Canon is a very loaded word, and that's the only time I will use that pun, I swear. When it comes to something like Doctor Who, which is half a century old and very prolifically contributed to pretty much every possible artistic medium, establishing what is canon and what is not can be a sore point among more-literal minded fans. How can THIS happen if THAT happened?
Over the past several years, various showrunners and creative minds have tried very hard to bring as much of the Who universe into sync as possible through retroactive continuity, which when you think about it is the only way to fix something involving a time-traveling alien that can't stay out of trouble. Today we're going to look at some of the best of these fixes.
Time Crash The Children in Need special from 2007 was a very significant event in the revived series. It marked the first appearance of a classic Doctor on the show, bridging the gap between the two and helping to unite the show's history. It also passingly explained away two practical aspects of the show that had never really been explored.
The first was the changing appearance of the console room. Obviously various artists wanted to put their spin on the place The Doctor would spend the most time on his travels, but it didn't really explain why a room could alter as dramatically as it did during part of Tom Baker's run (He said it was a secondary control room) or in the 1996 film. In "Time Crash," the Fifth Doctor questioned the Tenth's taste in desktop themes, naming the then-current console room Coral. This established that the Tardis could reconfigure itself easily to fit The Doctor's current mood, like a computer desktop. The Eleventh Doctor would revisit this idea when he began burning off rooms in the Tardis to gain enough power to leave the universe in "The Doctor's Wife."
The mini-episode also explained why previous incarnations of The Doctor always appear older than the latest one no matter what their normal appearance is. In real life it's because, well, actors age. Even the David Tennant seen in "Day of The Doctor" is a noticeably older man than the David Tennant who left in "The End of Time" only a few years previously. The Tenth Doctor explains the Fifth's older appearance as shorting out the time differential between them. Previous incarnations will therefore always appear older because of this, and that makes it a little easier to suspend belief for future multi-Doctor stories.
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"Night of The Doctor" and "Zagreus" Another mini episode that changed things dramatically was Paul McGann's return to the series for "Night of The Doctor". Not only did McGann finally get to film his long-awaited regeneration scene and close a significant gap in the show's narrative, it introduced the hidden War Doctor and opened up a new venue to discuss the Time War that can be explored in a way that doesn't hinge on McGann, Christopher Eccleston or even John Hurt to do so.
It also established the Big Finish audio stories, or at least the Eighth Doctor ones, as canon to the show. In doing so it also canonized the audio story "Zagreus". "Zagreus" was Doctor Who's unofficial 40th anniversary and redefined everything from Gallifrey's early history to Rassilon's role in founding the Time Lords. In brief it also addressed the problem of the expanded universe from the time the show was off the air.
Between 1989 and 2005 The Doctor's adventures mostly continued in novels. First there was the New Adventures line continuing the life of the Seventh Doctor, which was then supplanted by the Eighth Doctor Adventure line. Those novels are sometimes problematic to say the least. For instance, Eternity Weeps has 2003 Earth being utterly devastated, something not referenced anywhere else. There's also an entire story arc where the Eighth Doctor loses one of his hearts.
Rather than just write these off as non-canon "Zagreus" explains them as alternate timelines that are just as real, but not the life that The Doctor we know remembers and lives within. This allows over a hundred books to still contribute to the overall mythology of Doctor Who without being completely dependent on adhering to things that happen in them. The alternate universe concept is as old as 1970's "Inferno" in Doctor Who storytelling, so there's plenty of precedent. That means that unlike Star Wars the expanded universe is in no danger of being blown up any time soon.
The Cracks in the Universe Even if you reserve stories like Eternity Weeps as alternate universe adventures there is still the fact that sometimes things on television get too big in Doctor Who to ignore. The Russell T. Davies era was full of these. The Battle of Canary Wharf, the movement of the whole Earth and the year Martha Jones walked the world as The Master ruled it through the Toclafane for instance. In a very short time the entire planet goes through unimaginable cataclysms and yet they never seem to make a global impact. You can explain away a UFO sighting over London, but people tend to remember the time Daleks were flying over them all across the planet.
It makes for exciting television, but any one of those events should have turned the show into a dystopian nightmare. To keep Doctor Who going The Doctor has to have the ability to stumble onto weirdness in an otherwise normal setting, otherwise it's a very different show.
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When the cracks in the universe were introduced in the Eleventh Doctor's time they allowed humanity to basically ignore all the things they'd seen because they were being erased from time through the cracks. Eventually it even allowed the rebooting of the entire universe, which may or may not have eliminated those major events for everyone who was not The Doctor and other time travelers. It was a cheap fix, but it did lift the burden of having to constantly deal with the fall-out of massive invasions on present day Earth episodes.
On the other hand, though... lately showrunner Steven Moffat seems to have forgotten why he did it in the first place. Last season saw a worldwide tree invasion, the destruction of the moon and the dead from Earth's entire history returning as Cybermen. Whether he has a plan to address this or doing so will be the work of future retconners only time (and space) will tell.
Doctor Who returns later this year with "The Magician's Apprentice".