Despite having received high ratings and critical acclaim in the British media, this latest season of Doctor Who (the fifth since its 2005 revival) was a great disappointment to myself and many other fans who’ve been watching the program most of our lives.
The main problem: new head writer/executive producer Steven Moffat’s cavalier disregard for one of the program’s most important underpinnings – the “laws of time”.
There are two big potential problems when you’re writing about time travel. The first is the removal of jeopardy: a time-travelling protagonist can solve any problem by getting in his time machine, travelling into the past and changing it so the problem never arises. This has traditionally been addressed (as in HG Wells and others) by incapacitating either the time machine or the time traveller.
The second problem is the creation of paradoxes: every time the time traveller “crosses his own timestream”, ie travels into his personal past or future, he could conceivably meet himself. Do this enough times and there will be numerous different versions of himself all co-existing, able to advise and help each other. This in itself is paradoxical, but what’s even worse is that in time travel stories the protagonist sometimes escapes from an unescapable situation by having another version of himself travelling back in time from some future date to free him. But the future version of himself would never have been able to travel back in time to free him if he hadn’t been free in the first place. Hence the story’s internal consistency collapses in a heap, as does the suspension of disbelief.
Some daring science fiction writers have said “who cares about internal consistency” and proudly displayed their paradoxes for all to see. This may be OK for the pages of Astounding Stories but it’s not such a good idea for a regular weekly TV series like Doctor Who.
The creators of Doctor Who obviously understood the dangers of time travel and worked in a clever solution for the original series back in 1963: the Doctor had a time machine, but he couldn’t control it. Consequently he could never be sure of where it would take him, apart from the fact that it never took him where he had programmed it to. This meant the Doctor COULDN’T travel back in time to solve problems.
As the program progressed into the 1970s, the Doctor temporarily lost the use of his time machine. That didn’t stop the writers from using time travel stories in the program, and in 1972 the “Day of the Daleks” addressed time paradoxes with a silly story about terrorists travelling back from the future to assassinate a diplomat who they thought was responsible for creating the nightmare world in which they lived.
This story was notable for being the first Doctor Who to comment on the problems of time travelling. The Doctor’s companion quite correctly asked, if the terrorists fail to assassinate the diplomat on this attempt, what’s to stop them just time travelling back into the past and trying again and again until they get it right?
The Doctor said, “Ah, that’s the Blinovitch Limitation Effect,” but before he could explain further, the door opened and the terrorists burst in. So we never learned what the Blinovitch Limitation Effect actually was, but at least there was some explanation that ordinary humans couldn’t travel through time in the manner suggested – an effort to keep the storytelling internally consistent.
The next major step was the introduction of the Laws of Time upheld by the Doctor’s race the Time Lords. Again, we didn’t learn much about what they were, but at least there WERE Laws of Time which couldn’t be broken.
Again: it was all about the writers and producers trying to keep the stories consistent, have them make dramatic sense, and use time travel as a plot device to get the Doctor from point A to point B, without further intruding on the storytelling.
When the program was revived in 2005, the Time Lords were gone, leaving the Doctor as sole “guardian” of the Laws of Time. The storytelling made it very clear that this was a heavy burden: the Doctor could “see” which points in time had to remain fixed and which points were in flux. Again great importance was attached to the idea that certain things could not be altered by time travel: in particular, it was not possible for the Doctor to travel into the past to prevent the destruction of the Time Lords. This was a wise decision.
Now, with the current series just aired, the head writer and his team seemed to have scrapped all this groundwork. We have had an entire series showing the Doctor progressively becoming more and more cavalier about travelling backwards and forwards across his own personal timestream, regardless of all the storytelling problems it raises.
The culmination of this last series was a two episode story packed full of paradoxes and time travelling which saw characters freed from unescapable situations by future versions of characters who should not have been able to be there.
This was a huge mistake. The very structure of Doctor Who storytelling is threatened. Viewers will now surely ask, if the Doctor can do that in this story to escape, what’s to prevent him doing that in every story? And there goes jeopardy, and with it internal consistency.
The only thing the program can do now is the same thing it has done on a couple of past occasions when the production team made embarrassing blunders: simply ignore them.
As in season 25 when we suddenly learned the Doctor was apparently omnipotent and omniscient (another huge mistake in dramatic terms), or in the 1996 telemovie which told us he was half-human. The program has only survived in the wake of these undesirable revelations by pretending they never happened. Are we now going to have to pretend this with all of last season?