Why Doctor Who is Brilliant and a Cheater


In honor of Doctor Who’s 50th Anniversary, I wanted to talk about time travel. (Spoiler warning, but none of the episodes I mention are from the latest season.) I asked my friend what aspect of time travel to focus on. During our discussion, he asked which school Doctor Who followed: whether time travelers can change history, or whether they can’t. When I said “both,” he said that’s cheating.

He’s right. It’s cheating. But it’s also brilliant.

According to the Doctor, time is in flux. Anything can happen. But the exceptions are fixed points in time, moments that can’t change from what has already happened.

Great example? Pompeii. Vesuvius erupts and destroys Pompeii. The Doctor can’t stop that. Actually, he causes it, which is one of my favorite aspects of time travel. But he can’t evacuate the town to save everyone or do anything to stop the volcano erupting because Pompeii’s destruction is a fixed point.

The majority of episodes don’t deal with fixed points. The Doctor is free to try to save people from the disaster of the day. This approach allows them all sorts of flexibility.

But they can get in trouble when they break their own rules. I distinctly remember two instances where the show has broken its rule about fixed points.

In one episode, the Tenth Doctor visits a scientific expedition on Mars whose total destruction is a fixed point. He keeps trying to leave without getting involved, because he knows that he can’t save them. But then he changes his mind and saves a few of the team members. This time, history has a way of correcting itself, and it turns out not to matter that he saved them.

In another episode, the Eleventh Doctor is supposed to die at a specific time in a specific place. And when he doesn’t, time breaks. All of time happens in the same moment. (It’s a strange concept I don’t really understand yet; just go with it.)

Two fixed points that are changed when they shouldn’t be; two completely different consequences. That rule-breaking is how the show truly cheats at time travel. But since they did break their rule, it would have been better to have consistency. Personally, I prefer the first consequence, since fixed points in time aren’t supposed to be able to change anyway.

But those are the exceptions. Most of the time, the fixed point is one more obstacle the Doctor has to face when trying to save people, like in the Pompeii episode. I love that type of conflict.

Still doubt that it’s brilliant? Here’s the proof: Doctor Who is 50 years old, and going strong.

Happy 50th, Doctor!

Jennifer A. Johnson is a newly published fantasy writer thanks to The Adventure of Creation anthology. She's still revising her first novel, but you can sign up for her free newsletter to pass the time.