Funny how you can watch a favourite show, enjoy it – yet still sit a bit uneasily in your seat – because things are not… as they were! The Dr Who Christmas special was a bewitching swirl of snow, wit and imagination, but left me with something to think about.
In this story, the Doctor saves the day by repeatedly going back in time to change the life of one bitter man for the better. He appears with effortless ease at a series of Christmas Eves, shaping a sad soul into a brighter one. This follows on from the Big Bang, in which the Doc also popped backwards and forwards in time to solve his problems. Funny, yes, creative – yes, but it made me wonder.
This may work in the merry confection of the Christmas special, but what happens at a later stage when someone close to the Doctor (maybe even Amy) is killed in action. Bewildered viewers won’t understand why the Doc doesn’t just hop back in time and make everything turn out right. Well, there’ll be tears. Some might feel cheated.
In the last two outings, Moffat has instituted something of a revolution in Dr Who. He has made the Doc’s ability to change time a kind of superpower that he employs willy-nilly. It’s weird to us older viewers because up to recently… Dr Who hasn’t actually been about time travel.
It seemed to begin with Paul Cornell’s ‘Father’s Day’ in 2005. With Dr Nine, Rose travels back in time to see her father’s death – but saves him instead. This unleashes a series of disastrous consequences, but creates a delightful creepy frisson as we see time meddling and its consequences coming to the forefront of the series.
Then Dr Ten gets into the action. To impress Martha in ‘Smith and Jones’ (2007) he nips back in time to take off his tie and imprint a memory into her mind. Russell T Davies knows this kind of time-larking is forbidden – especially with the hard core fans – so he cheekily gives the Doctor this line:
“Crossing into established events is strictly forbidden. Except for cheap tricks.” Nice one, RTD.
Then, in Waters of Mars (2009), we see the Doctor choosing to change a historic outcome – a fixed point in time, by rescuing the crew of Bowie Base One. To Doctor Ten this is a massive rebellion against his past beliefs, a moment of hubris – part of his downfall and plunge into regeneration.
But now, Doctor 11 has donned the mantle of time meddling monkey with great alacrity. The youngest Doctor ever, he’s like a kindly, rather privileged young prince, who accepts twiddling with time as his birthright. This is all very new stuff to a very old series.
Traditionally, the Doctor landed his Tardis at a moment in events, future or past, but after that was stuck in the same temporal flow as everyone else, bound by the iron rules of a tough universe. It made him mortal, subject to the same hopes and fears as the rest of us.
Now we have the Doctor dancing back and forth through the years, able to alter the experiences of anyone who gets in his way. If he has to, he can change your memories – everything that makes you what you are. Something a bit scary about that.
Has Moffat damaged the storytelling integrity of the longest lasting sci-fi show on TV? Or does he have a master plan up his sleeve to punish the Doc for his transgression, re-instate the Time Lords and get back to the old order? Maybe River Song is his time probation officer..?
The rules of time in themselves don’t matter. The key is to entertain and intrigue the viewers. Moffat is taking a chance, but like all his predecessors, he finds himself in the lonely position of having to set his own rules. Like the shark, as Woody Allen once pointed out – it has to move forward to stay alive.
HEY – I must thank my pals Nick Abadzis, Alan Cowsill and John Tomlinson for some of the amusing emails and TV- related chats that helped me on these ramblings. Nick is blogging about Dr Who here: