My good friend Andy wrote me an email this afternoon concerning ‘Turn Left’, it went something (or almost exactly) like this:
“But if the Doctor died at the end of the Runaway Bride then he wouldn’t have been able to stop the Carrionites. Or the Daleks. Or The Family of Blood. Or the Weeping Angels. Or the Pyrovilles. So Earth History would have been completely knackered from at least the eruption of Vesuvius, no? Or do RTD scripted invasions carry greater potential danger than all of the above?
It’s time for your timey-wimey-wibbly-wobbly Oodcast post to sort all this out!”
It’s a conundrum and an arresting one at that. For a series based around the central conceit of time travel, Dr Who (particularly this new iteration) plays its cards surprising close to its chest where matters of temporal chronology are concerned. RTD OBE would rather tell a good story than get bogged down in the geeky nuts and bolts of it and more power to him if that’s how he feels. However, I’m a Doctor Who fan, dammit, and for a lot of us the geeky nuts and bolts are not beside the point, rather they are the point. No, perhaps that’s overstating it slightly but they are an integral part of the tissue of rarified pleasures that make up the dna of the show. So, with that in mind, and with every intention of arriving at an answer to Andrew’s query at some point down the line, it is my great pleasure to present:
Chris Sigma’s Laws of Time Travel* **
First Law: Time Lords are creatures of time
Wow. Incisive stuff, I’m sure you’ll agree. Let me unpack this a bit for you so you can see why it’s relevant. What I mean is this: time is a Time Lord’s natural habitat, they move through it as easily as a Silurian through water or a human through nitrous rich air. It’s natural for them, it’s the way they’re built. Witness the Doctor’s extra sensory perceptions, he can literally see time in flux, respond to its ebbs and flows, he is as aware of changes in time as keenly as we perceive changes in temperature or light. Also, long time fans of the show will recognise that the TARDIS is less a vehicle and more an extension of the Doctor’s physiognomy. He’s not just a bloke with a time machine, to all extents and purposes he is part time machine, the TARDIS in this case analogous to a set of gills or an exo-skeleton – a physical, outward manifestation of an evolutionary advantage.
Now this is all well and good but how does it help us explain time travel? Aha, read on my confounded friend and I will elucidate. You see, if we accept that it is a natural state of affairs for the Doctor to be traveling in time then we can also accept that his personal timeline was never meant to be linear. Whereas we Earth bound organism were only ever meant to travel A to B, time wise, the Doctor’s personal history is more like a cosmic plate of spaghetti, all over the place basically. Where as a human companion is being pulled out of their timeline when traveling in the TARDIS, the Doctor is merely fulfilling a function of his existence. The crucial point here though is that the Doctor can no more travel backwards through his personal timeline than we can decide to visit last Tuesday. He may treat human history like a personal toy box to rummage through at will but he’s as powerless as anyone else to go back and change his own past. That’s why he can’t go back and save Adric or tell his 4th incarnation to touch those two wires together in ‘Genesis’ and win the Time War without a shot being fired. The only time he can cross his own personal history is if he has played no active role in events*** (like Father’s Day) and even then the results can be devastating. From a distance it looks like he can go anywhere and see anything but in actual fact his travels cause time to coalesce around him, possibilities solidifying into certainties as he experiences them. Setting history in stone by his very presence.
Second Law: Gallifrean Mean Time
So why can the Doctor change Earth’s history and not his own? The most popular theory involves a concept called Gallifrean Mean Time (or GMT). This states that the universe has an event horizon, a present day in effect that advances forwards and before which one can no longer time travel. All Time Lords, wherever they are in time and space, share this awareness of what is the present, even though they are all over the place, all over time in different incarnations, shot through the universe like a stick of rock, only one of those incarnations is ever the ‘present’ Time Lord. The rest are fixed past selves or possible futures. The twist in the tale is that this ‘present day’ is actually still billions of years in the past and Earth is actually just a probable future planet (made more probable, it must be assumed, by the amount of it’s future history that has been fixed in place by the Doctor and other time travelers experiencing it). GMT also explains why there is only ever one president of Gallifrey at any given moment, why the Doctor knows what time period to visit if he gets a distress signal from his own world and why he only ever meets the Master one time after another in a linear order despite jumping between times and places. It also explains why there was only five Doctors to choose from at the time of ‘The Five Doctors’ and not thirteen. Most of all it explains why he can never see his own people again, despite them all being time travelers, the event horizon of the present has passed by the destruction of Gallifrey, committing it to the past, and he can never go back there, nor can anyone from there ever be in the same place as him at the same time. The Doctor has to obey the second law of time travel just as surely as we have to obey the law of gravity, he can bend it but he can’t break it. There are things that are lost to him forever.
Right, on to Andrew’s question. Armed with these theories the answer becomes pretty straight forward (I hope). When the creature forces Donna to turn right rather than left it creates a parallel universe where the Doctor has died and everything has gone to hell in a hand basket. But this is certainly not a fully fledged parallel universe of the kind we visited in The Age of Steel. It is a rickety, cowboy-builder-esque construction created by a creature of dubious power. We are told time and again in the episode that reality has been bent around Donna herself, the changes have been made with her as the conduit so we can reasonably assume the new universe shares her linear limitations when it comes to time. Consequently, the only changes that are made are one’s where the Doctor’s wibbly-wobbly timeline intersect with Donna’s timeline from the right-turn moment onwards. There’s no way that the creature could extrapolate every change that the Doctor’s death would have across all time and space, it’s host is an ordinary, A to B, time-bound human and so it can only affect change in one direction – forwards. In fact, it is entirely possible that this new universe doesn’t even have a history before the point of Donna’s decision – that it merely branches off from the main continuum and exists in a little paradoxical bubble by itself.
(If we also take the second law into account, we can really see the creature has bitten off more than it can chew. Because the Doctor manifestly didn’t die during The Christmas Invasion and that has now been set in stone. Time can not just shift slightly around such a colossal error. That is why the whole bodged-up, rubbish, fragile parallel universe came into existence in the first place.)
So there we have it – it was one crappy time beetle against the last gate-keeper of an intrinsic function of the universe’s temporal physics (or the champion of time to give him another name). And the stupid beetle lost. Hope that helps.
* Specifically in the Whoniverse, this doesn’t hold true for Back to the Future, Quantum Leap, the Terminator milieu or JCVD action classic ‘Time Cop’.
** I would be wrong to pass this off as all my own work. Rather it is a bastardisation of hundreds of things I’ve read over the years all cobbled together into a Frakenstein-esque whole. I’d gladly name my sources if I could but unfortunately I’ve forgotten most of them, I seem to remember several copies of DWM, an editor’s note in a Virgin New Adventures book and one of those interminable Dr Who encyclopedia of the mid-80s all played a part. So well done to you guys!
*** Or through massive Time Lord intervention, probably holding it all together with some sort of paradox machine on a planetary scale (see any episode where the Doctor meets himself)