The history of Doctor Who has been retconned many times; is it now possible the Doctor actually left Gallifrey because he foresaw the Time War? The Doctor has always been a rather secretive figure, with some incarnations known for keeping their own counsel. William Hartnell’s First Doctor was particularly reluctant to explain himself. “I will not be questioned,” he snapped at Ian Chesterton in “The Daleks.” Because of this attitude, there are actually a lot of unanswered questions about the Doctor.
Take, for example, the most basic of questions; just why did the Doctor first leave Gallifrey? In the very first Doctor Who story, “An Unearthly Child,” the Doctor suggested he and Susan had been exiled against their will. “I tolerate this century,” the Doctor furiously insisted when speaking to schoolteachers Ian and Barbara, “but I don’t enjoy it. Have you ever thought what it’s like to be wanderers in the fourth dimension? Have you? To be exiles? Susan and I are cut off from our own planet, without friends or protection. But one day we shall get back. Yes, one day. One day.” Fast-forward to the Second Doctor era, though, and the Doctor had apparently fled from Gallifrey because he objected to their policy of non-intervention in the rest of the universe’s affairs. “There are some corners of the universe which have bred the most terrible things,” he argued in defense. “Things that act against everything we believe in. They must be fought.“
In reality, contradictions like this are inevitable with a show as long-running as this, and Doctor Who has never had a particularly firm rule on continuity and canonicity. But the contradictions actually mean the franchise can continually rewrite its own history, just as easily as the Doctor does human history itself. In fact, these contradictions raise an intriguing possibility; could the Doctor have left Gallifrey because he became aware of the Time War?
The Doctor has rarely been willing to talk openly about his history on Gallifrey. One exception was in the episode “The Sound of Drums,” in which he told Martha and Jack about the Untempered Schism. According to the Doctor, at the age of eight every Gallifreyan child is taken to the Academy for initiation. They stand in front of the Untempered Schism, which the Doctor described as “a gap in the fabric of reality through which could be seen the whole of the vortex.” Although the Doctor was explaining the Master’s experience, the possible origin of the Master’s madness, he nevertheless became focused upon his own as he remembered standing there himself. “You stand there, eight years old, staring at the raw power of time and space, just a child. Some would be inspired, some would run away, and some would go mad.” In response to a question from Martha, the Doctor admitted he was one of the ones who ran. “I never stopped,” he added.
But what did the Doctor see when he gazed into the Untempered Schism? The Doctor has always been unique, possessed of a destiny greater than any other Time Lord. There have been so many occasions when the fate of worlds pivoted on the Doctor’s choices, running all the way up to the moment he determined the destiny of both the Time Lords and the Daleks at the end of the Time War. He’s often been considered more of a space-time event than a person in his own right. That makes it frankly inconceivable that he had a ‘normal’ experience of the Untempered Schism. No, it’s far more likely he gained a sense of what was coming, a vague awareness of his destiny, something that made him uneasy with Gallifrey’s policy of non-intervention and convinced him the Time Lords should be active in the universe. Thus he ultimately left Gallifrey, essentially exiling himself because he believed the planet was in danger.
Supporting this theory, there have indeed been tantalizing hints the Doctor had some sort of ulterior motive when he left Gallifrey. Most viewers assume he simply grew dissatisfied with life on Gallifrey and stole a battered old Type 40 TARDIS, but in fact, his departure appears to have been pre-planned – and he did not go alone. He took his granddaughter Susan with him, although she seemed rather unwilling; in one delirious moment in the story “Edge of Destruction,” the Doctor guiltily rambled, “I can’t take you back, Susan. I can’t.” In theory, this could simply be that he felt responsible for Susan, and thus felt he had no choice but to take her with him. And yet, recently-published BBC tie-ins have suggested Susan was no orphan; in fact, her father – presumably the Doctor’s son – was the president of Gallifrey. Something else seems to have been going on.
More curious still, the Doctor took a Gallifreyan superweapon called the Hand of Omega as well. This was a remote stellar manipulator created by the ancient Gallifreyan scientist Omega, and the Time Lords used it to create the Eye of Harmony, the massive black hole that serves as the power source for all TARDISes. Presumably, the Doctor took advantage of his familial ties with the president in order to obtain the Hand of Omega, perhaps even using Susan as a tool to get to it, explaining why she had to come with him. As revealed in the Seventh Doctor story “Remembrance of the Daleks,” the Doctor took the Hand of Omega to Earth in 1963, setting it up as bait for a trap. It would ultimately draw in the Daleks, but at this stage in his travels, the Doctor would have had no idea who would take the bait. He wouldn’t encounter the Daleks until shortly after he was forced to leave 1963 in a hurry.
If this theory is correct, the Doctor was aware a Time War was coming – but he had no idea which dark force would set itself against the Time Lords. He, therefore, left Gallifrey in the hope of protecting his homeworld, first setting up a trap and then beginning to explore the universe in the hopes he would identify the threat. No doubt he would have realized the Daleks were the enemy in the Hartnell era when they pursued him through time in “The Chase” and then created a devastating temporal superweapon called the Time Destructor in “The Daleks’ Masterplan.” And yet, the Doctor is no warrior, no killer. For all he sensed the coming of the Time War, he could not commit genocide, not even when he was given the chance to avert the Daleks’ creation in “Genesis of the Daleks.” When he finally did take drastic action, returning to Earth in 1963 to trick the Daleks into destroying Skaro with the Hand of Omega, it was too late. The Daleks had been allowed to grow in power, and the Time War was inevitable.
This theory is surprisingly plausible, fitting with every aspect of the canon that has been revealed to date. It is true the Doctor made no allusions to the Time War, but frankly, he has always been one to consider his own counsel. As the Eleventh Doctor noted, the first rule of Doctor Who is simply that “the Doctor lies.” Thus there’s absolutely no reason to believe he didn’t have an ulterior motive, and the shadow of the Time War would fit perfectly with all the contradictory clues proffered in the show’s 57-year history.
If this Doctor Who retcon is correct, then the Time War was even more tragic, simply because the Doctor had gone to such great lengths to avert it. And yet, in spite of the Time War, the Doctor accomplished his destiny; as seen in “The Day of the Doctor,” Gallifrey did not fall in the Time War but rather was saved because of the Doctor’s actions. It endured until the very end of time, a direct result of the Doctor’s choices. The Doctor may not have been able to prevent the Time War, but he was the one who ended it, the one who truly triumphed on that fateful day, and the one who saved his homeworld.