Doctor Who: a celebration of continuity errors

Do Doctor Who continuity errors send you up the wall? Or is debating where they fit in with canon all part of the fun?

This article contains spoilers.

When I was a child, I spake as a child. I thought like a child. I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put away childish things. 

Like simply, unquestionably enjoying television programmes. Growing up and having a greater understanding of a show comes with a downside. With great power comes great responsibility. And also a sense of impotent rage. Why can’t I watch Pyramids of Mars now without just enjoying an old man being brutally crushed by Sutekh’s gift of death to all humanity? Is it because I know Sarah’s jarring line about coming from 1980 is coming up and I won’t be able to stand the confusion in my mind?

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I blame canon: The list of things that are and are not included in the Doctor Who universe. Once I became aware that some episodes of Doctor Who contradicted other episodes things instantly started going wrong in the world. Conkers lost their lustre. I ran out of foil. All the bad things. And yet, Steven Moffat wilfully (and, I bet, gleefully) uses time travel in a way that goes against the show’s own rules so you can hear the facepalm slap echoing around the country. Does The Pope sometimes announce that Catholicism has changed its rules a bit? Yes, sometimes. Bad example. Though the next Pope has different ideas to the old one and things change a bit once more. What have we learned? Well, mainly that being the showrunner of Doctor Who is a lot like being Pope, so Steven Moffat obviously wants to be Pope, but not being Catholic, celibate, or fond of pointy hats, he has settled for the next best thing. 

Doctor Who has its own dogma, albeit one that is e’er-shifting between objective consensus and subjective undercurrents. The sheer number of different continuities, errors, and wilful changes to the format over the years make it difficult for the show to make even a modicum of sense.

Fortunately, it doesn’t. Problem solved? No, not really. That presupposes that viewers enjoy nonsense. They do, but only if it is internally coherent nonsense. Look at Genesis of the Daleks. It’s a classic, and watching its six episodes it has good internal logic (apart from the bit with the clams, and also the bit with the secret tunnels, but it’s easier to ignore them). However, it does necessitate an off-screen revision of the entirety of televised Dalek history up to that point. However, if we look at the story of Doctor Who from An Unearthly Child to The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe it is somewhat lacking in internal logic. Even its sensible nonsense makes no sense. The reason Genesis of the Daleks‘ retcon is tolerated is partially because the story is very good, and also because it does contain a line stating that the Doctor is being tasked with changing history, even though he himself has vehemently stated that this is impossible (in The Aztecs, which you should all watch immediately). 

As there has been a one-line explanation that doesn’t bear anyone poking at it with logic-spoons, so we scurry away and try to make sense of it all. Whereas, in The Big Bang, the Doctor crosses his own timeline with only a line to suggest rather than flat-out tell you what allows this to happen. This breaks the rules, and doesn’t tell us it’s going to, and hence some people are annoyed. Then we have a chicken and egg situation of ‘Do they dislike the continuity error because they didn’t like the episode, or do they dislike the episode because of the continuity error?’ and so the seeds of discord (which, “logically”, should be the title of an episode featuring the Krynoids poisoning the Ice Warriors’ water supply on Mars and leading to the events of The Waters of Mars. You’re welcome.) are sown between those who will adapt and overcome because they enjoyed the episode and want it to make sense, and those who will didn’t and won’t. From here your own personal canon may spring forth.

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Fortunately, after the initial grieving period for the passing of an episode’s internal logic, fans are remarkably good at coming up with their own explanations for things. It is international law that at this point I should make a joke about humans seeing patterns in things that aren’t there (We’re working on getting Paul McGann to provide an Audio Descriptive version of Den of Geek. Just, y’know, slowly). This is why I quite like continuity errors. They don’t have to be an annoyance that ruins an episode, rather a lateral thinking puzzle where the reward is a fundamental satisfaction with your newfound universal order. 

Oh sure, the universe is full of holes and has been rebooted a couple of times now, but that’s not where the fun is. You can explain anything with cracks in time (except, I’ve found, in exams). Before that time was in flux. Before that multiple realities stretching and interweaving across the universe were happening. Before that Fenric, the Great Intelligence, and the Animus were all bobbing about being all non-corporeal and evil, but that’s technically irrelevant, insofar as any malevolent entities that predate the dawn of time can be regarded as irrelevant.

Fans have already created ideas such as Season 6B to explain away continuity errors, so that dialogue in later multi-Doctor stories that contradicts The War Games can make sense. They’ve already, as mentioned above, added some villains to the Cthulhu Mythos, and exerted much energy trying to solve the UNIT Dating Controversy. It’s never been stated on screen how Dalek history changed after Genesis of the Daleks, but fan consensus has been assimilated into the canon. However, canonicity is largely agreed on as being defined by the TV series. Obviously this is a fan arrangement, because you can’t very well have the Doctor saying that his adventures only definitely count if they’re on the telly while he is currently on said telly. That’d be silly. The bad kind of silly.

Spin-off novels and audioplays are, however, excellent places to indulge in all sorts of continuity wrangling. Big Finish went so far as to produce a series of Unbound adventures that ignored canon completely. Some novels spent their entirety joining the dots between events no one wanted to see connected (Witness John Peel – not that one – and his Eighth Doctor Dalek books), some may have invented new strands, but they had an audience of hardcore fans happy to see new orders imposed. Now, understandably, these are fleeting references rather than full blown stories. Beneath this, there are simpler things to ponder such as: ‘Why spaceships in the future are made of wood, or cassettes reels, and have BBC Microcomputers on their flightdecks?’

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Rather than tiresome faults, continuity errors can be embraced as a challenge. Obviously we don’t want to have too many of them (unless the BBC wants to put fandom on a retainer as ‘Creative Consultants’), but if they do exist it’s more fun to make sense of them. All of them. Even the ones that blatantly and deliberately contradict the others. Let’s be grown-up enough to notice them, but childish enough to have fun with them.

Anyway, no-one ever puts away childish things. I have three sonic screwdrivers for goodness’ sake.

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