Can You Rewrite History, Even One Line? Doctor Who, The Web Of Time, And A Response To Millennium (Hyperpost 7)

A revised and improved version of this essay is in my book Sci-Ence! Justice Leak! – hardback, paperback, PDF Kindle (US), Kindle (UK), all other ebook formats

ceci n'est pas un blog post

ceci n'est pas un blog post

Gratifyingly , the response to my Hyperpost series has not been people saying “Shut up, you incredibly tedious little man”, but instead some people who I admire greatly as writers have been using it as a springboard for their own ideas – and have done so so well I’ve extended the series by two posts – this one and one later one – from its original intended length to talk about their posts.

To start with, let’s look at Millennium Elephant’s response.

Now, I actually agree with the vast majority of what Millennium is saying here – only really disagreeing with the assertion that free will exists, which I think is a debatable proposition (but he’s intelligent enough to say “Though if we are wrong about that it makes no difference because all our actions, including believing we have free will, are all pre-determined anyway!” – acceptance of the possibility that one *could* be wrong is, to my mind, the basis for all rational discussion). I’m also less convinced of the Copenhagen interpretation than he is – but like him, don’t actually see it as incompatible with the many-worlds interpretation, but rather that they’re both metaphors for what’s Actually Going On, which is some not-readily-describable combination of the different interpretations.

(Luckily, for the purposes of this series of essays, I’m more interested in what’s interesting than what’s right – I’m trying to play with a whole bunch of interrelated ideas here, about canon and continuity, time and hypertime).

However, what I *do* disagree with is the assertion that, for Doctor Who at least, the Copenhagen Interpretation makes us more responsible for the consequences of our actions than the variant of the Many Worlds interpretation that I have been referring to (with a hat tip to Messrs. Morrison & Waid) as Hypertime (Doctor Who fans may be familiar with a similar-but-possibly-distinct idea under the name of The Fugue).

I’m going to attempt to show this, in the time-honoured tradition of Doctor Who fans, by referring to a single line from one story – in this case 1985’s Attack Of The Cybermen, where the Doctor refers to ‘the web of time’ in passing.

Now that line has got a lot of attention in various fanfics and spinoffery in the twenty-four years since the episode was transmitted, and there’s a reason for that – the image of time as a web, rather than the more conventional line, says quite a lot.

And this image is compatible both with the ‘hypertime’ view, and with actions carrying a *lot* of weight.

Imagine that time *is* like a web – all the points of all the multiple universes are connected to other points. A normal person’s life follows a line from one point to another to a third, and will always be a consistent timeline, because they’re only travelling forward at a rate of sixty seconds per minute.

Now imagine that every time you make a decision, you strengthen one connection (the one where you make that decision) but break other connections from that point – from a point of view outside time (and such a point of view exists in Doctor Who, though I suspect not in reality, whatever that is) – something like the collapse of the waveform in the Copenhagen Interpretation, but this is breaking off connections between different objectively-existing universes.

This would mean that everyone had a consistent history – once you’ve broken a connection, there are universes you ‘can’t get to from here’, those that directly contradicted the past decision. But it would also mean that the Doctor had an awesome responsibility as a time traveller, and his decisions would matter not only for him but for all the universe.

For the other thing about a web, along with its interconnectedness, is its fragility.

Every time the Doctor makes a decision, he breaks and makes connections between different points of time – those he’s been to before and will be again. He can alter some things – so long as there’s a way for a consistent timeline to route through all the points he’s visited. So he can save a life that wasn’t saved before, because there is a consistent universe where that person was saved, but he can’t kill Hitler in 1933, because there’s no way to make that consistent with the universes he’s visited in the past.

Because the Doctor is very aware of something – as he travels up and down his ‘timeline’ in the web of time, he’s selecting a smaller and smaller number of possible timelines, and condemning more and more to impossibility. That’s bad enough in itself, but we all do that every time we make a decision.

But he could – all too easily – break a segment of his own timeline off altogether. If he makes the wrong decisions at points A and B, then the whole section of his timeline between those points could become completely detached from the rest of the web, inaccessible from either past or future. Which would of course mean condemning all the inhabitants of that fragment of the web of time to nonexistence… the more he interferes – the more he does *anything* – the more likely this becomes, but he can’t use that as an excuse *not* to intervene.

(And of course from there we can get to all sorts of story possibilities like villains trying to make ‘pocket timelines’ to control, people in broken-off fragments trying to rejoin their fragment to reality, the Doctor unable to save entire planets because doing so would break the last connection between universes, and so on).

This would also, of course, help explain why the rest of the Gallifreyans never meddle (with the exception of all the meddlers). It’s just too dangerous – making choices has *too many* consequences.

(I’m not suggesting that this is the case in real-world physics, of course – in fact I think it’s nonsensical for multiple different reasons – but I think it *is* the case in my own Doctor Who ‘canon’…)

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15 Responses to Can You Rewrite History, Even One Line? Doctor Who, The Web Of Time, And A Response To Millennium (Hyperpost 7)

  1. Andy Hinton says:

    This makes some sort of sense to me. It seems like a good fit with Faction Paradox screwing up the Third Doctor’s regeneration in Interference, too – given that the Doctor has by the time of the War made his own personal timeline so integral to the structure of the web, mucking about with it would be a powerful way of annoying the Time Lords. Or something.

  2. Dave Page says:

    The idea of the Doctor limiting his own choices each time he changes something in time resonates with “He Jests At Scars”…

  3. Kieran says:

    That web metaphor is marvelous, so much clearer than Morrison’s glass ball idea, and a closer fit to his ideas about conscious universes as well with your embellishments: it’s just perfect that both history and memory are made by the same process of breakdown and reinforcement of connections between nodes.

    Also: by clarifying my mental image of pocket universes, you and added a fan-fact to my personal cannon of, say, the Legion of Superheroes. The post demonstrates the principle!

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      Thanks – and yes, the connection to neural nets hadn’t escaped me, either, and the whole conscious universe thing. And I did have half my mind on the Time Trapper while writing this ;)
      Unfortunately, I *think* Morrison’s metaphor is supportable by real-world physics, while mine is far less so. It’s supportable by Doctor Who physics though…

      • pillock says:

        Don’t forget that we all start “winnowing” our neural connections from infancy!

        What a wonderful image, Andrew. But I feel should point out: every time we make a decision we do cancel out another universe by this breaking and strengthening of strands in the web…and you don’t need to resort to QM to see it! Every person’s “possible futures” in a real sense are bounded by quite ordinary restrictions of time and distance and instrument: within, say, a fairly big circle composed of “places you can get to/affect in the next little while”, you’re going to be moving around a bit no matter what you do…and where you go won’t only determine where you don’t go, but where you can’t go. If you don’t leave off blog-commenting tonight in time to go to the grocery store before it closes, there’s nothing for it but that you must go tomorrow…but then the number of places you can get to “in the next little while” is going to shrink anyway. This is how most people think of “alternate histories”, I believe: if you had actually made it to that girl’s birthday party you probably would have hooked up with her, and she wouldn’t be dating that other guy. If you’d only got the brakes fixed then you would have made it to the show that A&R guy was at, and you would’ve gotten signed. “Meant-to-be” time-travel morals are hard to swallow when the divergent events are that close and that mundane, and so in this sense we can see ourselves “making fate”…in snowball mistakes like accidentally turning right instead of left, and thereby missing the bus to school. You can’t get to the bus in time, though it’s right over there — you can see it, but you can’t get it into your future. Five feet’s enough.

        But for the Doctor, it’s a different problem, since he can go anywhere he likes. EXCEPT. It’s still true that when he goes to one place, he doesn’t go to another, even if his circle is as big as the universe, and he can travel to anyplace within it at an infinite speed. Because that only means he can go anywhere, not that he can go everywhere

        But, that’s not really my point, anyway…hmm, maybe I can find it somewhere lower down on the thread…

  4. Oliver Townshend says:

    Does that mean that the invervention in Genesis of the Daleks affected that web? The Doctor argues the morality of destroying the Daleks at the end, and instead settles for just ‘slowing them up’. That key point must have affected the web, and the net effect seems to have been that the Daleks were slowed up, but that Davros then became a force (an unintended consequence), possibly balancing results out and leave the Doctor in the same web.

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      That would be the neatest interpretation I can think of, yes…

    • Millennium says:

      That is the interpretation that the Discontinuity Guide came up with – the Doctor’s intervention causes Davros to take more care with his life-support backups so he survives extermination and thereafter weakens the Daleks, averting the possible future where the Daleks take over the universe. However, the Daleks don’t actually come looking for him until Skaro is devastated and abandoned (presumably as a result of the Dalek civil war in “Evil…”) so it seems unlikely that he actually affects the Dalek history that we’ve already seen.

      The alternative is that Davros is exterminated early, before he can finish the Daleks genetic modification, leaving them as the computer-controlled versions, limiting them by their reliance on computer logic (which would tie in to both “Destiny” and the battle computer in “Remembrance”).

      I prefer to think, though, that the Doctor choose not to alter history, thus not letting the Time Lords become genocidal conquerors. He makes his people confront the Daleks rather than become them – very like the choice that Britain had between fascism and standing up to the Hitler regime. There are always going to be Daleks – the question is whether there will be someone who stands against that, and that is the something good that comes from the end of “Genesis”.

  5. How does the demonstration he gives in Pyramids Of Mars fit into this? He travels back to “the present” and it’s a wasteland, because of the events in the past he’s involved in.

    I wonder if the presence of a Timelord at an event actually makes time more plastic and open to change than it might otherwise be.

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      Simple – because Sarah’s the one making the choices there, and she’s not *absolutely* made her choice, you can still get from that point to two different 1980s…only when she makes her choice does the line to the ‘wrong’ 1980 snap…

  6. Millennium says:

    Dear Mr Andrew,

    Excellent stuff, and I’m ALMOST convinced…

    I do actually HAVE a reply to this… but it means writing “Mysteries of Doctor Who: What does “Timey-Wimey” mean or is History a game of Ker-Plunk played in reverse?”, so it will take a bit (and not just because I’ve got a stack of about ten of them to write by now!)

    In brief though, I would say this: webs have holes in. In “The Fires of Pompeii” Mr Dr David describes time saying some points are fluid and some are fixed; by analogy, the silk strands of the web are the fixed, unchangeably points, and the gaps are the fluid bits.

    Also, Daddy Alex would like to point out that webs are NOT fragile, at least not unless you are many, many times larger than the web. So time might be fragile to Mr Sutekh, but probably not to Dr Woo.

    Luv from

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      Oh, I’d *love* to read that, no matter how long it takes….and that analogy works.
      And Daddy Alex is of course right, but the metaphor works better if they are ;)

  7. Coincidentally, I’ve been reading several back issues of the “Archie” Legion today. Given all the boots and re-boots there, your series is playing a major role in helping me retain my sanity.

  8. Pingback: Degrees Of Freedom – Mister Miracle, Darkseid, and Morrison Doing Kirby (or Why Kirby Matters) (Hyperpost 8) « Sci-Ence! Justice Leak!

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