My nose pricked up at this snippet of dialogue from The Witch’s Familiar:
DAVROS: Why did you leave Gallifrey?
DOCTOR: Well, because I did.
DAVROS: You stole the Tardis, and ran and ran. Why?
DOCTOR: It’s a boring place, Gallifrey. I was going out of my mind.
DAVROS: Yet you long to return.
DOCTOR: Ah, well, I’m inconsistent.
DAVROS: But it is always the same lie.
DOCTOR: What lie?
DAVROS: You weren’t bored. No one runs the way you have run for so small a reason.
DOCTOR: I do.
DAVROS: No, you don’t.
Along with “Doctor Who?”, why the Doctor left Gallifrey all those years ago is the question “hidden in plain sight” that has animated this show for 52 years. The premise of Doctor Who is that the Doctor is an alien from a distant planet, who shuns his own world and people and has adventures in time and space. The question is never asked “why?” In the new series, of course, Gallifrey isn’t there, but why did the Doctor leave in the first place, and why is he so loath to return? It’s almost as if he’s running from something. Case in point, from The Beast Below…
AMY: Have you ever run away from something because you were scared, or not ready, or just, just because you could?
DOCTOR: Once, a long time ago.
AMY: What happened?
From the dialogue in The Witch’s Familiar, it looks like the show is finally going to address that question, hinting heavily that there’s more to the Doctor’s flight from Gallifrey than he lets on, and that there’s some dark secret surrounding the Doctor’s reasons for leaving Gallifrey that he’s committed to a confession dial. Of course, it could all be deceptive misdirection, and the Doctor’s confession could be something entirely different, but, for now, that’s what it’s looking to be.
I’m intrigued. It’s a question I’ve always wondered about, so I’m excited that the show is treading into this shadowy territory. Before any revelation is made, though (and assuming there actually will be a revelation at some point), I want to share my own speculation on the matter.
I’ve always liked the idea that the Doctor has some dark, terrible past that he left behind on Gallifrey, that before he was “the Doctor”, he was a positively villainous figure. Not villainous in the sense that he was evil, nor consciously villainous, but I could see the Doctor committing terrible deeds in the name of what he thought was a just or justified cause. I like to think something of that nature is the reason the Doctor left Gallifrey: to run away from his shameful past, having realised the horror of what he did or was doing, perhaps in the hope of making amends. And that’s the reason the Doctor hides his real name: he’s ashamed of the person he was when he went by that name, and wants to leave behind that person by adopting a completely different identity.
I won’t try to speculate about what exactly the Doctor did to compel him to run away as he did, but when I mentioned this theory on the forum Gallifrey Base some time ago, another user helpfully pointed out an interesting snippet of dialogue from The Aztecs that can be interpreted as hinting in this direction:
BARBARA: Don’t you see? If I could start the destruction of everything that’s evil here, then everything that is good would survive when Cortes lands.
DOCTOR: But you can’t rewrite history! Not one line!
SUSAN: Barbara, the high priests are coming.
DOCTOR: Barbara, one last appeal. What you are trying to do is utterly impossible. I know, believe me, I know.
It sounds like the Doctor is suggesting he has his own disreputable history of abusing time travel. It’s ambiguous, but it’s there, and, when you watch the video (above) there’s something very knowing and ominous behind the Doctor’s “I know”. Speculate away.
Moreover, it’s little commented upon that the Doctor once referred to himself as an “exile”. Per An Unearthly Child:
IAN: You’re treating us like children.
DOCTOR: Am I? The children of my civilisation would be insulted.
IAN: Your civilisation?
DOCTOR: Yes, my civilisation. I tolerate this century, 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.
That could be interpreted as meaning either that the Doctor and Susan were exiled for something the Doctor did, or they went into self-exile. Either way, it sounds ominous. What could the Doctor possibly have done to have been exiled from Gallifrey, or, maybe worse, to have forced himself to go into exile?
‘Til we find out what’s in that confession dial, then…