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The First Doctor Fan Theory That Would Change Doctor Who Completely

To say that "Doctor Who" has a long history would be a massive understatement. The British sci-fi series, renowned for its unique focus on a mysterious, time-traveling alien being known as The Doctor, has been running on and off since its premiere in 1963. Perhaps even more surprising than that remarkable statistic is the fact that pretty much everything that's aired in this near-60-year time span is still considered canon to the ongoing story. This means that the show's very first story beats are still relevant to the lore of the show today.

Of course, some parts of "Doctor Who" were quite a bit different when the series began. For starters, like most shows on the air in 1963, episodes aired in black and white (via Gizmodo). Additionally, each of the early seasons was broken up into serials, with several episodes dedicated to a single story arc rather than self-contained episodes as the show mostly airs today. 

However, aside from a handful of hallmarks of early television, the initial seasons of the series share much in common with the version of "Doctor Who" that fans know and love today. Indeed, it was William Hartnell's First Doctor who gifted the character with such an eccentric air, something all versions of the character share to some degree. Interestingly, there is one particular fan theory concerning the early era of the show that, if true, would vastly recontextualize the series in its entirety.

Some fans think the First Doctor isn't the character's first incarnation

Long-devoted fans of "Doctor Who" are surely aware of The Doctor's unique ability to regenerate into a completely different body and personality when mortally wounded. This mostly serves as the show's in-universe explanation for why the actor playing The Doctor changes so frequently, but it's also become a defining aspect of the series. Naturally, it's commonly assumed that William Hartnell's First Doctor was the very first incarnation of the character before any regenerations took place. But what if the first on-screen doctor wasn't actually the first version of the Time Lord?

In a discussion thread on the r/Gallifrey subreddit, Reddit user u/MongolianSwampDonkey posited a theory that proposes just that. In this user's post, they argued it was possible that the Doctor moniker was simply the result of a nickname given to him by his first set of companions. As a result, it seems logical that the character known as Doctor Who could have had past lives that wouldn't syntactically count as iterations of "The Doctor."

This user's chief piece of evidence for the theory is John Hurt's War Doctor, a regeneration that The Doctor long keeps a secret. Hurt's incarnation serves as an example of a time when the character gives up his usual name and doesn't count an incarnation of himself among the rest. However, this one piece of evidence is just the tip of the iceberg of a very complex debate.

There's other evidence for the theory

The idea that The Doctor had lives prior to Hartnell's incarnation has actually been suggested in the series itself. The classic Fourth Doctor serial "The Brain of Morbius" sees Tom Baker's iteration of The Doctor face off in a psychic showdown against a fellow Time Lord named Morbius. During the battle, a bizarre sequence shows several unfamiliar faces. Although some fans have written these faces off as belonging to Morbius, it is heavily implied these faces are actually previously unseen past incarnations of The Doctor. While this plot point could also be dismissed as having come relatively early in the history of "Doctor Who" (before a definitive canon of lore was established), the idea has actually cropped up again in more recent episodes of the show.

In "Doctor Who" Season 12, Jodie Whitaker's Thirteenth Doctor contends with a mysterious plot point known as the Timeless Child. According to the Gallifreyan supercomputer, The Doctor was originally known as the Timeless Child, an alien whom the Gallifreyans granted the ability to regenerate. The Timeless Child apparently had numerous different incarnations that would all have occurred prior to the existence of the First Doctor. If this plot point is outright confirmed in future episodes, then the theory could very well become series canon. However, the series would have quite a bit of explaining to do.

The theory still has some problems, though

For as compelling as some of the evidence regarding pre-Hartnell incarnations of The Doctor may be, there are still some glaring issues with the theory. Perhaps the biggest problem is that the show itself has basically confirmed the exact number of lives that The Doctor has had, due to his original regeneration limit. When Matt Smith's Eleventh Doctor is at the end of his run, he faces legitimate mortality as a result of using up all 12 possible regenerations. 

Ultimately, it takes the Time Lords granting The Doctor a brand new cycle of regenerations for him to keep living. In the process, it's made fairly evident that this is the first time The Doctor has reached the end of a cycle. When counting the number of regenerations the character had gone through up until this point in the series, the math firmly points to Hartnell's First Doctor being the first incarnation of the cycle. If the Timeless Child concept is true, it would need to somehow reconcile itself with this plot point.

It would seem that while there are a few issues with this particular fan theory, there's also quite a bit of evidence to support it as well. Fans may never get a definitive answer to the debate, but it's certainly fun to speculate and consider what the life of The Doctor was like before "Doctor Who" began.