Doctor Who: Control-Alt-Delete

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Gustaff Behr looks at Doctor Who’s changing timelines.


Matt Smith’s swansong left a bad taste in some fans’ mouths. Most of the fault from The Time of the Doctor stems from the fact that this episode almost completely negates The Name of the Doctor, a widely praised series finale, as well as the whole Impossible Girl arc setup during Series 7. If the Doctor didn’t die on Trenzalore, then Clara couldn’t have saved the Doctor, which means she wasn’t splintered in time and he never met her so she couldn’t save him on Trenzalore. Round and round the story goes, where Whovians land, nobody knows. I’m sure most of you get it.

This is a widely accepted complaint as nobody likes retcons. What is strange is the fact that fans have such a hard time with this particular incident when Doctor Who has pulled the same stunt numerous times before. Is it the scale of this retcon? Perhaps Clara lovers hate the result? I don’t know.

There’s always been a fine line between the whole parallel universe version of time travel and alternative timelines. Despite belief, they are not the same, only similar. Usually in Doctor Who you get a story where time has undergone a mistake and sprouted off into an ‘alternative’ timeline that is somehow ‘wrong’ and need the Doctor and company to correct it.

The difference, if you want to understand it better, between diverging the “main” timeline and changing back an alternative timeline is that in the latter’s case, the TARDIS isn’t used to travel back to the point needed and rewrite the events. Normally (but not exclusively) the Doctor and company will live through this timeline until they’ve found the mistake and correct it, thereby “shifting” things back to normal.

What’s not that common is when the ‘primary’ timeline seems to work out badly for certain people and the Doctor and company interfere and change it to suit themselves. Usually characters are made aware of what’s meant to happen to them and then alter it. This is what happened in The Time of the Doctor, but it’s not the only incident in Doctor Who’s legacy. There hasn’t been a ‘primary’ timeline since William Hartnell actually. Let’s find out more!

The Time Museum

The First Doctor and his companions were meant to be exhibits in the Moroks’ Space Museum, but due to a malfunction in the TARDIS, they arrived beforehand and learned enough about the events to keep it from transpiring. This might very well have been the first major diverging point in the “main” timeline of the universe. Timeline X1

The War Machines

This is one incident that has gone unnoticed for far too long mainly because few people recognize the brilliance of this story just because of one verbal slip up. WOTAN conquered Earth in the X1 timeline before it was changed by the First Doctor. According to The Time Travelers, a story set earlier in the First Doctor’s life, WOTAN was meant to be successful in its plans before the Doctor’s later intervention. Timeline X2

Day of the Daleks

Originally, the assassination of Sir Reginald Styles in the 20th century is what caused the 22nd century war in which the Daleks invaded Earth to happen, but thanks to the Doctor working out the paradox involved in the assassination, he was able to fix things so that the Day of the Daleks timeline in the 22nd century didn’t occur. Timeline X3

Genesis of the Daleks

To prevent the Daleks from becoming all-powerful and trying to prevent the invasion of Gallifrey and the outbreak of the Dogma Virus, Narvin sends Time Lord Valyes to instruct the Fourth Doctor that he must avert the creation of the Daleks on Skaro. Quite ironically, this event helped trigger The Last Great Time War. The Fourth Doctor succeeds (very partially) and manages to alter the beginnings of the Daleks and negate the backstory developed in The Daleks. Timeline X4

Pyramids of Mars – Timeline negated

While trying to convince Sarah that they should stop Sutekh, the Doctor shows her an alternative future 1911 where the Earth is now devastated. Not common, but this timeline isn’t the “main” one, instead it is a deliberate alternative creation concocted by the Doctor through temporary inaction to prove a point.

Renaissance of the Daleks – Timeline negated

The Fifth Doctor and Nyssa land in the 22nd century and discover that the Dalek Invasion of Earth didn’t happen. This is a case of the true timeline being tampered with and the Doctor and Nyssa needing to repair it.

The Boy that Time Forgot – Timeline negated

The Doctor and Nyssa meet Adric, now an old man who has tampered with the X4 timeline in which dinosaurs weren’t the dominant species anymore, instead replaced and eaten by intelligent, oversized scorpions. Thankfully they were able to correct the alternation.

Fanfare for the Common Men – Timeline negated

The Doctor and Nyssa arrive in a newly created timeline in which John Smith and the Common Men have taken the place of the Beatles as the most successful band in the world. As with the previous two entries, these changes were made to the “main” timeline and had to be corrected.

The Wings of a Butterfly

Upon being asked by a friend to investigate why the planet Bixor blew up, the Sixth Doctor discovered that his arrival on the planet to investigate the cause of its destruction turned out to be the actual cause of its destruction. Cue laughing…now!

The Sixth Doctor changed the timeline so that even his friend on Gallifrey couldn’t remember ever asking the Doctor to investigate Bixor because the planet didn’t blow up in this newly created timeline. Timeline X5

Colditz – Timeline negated

The timeline is changed when the Seventh Doctor and Ace are killed at Colditz Castle and his TARDIS confiscated, as well as Ace’s CD player which the Nazis use to develop laser technology ahead of time and win World War II. Don’t worry, it gets changed back again.

Protect and Survive – Timeline negated

In another instance, the Seventh Doctor had to prevent Vladimir Kryuchkov from succeeding Konstantin Chernenko as leader of the Soviet Union. This was enough to stop World War III from occurring prematurely in 1989.

TV Movie

The calling card for the Eighth Doctor you might say. In the X5 timeline, he originally failed in his mission to stop the Master from opening the Eye of Harmony and devouring the Earth, but was able to use (will Grace did anyway) his TARDIS to travel back into his immediate personal past and prevent this from happening. Timeline X6

Father’s Day – Timeline negated

Rose temporarily interfered in the X6 timeline by saving her father from being run over by a car, but the Doctor was able to fix the alteration and set history back on track.

Series 5

The TARDIS was supposed to blow in the X6 timeline at the end of the series. Actually it did blow up, and then the Doctor reset the universe so that it didn’t blow up. This event also changed the endings to multiple stories in Series 5 in the new timeline, most involving the cracks in time. I’m sorry if this explanation seems pedantic, but Series 5 is great fun to watch, but one hell of a timey-wimey ball to figure out. Just accept Timeline X7

The Girl Who Waited

Amy Pond was meant to have been stranded on Apalapucia for 36 years in the X7 timeline, but the Doctor and Rory took a page from the Eighth Doctor’s book and interfered in Amy’s history and changed this so that she didn’t have to. Timeline X8

The Angels Take Manhattan

Following on from The Girl Who Waited, Rory Williams was meant to be imprisoned in Winter Quay for the rest of his life after the Angels abducted him, but the TARDIS crew was able to partially change this by turning the living nightmare ending into a bittersweet ending, thus negating the first timeline. Timeline X9

Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS

In the X9 timeline, the TARDIS was damaged by the van Baalen brothers and blew up. It’s not clear which ending to the episode is the divergent one, but this author’s personal opinion is that the timeline in which the Doctor sacrificed himself to give his past self the solution needed to survive this ordeal was indeed the “main” timeline. Timeline X10

The Time of the Doctor

In the X7, X8, X9 and X10 timelines, the Doctor was destined to die on Trenzalore at the end of his thirteenth incarnation. Thanks to the Time Lords affording him a new regeneration cycle, thus granting him twelve more regenerations, the Doctor changed the timeline yet again and lived past his supposed death. Timeline X11

These are just a couple of incidents.; just those that appear the most obvious. Whether you accept the examples I presented as evidence or dispute on which side of the border they land on is not the case. The case is that we haven’t been on the “main” timeline in quite a while. Multiple stories have proven there exists alternative Doctors in alternative realities. Stories and events get retconned and negated regularly. Perhaps just not on this scale. Things get shifted. We could very well be on timeline X2 000 000 by now and not even in a perfect numerical order. Perhaps the heart of the dilemma lies in the idea that Time negated such a widely praised story. Perhaps it’s not that. Perhaps the idea of negating any story, regardless of the format or era is unacceptable. Perhaps, as I mentioned, it’s the scale of the negation.

You may also be wondering why “main” is in quotation marks. Well, if you think about it, you can’t really have more than one “main” timeline without defacing the definition. Everything after the first is a newly established timeline. The Doctor hasn’t travelled in the “main” timeline for quite some time. There may even be stories that prove that those stories are also just set in another alternative timeline. It’s very confusing because the more you think about it, the more you’ll realize that since you’re dealing with non-linear storytelling, it may be possible for the X8 timeline to perhaps be X1 and the X7 timeline could very well be X100 for all you know.

Or maybe Steven Moffat is busy creating a monster for Series 8 that feeds on negates timelines and paradoxes. You never know.