The Last Great Time War. Those five words have hung over Doctor Who ever since it was revived in 2005: an earth-shattering conflict that saw the Doctor’s people, the Time Lords, pitted against the Daleks. It’s been started, ended, revived, and discussed across Who media for years, and will be explored once more this year in the Time Lord Victorious project. But what, when, why, and how was the Time War?
It’s not just Doctor Who on television that has had to wrestle with what the Time War meant for the series at large, beyond the events of the Doctors we have seen since Christopher Eccleston dashed onto the screen, bomb in hand, in “Rose.” In the years since, as the show unraveled hints and tidbits about what actually happened to seemingly eradicate the Doctor’s people out of existence, it’s been written about in books, comics, and audio dramas to give us a bigger picture of just what the concept of a war across all of Time and Space was meant to even look like. The answer? Incredibly, incredibly messy.
This should be unsurprising, of course. The Time War was fought by two sides with access to time travel and the ability to alter and erase outcomes at their very whim. It lasted for a second... and an eternity. It started thousands of years ago, but also last Tuesday, and six minutes from now, and also millions of years in our future. Fictionally, it tore a scar across the entirety of Doctor Who’s reality, millions upon millions of lives and worlds altered, erased, revived, over and over, as two almighty factions played god. Metatextually, events across Doctor Who’s history—not just in tie-in material but the classic era of the show—have been considered as retconned into acts that were part of the Time War.
Suffice to say, attempting to make a proper timeline of the Last Great Time War is an impossible act. But we have enough vagueness to try and sort out what could, reasonably, stand as a start, middle, and end for a Doctor Who event that has fundamentally shaped so much of the show’s recent history—and if Time Lord Victorious is anything to go by, will continue to shape its universe for years to come. That is, until some kind of temporal war breaks out and someone hops back to erase all this...
Befitting of something called “the Last Great Time War,” it’s hard to actually say when it all started. You can’t really fire the first shot in a nonlinear conflict. But if you want to pick a beginning point that doesn’t make your head spin off into the time vortex, you might as well go with “Genesis of the Daleks.” That’s the classic 1975 story in which the Time Lords dispatched Tom Baker’s Fourth Doctor to the birth of the Dalek race on Skaro in an attempt to stop their creation altogether.
The Time Lord’s decision to pick the Doctor for a task set into motion one of the gravest mistakes its society would ever make. At the critical moment, the Doctor could not bring themselves to destroy the first batch of Dalek mutants made by the Kaled scientist Davros. It was argued that not only did they not have the right to wield such a power over a species (even one as hateful as the Daleks), but that the presence of their evil in the universe inspired other races, including their own people, to rise up and do great things in opposition of them.
Ultimately choosing to sabotage the Dalek’s start, the Doctor believed they set the titular genesis of the Daleks back by a millennia, but that delay brought with it a horrifying cost. In the process, Davros and his future Daleks discovered the existence of alien life and time travel, and that there was a species of beings using the latter specifically to wipe them out of existence. Understandably—in so much as one can relate to a Dalek—they weren’t pleased. And so begins the early stages of the Time War, as the Daleks begin temporal-tit-for-tat retaliations across Time and Space to get back at the Doctor and the Time Lords at large for trying to erase them. We can essentially assign most of the Doctor’s conflicts with the Daleks in classic Doctor Who to this early phase of the war.
“Resurrection of the Daleks” saw Davros attempt to create a duplicate of the Doctor that could infiltrate Gallifrey’s ruling council and assassinate them all, for example. Then there was the Daleks’ attempt to wield the Hand of Omega in “Remembrance of the Daleks” (and the Doctor tricking Davros into using the Hand on Skaro, seemingly destroying it) to attain mastery of Time Travel. These are, essentially, some of their earlier forays into direct conflict, despite airing years after “Genesis of the Daleks.” What comes after that is when the Daleks actually acquire time travel, allowing the conflict to heat up even further. Ironically, this means we get to go back even further into Doctor Who’s past.
“The Chase,” an epic, mostly-missing First Doctor serial, is all about the Daleks having developed their own time machine, allowing them to hunt the Doctor and his companions across time to try and wipe him out of existence. And that’s before you get to the alternate timelines the Doctor helped undo, like the Dalek’s invasions of Earth in... “The Dalek Invasion of Earth” or “Day of the Daleks.” Suffice to say, even before the Time War began in earnest, things were already pretty confusing.
Big Finish’s Gallifrey audio series tells us that the Time War officially began with the mass-extinction of several time-traveling intergalactic powers allied with the Time Lords as the Temporal Powers. It was a diplomatic conglomeration forged by then-President of the Time Lords, Romana (yes, the Doctor’s former companion Romana, specifically her second incarnation) after a decision was made to share Gallifrey’s time travel technology with other species. As the Temporal Powers were wiped out one-by-one, the Time Lords formally declared war with the Daleks.
That’s when, for beings that weren’t the Daleks and Time Lords, things get really weird. With most of the higher species aware of time travel and time manipulation wiped out, to other “lower” civilizations, it would appear as if the Daleks and their scourge across the galaxy seemingly disappear when the Time War begins (the Time Lords, secretive enough as it is thanks to their policy of non-intervention, remained relatively unnoticed even as they too withdrew to fight their war).
Focusing on the building of warships and battle TARDISes to combat the Dalek’s own time ships, the Time Lords effectively ceased being the guardians of Time they’d long haughtily claimed to be, waging battles across the galaxy in ways that undid and redid timelines endlessly. Planets and peoples vanished entirely as they were drawn into the temporal void that the very concept of the Time Lords and Daleks undoing each other’s actions created, but the wider galaxy could never know why.
But how do you fight a Time War when either side can just go back and undo your victory? The Daleks and the Time Lords decided the answer was, essentially, an unholy arms race, a chase across the universe to either uncover or develop weapons of war so horrifyingly powerful that the only way to avoid their devastation tearing reality itself apart was to manipulate time.
The Daleks being the Daleks, were very good at this whole “weapons of war so horrifyingly powerful” lark and took the advantage in the early days of the conflict. But the Time Lords countered, both with technology and with just how low they were willing to stoop to gain the upper hand, by selecting some choice Time Lords to work with. Early on in the war, the Time Lords resurrected Rassilon, one of the founders of Time Lord civilization, to act as not just their leader, but the architect of their battleplans. The unscrupulous and corrupted megalomaniac was now acting as the arbiter of every conflict.
The Master also became one of the Time Lords’ earliest and most important agents in the War, adventuring across Time wreaking havoc and helping the Time Lords track down materials and technologies to build increasingly deadly temporal weapons. The ultimate goal of their plans was the Heavenly Paradigm: using vast quantities of temporal energy, it was a piece of Time Lord technology that could effectively re-write the universe, perpetually seeking timelines where the best possible outcome for existence at large occurred, stitching them together into one ultimate universe.
The Master, being an evil bastard, managed to develop enough temporal energy to power the Paradigm for the Time Lords by taking a companion named Cole Jarnish, who the Master rescued from his fated death in a Dalek attack on the sanctuary planet Arcking. Saving Cole created a paradox of events that, as Cole continued to travel with the seemingly benevolent Master, suffused the human with temporal radiation, his very existence and every action he took further altering the timeline. After the Master sufficiently groomed his companion, he sacrificed him and used the stored paradoxical energy to power the Paradigm. But the weapon’s re-writing abilities couldn’t handle the potential of so many timelines as it went about undoing Dalek victory after Dalek victory, and began backfiring. Not only were Dalek successes in the war flipped to Time Lord victories, but it also happened the other way around.
It was this calamitous act, before the Paradigm overloaded and destroyed itself, that broke the Master entirely. Horrified by his own re-writing of the Time War up to that moment and believing the effort to be lost, the Master fled his duty and activated his TARDIS’ chameleon arch. The technology took his memories and stored them as he assumed a human identity: a lonely child named Yana, orphaned on the Silver Devastation, at the end of the universe, where... well, long after all this, the Doctor, Martha Jones, and Captain Jack Harkness would find him and inadvertently restore all his memories in “Utopia.” Whoops!
For the most part during all this, the Doctor—then in their eighth incarnation—actively stayed out of fighting, traveling the universe and helping people where they could, but avoiding the delicate periods of time that could lead to his own people or the Daleks using him as a pawn in their temporal machinations. But even the Doctor couldn’t singlehandedly save every life ravaged by the Time War—and when one such attempt led to their death, crash landing on the planet Karn after trying to save a pilot named Cass, the Eighth Doctor was momentarily resurrected by the planet’s mysterious sisterhood and given a choice. They told him he could perish and regenerate, continuing the attempts to avoid taking part in the Time War, or control their incoming regeneration, shaping themselves into a Time Lord that would be willing and capable to end the War altogether. As we know from “The Night of the Doctor,” the Eighth Doctor chose the latter.
Casting aside their name and becoming the Warrior (known to fans mostly as the War Doctor, played by John Hurt in the 50th anniversary special and in a series of spinoff audio stories before the actor’s death in 2017), the Doctor finally entered the fray. The Doctor’s formal arrival into the Time War did more for the Time Lords than even Rassilon or the Master could, arguably, turning the tides in Gallifrey’s favor as they usurped plan after plan of the Daleks’ to strike at the heart of Time Lord society itself. The Time War essentially became a race for the Daleks to target the War Doctor specifically, hoping to undo his timeline entirely before he could ever enter the conflict...by, say, going back to their first incarnation and taking part in “The Chase,” for example. You know. That thing we talked about a thousand words ago. Head hurting yet?
Despite taking place across all times and all moments, the novel Engines of War tells us that, from a linear perspective, the Time War lasted the approximate equivalent of 400 years, with the War Doctor fighting for the last quarter of that conflict. At this point, things were pretty rough for the Time Lords and Daleks alike, horrifying nightmarish beings and weapons wielded on a regular basis.
The discovery of one such weapon would bring about a chain of events that would eventually see the War Doctor go rogue not just against the Daleks, but their own people. The Daleks had been using the temporal energy of a space-time anomaly called the Tantalus Eye to develop temporal canons: de-materializing weapons that could erase their victims from history entirely, lost to time and the memories of everyone they ever knew. Although initially developed as individual weapons to be placed on Daleks, the Daleks also manipulated three moons near the Eye to act as a focal point for a planetary-scaled Temporal cannon, hoping to aim it at Gallifrey and end the war and the Time Lords entirely.
After informing Rassilon and the Time Lords of what the Daleks were planning, Rassilon’s response was likewise horrifying in the War Doctor’s eyes. The Time Lords raided the Omega Arsenal (a repository of ancient Time Lord weapons locked away for their potency) and acquired a stellar manipulator called the Tear of Isha to close the anomaly entirely. Small problem: doing so would cost millions of lives of innocent beings in the Tantalus Spiral, a sacrifice Rassilon and his War Council were happy to pay, but a tired War Doctor was not—and they were imprisoned for disagreeing. Escaping Gallifrey, the War Doctor worked to foil his own people and the Daleks, destroying the Tear and wiping out the Dalek presence in the Tantalus Eye in the process.
The sacrifices the War Doctor made to do so—including the death of his quasi-companion Cinder, a Dalek-hunting human from the Tantalus Spiral—lead to them deciding to end the Time War altogether. Destroying Dalek fleets where they could, the War Doctor pulled back from aiding the Time Lords as well, defiantly leaving messages of “No More” across battlefields. The War Doctor’s rogue de-escalation ironically hastened the climax of the Time War’s conclusion. No longer actively aiding his people gave the remaining Dalek fleets the chance to enact one final push towards Gallifrey, breaking through Time Lord lines and besieging the Citadel itself.
While the Time Lords and Daleks seemingly fought the final battle for Gallifrey, the War Doctor was hatching their own plan. Now raiding the Omega Arsenal, the War Doctor stole the Moment, an unfathomably powerful sentient weapon that they intended to use to destroy what remained of their people and the surviving Dalek fleets now sieging Gallifrey. One final horrifying act would bring the Time War to a close, the War Doctor ravaged enough by the process to regenerate into a new incarnation, the sole survivor of the deadliest conflict ever fought.
Except now we know that’s not what really happened, thanks to a few of their friends. Well, more like 12 of them.
The Tenth and Eleventh Doctors’ decision in “The Day of the Doctor” to help their former self work through the trauma over the Time War and—working with their prior nine incarnations thanks to a truly head-twisting bout of temporal logistics—use their collective TARDISes to seal Gallifrey in its own pocket universe brought about an end to the Time War as we know it. The Dalek fleet, firing collectively as Gallifrey vanished to safety, destroyed itself seemingly in its entirety. As far as the universe was concerned, the War was over, and both the Time Lords and the Daleks had lost. For a time, the same concerned the Doctor.
The temporal paradox of 13 of them being together in a single moment in time meant that, upon their separation, the first nine Doctors would forget that they had helped save Gallifrey. When the War Doctor regenerated shortly after their encounter with their future selves, it meant that all the Ninth Doctor would know was that they were seemingly the sole survivor, at least until their memories of saving Gallifrey would catch up in the Eleventh (actually Twelfth, but hey, don’t we have enough headaches at this point without getting into that) Doctor’s timeline.
But even with the Time War over, its fallout would continue to have lasting implications across Doctor Who’s revived era. Small pockets of surviving Daleks, thrown through time by energy created in sending Gallifrey to a pocket universe, would lead to their eventual resurgence, from the lone “metaltron” of season one’s “Dalek,” to the Dalek Emperor’s rebuilt fleet in “Bad Wolf” and “The Parting of the Ways,” to the Cult of Skaro and beyond. Even Davros got pulled from his seeming death during the war, only to be beaten by the Doctor (and their many friends). It wasn’t just Dalek resurgence either. In the final days of the Tenth Doctor’s timeline, Rassilon attempted to reach out from beyond time and space in the final days of the Time War to wrench Gallifrey out of the time-locked bubble of temporal events the War had been confined to, retroactively planting a drumbeat signal in the Master’s head as a child to act as a beacon. The Tenth Doctor foiled his plans.
But Gallifrey’s new place in the timeline after “The Day of the Doctor” wouldn’t last that long, because the Time Lords wouldn’t be the Time Lords without some convoluted machinations. Eventually, they found ways through the barriers put in place by the Doctors. Speaking through fractures in time itself, the Time Lords called the Doctor—and zillions of their most deadly foes—to the planet Trenzalore, leading to the Eleventh Doctor fighting a centuries-long siege to protect the planet’s population and to ensure the Time Lords remained safely sealed, a sacrifice that led to them gifting the Doctor a new set of regenerations as thanks.
Eventually, with or without the Doctor’s aid, the Time Lords escaped the pocket they’d been hidden away in and relocated Gallifrey to the end of the universe itself. But it wouldn’t be enough to save them from the grim fate they’d fought the entire War to avoid in the first place. After the returned Master discovered that his people were not just alive, but had hidden a terrible secret about the creation of the Time Lords as a civilization as a whole, the Master laid Gallifrey to ruins, butchering the Time Lords before collaborating with the Cybermen to convert their corpses into a new army. Defeated by the now Thirteenth incarnation of the Doctor—and thanks to the help of yet another horrifying weapon, the Cyberman-created Death particle—all life on the ruined Gallifrey was wiped out, seemingly including the Master and his revived Cyber-Masters.
And with it, at last, the Time War could finally be considered at an end. As much as one can end a war happening across all of time, that is.
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