Time is something we can’t change. We can’t speed it up or slow it down. We can’t jump though it, or stop it. We can never be in control of it.
But what if we were in control of it? Better yet what if one person was in control of it? How would they use that power? Would they make themselves a god? Would they solve injustices from the past? Would they only visit the future or be interested in things from history?
One of the reasons that the British television show Doctor Who is so popular is that it was one of the first shows to experiment with time travel and the human race’s fascination with time. We project these questions onto the Doctor, the main character of the show, hoping that by making up and exploring stories about time travel, we can figure out how that power would affect us. In this piece I want to explain how time works in the world of Doctor Who and talk about how time is viewed in the show.
In March 1962, the BBC’s Eric Maschwitz asked his script department to think about a concept for a new sci-fi show. The report came back about a month later strongly suggesting that the new show be about time travel. Sydney Newman invented the character of the Doctor, a 907-year-old alien from a planet called Gallifrey, who travels around in time and space and is not actually an MD. He also invented the Doctor’s spaceship, a time-traveling police box called the TARDIS (Time And Relative Dimension(s) In Space).
During the first season the show attracted about 12 million viewers. The series was so popular that the BBC wanted it to continue, so the writers came up with a process called regeneration. Regeneration is the process that occurs when the Doctor is dying. The Doctor recreates every atom in his body, and after regeneration, the Doctor has a new and different body, as well as a new brain, and a different personality. As the Doctor says in the “Christmas Invasion” episode in 2006, “See, there’s the thing. I’m the Doctor, but beyond that, I — I just don’t know. I literally do not know who I am. It’s all untested. Am I funny? Am I sarcastic? Sexy? Am I an old misery? Life and soul? Right-handed? Left-handed? A gambler? A fighter? A coward? A traitor, a liar, a nervous wreck? I mean, judging by the evidence, I’ve certainly got a gob.” The series has been able to continue on with the Doctor regenerating every time the BBC needs to replace the lead actor. The series will celebrate its 50th anniversary in 2013 and was proclaimed by The Guinness Book of World Records the longest running sci-fi show.
TWO KINDS of TIME
“People assume that time is a strict progression of cause to effect, but actually — from a non-linear, non-subjective viewpoint — it’s more like a big ball of wibbly wobbly… timey wimey… stuff.” – The Doctor (“Blink,” 2007)
In the world of Doctor Who, there are two types of time: flux time and fixed points in time. In flux time, anything can happen; it is literally fluxing, flowing, all the time — always changing. A time traveler can go back and forth in flux time, acting freely, changing whatever he or she wants. However, in fixed time, things must always happen the same way, so nothing can ever change. And if fixed time points were ever to change, time would die. I like to think of it as an overcooked piece of spaghetti tacked with two thumbtacks, the pasta is the flux time and the tacks are the fixed points in time. If you were to take one of those tacks out of the pasta the whole thing would collapse.
The way that you travel through time is by going though the time vortex, which is a kind of tunnel that exists all throughout space and time. You go into the tunnel and from there you can navigate anywhere in space and time. The thing about the time vortex is that it can’t track people. So basically if I wanted to meet Abraham Lincoln I would have to go the White House in 1863 and hope that he would be there. I can’t go to specifically where Abe Lincoln was in 1863, I would just have to guess.
There are multiple ways to travel in the time vortex, the most common way in Doctor Who is in the TARDIS, which is the Doctor’s ship, and she is not very reliable. Another way the Doctor travels is with a Vortex Manipulator. A Vortex Manipulator allows you to travel in the vortex but is not covered so traveling with it is very taxing on your body.
The main thing that draws me to Doctor Who is the way the show views time. It portrays it as a delicate thing that needs to be protected, which is a way that we don’t often think of time. We often think of it as a current that moves too fast and never stops, that no one is in control of it, and that we just have to ride it out until eventually it drowns us. Time is a bully. But not in Doctor Who. In Doctor Who it is a delicate balance that can be screwed up by one human making one selfish mistake. It is the Doctor’s job to protect the balance and to keep time healthy, and he seems to have a good time doing so.
I wanted to end on a philosophical note but I also wanted to write about how much fun the show is, so I have done both. Below you will find two conclusions, the first one philosophical, and the second one about the show. Please pick the one you want to read and pretend that I didn’t write the other one because, well, what kind of person writes two conclusions?
CONCLUSION NUMBER ONE
Doctor Who teaches you a lot about space and time and made-up galactic laws but it also teaches you that humans do not live forever and we are certainly not that important in the grand scheme of things — which sounds unsettling but also quite comforting. So remember that time is short, but is often rich with beauty.
CONCLUSION NUMBER TWO
I have tried many times to get many friends to watch the show, but have seen that Doctor Who is not for everyone. However, if you find yourself interested in a sci-fi show, I cannot recommend it enough. It is funny and sad and beautiful. I laughed and cried and wished that I had a 907-year-old time lord to travel the universe with. The community that surrounds it is very welcoming and it is worth any time that you can give it.
“Yeah, listen, listen, got to dash… things happening. Well… four things. Well… four things and a lizard.” — The Doctor (“Blink,” 2007)