When is a TV Show About Time Travel Not About Time Travel?

When it’s Doctor Who, usually. For a TV show where the lead character is a time traveller, there is very little regard for the implications inherent in time travel, and they’re usually presented in contradictory ways when they are mentioned.

For instance: I was watching The Shakespeare Code, wherein the Doctor explains to Martha that if they fail to foil the Carrionites’ plan, the world will be destroyed right then and there in 1599 and Martha’s world will cease to exist. This is surely in contradiction of the Doctor’s assertion in the Waters of Mars that some points in history are fixed, and must stand no matter what; if the world had ended in 1599, Adelaide Brooke and her base on Mars would surely have been wiped from history too. I realise this is probably a pedantic point, but it reaches to the heart of one of the really major failings of the Russell T. Davies (RTD) era of the show: that logic and consistency would be thrown out of the window in favour of whichever plot mechanic was found most expedient at that point. It’s an ultimately unsatisfying way of telling a story.

To some extent Doctor Who has an excuse for poor continuity, with the consistency of past events with current ones; as Paul Cornell (writer of the excellent Human Nature/Family of Blood two-parter) point out, the effects of (to a greater extent) the Time War, and (to a lesser extent) time travel can re-write history, meaning that it’s not impossible to see two totally contradictory versions of events.

This provides no explanation, however, for the inconsistency in the nature of time travel itself; one would expect the laws of physics to be invariant under any sort of temporal abuse.

I’m greatly hoping that Moffat’s era will tread more carefully in this area, and the evidence presented by his old episodes show that he’s one of the few writers on the series who treats the time-travel mechanic as much more than a convenient plot generator; his first episode, The Empty Child, has a plot in which Jack Harkness runs self-cleaning scams, where the evidence is cleared away by a known historical event. Blink employs a non-linear narrative, where the Doctor invokes non-linear causality to justify him reading aloud from a transcript of a conversation he’s still having! This is all a great step up from the usual uses of time travel, which is to enter some historical period at the start of an episode, and then leave it again at the end.

Moffat’s stories show that it’s possible to tell compelling stories which are properly guided by their own consistent internal logic, requiring no great leaps of suspension of disbelief.

I was thinking about this in relation to an idea while reading the post by Paul Cornell I linked above, and combining it with my viewing of The Shakespeare Code; if time travel is re-writing history, would there have even been a threat to Earth in Shakespeare’s time if the Doctor had never gone there? Sure, he saved the day, but is just his presence in any point of history destructive to the timeline? Monsters and chaos and death seem to follow the Doctor, but is it coincidence or causation?

I think that would put a potentially interesting spin on the nature of the Doctor and the Time Lord’s policy of non-interference if the presence of time travellers was actually harmful. It would certainly put a dent into the Doctor’s otherwise impeccable morals.

I suppose this is slightly ruled out by Turn Left, in which we see the monsters would have come anyway, but I still think it would be interesting to explore.

You can tell compelling, emotional stories without totally fucking up your internal consistency. Y’know, unlike the ones told with unbreakable time-locks, for instance. Which are breakable if you want to risk going crazy. Or you can toss a diamond into a hologram as well as Timothy Dalton. I do know a lot of people who were confused by that reveal: “I thought the time lords were dead, not trapped in a bubble!”. The de-emphasis of the mechanics of time travel in the series is, I think, one of the contributors to that lack of understanding.

I do have to give RTD some credit, though. I am desperatly curious about what exactly the Could-Have-Been King and the Nightmare Child are. I suppose it’s easier to come up with cool-sounding names when there’s no requirement to ever actually have to depict them on screen!

6 thoughts on “When is a TV Show About Time Travel Not About Time Travel?

  1. I really think Moffat being in charge is only gonna be a good thing. I've not yet seen a bad show that he's written, and his previous on Doctor Who has been excellent (although in Blink, wasn't there a problem with the way time travel was portrayed? The whole “conversation through time” thing couldn't happen surely, because for the Doctor to speak to her requires the guy to note down her responses to the Doctor talking to her, which requires the Doctor to talk to her, which… you get the picture. You're likely to know more than me about this, so plausible or not?)

    Oddly enough, I watched this film last night which is all about time travel. It has Chris O'Dowd (Roy from the excellent IT Crowd) in it, and it's pretty funny. Worth watching.

  2. Well, we don't know terribly well what the Physics of time travel are. The experiment hasn't been done, so it's all a big what-if right now.

    I'd say what's most likely is that scenarios which are explicit inconsistent paradoxes, e.g. going back in time and killing your own grandfather, are probably impossible, but I can't think of a reason why a sitation with looped causality like in Blink would obviously be forbidden, as it is at the very least consistent.

    As to how such a thing would form, given that classically it appears impossible, I would make an appeal to quantum theory; a system is allowed to pass into classically allowed states by passing through classically forbidden states. A quantum gravitational fluctuation could well be responsible for such an apparently paradoxical structure to come into existence.

    And yeh, I'm going to love the Moffat era :)

  3. Well, we don't know terribly well what the Physics of time travel are. The experiment hasn't been done, so it's all a big what-if right now.

    I'd say what's most likely is that scenarios which are explicit inconsistent paradoxes, e.g. going back in time and killing your own grandfather, are probably impossible, but I can't think of a reason why a sitation with looped causality like in Blink would obviously be forbidden, as it is at the very least consistent.

    As to how such a thing would form, given that classically it appears impossible, I would make an appeal to quantum theory; a system is allowed to pass into classically allowed states by passing through classically forbidden states. A quantum gravitational fluctuation could well be responsible for such an apparently paradoxical structure to come into existence.

    And yeh, I'm going to love the Moffat era :)

  4. Not being part of the Tweeting Hive Mind, I can't reply directly to the tweet so I'll do it here…

    The link you posted to the Charlie Brooker thing – its sickening how true it is, innit?

  5. I'm not entirely sure yet, actually. I adore Stephen Moffat, don't get me wrong – did you see Jekyll a few years back?? And his episodes from the last few series have been amazing. BUT they have also been very self-contained, kind of weird and off the wall. And that's a really good thing – two or three times in a series. I wonder whether Moffat-style overarching plotlines are going to be (fingers crossed) as brilliant as his one or two episode ones, or whether, well, they might just be a bit too weird to work. Who knows? We shall surely see.

    As for the workings of time travel… *brainache* I think I'm going to need a pen and paper…

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