Okay, my apologies to anyone who’s a) not seriously into Doctor Who, and b) not absolutely mega-geeky. But this is an idea I’ve had for a long time now, and I wanted to get it out on metaphorical paper. So for those of you not into hardcore fan theorizing…sorry, but shit just got real.
Doctor Who is a series that’s been around for almost fifty years now, with dozens of creative masterminds running the series and literally hundreds of writers working on it in its various media. (Aside: I wonder how many fictional characters have been adapted to as many media as the Doctor? Novels, comics, TV, movies, radio plays, stage plays, short stories…Sherlock Holmes and Superman come to mind, but not many others.) Despite all these writers and all these showrunners, though, each of which has a different take on time travel…and for that matter, a different emphasis on it…there does seem to be a consistent underlying principle to time travel in Doctor Who.
That’s a statement that seems pretty absurd on the face of it, to be honest. There have been times when the Doctor has said that “history cannot be rewritten, not even one line!” and times when he’s said that history changes constantly, every single time he steps out of the TARDIS. There have been times when people meeting themselves has caused vast discharges of temporal energy, and times when the Doctor has rubbed shoulders with himself. Anyone saying that there’s a consistent underlying principle has their work cut out for them.
And yet, if you sort of squint, it all does hang together. (This is the traditional approach to Doctor Who continuity in general, actually.) The first thing to do is to assume that when the Doctor talks about the Laws of Time and the things you “can’t” do when time traveling, he’s not speaking literally. The Laws of Time are not like the Laws of Physics, they’re more like the Laws of Traffic. Someone might tell you that you “can’t” drive your car at 120 miles per hour the wrong way down a one-way street, but that doesn’t mean your car won’t actually perform the action. It just means you’re going to die very quickly unless you’re an unbelievable sodding genius.
With this in mind, a lot of the rules of time travel make more sense. The Doctor is aware that very little is actually impossible, but much of what people are doing (or trying to do) is incredibly dangerous. The Time Lords, for much of the series, used their time travel knowledge and abilities to make sure that the technology didn’t get into the hands of the careless or the unskilled, but frequently they didn’t need to because most unskilled or careless time travelers broke the only real law of time travel in Doctor Who. They messed around with their own past history.
This is the common, underlying principle of time travel in Doctor Who: The people who have been exposed to time travel (perhaps those who have been imbued with artron energy, like Rose in ‘Dalek’ or Melody Pond during her gestation) become immune to the gross processes of cause and effect, and become “time-active.” These people can move through history without necessarily being subject to it (the Doctor describes himself and Romana in ‘City of Death’ as having “a special relationship to time…perpetual outsiders.”) But on the other hand, they seem to be subject to a sort of ‘higher time’ that moves in synch with other time-active entities, what you might call “uber-time”. This explains why Rose is 400,000 years or so earlier than the Ninth Doctor, and yet events seem to be proceeding at the same rate for her as for the Doctor. (Another example, for those who have read the books, occurs with the New Adventures ‘Birthright’ and ‘Iceberg’. These are claimed to be taking place “simultaneously”, but that has no meaning in terms of regular, four-dimensional time. Only among time-active powers can you discuss things happening “at the same time” in different eras.)
The implication, then, is that we are watching the series from the progression of “uber-time”. The show might jump around in time and space plenty, but it (more or less) follows the Doctor’s lifespan in a straight line. And more importantly, messing with one’s own personal past is always a one-way ticket to disaster. Stories like ‘Festival of Death’, ‘The Shadow of Weng-Chiang’, ‘Father’s Day’, and ‘The Wedding of River Song’ all show varied and complicated, but universally disastrous consequences for doing things that mess with your own past. (The novel ‘Head Games’ suggests that this extends to “known history”; once the Doctor learns of the sinking of the Titanic, he can’t avert it because his awareness of it is part of his past and thus inexorable. Which is why the Doctor never carries a history book, to answer Rory’s recently-asked question. The less he knows about history, the more he can do with it.)
“Fixed” points in time, presumably, are ones that major time-active powers have as part of their history; once the Doctor witnesses his own death, it becomes temporally fixed and for him to mess with it has disastrous consequences. Interacting with one’s own past in general is extremely dangerous (as apparently a person named “Blinovitch” theorized at some point), and generally to be avoided even by time-actives because of the inherent risks of paradox and ensuing disaster…
…and yet the Doctor does it on at least a half-dozen occasions. Why? What makes him so special? The key is, I think, that he is a Time Lord. It has been suggested that there is something special in their genetic makeup, something encoded by Rassilon back at the point where they stopped being mere Gallifreyans (or possibly a legacy he refined; some of the stories that focus on ancient Gallifrey suggest that they’ve always had an inherent sensitivity to time, like the Tharils of ‘Warrior’s Gate’) that gives them resistance to paradox effects above and beyond even other time-travelers. It’s this biological element that sets them above the Sontarans, above the Daleks (for a long while, at least…perhaps Davros instigated the Time Wars by giving the Daleks the final biological key that put them on a par with the Time Lords and allowed them to fight on their level?) This resistance to paradox is why the Doctor can meet himself without explosion, why he can leave notes for himself and perform clever tricks with predestination, and why, in the height of unbridled recklessness, he believes that he can alter a fixed point in time…albeit one that doesn’t seem to involve his personal past.
So, to sum up: Those who travel in time and actually gain exposure to the Time Vortex become linked not to the regular four-dimensional time we experience, but to uber-time. This carries attendant gifts, but means that the risks of paradox are greater and the consequences worse. Time Lords, being more resistant to paradox and more skilled in time travel, use their abilities to police time travel to prevent people from doing terrible and dangerous things, but resistance does not equal immunity and they were finally “time-locked” by a foe as time-sensitive as themselves.
If you actually made it through all this, feel free to add examples and counter-examples in the comments!