Time and The Doctor
To mark the closure of the first part of the tenure of Steve Moffat, and our retrospective of The Time Meddler, Phaseshift looks at Time in the Whoniverse. Warning – any time you spend reading this blog is lost to you.
A popular criticism (at least, on some internet boards) of the first three series of the tenure of Steve Moffat is his approach to time. That it seems to lack “rules” (or rather consistent application of rules) is a common one. It’s led to some entertaining debates and rigorous perspectives on the mechanics of what happened in various stories (for example, these blogs produced by @bluesqueakpip and @nick on change and no-change in Day of the Doctor).
I actually like it, and I’ll endeavour to explain why. The main reason, I suppose, is that its reignited some very old debates on how Time works in the Whoniverse, the nature of reality, individual perspective on events, and delivers a crash course in elements that have existed in the show since its very early days. These arguments seemed to solidify (to me) on the academic internet in the late 80s/early 90s. Students, with too much time (and beer) on tap, suddenly discovering how sexy ideas like Chaos Theory and Uncertainty were, and given a convenient electronic means to speak to like-minded (i.e. drunk) people .
Many of the elements that Steve Moffat brings to the table have clear precedent in the Whoniverse. We’ve seen them before in individual stories in the BG and RTD years. What’s unusual is to see them overlain, and the nature of following an arc of stories forces you to consider the overall shape of the narrative, to trace the flow of cause and effect. His series also revel in dialogue and iconography that reflects perceptions and metaphors for time.
Take a look at Series 6 for example, and it’s soggy with watery metaphors for time. The series is bookmarked by Lake Silencio, the lake being a pretty commonly used metaphor in stories for measuring your life against. A still point. You have a ship calmed on the Tides of Time and the Red Waterfall of an accelerated time stream. Throughout it you have River, and if theres ever a metaphor that’s been applied to Time, time and time again, it’s that one:
“Time is like a river made up of the events which happen, and a violent stream; for as soon as a thing has been seen, it is carried away, and another comes in its place, and this will be carried away too.”
― Marcus Aurelius, Meditations
“Time is a flowing river. Happy those who allow themselves to be carried, unresisting, with the current. They float through easy days. They live, unquestioning, in the moment.”
– Christopher Morley, Where the Blue Begins
“Time is but the stream I go a-fishing in. I drink at it; but while I drink I see the sandy bottom and detect how shallow it is. Its thin current slides away, but eternity remains.”
– Henry David Thoreau, Walden
Series 7 used in the iconography of the leaf, in substance and implementation a signifier of Chaos theory. A simple random occurrence of a leaf blowing in the wind (perhaps a wind started on another continent by one of those bloody butterflies) initiates a meeting between Clara’s parents.
Ellie: What? You kept it.
Dave: Of course I kept it.
Dave: Because this exact leaf had to grow in that exact way, in that exact place, so that precise wind could tear it from that precise branch, and make it fly into this exact face. At that exact moment. And if just one of those tiny little things never happened, I’d never have met you. Which makes this the most important leaf in human history.
– Rings of Akhaten
I’m glad SM chose the leaf, as I’m afraid the Butterflies (The Butterfly Effect) have been done to death. Edward Lorenz, a meteorological physicist at MIT wrote a paper “Predictibility: Does the Flap of a Butterfly’s Wings in Brazil Set Off a Tornado in Texas” in ’73. Its conclusions, that tiny changes to a system can radically change an outcome, tend to be misrepresented in pop culture like the film, er, The Butterfly Effect, simply because trying to quantify a direct route cause of an event in a complex system becomes impossible. Among the many pop culture uses of the Butterfly, the Eighth Doctor novels had an enormous open space within the TARDIS filled with Butterflies – a visualisation of the TARDIS systems navigating their way through the endless shifting range of possibilities.
Largely – a lot of the jousting in old and new conversations seems to be between those who preferred the idea that Time was written, and nothing could alter it, and those who saw time as a dynamic flow. The River is an excellent metaphor for this one. The Doctors TARDIS flies upriver, back in time and lands with a splash at its new locations. The adventure occurs, and causes ripples in the eddy and flow of the River of Time. The Doctor leaves, with everything looking “about right”. Going back forward in time, and the River may look the same, but inevitably small changes on a minuscule level may have occurred and grown. Things the Doctor doesn’t particularly notice, because he’s not everywhere.
Evidence that the Universe doesn’t really change around the Doctor is a bit thin on the ground, to be frank. The early days of the Whoniverse saw a large number of tales set in the Earths past as the Doctor fruitlessly tried to navigate the TARDIS back to Earth to drop of his human passengers. Implicit in these travels seemed to be the understanding that time could not be changed, or so it is said. Many remember the Doctors advice to Barbara in The Aztecs:
“You can’t rewrite history. Not one line!”
A line that was to be echoed by River to the tenth Doctor regarding her own life. But that seems more of a plea, than a statement of fact. In The Massacre, the Doctor ruminates of Steven:
“Even after all this time, he cannot understand. I dare not change the course of history.”
Both of these quotes don’t rule out the possibility of change though. They seem, on the face of it, to suggest that it’s undesirable. Perhaps in this early stage of the Doctors life he still believes in the rules of Time for his people, or perhaps because he understands that, for his companions who exist further down the timeline, change could be disastrous. Being there could be dangerous – actively changing the outcome of known events could lead to a serious case of “not being born”. An embarrassing outcome in anyone’s life.
RTD seemed to throw a lifeboat of optimism to the solid state mindset with the idea of “Fixed Points” in time, which could not be changed. These all boiled down to perception though. A popular one is Fires of Pompeii which, some argue, shows the Doctor always destroyed Pompeii. Did he though, because locating the cause of that scenario reaches backwards and forwards in Time? Pompeii wasn’t going to be destroyed in this timeline because the Pyroville were tapping its power. They tapped the power to convert the Earth. They did this because their planet had disappeared. Their planet was taken by the Daleks. The Daleks had removed themselves from time to fight a Time War with the Time Lords. It’s timey-wimey, but the net result is that, in the Universe pre-timewar, Vesuvius destroyed Pompeii. The Doctor made sure that in the post-timewar Universe it still did.
RTD then set about deconstructing his own idea of a “fixed point” in Waters of Mars. The events (the Doctor believes) are a fixed point, and he changes them. We see a big event being displaced as the headlines the Doctor recalls change. We see two people, who should be dead, survive to tell the tale. There is a sense of time unravelling until the suicide of Adelaide seems to stabilise things. Her death is the critical aspect of the events of Mars. Perhaps others could be saved, but the outcome that should have been preserved – that Adelaide’s granddaughter should go to the stars based on heroic tales of a grandmother she never met, was preserved. It’s a matter of perception, and being able to anticipate the crucial elements of cause and effect, and even the Doctor can’t get it right. SM pulled a similar trick in Series 6 – the Death of the Doctor. If everyone calls the events of Lake Silencio the fixed point of the Death of the Doctor, does it make it true?
Arguments for the transient nature of the Universe the Doctor inhabits are actually difficult to ignore. Not that long after the events of The Aztecs we had the Doctors first Trenzalore in the Space Museum. The Doctor sees his fate mounted in the Museum and seeks to change the outcome. He’s successful (and delighted, as you would be). We also had the introduction of The Time Meddler. Like the Master later, a member of the Doctors own species who actively sought to alter events for his own purposes. Even non-renegade Time Lords were later seen to desire changes in time when it suited their purposes.
TIMELORD: We’d like you to return to Skaro at a point in time before the Daleks evolved.
DOCTOR: Do you mean avert their creation?
TIMELORD: Or affect their genetic development so that they evolve into less aggressive creatures.
DOCTOR: Hmm. That’s feasible.
– Genesis of the Daleks
And the Doctor succeeds – the Daleks were never quite the same after that, and the story became one of Davros, who perhaps should have really died in the original Time Line. One of the frequent hazards of time travel stories is that the outcome you seek to avert becomes worse, or solidifies. It’s why this story is often seen (especially by RTD) as the start of the time war. The Time Lords inadvertently created the Time Line that would lead to the Time War. The Butterfly flaps its wings, and Chaos followed.
Shortly after that, the Doctor gave a demonstration to Sarah Jane of the cost leaving work undone in Pyramids of Mars. Asking to leave the adventure uncompleted and Sutekh on the verge of escaping, she asks to go home – they know how these events will play out and Sutekh doesn’t succeed. He takes her to her own time to experience a destroyed, sterile, Earth. They can only return to the Earth she knows by defeating the foe in the past. Evidence that the Doctor was always fated to intervene? A fixed event? You could equally argue that Marcus Scarman may, before the Doctor began causing ripples in the Time stream, never have found the Tomb of Sutekh. An earlier adventure may have caused just enough change in a minor player to contribute to a chain of events that gave Marcus the location of the Tomb. Perhaps that’s an explanation of the meandering nature of the TARDIS. Navigating to yet another pressure point of change for the Doctor to sort out to ensure that the timelines, more or less, travel on the “accepted” course.
Time is a storm in which we are all lost. Only inside the convolutions of the storm itself shall we find our directions.
– William Carlos Williams, Selected Essays
Think like that, and you can see why his fellow Time Lords consider the Doctor an absolute madman. Backwards and forwards, with little changes leading to big events. Just about the most dangerous individual in the Universe, even if his hearts are in the right place. The Eleventh Doctor wondered if he’d ever get done with saving us, but the trick is, he may be the cause of some of the issues he saves us from. He’ll never be done, because each intervention leads to yet further disturbances.
So I think Steve Moffat has spent his time profitably. Dealing with some big concepts in a poetic way. A tea-time TV show that can spark more debate about perceptions, root-causes, and uncertainty over time than just about anyone else outside of physics. Not bad.
I hope the new incarnation of the Butterfly, Peter Capaldi, will continue to flap his wings. Let new storms commence.
While you consider the transient nature of our perception of time, don’t forget to change your clocks tonight in the UK as we shift to British Summer Time. Damn Time Meddlers.