A Brief History of Gallifrey

In the 26 seasons of Doctor Who, shown on the BBC between 1963 and 1989, a great deal was revealed about the Doctor’s mysterious home planet, Gallifrey, and the history of the Time Lords who inhabited it. However, that information trickled out in bits and pieces over hundreds of episodes, and I’ve never seen it all brought together in a simple, straightforward summary. I have here attempted to do so.

I watched all the available episodes and read transcripts (or at the very least detailed summaries) of the “lost” episodes, took notes whenever information on the Doctor’s background was provided, and then tried to piece it all together into a coherent narrative. In doing so, many previously hidden facts stand revealed.

I do not consider any of the numerous Doctor Who novels to be canonical, nor do I accept any film or television versions not originally shown on the BBC or not made as part of the original series production schedule. Therefore, this history is based purely on the episodes of the original television series.

Any conflicting accounts of the history of Gallifrey and the Time Lords are therefore non-canonical and speculative.


The early inhabitants of the planet Gallifrey possessed formidable mystical powers, which they used to reach out into the depths of space in search of other life forms. They were successful in making contact with a number of non-corporeal entities, such as the Fendahl — a gestalt creature consisting of twelve aspects around a focal point. The malevolence of the Fendahl was so frightening that it was forever remembered in Gallifreyan mythology. [1] The early Gallifreyan mystics were also able to contact another group of mystics on a nearby planet, the Sisterhood of Karn, which possessed an Elixir of Life that made them immortal. The Sisterhood jealously guarded the secret of their elixir, and not even the other inhabitants of Karn knew of it — only the mystics of Gallifrey. [2]

Eventually, the Gallifreyans developed primitive space travel technology, and they began to explore their own solar system and those orbiting nearby stars. In time, they managed to reach the planet Karn, and while promising diplomatic relations with the Karn government, the Gallifreyan expeditionary force was actually looking for the Sisterhood and their Elixir of Life. Fearing exposure, the Sisterhood agreed to share the elixir with the Gallifreyans in exchange for their silence. However, the Elixir of Life did not grant immortality to the Gallifreyans, but instead triggered a mutagenic change in their body chemistry resulting in a twelve-regeneration life-cycle, thus granting every Gallifreyan thirteen lives. They would thenceforth use the elixir only in times of acute regenerative crisis. Possessed of such long life-spans, the Gallifreyans were able to develop their science and technology exponentially, and they soon advanced beyond any other civilization known to them. Only the secret of time travel continued to elude them. However, with this advancement came a high level of arrogance, and the Gallifreyans began to misuse their great power disgracefully. They set up an impenetrable force field around part of the wilderness of Gallifrey and constructed an ominous Dark Tower at its center, which was full of fiendish traps. They called this region the Death Zone, and collected sentient beings from across the universe via the Time Scoop, a long-range teleportation device, to fight and die in the Gallifreyan version of a gladiatorial arena. [3] Into this world was born the greatest single figure in the history of Gallifrey, Rassilon.

Rassilon was a young scientist when Gallifrey found itself at war with a race of space-borne Giant Vampires, each of which could suck the life out of an entire planet. [4] Believing themselves to be the only civilization advanced enough to destroy these monsters, the Gallifreyans launched an all-out space war, but found even their technology was not enough to destroy the Vampires. The war took a terrible toll on Gallifrey, and they began to fear all was lost, until Rassilon, working with a brilliant engineer named Omega and others, developed a living metal they called vallidium, which was in fact possessed of a crude sentience and geared toward one single goal, destruction. [5] Out of vallidium was constructed a fleet of dagger-shaped ships called Nemesis that sought out the Giant Vampires and impaled them through the heart, killing them. Only the Vampire King escaped, disappearing into another universe through a charged vacuum emboitment (CVE). The war was won, but sickened by the carnage, the Gallifreyans renounced violence forever. [6]

Hailed as heroes, Rassilon and Omega and their colleagues sought new peaceful applications for vallidium. They found its unique properties allowed them to construct the most powerful and sophisticated remote stellar manipulator the universe had ever seen. [7] They believed that, coupled with new developments in transdimensional engineering, [8] this technology could finally grant them mastery over time travel. They undertook a project to accomplish this, and Omega himself was selected to take the remote stellar manipulator to an uninhabited star and detonate it, creating a supernova. However, Rassilon knew Omega well, and recognized that the stellar engineer had an inclination to megalomania, and he feared Omega would use this new science to set himself up as a god. Therefore, he arranged it so that, whether he succeeded or failed, Omega would never return from his mission. The detonation was a success and the supernova was created, but Omega was thought killed, though he was actually thrown into the anti-matter universe. [9] The Gallifreyans used the energy generated by the supernova to power their first time travel experiments, which were successful. Rassilon then took the space fleet out to the supernova, recovered the remote stellar manipulator, and used it to convert the supernova into a black hole. To avoid Omega’s fate, Rassilon protected himself with what would come to be known as the Sash of Rassilon, a technological masterpiece that prevents the wearer from being sucked into another dimension. They then contained the nucleus of the black hole within a transdimensionally-engineered obelisk, which they brought back to Gallifrey. Rassilon was able to stabilize all the elements of the nucleus and set it in an eternally dynamic equation against the mass of the planet. He placed this obelisk within what would come to be called the Eye of Harmony, around which was built the enormous complex known as the Panopticon. [10] The doors to the Eye of Harmony were sealed with the Scepter of Rassilon, and its vast powers could be accessed only through the object called the Great Key.

With the power now available through the Eye of Harmony, Rassilon oversaw the construction of a fleet of transdimensionally-engineered time capsules, with which they could travel throughout time and space and conduct detailed surveillance of the various cultures they encountered. One of the first uses made of the technology, however, was to find the home planet of the legendary Fendahl and destroy it, creating an asteroid belt between two planets that would eventually be named Mars and Jupiter. [11] Rassilon and his associates were troubled by this act, and decided to take over the government and completely reorder Gallifreyan society. Rassilon declared that a new era had begun on Gallifrey and they had become Time Lords.

Rassilon and his associates drew up a new constitution that laid down the Five Great Principles, [12] and united the various domed city-states under a single government, which had two branches: a governing body called the High Council of the Time Lords, and an independent law-enforcement body called the Time Lord Tribunal. The city-states now became colleges or chapters, each one represented on the High Council. The oldest and most prominent of these, and the one from which Rassilon and his inner circle came, was Pyrdonia, traditionally represented by the colors scarlet and orange. The two other most important chapters were Arcalia, represented by green, and Patraxis, represented by heliotrope. [13] There were four lesser chapters, but each one had its own Academy of Time, at which young Gallifreyans would study in order to join the ranks of the Time Lords, the upper crust of the Gallifreyan social hierarchy. Rassilon himself sat at the pinnacle of that hierarchy as Lord President of the High Council. Under him was a Chancellor, then Cardinals representing each chapter as well as various Councillors. The seat of government was within the Panopticon building, near the Eye of Harmony, which sat at the center of the Capitol, flanked by the Archive and Communication Towers. The peace and order of the Capitol was maintained by the Chancellery Guard, an elite squad under the command of the Castellan. [14] The Capitol was itself located within a vast enclosed area called the Citadel, [15] roughly the size of a small continent, ringed by mountains on the southern hemisphere of Gallifrey. [16]

Under Rassilon’s guidance, the Time Lords began their explorations, and early on they encountered a planet called Minyos. The Time Lords decided to use their advanced technology to help the people of Minyos, who regarded them as gods. They provided them with medical and scientific aid, better communications and weapons, but the Minyons were not ready for such advancements, and a terrible war broke out that destroyed the entire planet. Realizing their mistake, the Time Lords adopted a strict policy of non-interference, pledging to do no more than observe and gather knowledge. [17] This was a very controversial decision, however, and it was debated and argued for a long time. Rassilon conceded that those opposed to the policy had a good point, that the Time Lords had a moral duty to protect less advanced civilizations. He also felt it was important to monitor other cultures that might themselves develop time travel technology. Therefore, he created a covert operations bureau under control of the Tribunal called the Celestial Intervention Agency. [18] The C.I.A. even came eventually to operate without time capsules, using instead Time Rings to move single individuals around the cosmos. [19] Rassilon also realized that, as word of the Time Lords spread throughout the universe, Gallifrey might be vulnerable to alien attack. Therefore he created a quantum force field called the Transduction Barrier [20] to surround and protect the entire planet, making the night sky a burnt orange from that time onward. [21] Even their own time capsules could not come and go while the Transduction Barrier was raised, which also made the unauthorized use of a time capsule nearly impossible.

The Time Lords began to amass so much information that data storage became a problem. Therefore Rassilon and his scientists created a vast organic virtual-reality supercomputer called the Matrix. All the knowledge, information, and wisdom of every Time Lord could then be stored within the Matrix for posterity. And when a Time Lord reached the end of his final regeneration, his mind could be scanned into a part of the Matrix called the Amplified Panatropic Computation Net, so that none of his experience would be lost. They then made bio-data extracts of every living Time Lord, color-coded by their chapter, to be kept on file within the Matrix as well. [22] It was decided that the sitting President of the High Council would have direct access to the Matrix through a cybernetic coronet, in order to help him rule more effectively. [23] However, absolute power began to affect Rassilon’s judgment as the centuries passed, and he began researching the only discovery that could outstrip the realization of time travel: the power to have one’s thoughts transform reality itself. An early test proved successful, the Coronet of Rassilon allowing him to control the minds of others. To cover up the nature of his research, Rassilon made a public display of creating his own tomb out of the long-abandoned Dark Tower within the Death Zone, all the while hoping to achieve immortality. Paranoid that others might seek immortality as well, Rassilon laid a complex trap to lure in and dispose of any who would seek to live forever themselves. [24] He also had a trusted associate create a De-Mat Gun, a dematerialization ray, powered by the Great Key itself. [25] His inner circle became concerned that Rassilon would want such a powerful weapon built, and they began to quietly investigate Rassilon’s research. They were dismayed when they discovered the nature of his experiments, and how far along he was in achieving his goal. They alerted the rest of the High Council, who deposed the now insane Rassilon and shut him up in his tomb in perpetual suspended animation. However, the High Council believed his inner circle knew too much, and they turned on them as well. However, Rassilon’s inner circle managed to escape, vanishing without a trace. To prevent future Presidents from gaining absolute power, it was decided that the Great Key would be hidden, the secret of its whereabouts charged to each successive Chancellor of the High Council. [26]

The truth of Rassilon’s fate was hidden as well, becoming the stuff of rumor. Officially, he was a hero to his people, and many of his personal items became revered artifacts, [27] such as the Sash, the Scepter, the Great Key, and his book The Worshipful and Ancient Law of Gallifrey, which was stored in the Panopticon Archives. [28] The remote stellar manipulator was named the Hand of Omega, though it was eventually lost and nearly forgotten. His final research was collected and locked away, and would come to be known as the Black Scrolls of Rassilon. [29] Eons then passed as the Time Lords went about observing the cosmos. But the systems laid down by Rassilon allowed a creeping corruption that deepened over time, and the deceit and clandestine outrages committed by the High Council worsened, as is often the result of social engineering. Eventually, the High Council came under the leadership of Lord President Morbius.

During this time, another Time Lord named Salyavin found that he possessed the unique ability to project his mind into other minds. Not content with the mundane existence on Gallifrey, he decided to seek personal power, and developed a reputation for style, flair, and panache. [30] He finally unearthed the legendary Hand of Omega, intent on using it as a devastating weapon, similar to the doomsday device of the planet Uxarieus. [31] Salyavin was ultimately defeated and imprisoned on the planet Shada. However, possession of the Hand of Omega soon corrupted Morbius as well. He became a ruthless tyrant with a band of fanatical followers. He also formed a personal army of unscrupulous mercenaries and laid waste to several planets. Believing that the Sisterhood of Karn could grant him immortality, Morbius attacked and devastated the planet, wiping out the entire civilization. The Sisterhood survived, however, due to the last-minute intervention of the other Time Lords, who finally defeated Morbius and had him executed, placing his body in a dispersal chamber to be atomized. [32] These events led a group of Time Lords to reject their own society completely, and they ventured out into the untamed wilderness of outer Gallifrey to live a simple, tribal existence, calling themselves the Shobogans. [33]

Some time later, a young Time Lord would arrive on the scene who would one day call himself the Doctor. He belonged to the Pyrdonian chapter, and as such attended the Pyrdon Academy of Time, [34] after spending some of his youth in the mountains outside the Citadel. [35] At the Academy he met a disaffected mathematical genius who would eventually call himself the Master, [36] an overzealous neurochemistry student who would one day be exiled to the planet Miasimia Goria where she would adopt the title of the Rani, [37] a jovial technical whiz named Drax, [38] and a fatuous brownnoser named Roncible. [39] He would be taught idealism by Azmael [40] and pragmatism by Borusa. [41] After graduation, he remained active in Time Lord politics, feeling they had a moral duty to use their power to be a force for good in the cosmos, rather than passive observers. He made friends with an up-and-coming Time Lord named Hedin, [42] and a communications expert named Damon. [43] He also became very close to a young female who would eventually call herself Susan. [44]

When the Doctor was 236 years old, [45] a crisis arose as the sitting Lord President of the High Council decided to use the Hand of Omega to prevent any other civilization from developing time-travel technology, and thus pose a potential threat to the dominion of the Time Lords of Gallifrey. The Doctor and the Master, still best friends, decided the time had come to take decisive action. They hatched a plan to steal the Hand of Omega and hide it away forever. They were successful in gaining possession of the device, but at the crucial moment, the Master betrayed the Doctor, wanting to use the weapon for his own ends. The two allies turned on each other, and the Master was captured by the Chancellery Guard. The Doctor, however, managed to steal an obsolete Type 40 time capsule from a repair bay, and he and Susan took the Hand of Omega away from Gallifrey. The Time Lords pursued them, able to track the Hand of Omega on their scanners, and the Doctor and Susan led a fugitive existence for some time. Finally, on some unknown planet, the Doctor discovered a large metal box that, when he placed the Hand of Omega within it, shielded the device from the Time Lords’ scans. They next materialized on Earth in the year 1963 and resolved to stay a few months and catch their breath. [46] The Doctor made arrangements to have the box buried in a nearby churchyard, but when his time capsule was discovered by two human schoolteachers, they left Earth, and his arrangements had to be completed by his future self, some 700 years older. [47] The Hand of Omega was then returned to Gallifrey, and the Time Lords called off their manhunt.

The Doctor was eventually forced to contact the Time Lords, however, and the Time Lord Tribunal arrested him, tried him, and sentenced him to exile on the planet Earth. [48] The Tribunal periodically enlisted the Doctor’s help in certain matters, both before and after his exile was remanded. The Tribunal granted him his freedom after he saved Gallifrey from Omega, seeking revenge from the anti-matter universe. [49] Also, the High Council found it useful to allow the Doctor to intervene in unjust situations on an unofficial basis, to keep opposition to the non-interference policy to a minimum. The Doctor and the Master both returned to Gallifrey on opposite sides of a plot to assassinate the Lord President of the High Council. The Master was driven off, but not before his tampering with the Eye of Harmony left half the Capitol in ruins, with countless lives lost. [50] The Doctor later returned to Gallifrey to defeat an invasion attempt by the Sontarans. [51] Omega made a second attempt to leave the anti-matter universe, forcing the High Council to bring the Doctor back to Gallifrey, where he discovered his old friend Hedin was acting on Omega’s behalf, believing the Time Lords owed him more than to leave him trapped in a state of semi-existence. [52] Still later, Borusa proved to have gone insane as well, and like others before him, sought the secret of immortality. He reactivated the Death Zone by patching it in to the Eye of Harmony, causing a tremendous power drain, and then used the Time Scoop to collect the first five of the Doctor’s incarnations to unravel the secrets of the Tomb of Rassilon for him. Borusa fell into Rassilon’s trap, however, and his life-force was absorbed into the tomb itself. [53]

The Doctor’s presence on Gallifrey becoming more frequent, the High Council feared his investigative nature would lead him to uncover more of their corruption, which had reached new heights under the presidency of Borusa. They therefore rigged another trial, hoping to put the Doctor out of the way once and for all, and to act as prosecutor, they enlisted an entity calling himself the Valeyard, [54] who was finally revealed to be some strange amalgam of the Doctor’s own darker thoughts, drawn from near the end of his life. Acting from his own motives, the Master revealed the nature of this conspiracy, at which point insurrection broke out on Gallifrey and the High Council was summarily deposed. [55] This scandal almost certainly led to a revision of the constitution and the formation of a new, more accountable government for the Time Lords.


[1] 15.3 “Image of the Fendahl”
[2] 13.5 “The Brain of Morbius”
[3] 20.7 “The Five Doctors”
[4] 18.4 “State of Decay”
[5] 25.3 “Silver Nemesis”
[6] 18.4 “State of Decay”
[7] 25.1 “Remembrance of the Daleks”
[8] 14.5 “The Robots of Death”
[9] 10.1 “The Three Doctors”
[10] 14.3 “The Deadly Assassin”
[11] 15.3 “Image of the Fendahl”
[12] 17.6 “Shada”
[13] 14.3 “The Deadly Assassin”
[14] ibid
[15] 15.6 “The Invasion of Time”
[16] 18.4 “State of Decay”
[17] 15.5 “Underworld”
[18] 14.3 “The Deadly Assassin”
[19] 12.4 “Genesis of the Daleks”
[20] 15.6 “The Invasion of Time”
[21] 1.7 “The Sensorites”
[22] 14.3 “The Deadly Assassin”
[23] 15.6 “The Invasion of Time”
[24] 20.7 “The Five Doctors”
[25] 15.6 “The Invasion of Time”
[26] ibid
[27] 14.3 “The Deadly Assassin”
[28] 17.6 “Shada”
[29] 20.7 “The Five Doctors”
[30] 17.6 “Shada”
[31] 8.3 “Colony in Space”
[32] 13.5 “The Brain of Morbius”
[33] 15.6 “The Invasion of Time”
[34] 14.3 “The Deadly Assassin”
[35] 9.5 “The Time Monster”
[36] 9.3 “The Sea Devils”
[37] 24.1 “Time and the Rani”
[38] 16.6 “The Armageddon Factor”
[39] 14.3 “The Deadly Assassin”
[40] 21.7 “The Twin Dilemma”
[41] 14.3 “The Deadly Assassin”
[42] 20.1 “Arc of Infinity”
[43] ibid
[44] 1.1 “An Unearthly Child”
[45] 16.2 “The Pirate Planet”
[46] 1.1 “An Unearthly Child”
[47] 25.1 “Remembrance of the Daleks”
[48] 6.7 “The War Games”
[49] 10.1 “The Three Doctors”
[50] 14.3 “The Deadly Assassin”
[51] 15.6 “The Invasion of Time”
[52] 20.1 “Arc of Infinity”
[53] 20.7 “The Five Doctors”
[54] 23.1 “The Mysterious Planet”
[55] 23.4 “The Ultimate Foe”

Next: A Brief History of the Master

Jump To: Gallifrey at War


Anonymous said...

This is fantastic. Exactly what I was looking for. Thank you for putting this together. Well done!

Anonymous said...

Thank you

Thank you

Thank you.

Anonymous said...

Thank you! I tried other places and this one helped me the most! Thank you!

Anonymous said...

Brilliant - just brilliant. Thank you so much. You are an excellent writer and made this an exceptionally enjoyable read. My husband and I are most impressed. Thank you!

Anonymous said...

holy crap. this is great stuff.

Tony said...

In the Christmas 2006 special, the Doctor reveals that, in the Dark Times before Rassilon, the Gallifreyans battled a race of giant arachnoids called the Racnoss. The insatiable, omnivorous appetites of these creatures led them to devastate whole planets. Finally, an alliance of Gallifreyan political entities, later known as the Fledgling Empires, went to war with the Racnoss and wiped them out. Only one, the Empress, escaped.

Tony said...

In the 2007 episode “The Sound of Drums,” the Doctor tells his companions that Gallifrey was once known as the Shining World of the Seven Systems, and that the Citadel was located in the Mountains of Solace and Solitude on the continent of Wild Endeavour. He also describes how, at the age of eight, the children of the Time Lords are taken from their families to enter the Academy as novices. As a rite of initiation, the children are taken to a sacred site where stands a stabilized hole in spacetime called the Untempered Schism, through which can be seen the raw energies of the time vortex. The children then gaze into the naked power of the universe in a moment of self-discovery.

Tony said...

In the 2008 episode “The Stolen Earth,” the Doctor mentions that he once visited the Medusa Cascade, a large interdimensional rift floating in space, when he was 90 years old. This would have been before he left Gallifrey in the TARDIS, and indeed the Doctor describes himself as being “just a kid” at the time.