For a show like Doctor Who, there is no such thing as the ‘present day’. Since the Doctor can travel anywhere in time and space, episodes can be set far back in time before the human race even evolved or as far into the future as the end of the universe. But throughout its 55-year history, Doctor Who has often grounded itself to the then-present day of the time – 60s Who considered the 60s to be its ‘present day’, 70s Who portrayed a strange alternate 1970s (or 1980s, depending on who you ask) as its ‘present day’, and modern Who has usually stuck to whatever year the series happens to be airing in, with a few exceptions. Generally, when the TARDIS lands in the ‘present day’, one can assume that this means whatever year the episode happened to be broadcast in. But for a show like Doctor Who with its complex continuity, this can lead to some problems.
For a start, when the Doctor battles aliens on present-day Earth, generally Classic Who tended to keep these incursions low-key, so as to not break the immersion that Doctor Who could be happening in ‘our universe’, i.e. the real world. But with NuWho came Russell T. Davies, and with Russell T. Davies came some particularly bombastic episodes involving very public alien invasions. Episodes like Rose, Aliens of London, The Christmas Invasion, Doomsday, The Runaway Bride, The Sontaran Stratagem and The Stolen Earth/Journey’s End all involve the existence of aliens being continually and unequivocally revealed to the people of Earth. This was all well and good for Russell’s era, which actually made somewhat of a recurring joke out of the fact that everyone knows that aliens are real – to the extent that London is evacuated on Christmas Day to avoid the inevitable alien invasion – but the problem took shape after Steven Moffat took over and realised that the ‘present day’ continuity of Doctor Who had been irreversibly ruined.
A good analogy for this situation can actually be found in the world of British Politics, of all things. Part of the rule of Parliamentary Sovereignty is that ‘no Parliament can bind its successors’, essentially the idea that it is unlawful for a current government to create a law or an institution that any subsequent governments are unable to remove. This is done so that every new government that comes into power has complete free reign over how it wants to rule the country – essentially, it allows for change when change is necessary. The same logic should apply to Doctor Who – because the show can essentially keep creating original stories forever, there should be as few restrictions as possible on what can be done. Unfortunately, the ‘Present Day Problem’ has created some continuity errors in the new series that extent as far into the show’s run as the most recent episode, The Woman Who Fell To Earth – Graham and his friends insist that aliens can’t be real, because that is what a normal person in the real world would say. But Russell T. Davies’ era of the show proved that Doctor Who doesn’t take place in the real world, because in the real world there certainly wasn’t a Dalek invasion in 2009 or a Cyberman invasion in 2006. But, if Graham and his friends exist in the Doctor Who universe, why can’t they remember the highly publicised incursions that took place just a decade prior?
And Graham isn’t the only one. Moffat initially flirted with the idea of making it so that the cracks in time that appeared throughout the Eleventh Doctor’s tenure had actually erased all of Russell’s alien invasions from history, but later backpedaled to claim that Amy forgot about them but the general public didn’t, as seen in Death in Heaven when a news reporter compares the Cybermen seen in that episode with the ones previously seen during the Russell years. It would seem, then, that there is no right or wrong answer, and the ‘timey-wimey’ nature of the show’s continuity means that maybe some people remember the invasions and some people don’t. In fact, it would actually be quite an interesting idea for an episode if there are still droves of people in the UK who insist that Daleks and Cybermen invaded, and others – perhaps even people who had lost family or friends to those invasions – have subsequently forgotten all about them. This creates a sort of in-universe ‘Mandela effect’, in that history is different for some than it is for others.
All that aside, however, the ‘Present Day Problem’ remains – how can any future showrunners maintain the air of mystery and shock for other characters discovering alien life if things like the Daleks and the Cybermen are common knowledge? There are a few potential answers to this problem:
1 – Ignore the problem
The first, and most boring, solution – and apparently the one that Steven Moffat went with – is simply to have new companions and characters be ignorant of aliens despite almost everyone else on the planet being aware of them. This has been done before by narrative means – as previously mentioned, Amy Pond forgot about the Daleks because the cracks in time erased her memory, and Russell himself actually used this for Donna as well, claiming she had ‘slept through’ all the previous invasions. Needless to say, simply ignoring the problem is boring and any excuses that can be dreamed up to wave it away are flimsy at best.
2 – Write the episodes around the problem
Doctor Who, particularly the modern era, has historically set many episodes in the present day as a means of making the show more accessible. On paper, this seems to make sense – particularly when it comes to series openers. However, give it some thought and it quickly becomes apparent that there is little logic to this. The only possible explanation for wanting to have most of the episodes in a series set in the present day is if the writer wanted to rely heavily on pop culture references and memes, something that both Russell and Moffat were continuously guilty of, and as a result this dates their eras immensely. Part of the reason why episodes like The Ark in Space and The Caves of Androzani are described as ‘timeless classics’ is because the draw absolutely no material from the then-present day and use the show’s potential of far-reaching settings to its advantage. This would be particularly good for writing large-scale alien invasion stories – episodes like The Dalek Invasion of Earth in 1964 and The Parting of the Ways in 2005 can portray invasions on an epic scale set far into the future and be just as effective as an episode set in the present day.
3 – Have a wider range of companions
Drawing from the previous point, having a wider range of companions would definitely create a workaround for the problem, as having less companions from the present day would not only make the show more diverse and interesting but would also reduce the need for having episodes set in the present day. Why bother trying to write a workaround for why a character in 2025 can’t remember the Slitheen invasion of 2006 when you could just have a companion from the past, or from a human colony in the future, or have one who is not even human at all. In terms of accessibility, shows like Downtown Abbey, Star Trek, Friends and Game of Thrones are all set in different times and sometimes different universes, with no ‘present day’ characters needed to ground the audience – if a character is written well and is relatable, that is all the grounding that is needed for the audience. You don’t see anyone in Star Trek dabbing, because you don’t need to throw pop culture or social media references into a script to make it accessible, you just need to write a good script.