Doctor Who is very unique in the fact that it has one of the largest expanded universes of any franchise in the world, and yet there is simply no dividing line between canon and non-canon. Not a definite one, at any rate. The nature of the show means that things that should be completely incompatible, such as “Human Nature” being both a Tenth Doctor television story and a Seventh Doctor prose story, actually could be the same thing. Missy showed us that in “The Witch’s Familiar” when relating a memory of a previous encounter of The Doctor’s, and he cycled throughout his First, Fourth and Twelfth incarnations until she settled on the one she liked for the tale. Doctor Who is a nonlinear, multidimensional story as told to an audience that understands time and space only in one direction.
That aside, there’s an order of importance to the narrative. Think of the television show as The Bible and the assorted spin-offs in audio, prose and comics to be Biblical apocrypha. All entries are gospel, but some are more gospel-y than others. There’s plenty to write off in the novels that were written for the various Doctors between 1989 and 2005 as probably not things that would have been approved if a show had been in production at that time, especially among the Seventh and Eighth Doctors. On the other hand, the post-2005 novels are rather clearly intended to supplement the show, and references from a few of them have actually made it into episodes.
The weird thing is that Steven Moffat has been systematically dismantling the walls between the various spin-off worlds ever since he stepped into the role of showrunner, and now we’re seeing a giant unification of the spheres among all media that no one seems to be acknowledging is happening. In this year, when we get no new series, it would be a great time for fans to check out a massive amount of Doctor Who that is all becoming as legit as the show itself.
The first thing that happened was “Night of The Doctor,” where Paul McGann gloriously returned to the role of the Eighth Doctor to film his death and regeneration into the War Doctor. Not only did it fill a hole in the life of The Doctor always talked about but never seen, it also canonized the Eighth Doctor’s adventures in the Big Finish audio stories when he toasted past companions Charley Pollard, C’Rizz, Lucie Mille, Tamsin Drew and Molly O’Sullivan before his death. This in effect made the ten years worth of adventures in the medium the Eighth Doctor’s official timeline, and if his adventures are canon, why not those of, say, the Sixth Doctor and Evelyn Smythe or the First Doctor and Oliver Harper.
There’s an even more profound down-series effect from what “Night of The Doctor” did. One of the greatest stories of the Eighth Doctor’s audio adventures was “Zagreus,” which essentially served as Doctor Who’s unofficial 40th Anniversary special and featured appearances by every single actor who had appeared in the audio stories thus far, including archived audio of Jon Pertwee. In the course of that long, amazing story, the Eighth Doctor gets a glimpse into his swirling timelines, seeing his own current incarnation traveling in space and time in alternate dimensions. References in this scene include allusions to his Doctor Who Magazine comic adventures – until “Night of The Doctor,” considered the most likely true timeline between the Eighth and Ninth Doctors – as well as adventures from his line of Virgin novels, which by succession would be history of the Seventh Doctor in his Virgin New Adventure novels, including Human Nature, that line succeeded. The point being that in two steps was united every single bit of Doctor Who lore in a swirling mass of time and space that both has and hasn’t happened as well as maybe not happening the way we all remember it. No wonder The Doctor’s memory is so bad.
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It’s nothing compared to what’s happening now, though. The lines between the revived series and the classic series as continued in Big Finish are becoming more perforated by the month. Big Finish was granted the right to use modern monsters like the Weeping Angels for classic Doctors, and Ian McNeice as Winston Churchill is bringing a whole new set of stories narrated by him about the various post-2005 Doctors. John Hurt is building a new legacy for the War Doctor there, as are David Tennant and Catherine Tate returning for more fun times with the Tenth Doctor and Donna, as is River Song meeting various of her previous husbands in a new audio series of her own. Plus Torchwood is back, and how long really will it be until Matt Smith and even Christopher Eccleston are lured into the studio? Big Finish is actually producing more new Who than Nu Who right now.
Now, it’s about to get really wibbly-wobbly. Hardcore Doctor Who fans should know of Bernice Summerfield. She first joined The Doctor as an ally in the Virgin New Adventure novels, and has remained an important part of the larger Doctor Who canon. She’s had her own series at Big Finish even before any Doctor did because of rights issues, and has taken on classic villains like Sutekh and the Ice Warriors both with and without The Doctor.
The latest announcement is that Summerfield will be traveling to the Unbound Universe, where many alternative versions of The Doctor exist, including a female one played by Arabella Weir. Remember, through the actions of the current television showrunner, all the happenings at Big Finish in Doctor Who are at least partially canon. The same Seventh Doctor who appeared in the classic television show is the one who will take on the Sycorax and meet River Song in an upcoming audio story, the same Seventh Doctor who has traveled with Bernice Summerfield in at least two possible universes, and it’s that Bernice Summerfield who is now walking into places where anything is possible. Will she encounter the Shalka Doctor, condemned to a fictional no-man’s-land when the revived series trumped the animated one? Will the Cushing Doctor finally find a place? Will the mysterious figure The Other take the stage?
Doctor Who fractured into many different worlds when it was canceled in 1989, and the 1996 movie only furthered the fracturing. Now, after more than a decade of trying to right the timelines and bring things to heel, it looks like a universal Doctor Who canon might actually be happening right under our noses. An almost unlimited library of stories is now all part of the same story, with only minor breaks at the edges. I can’t think of anything that sums up Doctor Who better.