Doctor Who and Theories of Time!

I was absolutely delighted when the doctor offered to write a guest post about time travel. No, not the Doctor, but fellow author of time travel novels, Doctor Ann Nyland, who also offered two copies of her time travel novel, Hedgeland, as a giveaway (now closed). Here’s Ann…


A time travel machine, yesterday.

There are several theories of time travel. Einstein’s theory of relativity predicted wormholes, which are a way to pass from one place to another without traveling through the space. A wormhole is like a shortcut. As an example, let’s say that there was a wormhole between London and New York. This would mean that someone would be able to leave New York, enter the wormhole, and arrive in London a few minutes later. Of course there isn’t a wormhole (as far as we know!) between London and New York, so people have to use the traditional methods of travel.

Scientists do now know that wormholes do exist, and that time travel via one of these worm holes is indeed possible, but these wormholes are minute, so tiny that even a flea would not be able to go through. The famous scientist Stephen Hawking has said that if a wormhole is between two points of time rather than two points of space, then time travel is possible. Hawking says time travel is indeed possible, but only time travel to the future.

It has been known for some time that time travels faster in space than it does down on earth. It is also scientifically accepted that traveling near the speed of light will cause someone to time travel to the future. Of course, we haven’t traveled anywhere near as fast as the speed of light yet. If you traveled around the earth at the speed of light, you would go around the earth seven times in one second.

Time travel does present us with paradoxes. The most well-known paradox is the grandmother paradox. Imagine if you went back to the past and killed your own grandmother when she was a baby. Then, in theory, you would never have been born, so how did you go back and kill your own grandmother? There are three theoretical ways around this.

The first theory is that the past is predestined and defined, that backward time travel is only possible if everything the time travel does in the past is already fixed and part of history. The past is an unchangeable constant. You, the time traveler, will not be able to kill your grandmother as circumstances will prevent you, no matter how you try. In the Doctor Who episode The Waters of Mars, the Doctor realizes that Captain Adelaide Brooke’s death on Mars is a “fixed point in time” and so he must not intervene, but then changes his mind and takes her to Earth. Captain Brooke immediately commits suicide on Earth, which suggests that her death was predestined and defined. The second theory is that when you, the time traveler, kill your grandmother, you immediately create a parallel world.

Another example of someone dying to get time back onto its path was the episode Father’s Day. Rose Tyler saved her father, Pete, from being hit by a car and dying in 1987, and this set a series of dire events in motion. Pete decided to die to rectify the situation.

Möbius Strip

The third theory is the Möbius strip. A Möbius strip is a surface with only one side. To make a practical example, take a paper strip and twist it, then join the ends of the strip together to form a loop. In other words, start making a loop out of a strip of paper but twist the ends before you join them. Applying this to the grandmother theory – you can time travel to the past and kill your grandmother, but you can still be born and currently be alive, because you and your grandmother are stuck in a loop with no beginning or end; that is why it is possible.

In the Ontological Paradox (also called the Bootstrap Paradox) an item becomes or creates its past self. For example, someone from the future sends back instructions on how to build a time machine to their past self, who then builds the time machine, and when they arrive in the future, they have the instructions which their future selves send back.

The Ontological Paradox appears several times in the Dr Who 2007 episode “The Shakespeare Code.” To Shakespeare himself, the Doctor quotes lines from Shakespearean plays that Shakespeare has not yet written. Shakespeare likes the lines and says he will use them in a future work.

In one of my all-time fave Dr Who episodes, the 2007 “Blink,” the Doctor records a message on film in 1969 in the form of half a conversation. The other half is filled in when Sally Sparrow sees the DVD of the message 38 years later in 2007. Her friend Lawrence Nightingale writes down the whole conversation. A year later, Sally Sparrow sees the Doctor, who does not of course recognize her, and hands him the transcript, which he later uses when the Weeping Angels send him back to 1969.

In another example of the Ontological Paradox, in the 2010 episode “The Big Bang,” the Doctor goes to the past to give Rory his Sonic Screwdriver to enable Rory to free the imprisoned Doctor and return to the past. In “The Curse of Fenric,” when the Doctor’s companion Ace visited 1943 with him, she ensured the possibility of her own birth by saving her own mother from her grandmother.

A Möbius strip, also called a time loop, is recurring theme in Dr Who. In “Carnival of Monsters,” the  occupants of the ship SS Bernice are caught in a time loop when the Doctor happens upon them. However, in most instances, the Doctor uses time to trap enemies.

In the episode “Image of the Fendahl,” the Time Lords sealed the Fifth Planet in a Time Loop. In “The Invasion of Time,” K9 tracks down their home planet of the Vardans  who are attacking Gallifrey. The Doctor beams the Vardans back to their home planet and then traps it in a time loop.

In “The Armageddon Factor,” the Doctor, with the help of Romana and K-9, disables the computer Mentalis and gives the Key of Time enough power to create a time loop in which to trap the Marshal’s ship as well as the Mentalis control room which is in an automatic self-destruct sequence.

In “The Claws of Axos,” the Axons land on Earth, looking to use the energy of every life form on earth for their much-needed fuel. When they meet the Doctor, they decide to travel through time and space to feed on energy. The Doctor tricks Axos into linking its drive unit to the Tardis and sends Axos into a time loop.

In “Meglos,” the Doctor was the victim of a time loop. When the Doctor, Romana and K-9 try to land the Tardis on Tigella, Meglos traps them in a time loop.

Dr. Ann Nyland has written several novels and non-fiction books. Her time travel novel is called Hedgeland and is available in paperback and Kindle editions in the US and UK , as well as iTunes,  Barnes & Noble  , Kobo and elsewhere. Read more about Ann and her book on her blog here.

You can be sure that anyone writing such an excellent post is also capable of writing an excellent time travel novel. Find out for yourself in Ann’s giveaway. If you want to be in with a chance of winning a digital edition of Ann’s book, simply leave a comment on this post. Giveaway has now closed. The winners were Maria Staal and Michael Drakich who wil be emailed an eBook edition of Hedgeland in their choice of either Kindle, ePub, PDB or PDF format. Congratualations!


About Tim C. Taylor

Science fiction publisher and author of the bestselling Human Legion series. I live with my wife and young family in an English village. I am currently writing full time, when I'm not roped into building Lego.
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35 Responses to Doctor Who and Theories of Time!

  1. Pingback: Congratulations to our Hedgeland competition | Tim C. Taylor

  2. A very interesting and thoughtful post; I really enjoyed reading it.

    I am curious about ‘fixed points in time.’ I always imagined this to be a cutesy way for the writer to kill someone off (or a lot of someones off) and side step the obvious question: if you have a time machine why not just save them?

    I like the notion that a fixed point in time is like a pebble thrown into a lake; the fixed moment directly causes several large and important events to occur, and to undo the event that is a fixed point would break history, shattered the space time continuum, burn all the world’s raisin toast and so on, I suppose.

    I wonder if there are any other reasons to explain away this whole fixed point in time shenanigan?

    • A convenient literary tool especially with regard to River Song saving the Dr? I did burn the raisin toast the other day, which concerns me.

    • timctaylor says:

      Fixed points in time? I had a go at this in a novel I wrote. Many years ago, when I studied artificial intelligence at university, I came across the concept of ‘state space’. In our AI context the idea was to measure how ‘good’ every possible solution to a problem is. To do this you develop metrics or heuristics to asses how good each one is. If you had three measures, you could plot a 3d-graph of every possible solution (state space) and this would look like a mountain range with peaks and valleys. In practice you would use many more than three measures/ dimensions, but that’s impossible to visualise and the principle works just as well with three.

      So in my story I had a similar idea of a ‘reality space’ of every one of an infinite number of possible universes, plotting the probability of it existing. The peaks are the ones that are most likely and can feature in stories with alternate dimensions, time travel, and such like. The universes in the valleys of reality space are so improbable that even the Doctor can neither travel to them nor even perceive them.

      So, in this model, the possible universes/ dimensions/ timelines in the peaks of reality space all have these fixed points you refer to. The possible universes without those fixed points — where the toast burns etc — are possible, but are so far down in the valleys that you can never get there.

      Phew! I think I need a diagam!

      • That would make another one of your fascinating posts, Tim!

      • timctaylor says:

        Thanks Ann. One day I’m going to go on a blog tour and spread lots of false pseudo-science!

        I did use the state space AI idea in commercial software once. I designed ‘parents evening’ software for parents to meet teachers and get their child’s report after school. It was never released because there was (a very fixable) fault: no one had told me to add a heuristic measure for ‘how early the teachers get to go home’, which was apparently a key measure. The software worked, but the company reckoned schools would prefer the previous software that didn’t work to one that did work but was inconvenient to the teachers (or perhaps staff were on mega overtime rates or something). 🙂

  3. tc says:

    Have to mention my favourite time travel (short) story of all time: Ray Bradbury’s ‘Sound of Thunder’. Well worth a quick read.

    • timctaylor says:

      Oh, I don’t know that one. I must look it up.
      My favourite time travel short story is by Philip K. Dick. Can’t for the life of me remember what it was called. There’s an accident in the time capsule, but the temponauts come out for an ‘intermission’. Doesn’t make much sense when you try to explain it, but that’s often the way with Dick in my experience.

  4. Earl Rogers says:

    I am always impressed by Ann Nyland’s treatment of any subject having read a few of her non-fiction books. I don’t as a rule read scifi books, nor am I conversant with time travel theories. Having said that, I confess to having a curiosity about warp speed. If we could join Captain Kirk on the Star Ship Enterprise and travel into space at warp speed, then as we watched our planet recede in the distance, would we not be seeing farther and farther into the past until we were watching dinosauers roaming the earth.

    • timctaylor says:

      You know, Earl, that’s a very good question. Such a good question that I’ve tried to find out the answer. I’ll be posting the results within the hour. Thanks for kicking my brain into action on this one.

  5. I’ve greatly enjoyed reading all these comments. I would have replied sooner, only I’m in Australia, and there’s a time difference – how ironic – and my only Tardis is a coffee mug (or so I think). It does seem to hold more coffee than it should. I was watching Dr Who from the tape-wearing days too, and started with Tom Baker, although came to love the first Doctor in reruns. Blink is my fave modern episode – sheer brilliance. I find time travel theories absolutely fascinating. Thanks so much to the wonderful Tim C. Taylor for hosting my post on his blog!

  6. Diane Rapp says:

    If you traveled back in time could you become your own grandmother? So many questions, so few time lines to explore. Excellent description of theories that will give sci-fi writers endless streams to follow. I love Doctor Who, watched it when it first came out and the costumes of the aliens looked like they were put together with tape. Imagination kept us paying attention.

    • timctaylor says:

      I saw the Doctor Who Exhibition in Llangollen (Wales) a few years back. They had endless glass display cases of the original man-in-a-suit Who costumes.When you saw them close up…! To be fair, I think they stretched to sewing them rather than using tape, but they seem pretty crude by today’s standards. When I was a boy, I didn’t care, though. A man in a rubber suit could still frighten me enough to make me hide behind the sofa.

  7. Annamaria Bazzi says:

    Never believed, and still don’t, that one can travel to the past. i also believe that if we could travel at the speed of light, we’d be able to go to the future, but once there, we’d never be able to come back since we cannot travel into the past.
    Dr. Nyland presents time travel theories quiet eloquently and easy to understand. An easy read that now makes me want to read her novel.

    • timctaylor says:

      You can’t go backwards in time without creating monstrous paradoxes, even if you aren’t inclined to kill your grandmother (and let’s face it, that’s not a nice thing to do). It is great for storytelling, though, isn’t it?

  8. As a Doctor Who fan (my favorite is still Tom Baker) I loved reading this treatise on time travel paradoxes. I agree, Blink was brilliant.

    • timctaylor says:

      Ah, Tom Baker… The first Doctor Who episode I ever watched was the first Tom Baker one (Robot in 1974). Annoyingly I couldn’t finish watching any of the episodes because my bedtime was halfway through the show 😦

      I still think of Tom Baker as the ‘real’ Doctor Who.

  9. I try not to think too hard about time-travel paradoxes because I’d rather enjoy the stories. But in Outlander, it seems that whatever they did, did not change the future, because a twist prevented what they were trying to do to impact. Nice to use the possibility of changing the future as a conflict/tension enhancer.

    • timctaylor says:

      I agree that writers can allow time travel conundrums to spiral into extreme complexity. And, of course, what is too complex for one reader is just right for another.

      I’ll let you in on a little secret. When I read science fiction, the ‘science’ sometimes gets too complicated for me, I just go with the flow and enjoy the story, just as you say. I’ve written time travel novels myself, so I’m probably not supposed to say that. The key to me is to have the impression that the author know’s in her own mind what’s going on and isn’t just spouting technobabble.

      • Hi Tim, I agree. I read to relax my mind, not puzzle over paradoxes. I just go with whatever “world-building” the novelist provides and enjoy the story.

  10. Very informative and well written piece this. TIme sure goes fast when you’e having fun! Well done, Dr Ann Nyland for making the theories of time travel so enjoyable and so accessible

  11. Audra says:

    Very interesting! I didn’t realize there were so many different theories about time travel. I really enjoyed reading this.

    • timctaylor says:

      Glad you enjoyed it. There are certainly a great many ways to play time travel in fiction. Even subtle variations in the ‘science’ can lead to dramatic differences in stories.

  12. Not to ever question Dr. Who, undoubtably the very best of any science fiction series to ever hit the airwaves, but when one takes the issue all the way back to H. G. Wells and his classic novel, The Time Machine, then in his example, the past cannot be changed. Any attempts to do so are resolved in another way so that history does not change. Which, of course, is the first theory presented here.

    But all in all, there are various possibilities that have been presented throughout the age of science fiction and all are welcome if it’s a good story!

    I was also midly amused by Dr. Nyland’s to make an historical amendment on her own by publishing in this guest post a slight revision from the grandfather paradox as originally proposed by René Barjavel in his 1943 book Le Voyageur Imprudent (Future Times Three) and replayed it as grandmother 🙂

    • timctaylor says:

      HG Wells, is the master, of course… unless you’re French, in which case it’s Jules Verne!

      (And I don’t mean The Master… got to be careful what you write in a Dr Who context)

      Perhaps you’ve come across a writer called Stephen Baxter, who himself is a fan of HG Wells. I saw him give a presentation a few years ago that had plenty to say about HG Wells. Not only was Baxter very knowledgeable but his enthusiasm burst through his words. If you get a chance, see Mr Baxter.

  13. Des Birch says:

    I love all the theories presented by time travel enthusiasts, and Dr. Nyland has demonstrated her exceptional literary talents in this post. I am however not a sci-fi fan and am not at all convinced by any theories of time travel I have heard. Outside of making great novels (for sci-fi enthusiasts) the main use of thee theories is to be bandied around by trendy wine-bar loungers to impress others. The problem occurs when theoretical physicists first put forward a theory. They are not trying to describe what something actually is. They are attempting to describe how it interacts with other things; hence their acceptance of the wave/particle duality of light. This is often misunderstood by others who fancy themselves as intellectuals and wine connoisseurs.
    I have read The Dashwood Haunting and also a couple of Dr. Nylands factual books and I do like her writing so I in no way associate her with frequenting wine bars. Sci-fi is really not my cup of tea (or wine) but Dr. Nyland can make it interesting even to me.

    • timctaylor says:

      Hi Des,
      I can only hope you are right and you do not chance upon Dr Nyland in a wine bar talking about time travel. I fear for the damage that would inflict on your psyche.

      I agree that the science around time travel is perhaps unhelpful to novelists if followed rigorously. But turn a blind eye to some of the details and charge up a small glass of artistic licence and it rapidly transforms into a springboard to some great stories.

  14. jabeardrf says:

    Never watched much Dr. Who, but I liked what I saw. Time travel is always fascinating.

  15. Maria Staal says:

    Very interesting! I had no idea there were so many different theories about time travel. And great to see that the writers of Doctor Who are using them in their stories.

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