Dr. Who Comic Relief Shows The Problem With Time Travel Stories

The first six minutes or so are the best part, and by far the most relevant part.

A large part of what’s funny about the constant “I anticipated you and went further back in time” is that it is merely taking the time travel premise seriously. If you can time travel, the past is up for grabs, and to quote George Orwell: who controls the past, controls the future. Thus the fundamental problem in a time travel story is that, if it doesn’t conveniently forget about time travel, nothing that anyone does matters because it can always be undone.

Of course, they do all conveniently forget about time travel, in practice. Or else they come up with some excuse for why they can only time travel once. Either way, the only way time travel stories are in any way enjoyable is to only play at them being time travel stories but to carefully keep them from being time travel stories. Because a time travel story isn’t a story, since a story has a sequence and time travel has no sequence. (You can pretend to have a story from the perspective of the time traveller, but that doesn’t help because he intersects himself, at least in his effects, and so his chronology becomes out of order.)

Time travel stories end up being like superhero stories where the character isn’t just super-strong but the cars are reinforced to be pick-upable with a human hand (in reality that much force would just rip a bit of the car off), but they’re not reinforced enough that he does need to grab them to keep them from hitting a building or they’d be destroyed. They’re day-dreams about specific moments that are enjoyable to toy with precisely because they could never happen. It’s the fact that they’re impossible which makes them fun. “Imagine if I could run at 100,000 miles per hour but the air magically gets out of my way except when I’m trying to breath it and then it’s exactly like regular air, and when I open a door the air gets out of its way too and I’m pulling on the whole thing not just the handle so the handle doesn’t just rip off but when I let go the door doesn’t go smashing through the wall and…”

It’s all a form of the fantasy, “what if reality was whatever I wanted it to be?”

Or, in other words, “what if I was God?”

That can’t really be a good story.

Note: superheroes are great when they are mythic; the super-strong hero being merely symbolic of strength as a means to consider the responsibilities of being strong as well as the pleasure of achievement and service, etc. When they are symbols, the fact that they aren’t even slightly realistic doesn’t matter because one isn’t supposed to enter into them that way.

3 thoughts on “Dr. Who Comic Relief Shows The Problem With Time Travel Stories

  1. Mary

    I’m working on a time travel story, but the characters don’t control their motion, so I can get away with quite a bit. O:)


  2. I actually find the better time travel stories to be the ones with unexpected consequences. The old Butterfly Effect theory. The causal tapestry being what it is, the smallest change – heck, even the act of being relocated in time and space – can have unforeseen and often disastrous ramifications. And, with true time travel, the variables are so complex and numerous that you’ll never be able to correct what you did.

    Liked by 1 person

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