Nerd School: The Pitfalls of Paradoxical Storytelling

by Joe on September 14, 2012


“People assume that time is a strict progression of cause to effect, but *actually* from a non-linear, non-subjective viewpoint – it’s more like a big ball of wibbly wobbly… time-y wimey… stuff.” ~The Doctor

Let’s discuss time travel.  Generally any fiction dealing in time travel  has “rules” to deal with the precarious nature of time. This, of course, is generally due to the fact that since time travel (in the science fiction-y sense) does not exist, or on a more positive note, has yet to be discovered.

Rules like these exist for two main reasons. One of which is meta, the other is practical. The first is to make the story interesting. Without specific rules related to the use of time travel, the protagonist could travel back in time to warn himself (or someone with authority) of the impending danger. The story would be over before it began. Perhaps the villain could travel back in time, and kill their enemies grandfather so they could never be born. Without certain rules in place to prevent this from happening, you would not only create massive plotholes, you would just piss off your reader.  The second reason, related top  is that time travel is a well worn subject, and without rules regarding how it is used, the writing can fall into logic traps. A logic trap usually revolves around the fact time travel without limitations essentially gives you omniscience. You can be anywhere at any time. With omniscience, you have no conflict, because at any point that conflict can be resolved before it occurs.

All great time travel stories have limitations on the abilities of  the time travel mechanism. None is better and more creatively expressive than in Doctor Who. The Doctor’s only rule, (paraphrased, of course) is that he cannot interfere with his own timeline. Wonderful in its simplicity, this one rule dictates that even the most omniscient beings in the galaxy have limitations.

So why can’t The Doctor interfere with his own timeline? Science fiction has taught us that with time travel comes the inevitability of paradoxes. What is a paradox? Simply stated, in science fiction terms, it’s a situation which even though is true, should not exist.

Take Back to the Future for example. In the movie Marty travels back in time to the year 1955 and inadvertently disrupts the moment in which his parents were to fall in love. Because of this Marty is never born, so he begins to fade away. The paradox of this is that if Marty were never to exist, he never would have traveled back in time to stop his parents from falling in love. The movie does a better job of explaining away the paradox, by saying that a new reality is taking over and gradually the old one is fading away, but even in the end, the old Marty still exists with the memories of the old reality thus he himself is a walking paradox. He should not exist.

A lot of time can be spent in time travel stories discussing paradoxes. For a show like Doctor Who, The Doctor’s rule helps eliminate the possibility of paradoxes in his universe, and frees up the storytelling by not getting bogged down in logic loops.

Not that paradoxes do not exist in the Doctor’s world. In the first series episode “Father’s Day” Rose Tyler and The Doctor travel back in time to the moment of her father’s death so that she can comfort him as he lay dying. Unfortunately Rose saves her father creating a paradox. We learn that in The Doctor’s universe paradoxes do exist, but the Time Lords (The Doctor’s race) would “clean them up”. The universe however unleashes some frightening beasts to clean up the paradox itself. In fact, in the series 4 finale, The Master has to create a machine out of the Tardis in order to sustain a paradox.

The 10th Doctor in the episode “Smith and Jones” states  “Crossing into established events is strictly forbidden — except for cheap tricks”. The cheap track in this case involves a tie and a disbelieving Martha. This episode is also important because it is here we learn that even though The Doctor says he cannot interfere with his own timeline, it’s more of a guideline than a rule.  The 11th Doctor is even looser with this rule in the series 5 finale as he interweaves with his own timeline. Though to be fair, he never actually interacts with himself.

The Doctor does interact with himself on more than one occasion. Usually this is caused by an extreme circumstance. “The Three Doctors”, “The Five Doctors”, and “Time Crash” are a few of the notable examples of this.

One question often asked about this “rule”, is “how does The Doctor not interfere with his own past on a regular basis?” We often seen interacting with the likes of Shakespeare, Leonardo DiVinci, and Elizabeth I. So how come he never sees himself? Well partially that’s due to good planning by The Doctor, and another reason is that The Doctor’s timeline does not exist linearly like ours. He exists in moments in time rather than time itself.

A perfect example of this is his relationship with River Song. The two of them have a relationship which consists of the two weaving in and out of each others lives. It is never longer than a brief period in the long run and it is never in each other’s “chronological” order.

What makes Doctor Who such a shining example of what can be done with time travel stories is that it never remarks on the science or philosophy of the dangers of the medium. It doesn’t need to, as the danger or responsibility of time travel exists only to someone who lives under the constraint of time.

That person is definitely not The Doctor.

Read some other stuff from Joe, hear him on the Planet Arbitrary podcast, or follow him on Twitter @planetarbitrary

Read Joe’s other articles:

Game of Thrones: Casting Roundup 1 and 2, Game of Thrones Primer IIGame of Thrones Primer I, Inn at the Crossroads Interview, Season 1 recap, The Greyjoy Rebellion, Robert’s Rebellion Pt.1, Robert’s Rebellion Pt.2, Robert’s Rebellion Pt. 3, The Religions of Westeros, The Races of Westeros

Star Trek: Evening the OddsStar Trek Blu-rays 1 and 2 Trek in your Queue 1 and 2, Obama TrekStar Trek: A Different Generation, Failed Star Trek Spinoffs

Doctor Who: Doctor Who Season 6 Round Up, An Alternate History of the DoctorDoctor Who Season 6 primer, Biology, Psychology, and Regeneration

Misc: Sci-Fi ComposersThieving Sci-Fi, Paranormal Activi3The Walking Dead Primer, The Genre Problem, Conan Primer, Mutant Fatigue, Sci-Fi A-Team, A Love Letter to Natalie PortmanThor Primer

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