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Doctor Who: The Time Lords

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Actor David Tennant as the tenth 'Doctor Who'. Graphic by Jimster.

The Time Lords are the race of aliens to which the Doctor, from the TV programme Doctor Who, belongs. They are probably the most pompous fictional race of time-travellers ever created. Their home planet is Gallifrey, in the constellation of Kasterborous.

Over the years, much information has been revealed about them on-screen, with further titbits in the spin-off books and audios. Since the spin-offs are not always considered canonical, this article will attempt to distinguish clearly between the two sources, then conclude with a section on how this information was revealed.


The Time Lords were the first race in our Universe to develop time travel. At first, they were a people ruled by superstition and a sorority known as the Pythias. All this changed when the scaphes, the first time-travel vehicles, were constructed. The development of time-travel technology was accompanied by a huge social revolution, and this entire era of Gallifreyan history is now officially denied. Only ancient relics such as the Black Scrolls hint of its existence1. At best, Gallifreyans of this period were powerful and amoral; at worst, they were capable of outright evil, abducting members of other races and forcing them to fight in an arena known as the Death Zone.

Their technological ascendancy was assured by the triumvirate of Rassilon, Omega and 'the Other' - known as 'ROO' in Time Lord myths2. Rassilon was the great but pragmatic leader who fought a war against vampires3 and Omega the brilliant engineer who made Rassilon's dreams possible. After his death, Rassilon was interred in a tower at the centre of the Death Zone, and ensured that legends were planted about the secret of immortality hidden there. In fact, this was Rassilon's trap for any Time Lord greedy enough to want immortality - they lived forever as an immobile stone carving4.

Omega was believed killed during the operation to create the Eye of Harmony, but in fact was sucked into an antimatter universe, where he became embittered about what he saw as his abandonment and betrayal by the Time Lords. The Time Lords have always rejected this, pointing out that it is each employee's responsibility to look into their own exit strategy.

Time Lord society then stood essentially unchanged for millions of years. It seems that the Time Lords have prevented other races from developing time travel, initially to defend themselves against rivals. At some stage, this became a guardianship of the cosmos, and the Time Lords now seem to regard themselves as responsible for preventing damage to the Fabric of Time5. It is not clear whether the Doctor's original time zone is in Earth's past, future or present. It does seem that time travel into Gallifrey's past or future is impossible, perhaps as an additional defence mechanism.

The Other's fate is not clear, but his genetic structure was eventually rewoven in the Looms and became the Doctor, as revealed in Lungbarrow.

Other revealed or intimated secrets from this period of Gallifreyan history include the moving of the planet Earth, and:

A race of people in suspended animation as the result of a gamma war...two identical planets on different sides of the universe, neither knowing about the other but with identical populations and culture... a water planet in which life exists in huge cities floating in the skies, kept there by the mental powers of its inhabitants... a city built around a vast weapon to hide it... Cybermen... Daleks... the Giant Vampires...

At some unspecified point in the past, a schism within the College of Cardinals lead to the establishing of an alternative Time Lord base on Dronid, though this was later abandoned. Possibly around the same time, Time Lord criminals began to be placed in permanent suspended animation on the prison-planet Shada. All memory of Shada was later removed from all Gallifreyans.

For millions of years, the Time Lords became opposed to any change to established tradition. One lecturer at the Academy put it this way:

Without tradition, we have no life. Without tradition, we have no purpose. Without tradition, we have no - to use an archaic term - future.

The generation of Time Lords that grew up alongside the Doctor changed all that, featuring an unprecedented number of renegades.

During the course of the BBC Eighth Doctor series of books, Gallifrey was destroyed, along with all but a handful of Time Lords. Surviving Time Lords seem to include the Doctor, the Master, the Minister for Chance6, Marnal7 and Iris Wildthyme8. At the climax of the book range, it is revealed that the personalities of the dead Time Lords have been saved. It appears that Gallifrey must have been restored, as it was destroyed again in a separate Time War against that Daleks prior to the start of the revived TV series.

The Master survived the Time War, but was later apparently killed. At the time of writing, the Doctor is therefore the last of the Time Lords.

Appearance and Dress

Time Lords are fully human in appearance, and can be of either gender. To date, they have been predominantly white and male, though they have been known to have females in several senior positions, including the Presidency. Judging from the faces of those seen on-screen to date, Gallifreyan technology has not yet developed an effective laxative. Ceremonial robes have a high collar at the rear, that frames the head like a halo. The colour of the robes is determined by the House allegiance of the wearer (see below).

The symbol of the Time Lords is the Seal of Rassilon, a figure-of-eight shaped sigil on a circular background.


When a Time Lord dies, he or she9 has the ability to reorder the matter comprising his or her body, and to live again in a new form. Each Time Lord can regenerate 12 times - meaning that they have 13 different bodies during their lifetime.

There is an element of risk associated with this process. Regenerating in a Tardis (see below) is said to be safer than regenerating outside it, and it must be assumed that under Gallifreyan medical supervision the process is fairly routine. It is possible for one Time Lord to 'steal' another's remaining lives, as revealed in Doctor Who - The TV Movie.

Time Lords produced by the Looms have one heart until they first regenerate, at which point they acquire a second heart.


The higher echelons of Time Lord society are dominated by the Chapters. These are something like a cross between political parties, Mafia clans and academic colleges. The Big Finish Gallifrey series of audio dramas deals with Chapter politics in large part. Prominent Chapters include the Patrexes, the Arcalians and the Prydonians. Each Chapter wears a different colour of formal robes.

Each Chapter is made up of a number of Houses, clan-like groupings each with their own Loom (see 'Technology'). These include Time Lords and artificial intelligences such as furniture and the literal House building.

The Academies are higher education institutes on Gallifrey. It seems that all major Time Lords are graduates, though it has never been made clear whether attendance is compulsory. Each Chapter has its own Academy. It is possible that graduation from the Academy is what distinguishes a Time Lord from a mere Gallifreyan. Aliens are permitted to attend the Academies, but not to take classes dealing with time travel.

One particular ritual at the Academy involves each student looking into the Time Vortex. Whether this is a test of essential character or just traditional public-school child abuse is unclear. One former Academy member had this to say about his classmate's experience:

He stood in front of the Untempered Schism. It's a gap in the fabric of reality through which could be seen the whole of the vortex. He stood there, eight years old, staring at the raw power of time and space, just a child. Some would be inspired. Some would run away. And some would go mad.

The Celestial Intervention Agency - or CIA11 - is a covert operations organisation that eventually became the Celestis, a fully independent organisation with its own agenda. Its only on-screen mention came in The Deadly Assassin, although it has since become a staple of the spin-offs.

Faction Paradox is a cult of rogue Time Lords, introduced in the novels.

The Time Lords are ruled by a High Council, also known as the College of Cardinals, presided over by a President. The Presidential Guard dress in red and white uniforms, and one of them bore a striking resemblance to the sixth Doctor.


There is no question that the Time Lords have hugely advanced technological capabilities. Their most famous invention is of course the Tardis12. Tardises are semi-sentient and mildly telepathic, providing their occupants with a universal translation service that can continue even after they have left the vehicle. They are virtually indestructible, larger on the inside than the outside and capable of changing shape to fit with their surroundings. Some are armed.

The near-infinite power source for Gallifrey's might is the captured black hole known as the Eye of Harmony. This is stated in The Deadly Assassin to be located under the Panopticon, although Doctor Who - The TV Movie says that each Tardis has its own Eye of Harmony13.

Gallifrey itself is protected by force shields known as Transduction Barriers. Freed from the constraints of the television programme's often string-and-cardboard budget, the books expanded on the marvels of Gallifrey. Mile-high statues decorate the Capitol, and the whole planet is 'backed up' in seven higher dimensions in case the original planet is destroyed.

The Two Doctors introduced the concept of symbiotic nuclei. This appears to be a genetic trait that is introduced to Time Lords (as opposed to Gallifreyans) to allow them to control Tardises. Some Time Lords have a Respiratory Bypass System that allows them to breathe even when being throttled. It is unclear whether this requires some part of the body to be in contact with a source of oxygen.

According to the New Adventures, Time Lords reproduce by means of Genetic Looms. These recombine DNA to produce offspring who are related to their relatives, but are not the product of sexual reproduction.

One of the greatest achievements of the Time Lords is the Matrix, a virtual reality computer system that not only contains data on every known planet - allowing video-quality replay of events from any angle - but also stores the memories and personalities of dead Time Lords.

When it comes to weapons, the Time Lords seem to be limited more by their imaginations than their technology. They have developed a living metal called Validium, trans-dimensional vampire-killing machines called N-Forms and War Tardises. They are even capable of regenerating under simulated combat conditions to turn themselves into near-invulnerable, non-humanoid fighters.


Time Lords are notably non-religious, although they do have an annual festival in honour of The Other called Otherstide. This was not always the case. During the Old Times, Gallifreyans worshipped older, more powerful beings such as the Eternals from Enlightenment. In particular, they seem to have been keen on a trio of reprobates known as Life, Death and Time14.

Other Gallifreyans

Not all residents of Gallifrey are Time Lords. There exists an underclass of 'Outsiders', who literally live outside the domed Capitol. These appear to be the same species as Time Lords, but at the other end of a highly stratified society. It is unclear whether these 'Shebogans' have two hearts or can regenerate.

On-Screen Revelations

From the first episode, An Unearthly Child, the origins of the Doctor were kept deliberately mysterious15. Although the Doctor referred to himself and his granddaughter Susan as 'cut off from our own planet', it was not until his regeneration that we were given any reason to think him non-human. Aside from Susan, the only other member of the Doctor's race seen during this era was a villain called the Meddling Monk.

The phrase 'Time Lord' was first used in the final serial of the second Doctor, Patrick Troughton. Faced with a foe who had been using time-travel on a massive scale, the Doctor was forced to admit that he could not undo all the damage alone, and used a communicator device to call for assistance from 'my people'. The Time Lords arrived and sorted the situation out almost immediately, displaying an almost god-like level of power and mystery.

The format of the programme was greatly changed with the arrival of Jon Pertwee as the third Doctor. The Doctor was exiled to Earth by the Time Lords, who incapacitated his Tardis, used their amazing powers to erase knowledge of time travel from his mind and, most impressively of all, switched him from monochrome to colour. This period saw the introduction of the second most famous Time Lord in the series, the Master.

On occasions when the production team decided that an off-planet adventure was called for, they could invoke the will of the Time Lords as a plot device. For example in the tenth anniversary serial, The Three Doctors, the Time Lords found themselves in danger of having their electricity disconnected and released the Doctor from exile to help them out. This story also introduced Omega, one of the legendary founders of Time Lord society.

A later Jon Pertwee story, The Time Warrior, first revealed the name of the Time Lords' home planet to be Gallifrey16, in the constellation of Kasterborous17.

During the Tom Baker era, several stories featured the Time Lords heavily, notably The Deadly Assassin and The Invasion of Time, both of which were set on Gallifrey. Further stories such as Genesis of the Daleks featured the Time Lords once again using the Doctor as their unwilling agent outside Gallifrey, and further hints of the Time Lords' disreputable past were revealed in the unfinished Douglas Adams adventure 'Shada'. For several seasons, the Doctor had Romana, a Time Lady, as a companion.

By this point, the Time Lords' image as near-omnipotent universal guardians had been somewhat sullied. Astute observers were starting to see through the PR and question how powerful they could be when they'd been successfully invaded, and how benevolent they could be when at least three of them have tried to conquer the universe - all in less than a decade. Frankly, there are west African nations that had more stable political regimes during the 1970s and 1980s than the Time Lords.

For the remainder of the fifth and sixth Doctors' reigns, the Time Lords were portrayed as an essentially decent but heavily bureaucratic society. The Presidency continued to oscillate, apparently alternating between the Doctor (who didn't want it) and power-crazy lunatics. A few recurring characters appeared in Arc of Infinity and The Five Doctors, and we learnt more of Rassilon and the Old Times18. Most notably, the Doctor was once again placed on trial by his compatriots in the season-long Trial of a Time Lord.

The seventh Doctor, Sylvester McCoy, did not encounter the Time Lords on-screen. However, the new production team, and in particular Script Editor Andrew Cartmel, felt that the Doctor's origins had lost some of their mystery, and began to hint - most notably in the novelisation of Remembrance of the Daleks - that the Doctor was somehow involved with Rassilon and Omega, and that he had an unusual family on Gallifrey. With the curtailment of the programme in 1989, this plot arc was never concluded on-screen; fans had to wait for the release of the Virgin novel Lungbarrow.

The perennial tradition of electing a raving psychotic to the most powerful position on the planet apparently came to an end when Romana was made President in the New Adventures.

The regenerated series has made it clear that the Time Lords have been wiped out in a Time War, apparently against the Daleks. Once again, the production team are seeking to add mystery to the programme by not revealing the exact details of what has happened; no doubt all will be made clear in a future story.

1Along with ancient relics such as the spin-off books Cat's Cradle: Time's Crucible and Lungbarrow.2Not to be confused with the entity known as 'Roo' in Winnie the Pooh stories.3Rassilon was also a vampire himself, according to the Virgin Missing Adventures. 4This is apparently hilarious if you're a Time Lord and/or dead.5The Fabric of Time may be corduroy, as this seems to be the most ancient fabric known.6From the stand-alone audio adventure Death Comes to Time.7From The Gallifrey Chronicles.8A recurring foil and paramour to the Doctor from the books and audios.9There is no recorded instance of a Time Lord changing sex when regenerating10, although there has been frequent speculation that a woman might be cast as the Doctor.10Other than in the non-canonical Children in Need sketch The Curse of the Fatal Death.11The name was a joke, as the initials were shared by the US Central Intelligence Agency, which at the time had a reputation for being involved in unethical covert operations.12Susan, the Doctor's granddaughter, claims to have invented the acronym TARDIS herself, though the word appears to be in common usage on Gallifrey.13Some have put this down to a misunderstanding by the 'Movie' scriptwriters, but after all, what's the point of straining yourself by actually watching the television programme you're writing for, when you could blatantly contradict it and then watch the fans struggling to find a consistent explanation? 14There is no truth to the rumour that there was a fourth Gallifreyan god called Income Tax.15This contrasts with the two 1960s Doctor Who and the Daleks films, where the Doctor, played by Peter Cushing, is introduced as an eccentric but clearly human inventor. The effect on modern fans would be comparable to the movie version of The Da Vinci Code starting with Tom Hanks finding the Holy Grail in a bring-and-buy sale.16The planet had previously been called Jewel in a comic strip, and the name Gallifrey was first used in another comic strip just prior to The Time Warrior. 17Whatever it means to be 'in' a constellation. 18A popular swing ensemble from Gallifrey's LowTown.

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