For the sake of simplicity here, I’ll more or less be assuming that Ruth is a pre-One Timeless Child Doctor. While I think a large proportion of people who consider it settled, there are a decent number of hold-outs who are more swayed by the idea she’s from either between Doctors Two and Three, or some point in the future, or a half-dozen other ideas, and I want to note that I’m not picking a side (either on what the answer is, or on whether the question’s even still open), but the pre-Hartnell answer is the one most strongly implied, the one most widely believed, and the one which lends itself best to the topic I’m writing about. So put aside your “regenerated DoctorDonna” headcanon, this is about the philosophy of personhood. Fugitive of the Judoon is so absolutely dead-set certain that this new Doctor is The Doctor, capital T, capital D, that Jo Martin gets the “INTRODUCING” card in the credits, as is tradition. But what does that actually mean?
This week I want to talk about Ruth, about the Doctor, about the other Doctor, about whether they’re any two of them really the same person, and fundamentally about what a person actually is. Big question, I know. But this is a big episode. I’m sure we’ll manage.
Part 1. Naturally Human
When we first meet Ruth in the opening of the episode, from the moment she appears on screen, an implied history rolls out behind her. Every time any character appears in fiction, though they’re actually being conjured from nothing, we make assumptions about their past. We make assumptions that they even have a past. And in real life too, every time you meet somebody, though from your perspective they need not have existed before now, we know that they have to have lived a life up until this moment, because that’s where people come from. Putting us in Ruth’s ‘day in the life’ is an obvious trick, but it highlights what is true of every character in every story: that they must have lived a life to get where they are now, despite the fact that they’ve really only started to exist the moment they appeared on screen.
In series 3’s Human Nature, a story (and series) which Fugitive (and the rest of the series) borrows heavily from, we know for a fact that John Smith isn’t real. We know that he’s been conjured up for the sake of a story because we know that his history is a lie. When he tells us his parents’ names were Sydney and Verity, it’s more than a wink to the audience, it’s an acknowledgement that John Smith is a created work. He’s fictional, and his past is fictional too.
And because we know that John isn’t who he seems from the very beginning, there’s room to explore the ways in which he is his own person, and the ways in which he is more so an aspect of the Doctor’s mind, given agency. I think the episode decides, in the end, that while John shared the Doctor’s face, instincts, and aspects of his personality, the false past that defined him made him a distinct person; one who was “braver than the Doctor” because of his false humanity. Because it’s not fact that matters, it’s experience. It’s not so important that the history he thought he knew turned out to be a lie, because those fictional experiences still made him him. Just like every character conjured into every story, nothing of their past is truly “real,” but the experience of it is still what defines them as individuals.
Part 2. The First of the Time Lords
Utopia – the s3 episode this one most closely mimics, down to the return of Jack and the half-baked allusion that Ruth might be the Master, which I find endlessly bizarre given there’s no actual point in the episode where you have room to believe that – references back two episodes to the chameleon arch, and eight episodes to the “You Are Not Alone” arc tease, using the fob watch as a visual shorthand for the whole idea of hidden identities. Fugitive of the Judoon relies on the audience remembering how the chameleon arch works from that very same series, twelve years ago, which on one hand is an absurd way to tell a story, strange, unstructured, and almost certainly alienating, but on the other does replicate this sense of reaching deep into one’s memories. Though, instead of bringing back the fob watch, it uses a dozen smaller nods that range from the gentle hints of the TARDIS-style hexagonal mirror, to an extensive focus placed on both Ruth’s watch and Lee’s secret box in the cupboard, either of which could easily and effectively have been the key to unlocking the Doctor in her head. But instead, for some reason, the choice was made to have her mind be stored in the fire alarm of a light house, which she smashes open to regain her memory and identity.
While I’m not certain this blurred abundance of uncanny iconography is exactly on purpose, it pairs well with the uncanny Doctor, who can’t possibly be The Doctor, but who is far too Doctor to be anything but. We know she can’t be the Doctor, but the episode itself is certain of it. They might not be in exactly the right order, but from the costume to the charisma to the Classic-ish console of the police box TARDIS, this Doctor looks, sounds, and feels like she is the Doctor. To many people, more than Thirteen does.
In Thirteen’s words, they have “the same brain,” referring to their identical speech patterns. Trying to look past the dodgy neuroscience there, the implication is that the two have identical personalities, or at least identical personal verbal ticks, but given that neither remembers being the other, and, according to the finale, there’s a hard memory wipe between the two of them, how could that be? If Ruth and John and Professor Yana are all different people to their respective Time Lords because their (false) lifetime of different experiences moulded them different personalities, then surely these two Doctors, having lived mutually exclusive lives, must be functionally different people.
And, while this is discoursed to death, the same applies to the iconography. Before the events of the First Doctor’s life, a police box TARDIS, an anti-gun creed, a companion, and even the name “the Doctor” shouldn’t apply, because the experiences of the Doctor’s life that lead to them haven’t happened to her yet. But like Jack appearing from thin air to advertise the finale (which, by the way, is far more useful as a critical comparison point for talking about this episode than it is as an actual part of the episode itself) the experiences of his life, where he is now and how he got there, are all less important than the fact that he’s got the iconography of Captain Jack – that he still wears the same coat, that he says the old lines we remember, that he snogs people (now non-consensually. Talk about a thin veil between life and art). The line “always the nanogenes” is my favourite, most ridiculous extrapolation of that, as if nanogenes are a significant part of Jack’s life, talked about in this scene like an arch nemesis, for absolutely no reason other than the fact that they were a thing from his first episode. It’s not built on his lived experience as a person, but on the idea of it being important because it’s recognisable. Like in Revolution yet to come, all these repeat jokes and returning images are standing in for actual character. For any actual justification that this is the same Jack we knew. And the Doctor Who iconography that surrounds the mystery Doctor feels important, because it’s recognisable, but is really just standing in for the fact that we know she can’t really be the same person as Thirteen, because their lived experiences are mutually exclusive.
And yet she gets that card in the credits. According to the man himself, “she is definitively the Doctor,” so how can that be?
Part 3. Twice Upon a TARDIS
Of course, the Moffat era answer to this question of what makes a character The Doctor has been explored at length, with Eleven, Twelve, and the War incarnation refusing to use the name when they failed to live up to its meaning, and characters like Clara, River, Missy, and Bill taking up the “the Doctor” role in the narratives – occasionally even explicitly calling themselves “the Doctor,” if you needed the extra hint – because in his vision of the show, that identity is aspirational rather than absolute. And while this sounds wishy-washy and abstract, I think it’s in line with the material morality of the era exactly because identity isn’t material, so it shouldn’t be treated as an immutable fact of one’s nature. In that era, being the Doctor isn’t the same thing as being the same person as the Doctor, (and there’s a particularly strong example of this even in Classic Who that we’ll get to one day). So this understanding of identity and personhood as distinct makes the Fugitive Doctor The Doctor, yes, but all that iconography and personal morality doesn’t mean they must be the same person, in the same way that Clara might TARDIS travel, defeating evil and saving the universe, but her life experiences are distinct from the Doctor’s, making them ultimately different people.
Working from the bottom up, the only actual connection between the lives of the two Doctors is that they are technically sort of the same creature. The whole ‘biological determinism’ conversation is vast and ugly, but I hope it doesn’t need to be said that one’s DNA doesn’t determine their personality, or morality, or identity, and even if it did, the two Doctors don’t even have the same DNA. They’re not even in the same body. They’ve regenerated god knows how many times between the two faces, and so the Ship-of-Theseus-style biological relationship between the two of them is closer to ancestry than it is to them being the same, physical person. If all that makes Twelve and One the same person is that they share lived experience, because their bodies have been replaced and replaced so many times, then surely that quite plainly excludes the two Doctors in Fugitive of the Judoon from being “the same person”.
And yet Fugitive is still absolutely certain of the fact that the two Doctors are the same person. After and above everything else, the definitive proof that the episode gives for this is that they both get scanned by the sonic, and it just tells us directly that they are, in fact, the same person. It’s an unnegotiable full-stop on the conversation, like the author themself reaching into the story and declaring it fact. In the end, all the reasoning there is behind the question of whether or not the two Doctors are really the same person is “they’re the same person, so they’re the same person”. A thought-terminating “because I said so”.
I hope I’ve written this all clearly enough that there’s none of this for you at home, but I’ve found so often trying to talk to people about this idea that you just get (often the online equivalent of) blank stares. “What do you mean, they’re not the same person? They’re the same person, don’t you see!” Because it’s obvious if you don’t think about it. If you don’t take a moment to question what it actually means for two people to be “the same person,” then the statement itself is enough. And the fact that they both act sorta Doctor-y, for whatever yet-unexplained reason, is the icing on top.
Part 4. The Two(ish) Doctors
So as unsatisfying a conclusion as this is, I think it’s the answer. Jo Martin’s Doctor is in the credits as THE DOCTOR because she’s a full Doctor, and she’s a full Doctor because she’s in the credits as THE DOCTOR. It’s the philosophical equivalent of just waving the sonic at it. Ignore that she has an entirely different and separate set of life experiences to the Doctor we’ve been following for the rest of the show. Ignore that she’s not got her own series and only exists as a vessel for information to Thirteen. Ignore that despite the shared name, the actual relationship between the two in terms of identity, or sameness, is closer to that of ancestor or kidney donor. They’re the same person because they’re the same person.
And this kind of essentialism runs deep in Chibnall’s Who, where stuff is what it says on the label because it says so on the label. The Fam are a family because they’re called the Fam. They say all the time that the Doctor is the best person they’ve ever met because that’s the kinda person the Doctor is, and we know that’s the kinda person the Doctor is, because they say it all the time. The Master is evil again because that’s what being the Master means. You see this in the defence of the era too, where the re-nuking of Gallifrey is treated as the just narrative endpoint because the concept of Gallifrey is bad – justifying the death of billions because the idea of the identity they share is corrupt. It’s anti-material. It’s the transubstantiation of fictional characters. And I don’t want to spin this into personal condemnation, but I think this has real negative connotations when it means that characters revert to their “inherent” state by default, as if being a hero or a villain is an innate aspect of one’s self rather than a set of experiences and decisions. It is virtue as attribute rather than action.
Is it really any surprise that we’ve seen such a morally unbalanced Doctor these last two series when it comes from a place that says her goodness is something she is, rather than something she does? Is it any surprise that the quality has been so shaky when it comes from someone who says that Doctor Who is fundamentally good, so all you have to do is “just make it, really”? It isn’t to me, at least.
NEXT WEEK: Praxeus: Fake Plastic Earth