It’s a dilemma for Doctor Who writers that has been dodged since the show began and one that’s felt even more noticeable in recent years: why doesn’t everyone remember previous Earth-based stories?
During Russell T Davies’ era, in which we were presented with a continuity and consistency of world-building perhaps only previously seen during the UNIT years in the early 1970s (or ‘80s, but let’s not get into that), frequent references were made to the increasingly long list of Earth-based invasions and incidents that had taken place in the present day.
But a few years in, this was already becoming problematic from a characterisation point of view. Why would a companion from contemporary Earth have a realistic response to seeing aliens and spaceships that fulfils their role as an audience surrogate if the whole planet has seen this stuff numerous times already?
2005’s Rose successfully established that this was our world on screen, populated with characters that were ordinary people living normal lives, just like us.
By 2008’s run, we’re watching a world that had been subjected to numerous global alien threats (and some very weird Christmases), full of folks that are fully aware of the existence of aliens.
“It’s them aliens again, I’ll bet my pension!”
A throwaway gag reveals that Donna is still blissfully unaware (thanks to a scuba diving trip and an epic hangover) in order to allow her some relatable reactions to the adventures that lay ahead, but it never really convinces.
When Steven Moffat took over as showrunner for 2010’s series, he went so far as to build his entire first year’s story arc around rectifying this issue with an in-world reset.
With The Eleventh Hour following an episode that had seen the entire population of Earth turned into John Simm lookalikes, Moffat quickly establishes it’s more than just Leadworth’s ducks that have disappeared through the cracks in time.
“You didn’t know them, Amy. You’d never seen them before. And you should have done.”
The Victory Of The Daleks reveals that Amy has never seen nor heard of the Daleks before. Had the Battle of Canary Wharf in 2006 (or 2007 – again, let’s not get into that) now never happened? Did Amy never see the planets in the sky when Davros stole Earth, or get nearly gassed by Atmos devices in nearby cars? Did she recall a spaceship crashing into Big Ben, and the Titanic’s near miss with Buckingham Palace?
With this thread left dangled, it’s then largely ignored. When the universe is rebooted in The Big Bang, we never discover if Amy now remembers these events. Presumably, so as not to brutally jettison Russell T Davies’ previous five years of storytelling, viewers are left to decide for themselves and form their own ‘head canon’.
During the proceeding seasons of Moffat’s era, it’s subtly hinted that characters outside of UNIT do not seem to have experienced previous encounters with alien life. This is still a bit iffy, however – John Simm’s Master mentions in World Enough And Time that he had to wear a disguise around Bill as she would recognise her former Prime Minister, for instance.
Which leads us to the realisation that Steven Moffat may have given incoming showrunner Chris Chibnall more of a blank page for his new era than we’d previously recognised.
Back when The Lie Of The Land aired in the middle of this year’s series, we were unaware that it was to be the final story of Moffat’s era set in contemporary times. Since then we’ve had two stories set in the past and a finale set in deep space, with this year’s Christmas special appearing to be predominantly set during World War I (on a side note, can we bet a tenner that Mark Gatiss is playing the Brigadier’s dad?).
“Fake News Central.”
Toby Whithouse’s episode was the third part of the mostly successful ‘Monks trilogy’, which saw the prune-faced hoodies falsify and manipulate our historical records.
So when Chibnall’s Doctor Who first visits contemporary Earth next year, the Broadchurch writer has a world that – if he so wishes – has had its history rewritten in whatever ways he chooses.
“Somewhere in there, the Monks must have some kind of a machine that creates and broadcasts the myths of their history,” says the Doctor. “So, we get in, I plug myself into it, and replace the signals that they are receiving with my brainwaves and beam out the true history of the world. Oh, yes! I could even throw in some other stuff. The things that I could change just by thinking.”
The Doctor casually mentions that the world could be reset to remove “racism and people who talk in cinemas.” (We’re pretty sure that Den of Geek readers would be on board with these tweaks.)
Ultimately it’s Bill’s brainwaves that save the day, but perhaps with a little less accuracy than the Doctor would have managed.
“We thought they were just, like, filming something here or something…”
The passing university student featured at the end of The Lie Of The Land has no recollection of the Monks at all when she sees their statue. Who’s to say that the planet’s knowledge of other recent alien invasions hasn’t also been erased?
Of course, this is all speculation, but with reports in recent months (even prior to the confirmation of Peter Capaldi and Pearl Mackie’s departures) that Chibnall wants “a clean slate” for his era, it would certainly make sense that Moffat decided to do his replacement a favour following his own troubles rebooting the show’s continuity when he took over as showrunner.