- Matt Smith
Until recently, I have been an enthusiastic admirer of closed-loop time travel stories. I have often been pleased by the elegance and tight construction of stories like the ‘Bad Wolf’ arc in season one of the new Doctor Who, in which Rose Tyler retroactively creates herself by scattering words throughout time and space – words that her future-self had always-already planted in the past when she encountered them at earlier points in her own timeline. In addition to demonstrating clever forethought from a storyteller, closed-loop time travel stories impart a feeling of destiny, a sense of temporal immutability and a sensation that time has a mysterious coherence that eschews the randomness of loose causal paradoxes.
Recently, however, David Wittenberg’s Time Travel: The Popular Philosophy of Narrative (2013) has persuaded me that there is something reactionary about closed-loop time travel sagas. In brief, Wittenberg proposes that narrative itself – a creative ordering of events from the past in order to construct meaningful stories about the present and future – is a form a time travel, and he argues that time travel stories literalise the figurative processes of temporal manipulation that are essential to narrative creation. Narratives themselves, however, are characterised by radical subjective instability, and as Akira Kurosawa famously shows in Rashomon (Japan 1950), the same basic story can be narrated in vastly different ways from alternative points of view. A closed-loop time travel story offers the reassurance that there is one story, one definitive narrative, one [End Page 248] point of view that trumps all others and holds the key to a deeper and more meaningful truth.
This insistence on a single objective viewpoint that trumps all others has been one of the cornerstones of colonialist ideology; Robert Young refers to this as ‘ontological imperialism’, and John Rieder coins the term the ‘colonial gaze’ to refer to a superior point of view which presumes enlightened knowledge in contrast to the perspectives of presumably unenlightened subalterns. What figure in the history of sf carries the privilege of the colonial gaze more powerfully than the Doctor? Let’s face it – the Doctor was born during a moment when imperial fantasies were transforming in profound ways. In 1963, decolonisation was reversing a long history of British imperial expansion; all of a sudden it was not cool to be a dominating coloniser anymore. Instead of conquering, then, why not visit other worlds – like a well-intentioned tourist – and carry on the white man’s burden in a more gentle and acceptable manner? The Doctor regenerated imperial adventure into a kind of nostalgic imperialist fantasy; he is an all-knowing father figure from an advanced civilisation who unilaterally intervenes in the affairs of less advanced cultures by means of his extraordinary intellect and an exceptional sense of morality that can untangle local illusions of complexity and reveal deeper universal underlying truths concerning right and wrong.
The Doctor, with his panoptic police box, is always watching, always policing, and his advanced perspective keeps things on the right track. As Rose learned in ‘Father’s Day’ (14 May 2005), the Doctor always knows best, and fixed moments in time cannot be altered, lest paradoxes proliferate and the structure of space and time itself collapse.
This had been the Doctor’s story, with a variety of deviations and exceptions, until ‘The Eleventh Hour’ (3 Apr 2010). Steven Moffat’s first Doctor revised many of the cornerstones of the show’s basic formulas; the power of revision, in fact, became key to the magic of Smith’s Doctor. Moffat consistently launches from the elements of a closed-loop time travel story – once a time traveller sees her own gravestone, for example, she is destined to be buried there, and nothing can change this. Yet Moffat explores the possibility that you can make extraordinary revisions within the closure of the closed loop itself. As long as it looks like the loop remains closed, a time traveller can actually do anything, including radical transformations of fixed past (or future) events. The Doctor must be killed by River Song on the shores of Lake Silencio, right? No problem – he can replace the...