Time Travel on my mind   Leave a comment

Last week I read Ted Chiang’s ‘Story of your Life,’ in which the primary character learns to see time non-linearly. This of course got me thinking about Doctor Who.

There are as many theories and ideas about time travel as there are writers and thinkers on the topic. I got a good overview in Time Machines by Paul J. Nahin. The one that stuck with me was the idea of the ‘time loaf:’ all of time exists in a single, eternal block, everything that ever happened all happening at once all the time. Humans only experience it linearly because that’s how we travel through the loaf. The Doctor can travel anywhere in the loaf, and he can see it all at once. He sees what is, what was, what will be, all laid out like a tapestry before him, every event in its place. Chiang’s character also finds she can see all her life all at once: the future is no longer invisible, and the past is as accessible as the present.

The major objection put forth in both works is the idea of free will. The future can’t have already happened, because humans have free will. Humans must have free will, because anything else is unthinkable. Nahin discusses this problem in depth, with all the arguments of philosophy at hand. But I didn’t buy it. I wasn’t persuaded that free will is even a thing.

Humans are attached to the idea of free will because they think it’s what makes them human. They don’t like the idea of a path laid out for them. But just because we don’t like something doesn’t mean it isn’t true. Maybe we don’t have free will, or maybe free will doesn’t work the way we think – much as Chiang’s character discovers.

In Chiang’s story, the question is posed: What if, upon learning her future, a person then goes on to make a different choice, negating the established future? This possibility shuts down the viability of a determined future: it can’t be, because humans can choose differently. But as the main character learns, just because you learn something doesn’t mean you’ll act differently. Dr. Banks learns to see her whole life laid out before her; she knows the pain she will endure, the mistakes she will make and the mistakes she will witness, and yet she changes nothing. She continues to act as she knows she acts – how she acted, how she must act. It’s as if she has no choice. But there are no monsters, no Greek pathos, no force of nature compelling her to act that way, preventing her from saving herself. She has free will. But her will is what had her act, what has her act, and she freely chooses her acts the way she chooses them, regardless of what she knows. Her future comes from who she is in the moment, and who she is doesn’t change based on what she knows. Her life is hers, her choices are hers, and she can do no other. Nor would she.

An example of this type of choice in Doctor Who occurs in ‘Fires of Pompeii.’ The Doctor knows that Pompeii is a fixed point, and he cannot change it. Instead he tries to escape. However, he and Donna learn that not only does Pompeii happen, not only must it happen, but they themselves are the agents of its happening. They cause/caused/must cause it to happen. The Doctor and Donna have free will in the face of events, but being who they are, they can make only one choice.


“Never mind us.”

The choices in ‘Fires of Pompeii’ make sense. Of course the Doctor and his companion would sacrifice themselves to save the world. The choices in ‘Story of Your Life’ make sense. Dr. Banks chooses to bear and raise her child, even knowing that her marriage will end and her child will die, because to her it’s all worthwhile. However, attractive as the time loaf idea may be, it doesn’t always work. For an example we look no further than ‘Father’s Day.’

‘Father’s Day’ is one of my all-time favorite episodes, and yet as a time travel story it’s quite terrible. The idea of monsters springing up to heal a crack in time is ridiculous to me. The idea of changing your own past by changing the future is equally implausible. However, there’s no other way for the story to work. There is no way Rose doesn’t choose to save her father’s life. And since the world isn’t a Greek tragedy or an open wound, there’s nothing to stop her doing it. There’s nothing to fix the rift she causes. In a time loaf, her father died alone. He will and must do so. But if time travel is possible, then Rose will save him. That choice is as much a part of who she is as Donna’s choice to sacrifice herself. The two are incompatible.

There are other theories of time travel that serve parts of the story. Parallel universe theory would allow Rose to save her father without changing her own past – she lives in an alternate stream. (Presumably the Doctor would be able to move among streams.) However, Pete’s subsequent sacrifice would be obviated. Rose could save her father; Baby Rose would grow up with her dad; but Rose herself would remain bereft. He wouldn’t be her father; he’d have his own Rose. Not only that, but he wouldn’t have to die to save the universe. He wouldn’t have the opportunity to step up and show his daughter the man he could be.

Another possibility is that Rose’s mother was wrong, and Pete never did die alone. Perhaps Rose’s attempt to save him fails, but she is able to share his last moments and vanish before the ambulance arrives. But once again, the heart of the story – Pete’s self-discovery and sacrifice – is lost. There is no way to tell it without monsters, however dubious they may be.

That of course is the benefit of fantasy.


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