The story behind why Doctor Who has 13 Doctors and not 14
There is still some confusion about why Doctor Who now features 13 Doctors and not 14, and it all comes down to a single decision that changed everything.
Following the casting announcement of Jodie Whittaker as the next person to take on the role of the Doctor in Doctor Who, after the inevitable chorus of cheers and a bitter contingent of boos, there seemed to be some confusion over why the show is moving to the 13th Doctor and not the 14th, given that there have been 14 actors and now one actress to play the role (not counting non-canonical and the two actors that have played the First Doctor following the death of William Hartnell).
The simple answer is that the Doctor is a title as much as a name. There have been (or, including Whittaker, will be) 13 versions of the same person to bear the name of the Doctor, and one version that did not. So while there have been 14 incarnations of the same person/entity, there have only been 13 Doctors.
That’s the explanation the show uses, but the reason for it is a little more complicated. Basically, it is all because Christopher Eccleston once said no.
The Day of the Doctor
The confusion centers around the 50th Anniversary episode, 2013’s “The Day of the Doctor,” which was written and produced by then-showrunner Steven Moffat. The original plan was for the anniversary episode to feature what would have then been the last three Doctors, Eccleston, David Tennant, and Matt Smith. Moffat went as far as to write an early draft of the script with all three of them, and the production began creating storyboards with Eccleston in mind. The problem was that Eccleston never intended to return.
Once Eccleston was officially out, Moffat was left with a significant problem. He knew the rough outline of the story he wanted to tell – the Doctor’s role in the end of the Time War and the fate of Gallifrey – but he needed something impressive to make the anniversary special, he just didn’t know what.
When he initially wrote the season seven finale, “The Name of the Doctor,” he wrote it without the last scene. He knew it involved going into the Doctor’s timeline, and he knew it needed to lead into the anniversary, but it wasn’t until much later that he came up with the idea of introducing a previously unknown incarnation of the Doctor, an idea that came to him only after Eccleston declined to return.
That led to Moffat creating the War Doctor, played by John Hurt, who should technically be the Ninth Doctor but isn’t. Moffat went way out of his way to explain his thinking on this through explanations in the show. It still leaves some fans confused and a little angry at Moffat upending the mythology of the series, but he did at least justify it in the show at great length.
Old and New Combined
Prior to the show’s return in 2005, there were seven actors who played the Doctor from 1963 to 1989, with the last actor to appear on the BBC being Sylvester McCoy. A failed soft relaunch in 1996 developed as a TV movie for Fox introduced Paul McGann as the Eighth Doctor, but pretty much everything else about that story has since been ignored (including the idea that the Doctor was half-human). The TV movie wasn’t a hit, so the show went back into hiatus until the 2005 relaunch overseen by Russell T Davies and starring Eccleston as the Ninth Doctor.
During Davies’ tenure, there were some hints and nods to the previous Doctors, but it wasn’t until Moffat took over that Doctor Who really began to attempt to connect the new version of the show with the old. Even then, it wasn’t entirely clear where McGann stood – at least not until he appeared as the Doctor in the webisode “The Night of the Doctor,” a prequel to the anniversary episode and the chronological introduction of the War Doctor.
In that short, the Eighth Doctor is essentially running from the Time War. He knows what he will have to do if he helps his fellow Time Lords, and he is reluctant to do so until he realizes he really has no choice. That leads to the Doctor regenerating for the eighth time, but not as the Doctor.
Partly to set up how the War Doctor could exist, Moffat spent a good deal of time exploring the Doctor’s name – not the name he (now she) was given, but the name he chose for himself. By taking the name “Doctor,” he essentially made a promise to uphold certain values, to help people, and to do no harm (at least not to the innocent). There is a hint of paradox added to that, and it may be that the word “Doctor” actually stems from the Time Lord him/herself, even though he chose it because of its meaning.
When the Eighth Doctor changed into the incarnation played by Hurt, he gave up that name in much the same way that an elected official might resign that post and the responsibilities that go with it. The show referred to this incarnation of the Time Lord as the War Doctor, although that was only used in credits, not in the show itself. This is an important idea for Moffat’s take on the character, although it does lead to some contentious debate among fans.
Big Finish and the War Doctor
If you are a fan of the classic show, you might already know about the Big Finish audio dramas starring the classic Doctors (and companions) in original new stories. The early productions featured the Fifth (Peter Davison), Sixth (Colin Baker), Seventh (Sylvester McCoy), and Eighth Doctor (McGann) in their own stories, but soon expanded to include Tom Baker, as well as stories with the First, Second, and Third Doctors read by a former companion. Tennant recently appeared in a few productions as the Tenth Doctor and there is talk Smith may join in as well (although that’s unconfirmed). Arguably Big Finish’s biggest coup, however, was landing Hurt to appear as the War Doctor, with the blessing of the BBC, which licenses the property to Big Finish.
There’s still a lot of debate over whether or not Big Finish stories are canonical. For the most part, they coexist with the show without directly impacting or contradicting it, but there have been some nods to the audio dramas in the show that lend them legitimacy. The War Doctor stories are one of the major exceptions, where the stories fill in some major gaps that the broadcast show hasn’t addressed.
In the audio dramas starring Hurt, his non-Doctor Doctor makes it very clear to everyone that he is not the Doctor anymore and people should stop referring to him like that. Most of his fellow Time Lords ignore him and call him the Doctor anyway, and he does often do very Doctor-ish things, like saving the innocents, but again and again it is hammered home that he is not the Doctor.
Combining this with the show, it is only after the War Doctor seemingly destroys Gallifrey that he regenerates back into the Doctor. This is where it gets even more confusing.
Transition Into Nine
Moffat cleverly established the firm concept that when Time Lords meet previous incarnations of themselves, the younger version will not remember meeting the later. This concept has taken a beating under scrutiny, but you can argue that the War Doctor forgot meeting his future selves but did remember ending the time war, and was subconsciously pleased enough with the outcome (secretly saving Gallifrey) to regenerate back into an incarnation worthy of bearing the mantle of the Doctor.
And so the chain of Doctor’s continued with Eccleston’s Ninth. This issue was made more significant when Moffat reinstituted the idea from the classic show that Time Lords can only regenerate 12 times, something that came to head in Smith’s final episode “The Time of the Doctor,” when his 11th Doctor confirmed that the War Doctor and an aborted regeneration by the Tenth counted toward the total.
So when Peter Capaldi took over as the 12th Doctor, he was also the 13th version of that same Time Lord (arguably even the 14th if you count the Tenth Doctor’s half-human twin created at the end of the fourth season). That, in turn, cleared the way – albeit confusingly – for Whittaker to take on the mantle of the 13th Doctor.