The Doctor, and Travel Within His Own Time
John Rocco Roberto
Time travel. Is it possible? Can it really be done? Since H.G. Wells conceived of the concept back in the late 1800s, countless books, both fiction and non-fiction have been written on the subject. Many theorists have pondered the possibility of time travel but in each case the same questions continue to be asked. If time travel was possible could one travel into the future or only the past? And if one could travel into the future then are we today only reflections of some future past? And if we are reflections of this future’s past then do we have any control over the events in our lives (or could it be that I was destined to write this article)?
For the purposes of this article we will not try to answer any of these concepts. What we will look upon is the very notion of traveling through time and where ones perception lies in relation to this time travel. The problem, which every author has faced when tackling this subject, is, of course, the creation of time paradoxes, those annoying little events that crop up whenever time travel is attempted in a story. 20th century fiction is full of them, some so convoluted that when examined they make no sense (but then they would not be paradoxes if they did). For an example of this “convolutedness,” let us look at the original “Planet of the Apes” film series, for it has always stood as the example of paradoxical circumstances. If one follows the story line established within the five films the sequence of events unfolds as follows:
Planet of the Apes. There are no real paradoxes in the first film itself. It is clearly established in the film that Taylor (played by Charlton Heston) and his crew departed Earth in 1972, have spent several months in space at light speed, and because of this several hundred years have passed on Earth. The control panel shows ship time as: 7-14-1972 and Earth time as: 3-23-2673. Because of a problem with the ships cryo unit, the crew over sleeps by several years (ship time) and awaken only after their ship crash lands on the planet they were heading for. Just before abandoning the ship Taylor reads the earth time as being 11-25-3978. Of course by the end of the film we learn that the ship had not in fact landed on a new planet but instead backed-tracked and returned to Earth, only the Earth had been destroyed by nuclear war and is now run by apes. Nice, simple, one of the best “shocker” endings in cinema history. The problem begins however with the sequel.
Beneath the Planet of the Apes presents us with our first true time paradox in the series. Not wanting to reprise his role as Taylor, Charlton Heston opted for a limited role in the production, so the writing staff came up with the character of Brent (played by James Franciscus), an fellow astronaut and friend of Taylor who left Earth a few months after Taylor’s ship in an attempt to discover what happened to them. It is in this film where the notion that Taylor’s ship had passed through a time warp is established. Plausible, but with only one problem. It is clearly established in the first film that nothing had gone wrong with the mission until Taylor and his crew entered cryo sleep. In fact the film opens with Taylor radioing in a report, suggesting that his ship had been in contact with Earth (if not two way contact), since the mission began. The Earth year is 2673, so why would Earth launch a rescue mission in 1974 if nothing had gone wrong? Of course the film ends with the apes and mutated humans of New York City fighting in St. Patrick’s Cathedral in front of the last remaining atomic bomb, which goes off and destroys the Earth.
It is in the next three films where continuity is finally thrown out the window and the greatest paradox begins. In Escape from the Planet of the Apes we learn that Cornelius, Zira and an fellow ape named Gian find Taylor’s wrecked, submerged spaceship. Having no knowledge of flight however (they were astonished at Taylor’s paper airplane), the three repair the ship, replaced all the blown-out windows and hatches, refuel the ship and launch the ship moments before the Earth of 3978 is destroyed. We are then told that the ship travels backwards through the time warp Brent passed thought, arrives on 1975 Earth, where they are treated like celebrities, until it is learned Zira is with child. The government then hunts down Zira because they fear her child will one day lead an ape revolution. Although killed, their child Caesar survives, and grows up in a world where by 1990 all the cats and dogs have died (something Cornelius and Zira had seen while traveling backwards from 3978. Needing companionship, humans replace their former pets with apes, using them as servants (Conquest of the Planet of the Apes). Seeing the degradation of his “people,” Caesar leads an ape revolution, overthrowing the human government, and vowing to establish a “planet of the apes,” (another event Cornelius and Zira “saw” during their time travels). The world’s governments respond to this situation by full-scale nuclear war, forcing the surviving apes and humans to flee into the wilderness, living in tree houses (Battle for the Planet of the Apes). The mutated survivors of the human world attack the ape city but at the end both human and ape learn to live in peace. The series ends with a scene in the future (3978?) where both ape and human children listen to a teacher standing under a statue of Caesar (the Lawgiver?), learning and playing together. And this is the greatest paradox within the Planet of the Apes series. If the world is at peace in 3978, if humans are not dumb, but part of a shared society, then Taylor and his crew, in 3978, will not be hunted down and placed in a zoo or museum when they arrive (nor would Brent). Cornelius and Zira will have no reason to rebuild Taylor’s ship, will not travel back into Earth’s past. However, if the two do not return to the pass there may never be an ape uprising, as it was their son who became the founder of ape society. In fact, the last film suggests that the nuclear war which destroyed the world in the first film only happened because of the ape uprising. If there never is a nuclear war then Taylor will return to a different world of super advanced humans. The ending of the film series negates the reasons for the first film, and thus a paradox is created.
These types of paradoxes are not however, the sole propriety of the Planet of the Apes‘ film series, and crop up in even the classic stories of the genre. In H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine for instance, the machine is described as stationary, yet the time traveler moves both forward and backward in time. If the machine were stationary wouldn’t he meet himself as he traveled from one direction to another? But what does this have to do with Doctor Who you may ask? Plenty, because you cannot produce a series about time travel for 40 years and not run into time paradoxes, however in Doctor Who’s case, the time paradoxes are minimal because the Doctor is a time traveler from another planet other than Earth. He does not have to worry about running into himself or affecting his planets past because as a TimeLord, the Doctor cannot travel into Gallifrey’s past (or future for that matter). Although it has been suggested in several of the Virgin books the this type of travel is possible, the answer is a simple and flat out, no! Gallifrey is like the Greenwich Mean Time of the Doctor’s world. Each and every time he returns to Gallifrey it is during the present time, and there is plenty of evidence in the program to prove it.
The notion that the Doctor can travel across his time streams is first presented in the 10th anniversary story “The Three Doctors.” In that episode both the Doctor’s home world, as well as the Doctor himself on Earth, are under attack by Omega, one of the first TimeLords. Having created the black hole the TimeLords used to power their earliest time experiments, Omega is now trapped in the world of anti-matter. Unable to send help to the Doctor the TimeLords break their “First Rule of Time” and allow the Doctor’s former selves to travel forward to, basically, help himself. It is suggested in that episode that this requires a great deal of power however, and is far more complicated than just programming a TARDIS to snatch up his former selves. While it is only the third time we actually see Gallifrey (we see it briefly in “Colony In Space”) we know that these events take place after “The War Games” because first, the level of technology seems not too further advanced than what was presented in former episode, and secondly, the Doctor has already been captured, tried and exiled to Earth (the episode ends with him gaining his freedom).
We next actually see Gallifrey in “The Deadly Assassin,” where The Master, dying and unable to regenerate, lures the Doctor back home so he can frame him for the assassination of the Lord President of the High Council. It is in this episode that the character of Borusa is introduced and we learn something of the Doctor’s personal past. It is also within this episode that we first learn of Rassilon and the establishing of TimeLord society. Once again the events take place after the events of “The Three Doctors” because the Doctor’s trial and acquittal by the CIA is mentioned in the story by the Castellan.
Gallifrey is next featured in the six-part story “Invasion of Time.” The Doctor, still in his Fourth Incarnation and seeming to be working for an alien race, returns home to claim the office of Lord President, a position he ran for to avoid execution for the President’s assassination (and thus have time to clear his name) in “The Deadly Assassin.” The position had been left open because Goth, the only other candidate, turned out to be working for The Master, and was killed in the previous story. Of course the Doctor is only pretending to be betraying his home world and uses the symbols of the President’s office (the Great Sash, The Great Key, etc.) to ward off a Sontarn invasion. It is in this episode that we learn more about the nature of TimeLord society, Rassilon, and life on Gallifrey in general. Once again there are several references to the previous story, as several statements are made regarding “the last time” the Doctor was on Gallifrey.
We next visit Gallifrey in “Arc of Infinity,” and there are two references that indicate that this story takes place after “Invasion of Time.” The reference to Leela and Andred’s wedding (not to mention K-9 Mark I), and both Borusa and the Doctor’s recent regeneration, a fact Borusa comments on when he sees his old friend. Borusa is now Lord President, and once again TimeLord society is threatened by Omega, who is trying to copy the Doctor’s body print and thus leave his anti-matter world. However it is the next story that once again demonstrates how difficult it is for TimeLords to break the First Law of Time. In the 20th anniversary story “The Five Doctors,” the Doctor’s previous four incarnations have been taken out of time. The energy drain to do so has so affected the Eye of Harmony that all of Gallifrey is threatened, so the High Council calls for The Master to help find the Doctors.
Of all the Gallifrey stories “The Five Doctors” is probably the best story to support the notion that TimeLords cannot travel into Gallifrey’s future or past. And there are several references to prove it. First, we know the story takes place after the events in “Arc of Infinity” because President Borusa has once again regenerated (a fact that is commented on the first time we see Barusa). Second, we know that, like in “The Three Doctors,” taking someone “out of time” requires great amounts of power (thus Gallifrey’s current emergency condition), and finally references are made to the Doctor’s last visit when the Castellan, framed by Borusa to take the fall, believes it is the Doctor “seeking revenge,” for injustices he had caused the Doctor during his last visit. The most convincing evidence itself however, is found within the very plot point of the story itself. Knowing that TimeLords seeking immortality would be a danger, Rassilon creates the notion of the Dark Tower, trapping and imprisoning all seeking immortality (including Borusa), for all time. Now it is not impossible to assume that if Rassilon would go to all the trouble to create an elaborate trap like the Death Zone, would he have not insured that TARDISes could not travel into Gallifrey’s past? We know that TARDISes are somehow liked to the Eye of Harmony; surly this “link” would cause a TARDIS to always return to Gallifrey in the present. If there were no such inhibition then why hasn’t The Master traveled back into the past to kill the Doctor while he was still a small child?
‘The Five Doctors” is the last time we see the planet Gallifrey proper, as the remaining years of the series would see it go through several format and production changes (including a forced 18 month hiatus). In addition John Nathan-Turner, the producer of the series decided that the time had come to put some mystery back into the character of the Doctor. The results were that stories like “The Two Doctors” and the twenty-third season story arc “The Trial of a TimeLord” became more and more convoluted, straying further and further away from established continuity (it was even hinted at one point, that the Doctor was present working along side Omega and Rassilon in creating TimeLord society). Paradoxes created in “The Two Doctors” (the TimeLords contacted the Second Doctor, not the Sixth, to send on this mission) are never cleared up or simply explained as being possible because the Doctor “arrived during a time experiment.” Facts established in the early years of the series (such as the TimeLords inability to track either the First or Second Doctors), are ignored, as is the notion that the TARDIS can be in two separate areas at the same time (the Sixth Doctor comments to Peri that their TARDIS is “at least a five minute walk away”).
“The Trial of a TimeLord” fears up even worst when compared to the previous story. Although it does hold to the formula that it takes place in Gallifrey’s present (reference is made to the Doctor losing the position of President, which was bestrode upon him at the end of “The Five Doctors”), the notion that the main villain of the story, the Valeyard, is a combination of the Doctor’s evil sides, created during the time between his 12th and 13th regeneration, stretches not only continuity, but good story telling to its limits, and it is no wonder that the series never recovered its popularity or ratings after this season.
Thankfully there were no real Gallifrey stories during the shows last three seasons, and the continuity problems created in stories such as “Remembrance of the Daleks” and “Silver Nemesis” are easily over looked (it is in these stories that the notion of The Doctor as being one of the founders of TimeLord society is at its strongest). Several of the “New Adventure” novels published by Virgin after the series stopped broadcasting attempted, rather poorly, to feature stories in which the Doctor traveled into Gallifrey’s past, but thankfully the Big Finish audio adventures have attempted to steer clear from stories like these.
In the end, like all works of fiction, there are no permanent established rules, and the writer, like the fan, brings a lot of their own personal views and opinions to the work. However good story telling has both beginning, middle and end, as well as conforming to the notion of continuity. It is without the latter however, that good stories fall apart (just look at the Star Trek series). The writers of Doctor Who clearly understood the dangers of creating a series based on the main characters traveling through time, and they accounted for these problems by making The Doctor an alien from the planet Gallifrey, and anchoring Gallifrey’s timeline in the present time. Like Greenwich Mean Time, it is the foundation on which the series operates, and without it, the entire Doctor Who universe falls apart.
Haining, Peter; Doctor Who: A Celebration; 1983
Lofficier, Jean-Marc; Doctor Who: The Programme Guide; 1989
Howe, David J. & Walker, Stephen James; Doctor Who: The Television Companion
Essay © 2002 John Rocco Roberto/Visagraph Films International.