Post-Time War Stress Disorder: Doctor Who’s Secret Symptom

Originally posted on

By Travis Langley, Ph.D.

After a year with no new season of Doctor Who, the BBC’s time-traveling hero returns with this year’s Christmas special, “The Return of Doctor Mysterio.” Fans are accustomed to experiencing long gaps in their viewing of Who. In the program’s 53-year history, it began in 1963, ran for more than a quarter of a century until cancelled in 1989, saw an attempt at revival with a 1996 television movie, and finally returned to stay in 2005 (Kistler, 2013). By the time the character known as the Doctor returned to us in the 21st century, he had changed. In their chapter for the book Doctor Who Psychology: A Madman with a Box, therapist Kristin Erickson and Team TARDIS member Matt Munson examine the possibility that the Doctor may have come back with post-traumatic stress disorder.

Within the storyline, the new trauma the doctor has experienced is a lengthy Time War, the worst experience in his centuries-long existence. Erickson and Munson apply the DSM-5 criteria (American Psychiatric Association, 2013) for PTSD to see how the Doctor’s behavior differs after the Time War (which, for us viewers, means during the 21st century episodes) compared to how he acted before (meaning the show’s 1963-1989 run plus 1996 TV movie).
While he does show changes in personality, evaluating any such changes is complicated by the fact that the Doctor’s personality drastically changes every time he regenerates. On the verge of death, Time Lords such as the doctor change in a process originally called “renewal” but best known as “regeneration.” The original showrunners introduced this trick as a way to recast the role, replacing the lead actor with someone else who might not resemble the predecessor at all. Seven actors starred as the Doctor during the classic 1963-1989 series; the so-called eighth doctor debuted in the TV movie; and so far the ninth through 12th doctors have appeared since 2005. In between the eighth and ninth doctors, however, the fiction reveals that he spent time as an additional incarnation known as the War Doctor. It is the War Doctor who fights the Time War and comes to believe he has destroyed his own homeworld, Gallifrey.

Erickson and Munson outline how the doctor relives the trauma of the war, avoids reminders of it, shows negative changes in thought and mood, and meets more than enough of the criteria for PTSD. At the person who edited their work for the book, I was impressed with their analysis. My own editor asked us for more examples of how the doctor’s behavior demonstrates several of the symptoms, including recklessness or self-destructive behavior. That’s when this occurred to me (Erickson & Munson, p. 196):

Before the Time War, the Doctor regenerates eight times over the course of many centuries, but in a mere six years after the war, he burns through what should be his final four regenerations (War Doctor to Ninth, Ninth to Tenth, Tenth’s Meta-Crisis, Tenth to Eleventh).

I’ve mentioned here before (Langley, 2013) that it’s only after he helps the War Doctor (a time traveler can cross paths with himself) save his homeworld that the eleventh doctor acknowledges that he has run out of regenerations. A Time Lord is supposed to have twelve and no more. (Through the magic of TV storytelling, the doctor later gets a new cycle which lets the so-called eleventh doctor regenerate yet again to become the twelfth instead of dying for good and ending the series.)

I don’t know how much of this makes sense to those of you who do not follow Doctor Who. Trust me, this stuff even confuses Doctor Who fans. If I start a conversation on Twitter about how Time Lord regenerations work, the discussion will be animated, it will seem endless, we’ll go in circles, we’ll keep repeating our main points as others join the discussion, and nothing will be resolved.

For me, though, that particular realization about how the doctor’s self-destructiveness changed casts a whole new light over the old series and new. Psychology gives me a different look at a fiction I’ve loved since my teens: After taking many centuries to use the first two-thirds of his regenerations, the rebel Time Lord rushes through the last third until he has none left, and then on some level realizes this enough to run from death for as long as he can. He has had a secret symptom of PTSD, hidden in plain sight.

Connect with us on Facebook!