Time Travel: How It Could Be Experienced in the Future
Adam James Cuthbert explores a few ideas.
Time travel: it’s at the heart and soul of Doctor Who. Over the years, we’ve seen: temporal paradoxes (A Christmas Carol), temporal loops (Blink), ‘fixed points in time’ (The Waters of Mars), alternative timelines (Turn Left), and other kinds of temporal manipulation (The Girl Who Waited). Of course, the beauty of time travel lies in the fact that it can be effectuated without means of a time machine or other apparatus. The potentialities of narrative structure and chronology lend themselves to innovative venues for experiencing time travel. Although much-derided, Russell T Davies’ Love & Monsters effectively employs the narrative technique of in media res, through the unique framing device of the main character, Elton Pope, addressing the camera, the camera objectively reflecting his first person point-of-view to the audience, before subsequently reconstructing the events (via Pope’s recollections) that led to the opening sequence. We have an experience of time travel, not only through analepsis, as Pope revisits the past, but his manipulation of traditional (or linear) storytelling structure, in his episodic narration. Or to consider another example: The Deadly Assassin by Robert Holmes, which juxtaposes prolepsis with the unfolding present, contiguous with the denouement of the preceding episode, lending an exigency to events, and their ostensible ineluctability that incriminates the Doctor.
The purpose of this article is to present a few ideas that could be executed in future, with regards to the experience of time travel, specifically ideas inspired by the comics of Alan Moore, in true spirit of the show’s literary heritage.
“I’ve been fighting in the Crush for two days now. I’ve been fighting in the Crush for six months. […] My body-clock feels messed up, plus every time we come out, it seems to be time for breakfast. I’ve had six greasy breakfasts in two days… Or is that one greasy breakfast a month?” – Alan Moore, The Ballad of Halo Jones: ‘The Fast Forward War’ (reprinted in The Ballad of Halo Jones (Rebellion, 2006))
In his comics saga, The Ballad of Halo Jones, Moore adapts Einstein’s scientific proof that “time is a product of gravity, and is affected by it” by introducing a milieu known as “the Crush”. In the Crush, “time fractures completely”, as the above quote illuminates: an effect of the immense gravity of the planet on which the protagonist, Halo Jones, is situated. Moore demonstrates this when Halo ventures into the Crush for the first time. Although only five minutes pass from Halo’s account, two months have transpired in reality. There therefore exists a discrepancy in the passage of, or travel through, time as experienced between two distinct yet interconnected worlds, as filtered through a scientifically-focused lens.
In a show that involves visiting extrasolar planets, a similar premise could be applicable. For example: the Doctor travels outside in order to investigate mysterious activity on a planet, on behalf of a befuddled scientific research team, offering his expertise. He returns only to find his companion has waited months for him, during which time the research base has been attacked, few survivors remaining.
“The blackness was cold and crushing like interstellar space, without light, without stars… Harry Bentley was falling. It didn’t matter. […] None of it mattered. All that mattered was that it worked. The Time Machine. It worked. Really worked.” – Alan Moore, ‘The Time Machine’ (reprinted in Complete Alan Moore Future Shocks (Rebellion, 2009))
Amongst my favourite category of Doctor Who narratives are the ‘Doctor-lite’ stories, where the emphasis is on someone other than the Doctor. Logically, the next step in this direction is to eliminate the Doctor from the premise altogether. As Scott Gray once said, from his experience working on the comics stories Me and My Shadow and Character Assassin: “The occasional Doctorless story subtly reminds the audience that the Doctor Who universe is a gigantic place with adventure around every corner, populated by an infinite array of colourful figures – it doesn’t just begin and end with the Doctor” (Commentary: Character Assassin: in Oblivion: A Panini Books Graphic Novel (Panini Publishing Ltd., 2006)). What Gray highlights in his statement is the contingency of the Doctor’s existence. There is arguably no necessity for the Doctor to be featured within every story, and his relative significance today is a by-product of the show’s intrinsically protean nature, mutating from its origins (the male companion was originally designated to be the hero archetype, a role later assumed by the Doctor). There is an untapped cornucopia of storytelling potential in experimenting with televised Doctorless stories: but this article is concerned with time travel.
Moore’s story is deceptive. The reader is initially led to believe that Harry Bentley is travelling through time, via the titular machine. The background against Bentley’s ‘fall’ through time intimates a peculiar experience, as “shapes […] oozed out of nowhere [growing] like crystal, into images”: the memories of his past crystallising (then fracturing) before him, as Bentley appears to relive these events, through the perspective of his younger self (“He was back in the nursery. It was 1948. […] And there was Duffo. His parents had thrown Duffo out when he was eight, without telling him. […] He was reaching out. He was reaching out for Duffo. His fingertips touched worn cloth…”). Ultimately, tragically, it’s revealed that Bentley, despaired, has committed suicide. His dogged steadfastness to creating a time machine, his obsession with returning to the past, has destroyed his marriage. When he learns that “the whole theory had been wrong. Time travel was, quite simply and brutally, impossible”, Bentley drowns himself, his life flashing before his eyes in his final moments.
While such a bleak subject wouldn’t bode well with Doctor Who’s family-oriented audience, the notion of subjective time travel, through the amalgamation of memory and imagination, remains a tantalising one. As Moore’s story touches upon, ambient stimuli (be it olfactory, aural, or visual; whether imaginary or not) can evoke the reconstruction of particular events (“Scents… The smell of clipped suburban privet. The rain on the corrugated roof of the bus shelter […] It was 1963 […] He was in the bus shelter, waiting for the 10:32 back to town… And Jackie Rutherford was keeping him company while he waited”). For example: the bildungsroman of a young man, narrated in first-person present voiceover, is juxtaposed with extensive flashbacks galvanised by ambient stimuli (“Her perfume… like Mother wore… Mother in her violet dress, and I in her arms… Satin texture beneath my fingers…”), thereby distinguishing itself (since the practice of analepsis is hardly new in contemporary Doctor Who). The story could incorporate the young man’s fleeting childhood encounter with an enigmatic blue box, which becomes the locus of his fantasies. He recalls the box’s proprietor, a figment of the mind, through the child’s amplified imagination: a looming giant, with an indiscernible countenance, masked in shadows, modelled on the young child’s perception of real-life adults. Like James Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus, for example, who, in one of the earliest passages of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, differentiates between adults according to their unique scents (“His mother had a nicer smell than his father”: James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (Wordsworth Editions Limited, 2001)), so too does the young man, recollecting his juvenile years, articulated through his mature perspective, associate a distinct smell (albeit an imaginary one) with the box’s proprietor (“Like… old shoes, and leather. Old newspapers; yellowed and browned by coffee stains and sunlight”).
(Of course, depending on one’s preference, a hypothetical Doctorless story needn’t be so alienating as my suggestion, removing (or defamiliarising) any familiar iconography. An alternative scenario could involve revisiting an erstwhile companion, years after their adventures with the Doctor, exploring how they readjusted to the banalities of ordinary life after the Doctor (while the Doctor does not have an ongoing, active influence in the local, or ‘public’, present of the narrative, his influence is nonetheless felt, passively, in the companion’s consciousness, or ‘mental’ present, as they recall their past. Sights and sounds and smells trigger momentary associations of their time with the Doctor. The focus is centred upon their life afterwards).)
“My first memory is of darkness. And voices talking gibberish. I became aware of many things at once. I was lying with my face in a broken ice cream cone. My name was Lamron Namron and I had pains down the back of my arms and legs.” – Alan Moore, ‘The Reversible Man’ (reprinted in Complete Alan Moore Future Shocks (Rebellion, 2009))
Although used for comedic purposes in Red Dwarf (Backwards), for example, the notion of a world where time runs backwards, inexorably propelling its denizens back through time, against their volition, and which comprises the skeleton of Moore’s story (“My body seemed to do things without my instructions, as if commanded by part of my mind that I had no access to. I could only sit and watch”), could yet be explored dramatically within Doctor Who.
Moore’s story, which chronicles an Everyman’s life from ‘birth’ to ‘death’, is enriching in its pathos (e.g. the last time Lamron Namron sees Egdam, formerly his wife, is the first, reverse-chronologically: “At the station we stopped […] our eyes met. She was the most beautiful woman I’d ever seen. I looked away. I never saw her again”).
In a universe of limitless possibilities, a similar notion could easily be presented in Doctor Who. It differs, perhaps, by taking the form of a scientific study from an alien spectator (e.g. the Time Lords, during the foundation of their culture) encyclopaedically cataloguing the abnormal world, and its indigenous humanlike natives, throughout its geological history, thereby adopting a broader scope.