...a blog by Richard Flowers

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Day 3905: DOCTOR WHO: The Girl in the Timey-Wimey Place


You know what Doctor Woo is missing? GLOW IN THE DARK CATS!

Never mind creepy dolls or kill-you-with-kindness handbots, THAT'S a monster to be REALLY scared of! Honestly, when these appeared it was nearly ME that aged thirty-six years in a matter of minutes!

Anyway, where's Daddy review?
Well, this is awkward. My first reaction was that the episode was awesome. Alex… was rather less enthusiastic. He has been, if I can put it this way, timey-wimied out. So, I have to review this without my normal sounding board and soul mate. We'll just have to see how it goes.

The point of Alex's reaction is that this is very familiar territory for the Moffat era of the series. The effects of relative time, as seen in "The Girl in the Fireplace" and "The Eleventh Hour" and again in TARDIS corridors sequences from "The Doctor's Wife"; the dangers of alien medical technology, revisiting "The Empty Child" and "Curse of the Black Spot"; the fact the danger is situational rather than there being an actual enemy; the use of catchphrases; the way that nobody really dies…

Now, that's not to say that this was not taking those elements and crafting what I found to be a rather brilliant story out of them. And you might choose to argue that the conclusion, where we are made to feel every beat of older Amy's pain that her life is to be rendered undone, meaningless even, is a condemnation of this very undermining of death in the series, making the case against the "no one really dies in sci fi" mentality, a riposte to Moffat's repeated and casual "time can be rewritten" of the "and you kill someone every time you do" variety. But looking at the repeated memes in close up like that, you can perhaps see how they've been done to death. Assuming death even means anything in Doctor Who any more.

However, it seems to me, that what Mr Moffat is doing with the series this year, the reason why these ideas and themes keep recurring, is that he is exploring various ideas of predestination and free will: what they means for time travel; how one might get you out of the other. I mean, that's fairly obvious, isn't it, with the great big flag of killing the Doctor himself set up at the start.

In the most blatant terms, this shows up with the way that "The Impossible Astronaut" foreshadows the obvious get-out clauses: Amy declares that the fallen Doctor must be a "clone or a robot" and later in the series we see both of those solutions presented as possibilities: the clone in the Flesh of "The Rebel Flesh"/"The Almost People" and the robot in the Tessellector of "Let's Kill Hitler", either of which could perfectly mimic the Doctor. In fact, this is too blatant; it can't be a coincidence.

There's another one, this week, when – as Simon hints – thirty minutes in, the Doctor tells us that if you know the future, and if you're bloody-minded enough, then yes you can change it. Rory even says "so Amy can change the future". If he'd given a Miranda Hart look to camera at the same moment it couldn't have been clearer.

"My life in your hands, Amelia Pond," as he says in "The Impossible Astronaut".

(And just after "fish fingers and custard", which comes up again in "Let's Kill Hitler".)

But I think Moffat is offering up possible escapes routes for us to latch onto in order to pull one of his trademark surprise twists out of the bag. (And he can no doubt relish the thought of factions of Flesh Doctor and Tessellector Doctor advocates forming on the forums.)

And that's just plot mechanics, where Moffat is trying to do a Derren Brown trick of showing us his workings and still distracting us at the same time.

But undercutting the clever-clever stuff there seems to be a strand of genuine philosophical thinking.

In terms of classical physics, both time travel and free will ought to be impossible. But Doctor Who as a television series has never subscribed to either view.

Except that if both "you can time travel" and "you have free will" are true, then you must be able to go into your past and do things that you know did not happen.

This is a paradox for the series, the ultimate Grandfather Paradox. If the Doctor goes back in time then can he or can he not rewrite that history? We only ever see him "defending history", i.e. stopping invasions that we know didn't happen. But why not stop invasions we know did happen, like (and this is always the test case) the German invasion of Poland in 1939.

The series has tried to address this in several ways over the years. The key stories are "The Aztecs", "The Time Meddler", "Day of the Daleks", "Pyramids of Mars", and "The Fires of Pompeii".

[And the following discussion does involves SPOILERS, in particular for "Day of the Daleks"; if you want to enjoy the story on DVD first, do skip to the end to "What does the Mister Moffster think he's doing?".]

What Does Timey-Wimey mean?

Initially there is what we might call the "David Whitaker Doctrine" as set out in "The Aztecs": the Doctor says "you can't rewrite history, not one line" and this is both true and a physical law of the universe.

Though by "history" the series has always meant "what the viewers know". (Which, incidentally, means that the history of, say, the end of the dinosaurs or the Trojan War or Atlantis/Minoan Crete or the reasons why King John signed the Magna Carta are always "what people at the time thought their history was", even if we think we know differently now. But that's a whole other argument.)

So that means there's a problem with the Whitaker Doctrine: it only seems to apply when the Doctor is "in the past" (or, strictly speaking, in those bits of time that we, the viewers, call "the past").

If he goes to Skaro – in "the future" – then it's fine for him to intervene and change anything he likes – wipe out the Daleks, be our guest – that doesn't break any laws of time that we haven't written yet. But that doesn't seem to make sense. Because no matter when you are, it's still "history" to the people who come later: the descendants of the Thals on Skaro (who, in "Planet of the Daleks", we get to see) actually call the events of "The Daleks" history.

But then Whitaker leaves and, after Dennis Spooner has a go, Donald Tosh becomes script editor. And he thinks that that's no fun at all. So we get the new revised rules set out in "The Time Meddler" namely you can change the past and what's more the Monk has done it a lot. But it's very, very naughty and the Doctor does not approve of that sort of thing. So now, "you can't rewrite history" is a moral law, not a physical one.

This begs the question: well who's to say what is "history", to which it turns out the answer is the Time Lords, and once Barry Letts arrives to run the series with Terrance Dicks as his script editor, then we develop a framework of "laws of time" laid down by these benevolent overlords. And because Barry and even more Uncle Terry are of an old-fashioned and small-c conservative bent, the Time Lords are both patrician and good.

(Whether that's what Dicks and Hulke intended in "The War Games" is another matter. Afterwards Robert Holmes, an entirely more cynical figure, takes over and the Time Lords become corrupt and decadent. And then eventually we get to Eric Saward and they, along with everyone else in the universe, reach the depths of thoroughly amoral and borderline psychotic. But I'm getting ahead of myself.)

"Day of the Daleks" (available on DVD now, in full "Nick-Briggs-o-scape" special edition) tries to address the problem by presenting us with an alternative future Earth, conquered by the Daleks, because World War Three took place in the late Twentieth Century.

This, however, is a bit of a paradox pile up.

It turns out – spoilers – that World War Three is caused by people from the alternative future coming back in time to prevent it happening and instead accidentally triggering it. Now, this is a paradox already because if they hadn't have come back in time then no one would have started the war and they would not have existed and so could not have come back in time. In other words, the whole business should never have happened in the first place.

But then, the Doctor gets caught up in events and he manages to stop the people from the future causing the War that leads to their own existence. Which means that the events don't happen so the Doctor doesn't get involved and so does not prevent them coming back in time to accidentally start a war. Which means that the events do happen so he does get involved… etc ad infinitum.

Also, there are Daleks in it.

This is important because it directly addresses the predestination/free will question.

Lawrence Miles and Tat Wood address this in About Time volume three (original version) in an essay called "How Does Time Work". They try to make sense of the paradoxes by suggesting that the whole predestination paradox comes into being all at once in twentieth and twenty-second centuries and whatever century the time travelling Daleks arrive from simultaneously when the Daleks first travel back to re-invade the Earth. i.e. they go back in time and find that someone has already screwed up Earth's timeline for them.

History, they suggest, has "taken account" of all the consequences of past and future actions caused by the Daleks' time travel. However, history as not taken into account the Doctor's future actions.

Thus they conclude that no one has free will except the Time Lords. "Ordinary" time travellers cannot "change" history because they themselves are already a part of history and so they were in the history that they propose "going back to".

(This argument actually falls at the first hurdle, because of course the Daleks have changed history: the twenty-second century of "Day of the Daleks" is not the same one as the twenty-second century of "The Dalek Invasion of Earth".)

Tat quite rightly repudiates this argument in (much longer) version of the essay in the revised volume three, on the grounds that it is against almost everything the series stands for, up to and including the Doctor's own dialogue in "Day of the Daleks".

All of which suggests that if you try to make "Day of the Daleks" logically consistent you just make your head hurt. It is the written equivalent of the optical illusion in Esher's "Ascending and Descending" (those monks on the never-ending stairway): the loops look like they are consistent because of the way it's drawn but you can't actually build it in real life.

But looked at as an allegory, though, it makes perfect sense:

The Daleks conquer the Earth using a paradoxical loop that says time travel leads to predestiny, i.e. they win by taking away free will.

But then the Doctor trumps this with a second paradox, saying no, we will have free will and can choose to avoid fate if we try.

Which is entirely what the series is about. (It only adds to the irony that the Doctor wins by using the Grandfather Paradox.)

At this point I need to divert to a sidebar about the The New Adventures, which developed a thesis of "crystallised time", that is the Doctor came from a place very early in time and space, and for him all of the future is fluid and malleable… until he visits it and interacts with it at which point those bits of history become fixed, "crystallised" and cannot be changed. Obviously, because he's spent so much time on Earth and travelling with Earth people, a lot of the crystallised bits are Earth history and that is why he cannot interfere too much here. In other words, it's the Doctor's own interest in our planet that gives it its privileged "no messing with history" status.

Lawrence Miles, ever the iconoclast, suggested exactly the opposite theory in his Faction Paradox works: all history is fixed by the "Great Houses" (i.e. Time Lords) except for the bits where they or their timeships arrive which are made "malleable".

This idea of "contingent history" is as it happens consistent with the theory developed by Robert Holmes in "Pyramids of Mars". In that story, where Sutekh the Destroyer threatens to end the world, Sarah Jane (who has a habit of asking exactly these awkward questions while Holmes is script editor – see also "I don't speak Italian" in "Masque of Mandragora") puts it to the Doctor that since it's 1911 and she's from 1980, they know they're going to win. So the Doctor shows her Earth in 1980 and it's a blasted cinder. In other words, by becoming involved in events in her own history, Sarah has put that history on the line, as it were. Because she has free will and not predestination her own past is now in question.

This kind of "contingent history" is what gives us the "Back to the Future" rules where if you change your past (or even just go back into your past and find someone else has done something inconsistent with your history) then history rewrites itself… but not instantly, so you have a chance to put it right again. At least that's the Doctor's explanation to Martha in "The Shakespeare Code".

Jumping almost up to date then, we come the companion who is even more stroppy and awkward than Sarah, namely Donna Noble, and it takes Donna to directly confront the Doctor on the ethics of leaving Pompeii to get wiped out merely because they know that that is what is going to happen.

And so the Doctor explains that there are fixed points in time. And, as a Time Lord, he can see them.

This is terribly handy: it means the Doctor can intervene whenever he wants to except when he can't and only he can tell the difference.

"The Waters of Mars" tries to explore this further, asking what happens if the Doctor himself tries to defy one of these fixed points (answer: time seems to find another way of tying itself up, rather like death in those dreadful "Final Destination" movies) but muffs it up, or rather "The End of Time" muffs it up by not being about the consequences of the Doctor having gone bonkers.

But in fact, Douglas Adams had long ago proposed the most elegantly workable solution in "Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency" (nee "Shada"): history is too complex, too fractal to "fix" – i.e. "solving" one problem actually causes another to pop up. The example given is the Dodo and the Coelacanth. Professor Chronotis (in either version) goes back in time in order to save the Coelacanth from extinction. Only the unintended consequence of this is that, when he returns to the present day, he finds that dodos are now extinct when before he left they were not. Understandably, this rather puts him off.

(Mind you, I'm not sure that the viewing public would find much joy in a story where the Doctor travels back in time to prevent World War II, that terrible war between the British Empire and America, only to return to the "present day" to discover that instead there was now a World War II between Britain and Germany.)

But then, ironically, "Shada" was never completed so that timeline is sort of in doubt.

In a fractal history, though, fixed points and "strange attractors" actually make sense. No matter how you distort the pattern, some of the original order will reassert itself. Vesuvius will always destroy Pompeii; there will always be a Shakespeare; Bowie Base will always be destroyed – it takes a being of unimaginable, godlike power – like Sutekh – to destroy these things.

Time then is like a jar of coloured sand that makes a pattern. It looks fixed. But you can shake the jar and everything changes. But new patterns emerge.

Or perhaps, rather than grains of sand, say little coloured strings, some short some long, representing events strung together in sequences that we call histories or life stories. "Now" isn't a slice through time so much as the leading end of each thread where new events are being added to the chain. "Now" is happening at every point in time and space adding more events wherever there are gaps.

So "History" is a big ball of these strings all knotted together, forming ever-more-complex patterns which can be changed, disarrayed, smashed to bits even when the ball is disturbed; they are drawn to certain patterns and nexus points so that whenever the patterns are changed, some familiar once inevitably reassert themselves; the threads are both linked to and threaded around each other in a manner that can only be described as wibbly-wobbly…

All of which brings us to Mr Moffat.

What does the Mister Moffster think he's doing?

At the end of last season, Steve just went and broke all the rules. He had the Doctor use predestination paradoxes like they were going out of fashion to repeatedly cheat time. He got out of the Pandorica by having got out of the Pandorica, and everything that followed, mop, fez and all.

(Those dear boys at the Eleventh Hour podcast want this to be just the last iteration of a process where the Doctor first worked out how to get out of the Pandorica from the inside, then goes back in time to give the sonic to Rory to let his earlier self out, thus rewriting his own past to get himself out quicker, and then having been released by Rory, replicates the actions of himself from the previous version to create a stable non-looping version of history.

But that's really not what happens is it.)

And look: he uses a predestination paradox and lo, a Dalek comes back to life. And the bugger kills him.

Now, at the time we all thought that this was Mr Moffat having his little joke. Or at least playing "Curse of the Fatal Death" with live ammo.

But suppose he's not just larking about showing how clever-clever he can be with his writing. Not "just". Suppose in fact that he's waving all these predestination paradoxes under our noses to start us thinking about them.

Remember, the very next thing that Moffat wrote was "A Christmas Carol", in which the Doctor tries rewriting Kazran Sardick's past… and it does not work. It goes horribly wrong, every time he tries. Only an act of free will saves the day.

Moffat seems to be very much on the side of free will and choice.

It shows up mostly in the big "arc" episodes, but it's there in the standalones too: even something as seemingly unconnected as "The Curse of the Black Spot" is working with the "curse" idea to suggest that we are powerless, or we make ourselves powerless, when we do not try to understand, and concludes with Captain Avery changing his destiny.

"Night Terrors" last week, under the mush, was being driven by a little boy's fear that he was going to be sent away against his will. The "daddy loves you" conclusion was also an affirmation that his choices will be listened to, that his free will matters.

Notice also how "The Doctor's Wife" sees House, who believes in absolute control to the point where his puppets literally drop dead without his will controlling them, contrasted with the TARDIS, with all her non-linear perspectives and, at heart, choice, the choice to steel a Time Lord and run away, the choice to take him to wherever he was needed (and never to tell him what to do when he got there). In its crudest form, House is a planet and represents unchanging stability and the TARDIS is a ship representing travel and freedom.

From a certain point of view, the difference between the rebel gangers and the Flesh Amy was free will: their Flesh had gained it; her Flesh was taking hers away.

From a certain point of view, the point of the Silence (or at least the monsters formerly believed to be called the Silence) is that they take away free will by giving us post-hypnotic suggestions.

This might – might – take a step towards justifying the Doctor's actions in "The Day of the Moon". He is fighting against an embodiment of predestination; he is giving humans back free will. On that scale, you can see why he did what he did. From a certain point of view.

Equally, you can see how the Doctor and the Church would end up on opposite sides of a war. For god has to be omniscient, and omniscience destroys free will even more effectively than time travel does. Because if anyone can know everything that is ever going to happen, then everything is predetermined and there is no choice at all ever.

I've written before about how in a lot of ways the White Guardian is at least as bad as the Black Guardian. We need both but neither can win. In a universe of total chaos we couldn't live; but in a universe of total order, we'd be dead.

Moffat's Doctor is about giving people choices.

That's what he does to Rory in "The Girl Who Waited".

"That's not fair," says Rory, "You're turning me into you!"

But you know, the Doctor has the perfectly legitimate comeback: "No Rory, you chose to be me when you decided that you were not going to tell me about my future death."

We are supposed to believe – because River tells us so – that they are being all noble and preserving the web of time by keeping the Doctor's future a secret. But it's possible that they are just plain wrong. They are taking away his free will, and Moffat seems to want us to think that that is worse than messing with paradox.

Rory and Amy's lives are riddled with paradoxes, the Doctor having rewritten their pasts repeatedly and then rebooted the whole universe, so they are literally no longer the same people they were last year. But it's always been about giving them choices not taking choices away – the one time the Doctor took Amy's choices away was when he left her life to be swallowed by the crack in her wall and he's been trying to restore if ever since.

This may also be why we never hear of "Mels" before "Let's Kill Hitler". As the Doctor puts it "You named your daughter… after your daughter?" Moffat, I suspect deliberately, has chosen not to show Melody to Mels' history as a predestination paradox. Moffat – like the Joker – would prefer a past that is multiple choice.

Ultimately of course the whole of the Moffat era hangs on the relationship between River and the Doctor, and the whole of their relationship hangs on the very serious question of whether either of them has a choice.

Every time they meet, one of them knows the other's future. They could rewrite each other's history over and over but they don't. So the question that constantly underlines their relationship is this: are they powerless to change the intertwined course of their lives or do they choose not to?

This, I think, is why it is no accident that the season will end, just as last year's did, with a wedding. A wedding seems like the ultimate moment of destiny, so many things forcing you inevitably to that moment. And yet, the entire ceremony hinges on a question. "Will you take this man?" It is the single most important expression of free will that we have, in this case quite possibly capable of tearing time and space asunder.

We will see.

So the thing that's great about this episode, even apart from all the things that are great about this episode – the acting, the make-up, the dialogue, the design (Millennium Stadium with just a hint of Tim Burton) – the thing that is great about this episode is the way that it pulls into focus all the themes that Moffat has been developing and points us forward to where they might go.

If that's where they choose to go.

Next Time… Angels, minotaurs and David Walliams. Presumably he's a timey-wimey guest star who likes timey-wimey things. The TARDIS crew check into a hotel where every room seems to be room 101. And we can test my theories about omniscience. And see who has "The God Complex".


Terence Eden said...

You are, of course, assuming that there's no Special Edition Blue-Rays where Moffat has digitally inserted Mel :-)

Richard Gadsden said...

"For god has to be omniscient, and omniscience destroys free will even more effectively than time travel does. Because if anyone can know everything that is ever going to happen, then everything is predetermined and there is no choice at all ever."

One of the great theological questions.

There are answers to this, of course - but I'm an atheist, like Millennium, so why should I answer them?

Because theology is a fascinating adventure in logic, that's why.

So, the answer that the Calvinists - who accept predestination - give, is really clever. One of those beautiful bits of logic that makes you just go "wow".

Just because God knows what decision you're going to make, doesn't mean that it isn't you that makes it. For instance, we know what decisions Julius Caesar made. But he still made them; just because we know what they were doesn't mean that we think we made them.

See: you have free will; God just knows what decision you're going to make.

Mike Taylor said...

I don't have much to add to this excellent analysis, I just wanted to let you know how much I enjoyed it.