The war began during the Doctor’s first lifetime. When the call came for Academy students to join up, he ignored social pressure, and then he dodged the eventual draft too. In the end a recruiting party swept through the mountain village where he was living. He wasn’t a good soldier by any reckoning, but just like more ordinary wars, this one needed plenty of warm bodies, and he would do for one of them. How ironic, he thought, that he’d always wanted to visit other planets, and now that he’d finally gotten to leave Gallifrey, all he’d seen of the rest of the universe was through a gun sight.
The war began near the end of the Doctor’s second lifetime. He worked undercover as the CIA’s boxed crook, as useful as he was unreliable. His war was a secret one, unavowable and fought in disguise. They sent him on ever more dangerous missions, interfering with discoveries in temporal physics and shaping the histories of once-neutral planets. He worked with friends who had already forgotten him and collected technology he couldn’t possibly have yet, right up until his strained timeline shivered into irreconcilable pieces.
The war began at a point in the Doctor’s third lifetime when he was unusually linear and distressingly easy to find. They amended his sentence, sent him to the weapons research labs. If you can work for a bunch of primitive Earth soldiers, they said, you can work for us. He thought of Liz leaving with scarcely a word. She had returned to her own research: something, she’d said in her terse but professional letter of resignation, which might do some real good in the world. And he’d stayed on; they’d bought him with a car and a kind word. The Council were right: could he do any less for the world that gave him birth? He tried not to listen very much when happy generals told him what his projects had accomplished—tried not to remember the names of planets he’d visited and planets he’d always meant to visit.
The war began during the Doctor’s fourth lifetime. He began it: he attacked the Daleks at their creation but failed to wipe them out entirely. In some timelines he managed to avoid the consequences, even serving—well, nominally serving—as Lord President before the impact of his action became apparent. In others he was a hunted fugitive again, the man who had disturbed the sleeping lion and hadn’t had the courage to see the matter through.
The war began during the Doctor’s fifth lifetime. He returned to Gallifrey when the call came and served on a warship. They hadn’t been able to send Nyssa back to her time and place, of course, as they usually did with aliens in such a situation, but they had her busy in a lab somewhere; he was guiltily grateful that he had someone to write letters home to. A timeship outfitted for war is a sight to behold, and you’d hardly have noticed him, a colorless figure in the midst of its workings. But when it was captured, the Daleks rolled in over his dead body.
The war began during the Doctor’s sixth lifetime. They put a recall signal on all the renegades, willy-nilly, and he was too proud to admit he’d far rather have run. They had him defending the homeworld, alongside callow students in their first regeneration and creaky elders near the end of their thirteenth. They didn’t know what else to do with him; he made such a cross-grained soldier that they could neither send him to the front nor entrust him with a project. But he held his squad together until the fall of Arcadia, when they were killed–all but him–in a bungled offensive. When he and the commander both disappeared the next day, they put it down to temporal instability; the paperwork was easier that way.
The war began during the Doctor’s seventh lifetime. He began it: he destroyed Skaro, ready to face the consequences as they came. He fought in the thick of it many times over, up and down his fractured timeline. Sometimes Ace had his back and Hex patched up the wounded. Sometimes Roz and Chris helped him lick his troops into shape. Sometimes Mel talked him through infiltrating security systems from the other end of a computer connection. Sometimes, on the nights when he could sleep, he dreamed that Bernice dug him up in bits and pieces, flicking the blood off his hands with a little brush, and boxed him up and sent him to his brother. Sometimes he never had a brother.
The war began during the Doctor’s eighth lifetime. It was Romana’s fault; it was for her sake but against her will; she had nothing to do with it. The Doctor kept his hands clean; he participated (euphemistically) in the war effort; he fought, telling himself it was for the good of the universe. He destroyed Gallifrey, you know, even though he also didn’t. The two timelines twist together like rope, just as memory and forgetfulness twine in his battered mind. So if you ask him whether that battle was a win or a loss, he won’t be able to tell you.
You know what the next Doctor did too, alone in the desert. And yes, he did it, as well as not doing it; that’s the point, that’s how this war works. It’s been ended and it never happened and it’s still raging. But the one thing he accomplished across timelines was this: he severed the war from his personal future. No next Doctor would hear the call to war.
So they came willingly, in the end, the two handsome young men with nowhere left to go. They laid their hands with his on the big red button in solidarity, with what he feared was a twisted kind of pride. If he was neither to die in the war nor to be free of it, what was the point in finishing it at all?
If he saved lives instead, would they stop demanding things of him? Would the specter of the homeworld ever leave him be?
He chose to be haunted by the living.