itself? In fact could there be more to the Time War than we were first told? The Doctor wiped out two empires in one go, so what is he really capable of? Armies have turned and run away at the mention of his name and he is known as the Oncoming Storm to the Daleks, when they had a memory of him, that is. What is it about the Doctor that is so terrible that the universe itself will hold its breath when the question is asked?

McCoy’s era reinvented the Doctor and gave us something to think about. A friend we thought we knew, now has a secret past which he can never speak of. A dangerous past that is too horrible to reveal. For Lady Peinforte, it was a bargaining chip that she was sure would make the Doctor cower in fear and do whatever she wanted him to. To the Cybermen,it meant nothing, but to us on this day, in this place, the Doctor is going to fall. In the Rings of Akhaten, he faces down the sun monster by revealing he knows things, terrible things that can never be said and maybe, just maybe, we are about to have some of those answered. Now, as we know the question will be asked, the first question, the question that must never be answered is about to fall…

Doctor Who, indeed?

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