Fast Return Switch #005: Time is Not a River

Occasionally in Doctor Who, we witness scenarios that suggest that perhaps all events in history are predetermined, that everything that happens is destined to happen. In this episode of the podcast, we look at the question of free will. Does the Doctor live in a deterministic universe, or do time travelers have free will to choose their own futures?



Time is Not a River

In the common view, time is divided up into three parts: past, present, and future. It’s the grammar of our language and is based on our experience. For us, of those three, only the present is real. The past has slipped out of existence. The future is some possibility that has not yet come to be. So the “now” has special significance. It truly exists, and for us it is in motion. The present moves forward, adding more to the past and subtracting from the future. This process we call the flow of time.

Yet this understanding of time, though it seems to make sense, is at odds with modern physics. Einstein’s special theory of relativity has tossed the traditional conception of time out the window. As he once famously expressed to a friend, “The past, present and future are only illusions, even if stubborn ones.”

This reminds us of an exchange that occurs between Ian and the Doctor in “The Cave of Skulls,” the second-ever episode of Doctor Who. Ian says, “Time doesn’t go round and round in circles. You can’t get on and off whenever you like in the past or the future.” “Really?” replies the Doctor. “Where does time go, then?” And Ian expresses the common understanding: “It doesn’t go anywhere. It just happens and then it’s finished.” The Doctor laughs.

He laughs because the traditional notion of the passage of time is nonsensical. It doesn’t happen and then is finished. That’s a misconception. The present moment for someone here on earth would not be the present moment for someone on Mars or another planet. It’s all relative. If you and I were in different places in the galaxy, something for me might be considered the past, but for you the future. Since we cannot single out any moment as special or real, because every moment considers itself to be special, we must therefore conclude that past, present, and future all are equally and objectively real. Physicists prefer to think of time as a landscape, laid out in its entirety, all events existing together, and nothing in it is to be considered privileged or special. In other words, time is not like a river. It doesn’t flow. The Doctor and the Time Lords recognize this, and although they may use expressions that suggest a flow or movement of time, they do so in much the same way as we speak of the sun rising and setting. We know it doesn’t actually work that way, but it has become part of language.

Well, how can we say that time does not flow when we perceive it as flowing? It seems to move to us. The answer is to be found in psychology and neurophysiology. It has something to do with how our brains function. The formation of our memories is unidirectional—we might perceive this as the flowing of time. It may be even that we have some kind of time organ in our brain. The jury is still out on this.

The important thing is that time travel can occur because all events are real and exist, and the TARDIS can enter into the time landscape at any point.

But does this conception of time mean that everything is written in stone, that nothing in the time landscape can be changed? Some time travel stories are presented this way: anything that will happen has happened. Everything is fated to be. A time traveler cannot go back and right the wrongs of history; they cannot even move a speck of dust on a certain day in the past if it is established that the speck of dust remained unmoved. They can participate in the past, but they simply make the past as it was. Whatever they do is destined to be.

This is not the way it works in Doctor Who. It started out that way in the first season, under the oversight of David Whitaker, but very soon thereafter it became clear that the Doctor could interfere in the history of worlds and change the way things turned out. What this means is that the universe, although it exists in reality as a whole from the remote past to the remote future, can be rewritten.

We cannot say, therefore, that all of the Doctor’s televised adventures still exist in the current Doctor’s universe. Perhaps you marvel sometimes, as I do, at the mental gymnastics some Doctor Who fans engage in, so that they may consider every Doctor Who story to be logically consistent. In a reality where the timeline can be altered, such an undertaking is not only impossible, but pointless. Have you ever heard people talking about there being a different explanation for the destruction of Atlantis in The Time Monster than in The Underwater Menace? While it is true that the Doctor has experienced both of them, this does not mean that the two destructions of Atlantis need to be harmonized. It does not mean that both of them exist in the Doctor’s current universe. No, only one does. How so? Because history was changed. First the one in 1970 happened (The Underwater Menace), then because of the interference of The Master, a time traveler, Atlantis was destroyed at an earlier date (The Time Monster). This means that the events of The Underwater Menace are no longer part of the universe the Doctor resides in, though because he is a time traveler, he still remembers these events. (As for the explanation of the destruction of Atlantis in The Daemons, that’s another matter to be discussed another time. Suffice it to say for now that the Doctor heard about it secondhand.)

Similarly, when the Doctor interferes in the period of the origin of the Daleks in Genesis of the Daleks, he says himself that their development has been delayed 1,000 years. It is unreasonable to think that previous Dalek stories have been unaffected by this. The Daleks are behind by a thousand years! This indicates that all of the previous Dalek stories have been either erased from the timeline or significantly altered. The Doctor remembers these adventures, but they don’t exist anymore as they did. This should not upset the fan. Just because we can’t say that all of the adventures the Doctor ever has experienced are still in the timeline of his universe, that doesn’t diminish them in any way. The Doctor still was part of them, and because they have had an effect on the Doctor’s psychological development, they are part of him.

Now, I’d like to address possible counterarguments to what I have just said, arguments that the Doctor does live in a deterministic universe. Some may point to instances in the program in which it appears as if history cannot be changed. One obvious example is the concept of “fixed points in time” that Russell T. Davies invented. But the very definition of fixed points makes it clear that they are exceptions, and doesn’t an exception prove the rule?

Some point to instances from Doctor Who’s first season, which suggest that history can’t be altered. We know that Story Editor David Whitaker was keen not to have the time travelers change history, and the subject is worked directly into the story The Aztecs. The Doctor utters to Barbara a now famous line: “But you can’t rewrite history. Not one line!”

Some interpret this to mean that the Doctor is saying that the laws of physics, nature, or time make it impossible to change history. In this scenario, it is not a law made by people, but universal laws built right into the fabric of time and space, that will not permit the altering of history. This interpretation coincides with the ideas laid down by Story Editor David Whitaker himself, who saw history as “fixed and unalterable.” But we cannot accept Whitaker’s principle, because the Doctor and his companions can change history. I don’t mean simply that we see it later on in the show, but we have seen it already, even prior to The Aztecs—they have clearly had an impact on the history of Skaro and of Marinus—in very large ways. They helped destroy the Daleks and the Conscience of Marinus. Both of these acts must have affected the paths of history for both of those planets in substantial ways. Whitaker contradicts himself.

The Doctor’s comment about not changing history must be interpreted in a different way, and it can be, and has been. Here are some of the more prevalent theories:

  1. This one is an interesting fan theory. Universal laws prevent the altering of history only on the planet Earth, and only in the past, and these laws apply only to Barbara and Ian, because it is their planet and their past. This, however, cannot be the case either, because Barbara does change history in this very story. She causes the high priest of the Aztecs to resign and to be replaced by another. This change in leadership would not have happened without her interference. Granted, this may not be a major alteration of time, but that doesn’t matter. Either one can change history or cannot. She changes history. There is no question about it. Similarly, she and Ian played a major part in the foiling of an attempt on Kublai Khan’s life earlier in Marco Polo. The history of earth is therefore alterable by human time travelers, even in early Doctor Who.
  2. The Doctor is referring to a “fixed point in time,” which cannot be changed. This is the interpretation taken in the new Series (see The Fires of Pompeii). The advantage of this interpretation is that it allows for the altering of history on most occasions, but there are certain historical events that are fixed by universal laws and are impervious to change. Unfortunately, that interpretation does not work in The Aztecs, because it is not a “point in time” that Barbara is attempting to alter. Her goal is to change an entire culture, not a specific event.
  3. That when the Doctor says “can’t,” he means “mustn’t.” Interference in history is not permissible, for some reason. This is the interpretation that the next story editor, Dennis Spooner, will take (see The Time Meddler), and in later Doctor Who stories we get an indication that the Doctor’s own people are the ones who have forbidden interference in history (see The War Games). So if this is the case, then we do not have here proof that history can’t be changed. Nevertheless, some may say that this interpretation is incorrect—that it’s not what the Doctor means in The Aztecs, because he follows up by saying, “What you are trying to do is impossible. I know. Believe me, I know!” This statement indicates that he is talking about more than just a rule here. I agree.
  4. The Doctor is making two points: first, that Barbara must not interfere with history (not one line), because it is forbidden to do so (coinciding with Spooner’s interpretation), but he makes the additional point that it is utterly impossible for Barbara to change the culture of the Aztecs. He explicitly says this in episode 2, arguing that their ways are too ingrained. Ian, likewise, tells her in episode 3 that the people as a whole are like Tlotoxl and that Autloc is the extraordinary one. “You can’t fight a whole way of life, Barbara,” he says. This explanation fits the evidence best. History is alterable, but it is impossible for one person to have such a significant effect on history that an entire way of life can be changed—even one line of it in the history books. The theme of interference in history is brought up again in The Reign of Terror and seems to be an addition to the script by Whitaker (most of the conversation concerning it comes up in the final scene in the TARDIS.) Barbara brings up the lesson she learned from trying to change the Aztecs, and the Doctor tells her, “The events will happen just as they are written. I’m afraid so, and we can’t stem the tide, but at least we can stop being carried away by the flood.” Then, when the four regulars are back in the TARDIS, the ensuing conversation makes it clear that any attempts they may have made to change history would not have worked. What we learn from this is that history is a force stronger than an individual. The Doctor likens it to a flood that can carry a person away. Taking this in the context of the entire program, we can conclude that, although history can be changed, as it is even in a small way in The Aztecs, it is difficult for one person to alter it in any significant way.

A stronger argument in favor of a deterministic universe is pointing to examples in the show that suggest that events are predestined to occur. In time travel theory, we call this the predestination paradox. In this scenario, a time traveler goes to the past and causes events that already existed before the time traveler even had gone there. This kind of paradox suggests that events were always meant to unfold as they do, and that whatever happens must happen. In these cases, we seem to have found ourselves in a universe where events are predetermined.

We first observe what appears to be a predestination paradox in the First Doctor adventure, The Romans, in which the Doctor, having foreknowledge that Nero would burn Rome, inadvertently gives Nero the idea to burn Rome. It happens again in The Myth Makers, when the Doctor, knowing ahead of time the Trojan horse tale, ends up giving Odysseus the idea for the Trojan horse, and thus is the cause of the events he already knew about. A less certain example is in the Fifth Doctor story, The Visitation, in which the Doctor and his companions play a role in causing the fire of London. But it is not explicitly stated that they knew about the event ahead of time, so here we may have a simple example of a changing of the past, which just so happens to coincide with our current knowledge of history.

In a universe in which free will exists, and the past can be changed, how are such things possible? Couldn’t the Doctor have done something differently to prevent the fire of Rome or the creation of the Trojan horse? Let’s say he knew of the fire of Rome ahead of time, as he did, and then decided not to go to Rome and meet Nero. Wouldn’t the fire of Rome have been prevented? And yet he knew of it already. His free will is denied if he is fated to make it happen.

In a different kind of predestination paradox, a time traveler, prior to traveling in time, sees or encounters something caused by the time traveler after traveling in time. So, for example, Rose Tyler, throughout Series 1 of the new program, keeps seeing the message “Bad Wolf,” which she herself made when she will travel through time in her future. But she hasn’t done it yet. How is it possible for her to see messages she made before she made them? Is she predestined to do these things? If she is, she has no free will.

Do not fret! There are explanations for these paradoxes, which preserve the concept of a free will universe. Let’s start with the last example first. Remember what I said at the beginning: the entire history of the universe exists in reality, from beginning to end. If we observe it from far enough away, we can see the whole thing. It’s all there. We also know that when a time traveler of free will makes an alteration to history, we have now a brand new history of the universe, a new edition, you might say. So, let’s consider Rose as Bad Wolf. She travels through time and scatters the Bad Wolf message in various places in time. The intent, obviously, is so that these messages will be seen by her earlier self. Those messages don’t cause her to become Bad Wolf—if they did we would be talking about a bootstrap paradox—we can see from the way things played out that she would have become Bad Wolf whether she saw those messages or not. Once she does that, as Bad Wolf, she has created a new version of history. We, as the viewers, are then watching that new version of history, played out in chronological order. This is basically Russell T. Davies’ device: watch the new edition of history from the beginning. Normally, we would expect to be watching the first edition of history and then see Rose as Bad Wolf change it, but we might never see the new edition. In this case, we skip the first edition altogether, and we watch only the second edition. We’re observing the timeline as it exists post-interference. It’s as simple as that.

Now, you may ask, what did it look like the first time around? Well, probably pretty much as we saw it, except without the Bad Wolf messages. It’s just more interesting watching it this way, and the device is used many times in the new series.

But what about the predestination paradoxes the First Doctor was caught up in? These ones are a little trickier, because it’s predestination going backwards in time, rather than forward. But the same principle applies. We are watching a new edition of history.

Let’s go back to the example of the Romans. The Doctor, Vicki, Ian, and Barbara came from a version of history in which Nero had burned Rome. That is why they have knowledge of it. How Nero came up with the idea of burning Rome in that version of history, we do not know. It’s never stated. We just know it happened. When the time travelers arrive in the past, they have now created a new edition of history, one in which they exist in the 60s AD. It is exactly like the old edition, except that in this one the Doctor and his companions visit Rome, whereas in the other one they did not. In this new version of history, the Doctor gives Nero the idea to burn Rome. The old version of history had its own cause for the fire of Rome, but in the new version, the Doctor is the cause. The important thing to note here, though, is that free will still exists. The Doctor is free to do whatever he wants. He can encourage Nero to burn Rome, or he can stop him from doing so. If he does stop him, then in this new edition of history, Rome would not have burned. Anything could happen. You see, Rome is not predestined to burn. Our characters have the ability to choose.

There are other paradoxes that occur in a free-will universe that must also be explained: the Bootstrap Paradox, the Grandfather Paradox, etc. With the foundations laid here, I think these can be explained in a satisfying manner as well, but time does not permit. We’ll pick those up in our next podcast and see how wibbly wobbly they get in our hands.