Finales: Playing With Time

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Guest contributor Gustaff examines the different types of time travel used in Doctor Who.


Time Travel is the cornerstone of Doctor Who. It provides the show an edge over other television series’ which enables it to go anywhere and literally tell any story in any time period. Unfortunately, before the revived series, the Time Travel feature hadn’t been utilized to its fullest potential. There were bits and bobs in stories like Mawdryn Undead, City of Death and Battlefield, but the concept of Time Travel usually just served as a means to frame the story or get from point A to B. Since 2005, both Steven Moffat and Russell T Davies have both worked hard to try and explore the many different styles of time travel and attempted to work them into their finales. Most notably, the season finales have regularly featured a certain archetype of time travel. I will be examining those different archetypes in preparation for what may very well be another paradox heavy episode in the upcoming The Name of the Doctor.

TYPE-01 – Leave things as you found them…more or less

 “The story changes, but the ending stays the same” – Peri Brown

Wherever the Doctor goes, he manages to interfere or become involved, but most of the time, everything seems to continues on track. This is based on the theory that if the Doctor wants to observe, it’s fine, but interacting leads to chaos. This being Doctor Who though, he is allowed to get away with both. When considering Doctor Who, this is the most basic time travel style out there and most stories (not just Doctor Who) tend to follow this type of storytelling.

TYPE-02 – This is an observation-only zone!

“We can’t leave footprints or break glasses or touch things” – First Doctor

Type-02 involves characters travelling in time, but being unable to change anything. No matter how hard they try, characters can’t leave any sort of stain on history.

In The Space Museum, the Doctor and company arrive at Xeros’ space museum, but soon discover that they can’t leave any sort of evidence of interaction on their surrounding environment. They then see their future selves as exhibits in the museum. The Doctor deduces that the TARDIS has jumped a Time Track (whatever that is), which has hurled them into their own future. The Doctor doesn’t convey the time travel element in this story very well and it is also unclear as the crew arrive and then are seen to arrive again while their future selves (who are already there) suddenly vanish and history catches up with them. Luckily this bravura of time travel isn’t common in Doctor Who.

TYPE-03 – Don’t pick on recorded history!

“Certain moments in time are fixed”- Tenth Doctor

river-astonaut-weddingThis is a mixture of TYPE-01 and TYPE-02. Here, characters go back in time, observe and interact, but are unable to alter recorded history. This rule has occasionally been stretched when used, most notably in The Waters of Mars, but also in The Wedding of River Song, but the conclusion to draw, taking Peri’s earlier comment into consideration, is that you can influence the story in this type to a slight degree, but the result must and will always remain the same. To help explain this further, I will refer you to Hitler’s Time Travelling Exemption Act which prevents any time traveler in a general fiction from actually killing Hitler for whatever reason. This matter was parodied in Steven Moffat’s Let’s Kill Hitler where both the Tesselecta and Mels are unable to execute their plan to murder Hitler. Doctor Who’s explanation for this type is the concept of Fixed Points which are so important, you can expect Space and Time and a whole bunch of other abstract universal concepts to try and stop you from succeeding…with them winning in the end!

UTILIZED IN: The Wedding of River Song

The Wedding of River Song involved the Eleventh Doctor learning mid-series that his death is a fixed point in history. It’s worth mentioning that this story inverted the style by somehow allowing River Song to change history. The Doctor points out that this is a fixed moment that must happen and there is nothing he or she can do to stop it. River disagrees with his philosophy, interferes and somehow manages to almost destroy all reality in the process. Fixed Points have become a more commonly used concept in Doctor Who to explain why certain things don’t occur in the narrative.

TYPE-04 – The Back to the Future Rule

“How can I be here if she’s not?” – Amy Pond

AmeliaDoctorBigBangThe Back to the Future Rule states that any change in history will instantly (or eventually) be felt by everyone else onwards, including the person who first caused the alternation. Most notably, in Back to the Future, Marty McFly accidently interferes with his parents’ first meeting and changes history so that they never met, married and had kids. Afterwards, he discovers that because of it he is fading from history and will cease to exist unless he can fix the alternation in the timeline. A TYPE-04 story is usually very rare in Doctor Who.


Because of the Eleventh Doctor’s TARDIS exploding; reality is collapsing, but leaving Earth intact (for now at least) because it is described as the ‘Eye of the Storm’. Midway through the story, Amelia Pond, Amy Pond’s younger self, disappears when Total Event Collapse catches up with her and erases her from existence. The most obvious thing that should’ve happened next would’ve been for Amy to forget any memory her younger self had up until her erasure from the timeline, but fortunately in TYPE-04 storylines such as this and Back to the Future, there will be a certain delayed ripple effect that prevents the characters from instantly disappearing from the narrative or ever forgetting their own past experiences in order to fix their mistakes.

TYPE-05 – It’s a brand new timeline!

“Doctor…I’ve just had a thought. You know you said that everyone has a counterpart…” – Mel
“Yes…” – Seventh Doctor
“Well what about us? Why isn’t there another Doctor and Mel here?” – Mel
“Well that’s because…oh dear.” – Seventh Doctor

TYPE-05 is all about what if you managed to somehow perverse history and how the world would’ve turned out following that new route you engineered. This usually results in a brand new alternate timeline where Colin Baker wasn’t fired or the Doctor regenerated into a female and so on and so forth.

UTILIZED IN: Doomsday, Last of the Time Lords, The Big Bang & The Wedding of River Song.

I decided to add a little spontaneity to this article, so for this one, the story I will be analyzing will not be a finale, but instead Flip-Flop, the audio equivalent to Blink in respect to cleverness and timey-wimeyness. This story deals heavily with alternate universes and similarly to Blink and Ghost Light, requires more than one viewing to fully understand.

The Seventh Doctor and Mel travel to a world where they are captured by two strangers (Let’s just call them A and B) who want to use his TARDIS to travel thirty years back in time. To make a very long and clever story short, the Doctor is forced to take A and B back in time to kill one of their presidents who created a terrible planet to live on thirty years ago when she called for a truce with the planet’s other co-inhabitants who treat the population as slaves. They succeed and the Doctor and Mel return them to their futureX about an hour or so before the Doctor and Mel first showed up. In this reality, instead of being slaves, A and B’s race are now almost non-existent thanks to a war that started because of an ‘assassination’ thirty years ago. The Doctor and Mel realize that another DoctorX and MelX (from this universeX) are about to land in the very same spot as their parked TARDIS and they quickly leave just as their other selves show up. The new DoctorX and MelX are captured by AX and BX (of this realityX) and are forced to travel back in time to save their president from an assassination that resulted in a war that killed their race. (I hope the penny is dropping) They succeed and return roughly an hour or so before the DoctorX and MelX first arrived to find that the population has now been reduced to slavery rather than extinction. The DoctorX and MelX realize that another version of themselves (namely the first ones I discussed) will be arriving where they parked the TARDIS, so they quickly leave.

TYPE-06 – Predestined to be there!

 “You went back to change history. But you didn’t change anything. You became part of it” – Third Doctor

rose-parting-of-the-ways-endingUsually employed simultaneously with TYPE-07, but differing slightly, in TYPE-06 a time traveler attempts to alter the past only to find that they have in-avertedly fulfilled their purpose in creating the horrible history they came from. To elaborate further, the key here is to do nothing, unless of course you are destined to do nothing, in which case, you have to do something. It’s complicated that way. A rather in-universe example in Doctor Who that explains why history doesn’t change even the slightest whenever the Doctor shows up in whatever time period he visits is that his presence in the timeline as a whole has already been contained in a self-consistent version of history. Basically…it means he can be there because history has already shaped itself, past, present and future by taking into account all of his visits. This would mean that if the Doctor didn’t arrive at a specific place, history, without his presence there, would be altered because he is recorded as being there. This form of time travel is also called a Predestination Paradox and often misinterpreted as an Ontological Paradox which is actually the TYPE-07 further down.

UTILIZED IN: The Parting of Ways, The Big Bang & The Wedding of River Song

In The Parting of Ways, Rose absorbs all the power of the time vortex and leaves clues to herself in the past that she knows she must see in order to reach this point in time and space so that she can absorb the time vortex. This story also doubles as a TYPE-07 if you could spot it. A very clever Predestination Paradox occurs (as a joke actually) in The Big Bang with Amelia Pond. While she is visiting the Pandorica, her drink is stolen by the Doctor. Later on when she has met her future self, Rory and the Doctor, Amelia whines about being thirsty. The Doctor then travels back in time and steals her past self’s drink. If this paradox went over your head, then look at it this way: The only reason future-Amelia is thirsty is because the Doctor stole past-Amelia’s drink and the only reason the Doctor stole past-Amelia’s drink is because future-Amelia was thirsty.

TYPE-07 – Hanging yourself up by your bootstraps!

“And the barman says: We don’t serve time travellers here.”

“The Doctor walks into a bar.”

This combined with TYPE-06 is Steven Moffat’s default and the most entertaining in this author’s opinion. It is a way of telling a story back to front and in most cases; it tries to tie together all the bits and pieces of an out-of-order story.

UTILIZED IN: The Parting of Ways, The Big Bang & The Wedding of River Song

One of the earliest examples of a bootstrap paradox in general fiction occurs in the story By His Bootstraps by Robert A. Heinlein where subject A is asked by a disguised subject B to enter a time portal. Subject C arrives to try and stop A from entering the portal. The three fight and A is pushed through the portal. The identity of B and C is then revealed. B is an older A while C is an even older version of B (who is actually A) who travelled here to prevent B from pushing A into the portal. A variation, rather humorous example appears in the audio story My Own Private Wolfgang.

The catalyst for this archetype of time travel is that items or information often have no point of origin. Looking at Space/Time from Moffat’s 2011 story, the Eleventh Doctor is supplied the answer to the plot by summarizing that his own future self is about to show up and tell him and that all he has to do is enter his TARDIS and become the self he just observed. This creates a stable time loop with the answer to the problem never actually thought up by anyone. Another example is the majority of the Doctor and River Song’s relationship. River’s diary, her catchphrase and even her name all form part of a Bootstrap Paradox.

During the Series 5 finale, the Doctor is locked in the most perfect, most impregnable, most inescapable prison in all of fiction…and then he escapes quite effortlessly. How does he do that? Why Rory let him out of course. How did Rory do it? Well a future Doctor supplied him with the knowledge and tools to make the above possible. How did the future Doctor manage to escape the Pandorica? Well Rory let him out. How did Rory manage to do that? A future Doctor helped him. Confusing, isn’t it? The ‘escape’ from the Pandorica has no point of origin in this story.

It is clear that Series 5 and 6 have featured especially heavy timey-wimey stuff and we already know that the Doctor’s name forms part of a Bootstrap Paradox because according to River Song, the universe invented the title ‘Doctor’ from watching the Doctor in action, yet our favorite Time Lord only choose the title because he wanted to make ‘people better’. So in a way, he inspired himself. I believe that’s called an epiphany on earth. Are we in for another whimsical adventure? Will Steven stay true and deliver us another wibbly-wobbly tale in his endgame or does he have something else, something more sinister lurking at the back of his head?