Time Can Be Rewritten… But Probably Shouldn’t Be

Updated 1/4/12

They say that the definition of madness is doing the same thing and expecting a different result. In which case, the eleventh Doctor really is a madman with a box. His messing about with time has brought about the end of the universe twice in the space of 18 months. But he really should know better, given that this incarnation owes his existence to the consequences of rewriting time, in the longest, most complex and most ambitious “story arc” the series has ever attempted.

In World War Three the ninth Doctor says that Harriet Jones’s historic three-term premiership will be remembered as a new Golden Age for Great Britain. Six months later, in pretty much his first act as a fully-cooked incarnation, the tenth Doctor re-writes history and deposes her. And that is his downfall.

Consider that for a moment: the first act of the tenth Doctor’s life is the cause of his downfall.

How so? I’m glad you asked. Harriet Jones’s untimely removal clearly wrought havoc with history. The ninth Doctor unambiguously states that she was known to posterity as a three-term Prime Minister. The tenth Doctor ends her reign after less than a year. Time has been rewritten because the Doctor has decided Harriet Jones is not worthy of her office.

And that opens the way for all kinds of changes. In the general election triggered by her resignation, the victor was Harold Saxon. Now, presumably, the Master (for it is he!) took advantage of time being rewritten to write himself into 10 Downing Street. Certainly, there’s no suggestion that he had to engineer a prime ministerial vacancy, nor resort to the crude methods of the Slitheen. And, once in power, the Master turns the TARDIS into a paradox machine to allow the last of humankind to decimate their ancestors and conquer the Earth, taking further advantage of what is presumably becoming a kind of temporal weak spot.

As we know, the Doctor becomes the Space Jesus and undoes the Master’s time-vexing naughtiness (although not, we note, his own time meddling). And that, it seems, is that. Except exactly one year later, Harriet Jones makes a reappearance, mounts a spirited defence of her own record and the need to defend the Earth – and is exterminated for her efforts by a bunch of Daleks that, in a roundabout way, exist because the locks around the Time War are starting to break down.

So, in the space of two years, the great white hope of Great Britain has been humiliated, deposed and murdered, largely due to the intervention of the Doctor.

And at this point, the Doctor nearly loses his own life – and it’s only thanks to a handy keepsake from his previous encounter with Harriet that he’s able to cheat death. But the threads linking his first adventure and his eventual death are starting to draw together.

And it gets worse. The Master, as usual, had a Plan B. Saxon’s followers organise his resurrection just in time to take advantage of the Immortality Gate (which, incidentally, is a piece of alien technology that would surely have been snapped up by Torchwood had the tenth Doctor not also brought them down), which in turn allows the Master, in a slightly roundabout way, to finally break the locks and release the Time Lords from their imprisonment at the end of the Time War.

And once the Time Lords return, it really is the end for the Doctor. And all this because he has rewritten time in a small act of spite against one woman.

I think this is a deliberate and clever story that Russell T Davies played in the background of David Tennant’s time as the Doctor. Certainly in interviews, Davies has said that Saxon emerged just after the fall of Harriet Jones to take an advantage of a new gap in history. And there is something ultimately right in seeing perhaps the most cocky Doctor undone by an unthinking moment of over-confidence, as though this incarnation is being punished for his character flaw in the same way Troughton’s Doctor had to finally stay behind to clear up the results of his anarchy, or Pertwee’s Doctor paid the price for his own intellectual pride.

And for viewers who haven’t followed four series worth of plot unfolding, Russell T Davies kindly re-plays the tenth Doctor’s hubris in miniature in The Waters of Mars. Saving Adelaide Brooke is presented as the action of a man who thinks he is above the law – who, if you like, has risen higher than ever before. But in changing history, the Doctor fails to save Adelaide, The lesson the Doctor takes from that story is time can be rewritten – but the consequences are unpredictable and horrifying. And he seems to grasp that he will not survive it: his reaction to Adelaide’s death and the appearance of Ood Sigma: “Is this it? My death?” In the following episode, we learn that events from the Doctor’s past are now impacting on his present and the future. “Time itself is bleeding,” says the Ood Elder. And the Doctor is the one who made the first cut.

All the way through the Russell T Davies years the series has looked over its shoulder at the Hartnell era, when the Doctor would not even save one young girl from the Massacre for fear of altering time. Father’s Day showed the consequences of altering established history. The Fires of Pompeii directly addresses the fate of Anne Chaplet by having the Doctor relent and rescue Caecilius and his family from Vesuvius.

But the ultimate lesson Davies leaves us with is that even the Doctor is not above the law: that he can’t just go about changing history to suit himself, or to guarantee that, say, a grumpy miser will do as he’s told at Christmas. Trying to cheat, to alter the facts to fit your views, is the kind of self-destructive behaviour we expect from the villains, not the Doctor. It’s a lesson his next incarnation seems to have forgotten, but which, perhaps, he needs to re-learn if he’s to avoid a similar fall.

In this instance, Genesis of the Daleks is a good reference point: the fourth Doctor’s much-quoted “Do I have the right?” speech isn’t really about whether he has the right to kill the Daleks – he’s done that many times before – it’s about whether he has the right to re-write time. Taken alongside Davros’s earlier speech about genocide setting him up above the gods, the Doctor is reflecting that if he does play God and chooses to change history, he puts himself in a similar position – and he has to then take responsibility for the consequences of his choice, which in this case includes a whole new timeline. Or, to put it in Davies’ own words, “If you could choose, Doctor, if you could decide who lives and who dies… That would make you a monster.” Time can be rewritten, says Russell T Davies, but if you do, you become a monster.

The whole Moffat era so far seems to be circling a similar conclusion without quite reaching it (yet). The eleventh Doctor’s careless manipulation of history is undermining the whole morality of the series. Kazran Sardick’s personality is changed so the Doctor can get out of a tight spot. The sequence of cause and effect has been cheated, with sonic screwdrivers appearing from nowhere to save the day. Death loses all meaning. Actions no longer have consequences, and therefore no-one needs to take responsibility. History is now the Doctor’s playground, and we are his playthings. No wonder every nightmare in the universe formed an alliance against him: the Doctor has become the biggest monster of all.

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