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Who Is The War Doctor? Part Two (Renumbering the Doctors)

The answer is “yes.” John Hurt is the 9th Doctor.

Spoiler alert: I will be revealing plot points of the Doctor Who 50th anniversary special, and will assume my readers have already seen it.

I was lucky enough to get tickets to a Saturday theater showing of the Doctor Who 50th Anniversary Special, “The Day of The Doctor.” It...was…amazing! Not only was the show itself spectacular, but watching for the first time what is guaranteed to be a classic episode of Doctor Who with a large contingent of fellow Whovians, many of whom were dressed in costume (I was the 11th doctor) was an experience unlike any other.

I closed my last blog wondering whether or not “The War Doctor” was, properly, “The Doctor.” If he is, Whovians will have to renumber the most recent doctors (and I will have to say I went costumed as the 12th Doctor, not the 11th). Specifically, I wondered whether or not the 50th anniversary special would lend itself to one interpretation, and thus one answer to this question. I think it did. Which interpretation? Last time I agured that we won't have to renumber; but the 50th anniversary speical made me change my mind. That’s right, I think—given the events of the 50th Anniversary Special—we have to now acknowledge that John Hurt is the 9th Doctor, and so all the subsequent doctors have to “move down one.” But before we get to that, let's talk about the special itself and a few of its other philosophical points of interest.

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The special was exciting, had a great story, was peppered with references to the show both new and classic, and was really funny. Watching Matt and David play off each other was magnificent and the special had everything wonderful about Doctor Who. It even did a great job of making fun of itself.

Initially, my only complaint was I didn't understand how and why all 13 doctors showed up to save the day at the end. Don't get me wrong, it was great to see them all again – but I just didn't understand how and why they all needed to be there to save Gallifrey—or even how they knew they needed to be there. But after a little reflection (and watching it again at home) I figured it out. The necessary calculations to place Gallifrey in a “parallel pocket universe” would take “hundreds and hundreds and hundreds” of years; and the line “I started a very long time ago” was followed immediately by the arrival of The First Doctor "warning the war council of Gallifrey." Given this, we are supposed to realize that our protagonist(s) visited The First Doctor. They had him start the necessary calculations in his TARDIS so that those calculations would be completed 1200+ years later. (Unlike before, when programming the sonic screwdriver to disintegrate the Tower of London prison door, a mere 400 years was not enough.) They then visited all the other previous incarnations of The Doctor, and told them when and where to be. Brilliant! My only complaint is that we didn't see any of these meetings; but of course that likely would have broken up the action—and spoiled the surprise of seeing them all unexpectedly together at once during the show’s climax.

I also spotted a bit of modern philosophy in the Doctors’ solution to the Zygon dilemma. By erasing the Zygons’ and the humans’ knowledge of who they were, The Doctors actually placed them in something analogous to what contemporary philosopher John Rawls called “the original position under a veil of ignorance.” Rawls argues that how fair and just a society is can be determined by how closely its laws and rules cohere to what he calls the "principles of justice." The principles of justice are the principles that would be agreed upon by a group of people about to enter a society unaware of who they would be in that society. Rawls argues that such a group would agree to the most fair and equitable principles possible; they would protect each individual in that society equally because, for all they know, they could end up being any one of those individuals. As The Doctor(s) point out: “The key to perfect negotiation [is] not knowing what side you are on.” Of course, we’re not told the conditions of the treaty that the humans and Zygons draw up, and I'll leave it to you to find out what Rawls suggested the principles of justice are.

But for Doctor Who fans, “The Day of The Doctor” raised a very serious question: do we have to renumber The Doctors now? The numbering of the first eight doctors has been pretty much set in stone; we have practically watched each one regenerate into the next. But when the show rebooted into 2005, we didn't see the regeneration of the eighth doctor (played by Paul McGann). We just saw Christopher Eccleston playing a recently regenerated Doctor, and assumed he was the next one—the 9th. Subsequently, we thought, David Tennant was the 10th and Matt Smith  was the 11th.

But in “The Day of The Doctor” (and the mini-prequel “The Night of The Doctor”), the existence of a regeneration between McGann’s doctor and Eccleston’s doctor was established – one played by John Hurt. This seems to suggest that Eccleston was actually the 10th Doctor, Tennant was the 11th, Matt Smith is the 12th and Peter Capaldi will be the 13th—because John Hurt was the 9th. This may not seem like a big deal, but for Whovians it is. Each Doctor’s number is practically his name.

So should the doctors be renumbered? Ultimately, this is a philosophical question—but it is one I believe has a definitive answer: Yes.

Now, Steven Moffat (the current lead writer and executive producer) assured us that renumbering will not be required. In an interview with BBC America he suggested that John Hurt’s character “is an anomaly, and therefore doesn't count." So you might think my argument is dead in the water from the get-go. But this is not necessarily the case.

In aesthetics, the field of philosophy that includes interpreting art, there are different views regarding what determines the meaning of an artwork. Intentionalists suggest that the intentions of the creator of an artwork determine the meaning of an artistic work. If this is right, then presumably it is a done deal. Moffat says John Hurt is not The Doctor, and that’s that. But there are plenty of non-intentionalists who would disagree, and they have some pretty convincing arguments.

If intentionalism is right, then the meaning of many works of art—perhaps most of them—are forever lost, because the artists are long dead and gone and never revealed their intentions. Worse yet, this makes the meaning of art static; a work of art can only have the meaning its author intended, and it cannot change over time as society around it changes and the work becomes relevant in different ways. Weirder still, the meaning of an artwork can change at the whim of the artist’s intention, even though nothing about the work of art or anything around it changed—like when J. K. Rowling decided, after Harry Potter was complete, that Dumbledore is gay. Worst of all, intentionalism may misunderstand the very nature of art – as something that is presented, in the context of other art works, for public consumption and interpretation. (For more on these arguments, see Ruth Tallman’s chapter in my book Inception and Philosophy.)

Now, that’s not to say that there aren’t good intentionalist counter arguments to these points—there are. But even if you are an intentonalist about other art, you might still agree that a non-intentionalist approach may be most appropriate for Doctor Who. Why? Because it doesn’t have one single creator. As the BBC special “An Adventure in Space and Time” taught us, the show was originally the brain child BBC’s Sydney Newman, and much of the show was originally shaped by producer Verity Lambert. The Dalek’s were an invention of Terry Nation. Doctor Who does not have one creator; there has been as much changer in the writing and producing staff as there has been in the cast over the years. Moffat is only the latest in a long line. So it would seem odd to give him unquestioned authority about the “meaning” of Doctor Who—even if it is regarding his own episodes.  After all, Moffat is perfectly fine going back and reinterpreting some of the episodes of his predecessor, Russell T. Davis. (I highly doubt that Davis thought his Doctors were actively suppressing memories of The War Doctor.) What makes Moffat immune from such reinterpretation himself?

This is not to say that all interpretations of art, or of Doctor who, are on equal footing; interpretations that are inconsistent with the content of the artwork itself are not legitimate. But if this is right, we have to look to the canon of Doctor Who itself to settle the renumbering issue; we can't merely rely on Moffat to tell us what we should do.

Now, one might wonder how it is even possible for The War Doctor not to be The Doctor. If Matt Smith’s character is the same person as The War Doctor (which Moffat admits), but we know that Matt Smith's character is The Doctor, how can The War Doctor fail to be the doctor? If A=B, and B=C then A=C right? But “equal” in this context is expressing something about numerical identity—being the same singular thing. But “The Doctor” does not. It has what philosophers would call a "functional definition."

Things that are functionally defined are defined in terms of their inputs and outputs—how they behave. For example, anything that keeps time is a clock—whether that thing be a small object on your wrist, a large object on the tower, or a gold thing on a chain in The Doctor’s pocket. Whether it be made of gears and springs, or made of computer chips – if it keeps time, it's a clock. And, in an effort to establish his interpretation into the canon of Doctor Who (which, as the head writer, he has every right to do), Moffat writing suggests that “The Doctor” is defined in exactly the same way.

As I pointed out last time, Moffat has established that "The Doctor" is not the main character’s name, but more of a title—a description or persona he took on by making a promise to be a certain kind of person. In the 50th, we even find out what that promise is: "Never cruel or cowardly. Never give up. Never give in.” So the fact that The War Doctor is the same person as Math Smith’s doctor doesn’t mean that he is The Doctor—anymore than the fact that you are the same person as your eight-year-old self means that you, right now, are “a school boy/girl.”

Presumably, any-‘ol-person can’t keep that promise and be The Doctor—to be The Doctor, it has to be a regeneration of the time lord that we know and love that is keeping that promise. (That’s why “The Doctor-Donna” isn’t numbered among the Doctors.) But clearly The War Doctor is the same person.  So now the question is, does The War Doctor keep that promise? Does he function in that way? If he doesn’t, then he’s not The Doctor and we don’t have to renumber.

But the thing is, it’s very clear that The War Doctor keeps that promise. If he had pushed the big red button and killed all the Time Lords, including the children, thus committing genocide (as he perhaps did in another timeline), he would not have been (as McGann’s Doctor put it) “The Good Man.” But The War Doctor we see fought against the urge to push the big red button from the beginning, and ultimately did not; he did not give up on finding another way or give in to taking what seemed like the only way out. After all, after The War Doctor observes “at worst, we failed doing the right thing, as opposed to succeeding in doing the wrong,” (which prompts Clara to call him the “life and soul”)—and after Matt Smith calls John Hurt’s character “Doctor” in return for his “it has been an honor and privilege” compliment—Hurt himself describes his character as “The Doctor” because he “tried to save Gallifrey, rather than burn it.” He is even called “The Doctor” throughout the episode, and is in the lineup of all 13 doctors at the end of the episode! What more do you need? In every meaningful way, Hurt’s character is The Doctor.

Of course, at the beginning of the episode, the War Doctor says he does not deserve to be called The Doctor by the interface because “[he’s] been fighting this war for a long time. [He’s] lost the right to be The Doctor.” But, the thing is, even though he feels this way at the beginning, it seems that the primary aim of the entire special is to show that, contrary to The War Doctor’s own opinion, he is The Doctor—“The Doctor on the day that it wasn’t possible to get it right.” It seems to me that Moffat has the same problem as The Doctor himself, who tells The War Doctor he was just “pretending you weren’t The Doctor when you were The Doctor more than anybody else.”

When you interpret Doctor Who, on its own merits, it seems undeniable that John Hurt is The Doctor. As big a fan I am of Steven Moffat and his stories, if he intended for this story to close off the possibility that John Hurt’s character is The Doctor, so we don't have to renumber—as wonderful as the 50th anniversary is in every other way—he failed in that respect.

So, it seems that a renumbering is in order. John Hurt is the 9th doctor, Christopher Eccleston is the 10th, David Tennant is the 11th, Matt Smith is the 12th and Peter Capaldi will be the 13th. And since it's fairly well-established that time lords can only regenerate 12 times, and thus only have 13 incarnations—and it seems that The Doctor is destined to one day again take on one of his favorite faces (Tom Baker’s) and retire curating a museum—somebody better get busy figuring out a way to give The Doctor more regenerations! I want Doctor Who to still be going strong on its 100th anniversary.

Postscript: For those interested: I no longer think that John Hurt’s Doctor is the Valeyard—although I’m hoping that, one day, the Valeyard will make an appearance or at least be explained a bit better. 

Spoiler alert: I will be revealing plot points of the Doctor Who 50th anniversary special, and will assume my readers have already seen it.

I was lucky enough to get tickets to a theater showing of the Doctor Who 50th Anniversary Special, “The Day of The Doctor.” It...was…amazing! Not only was the show itself spectacular, but watching for the first time what is guaranteed to be a classic episode of Doctor Who with a large contingent of fellow Whovians, many of whom were dressed in costume (I was the 11th doctor) was an experience unlike any other.

I closed my last blog wondering whether or not “The War Doctor” was, properly, “The Doctor.” If he is, Whovians will have to renumber the most recent doctors (and I will have to say I went costumed as the 12th Doctor, not the 11th). Specifically, I wondered whether or not the 50th anniversary special would lend itself to one interpretation, and thus one answer to this question. I think it did. Which interpretation? I think a renumbering is in order. That’s right, I think—given the events of the 50th Anniversary Special—we have to now acknowledge that John Hurt is the 9th Doctor, and so all the subsequent doctors have to “move down one.” But before we get to that, let's talk about the special itself and a few of its other philosophical points of interest.

The special was exciting, had a great story, was peppered with references to the show both new and classic, and was really funny. Watching Matt and David play off each other was magnificent and the special had everything wonderful about Doctor Who. It even did a great job of making fun of itself.

Initially, my only complaint was I didn't understand how and why all 13 doctors showed up to save the day at the end. Don't get me wrong, it was great to see them all again – but I just didn't understand how and why they all needed to be there to save Gallifrey—or even how they knew they needed to be there. But after a little reflection (and watching it again at home) I figured it out. The necessary calculations to place Gallifrey in a “parallel pocket universe” would take “hundreds and hundreds and hundreds” of years; and the line “I started a very long time ago” was followed immediately by the arrival of The First Doctor "warning the war council of Gallifrey." Given this, we are supposed to realize that our protagonist(s) visited The First Doctor. They had him start the necessary calculations in his TARDIS so that those calculations would be completed 1200+ years later. (Unlike before, when programming the sonic screwdriver to disintegrate the Tower of London prison door, a mere 400 years was not enough.) They then visited all the other previous incarnations of The Doctor, and told them when and where to be. Brilliant! My only complaint is that we didn't see any of these meetings; but of course that likely would have broken up the action—and spoiled the surprise of seeing them all unexpectedly together at once during the show’s climax.

I also spotted a bit of modern philosophy in the Doctors’ solution to the Zygon dilemma. By erasing the Zygons’ and the humans’ knowledge of who they were, The Doctors actually placed them in something analogous to what contemporary philosopher John Rawls called “the original position under a veil of ignorance.” Rawls argues that how fair and just a society is can be determined by how closely its laws and rules cohere to what he calls the "principles of justice." The principles of justice are the principles that would be agreed upon by a group of people about to enter a society unaware of who they would be in that society. Rawls argues that such a group would agree to the most fair and equitable principles possible; they would protect each individual in that society equally because, for all they know, they could end up being any one of those individuals. As The Doctor(s) point out: “The key to perfect negotiation [is] not knowing what side you are on.” Of course, we’re not told the conditions of the treaty that the humans and Zygons draw up, and I'll leave it to you to find out what Rawls suggested the principles of justice are.

But for Doctor Who fans, “The Day of The Doctor” raised a very serious question: do we have to renumber The Doctors now? The numbering of the first eight doctors has been pretty much set in stone; we have practically watched each one regenerate into the next. But when the show rebooted into 2005, we didn't see the regeneration of the eighth doctor (played by Paul McGann). We just saw Christopher Eccleston playing a recently regenerated Doctor, and assumed he was the next one – the 9th. Subsequently, we thought, David Tennant was the 10th and Matt Smith  was the 11th.

But in “The Day of The Doctor” (and the mini-prequel “The Night of The Doctor”), the existence of a regeneration between McGann’s doctor and Eccleston’s doctor was established – one played by John Hurt. This seems to suggest that Eccleston was actually the 10th Doctor, Tennant was the 11th, Matt Smith is the 12th and Peter Capaldi will be the 13th—because John Hurt was the 9th. This may not seem like a big deal, but for Whovians it is. Each Doctor’s number is practically his name.

So should the doctors be renumbered? Ultimately, this is a philosophical question—but it is one I believe has a definitive answer: Yes.

Now, Steven Moffat (the current lead writer and executive producer) assured us that renumbering will not be required. In an interview with BBC America he suggested that John Hurt’s character “is an anomaly, and therefore doesn't count." So you might think my argument is dead in the water from the get-go. But this is not necessarily the case.

In aesthetics, the field of philosophy that includes interpreting art, there are different views regarding what determines the meaning of an artwork. Intentionalists suggest that the intentions of the creator of an artwork determine the meaning of an artistic work. If this is right, then presumably it is a done deal. Moffat says John Hurt is not The Doctor, and that’s that. But there are plenty of non-intentionalists who would disagree, and they have some pretty convincing arguments.

If intentionalism is right, then the meaning of many works of art – perhaps most of them – are forever lost, because the artists are long dead and gone and never revealed their intentions. Worse yet, this makes the meaning of art static; a work of art can only have the meaning its author intended, and it cannot change over time as society around it changes and the work becomes relevant in different ways. Weirder still, the meaning of an artwork can change at the whim of the artist’s intention, even though nothing about the work of art or anything around it changed—like when J. K. Rowling decided, after Harry Potter was complete, that Dumbledore is gay. Worst of all, intentionalism may misunderstand the very nature of art – as something that is presented, in the context of other art works, for public consumption and interpretation. (For more on these arguments, see Ruth Tallman’s chapter in my book Inception and Philosophy.)

Now, that’s not to say that there aren’t good intentionalist counter arguments to these points—there are. But even if you are an intentonalist about other art, you might still agree that a non-intentionalist approach may be most appropriate for Doctor Who. Why? Because it doesn’t have one single creator. As the BBC special “An Adventure in Space and Time” taught us, the show was originally the brain child BBC’s Sydney Newman, and much of the show was originally shaped by producer Verity Lambert. The Dalek’s were an invention of Terry Nation. Doctor Who does not have one creator; there has been as much changer in the writing and producing staff as there has been in the cast over the years. Moffat is only the latest in a long line. So it would seem odd to give him unquestioned authority about the “meaning” of Doctor Who—even if it is regarding his own episodes.  After all, Moffat is perfectly fine going back and reinterpreting some of the episodes of his predecessor, Russell T. Davis. (I highly doubt that Davis thought his Doctors were actively suppressing memories of The War Doctor.) What makes Moffat immune from such reinterpretation himself?

This is not to say that all interpretations of art, or of Doctor who, are on equal footing; interpretations that are inconsistent with the content of the artwork itself are not legitimate. But if this is right, we have to look to the canon of Doctor Who itself to settle the renumbering issue; we can't merely rely on Moffat to tell us what we should do.

Now, one might wonder how it is even possible for The War Doctor not to be The Doctor. If Matt Smith’s character is the same person as The War Doctor (which Moffat admits), but we know that Matt Smith's character is The Doctor, how can The War Doctor fail to be the doctor? If A=B, and B=C then A=C right? But “equal” in this context is expressing something about numerical identity—being the same singular thing. But “The Doctor” does not. It has what philosophers would call a "functional definition."

Things that are functionally defined are defined in terms of their inputs and outputs—how they behave. For example, anything that keeps time is a clock—whether that thing be a small object on your wrist, a large object on the tower, or a gold thing on a chain in The Doctor’s pocket. Whether it be made of gears and springs, or made of computer chips – if it keeps time, it's a clock. And, in an effort to establish his interpretation into the canon of Doctor Who (which, as the head writer, he has every right to do), Moffat writing suggests that “The Doctor” is defined in exactly the same way.

As I pointed out last time, Moffat has established that "The Doctor" is not the main character’s name, but more of a title—a description or persona he took on by making a promise to be a certain kind of person. In the 50th, we even find out what that promise is: "Never cruel or cowardly. Never give up. Never give in.” So the fact that The War Doctor is the same person as Math Smith’s doctor doesn’t mean that he is The Doctor—anymore than the fact that you are the same person as your eight-year-old self means that you, right now, are “a school boy/girl.”

Presumably, any-‘ol-person can’t keep that promise and be The Doctor—to be The Doctor, it has to be a regeneration of the time lord that we know and love that is keeping that promise.  (That’s why “The Doctor-Donna” isn’t numbered among the Doctors.) But clearly The War Doctor is the same person.  So now the question is, does The War Doctor keep that promise? Does he function in that way? If he doesn’t, then he’s not The Doctor and we don’t have to renumber.

But the thing is, it’s very clear that The War Doctor keeps that promise. If he had pushed the big red button and killed all the Time Lords, including the children, thus committing genocide (as he perhaps did in another timeline), he would not have been (as McGann’s Doctor put it) “The Good Man.” But The War Doctor we see fought against the urge to push the big red button from the beginning, and ultimately did not; he did not give up on finding another way or give in to taking what seemed like the only way out. After all, after The War Doctor observes “at worst, we failed doing the right thing, as opposed to succeeding in doing the wrong,” (which prompts Clara to call him the “life and soul”)—and after Matt Smith calls John Hurt’s character “Doctor” in return for his “it has been an honor and privilege” compliment—Hurt himself describes his character as “The Doctor” because he “tried to save Gallifrey, rather than burn it.” He is even called “The Doctor” throughout the episode, and is in the lineup of all 13 doctors at the end of the episode! What more do you need? In every meaningful way, Hurt’s character is The Doctor.

Of course, at the beginning of the episode, the War Doctor says he does not deserve to be called The Doctor by the interface because “[he’s]been fighting this war for a long time. [He’s] lost the right to be The Doctor.” But, the thing is, even though he feels this way at the beginning, it seems that the primary aim of the entire special is to show that, contrary to The War Doctor’s own opinion, he is The Doctor—“The Doctor on the day that it wasn’t possible to get it right.” It seems to me that Moffat has the same problem as The Doctor himself, who tells The War Doctor he was just “pretending you weren’t The Doctor when you were The Doctor more than anybody else.”

When you interpret Doctor Who, on its own merits, it seems undeniable that John Hurt is The Doctor. As big a fan I am of Steven Moffat and his stories, if he intended for this story to close off the possibility that John Hurt’s character is The Doctor, so we don't have to renumber—as wonderful as the 50th anniversary is in every other way—he failed in that respect.

So, it seems that a renumbering is in order. John Hurt is the 9th doctor, Christopher Eccleston is the 10th, David Tennant is the 11th, Matt Smith is the 12th and Peter Capaldi will be the 13th. And since it's fairly well-established that time lords can only regenerate 12 times, and thus only have 13 incarnations – and it seems that The Doctor is destined to one day again take on one of his favorite faces (Tom Baker’s) and retire curating a museum—somebody better get busy figuring out a way to give The Doctor more regenerations! I want Doctor Who to still be going strong on its 100th anniversary.

Postscript: For those interested: I no longer think that John Hurt’s Doctor is the Valeyard—although I’m hoping that, one day, the Valeyard will make an appearance or at least be explained a bit better.

David Kyle Johnson, Ph.D., is an associate professor of philosophy at King's College in Pennsylvania.

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