The Problem With Doctor Who

Doctor Who, for all its glorious attributes, suffers a single, glaring problem.

A problem that, to my annoyance is intrinsically part of the fabric of everything that makes Doctor Who unique and amazing, yet isn’t that hard to fix.

Fellow Whovians, I beg you…don’t pass premature judgment and sentence me to become a headless monk.

Even though I’m fairly new to the Whoverse and have experienced only a slice of what it has to offer, I absolutely love what I’ve found so far. The adventure, the imagination, the creativity. The storylines (some of which could be much improved) and characters (Amy and Rory are the best EVER!).

What I especially adore is the time-travel. It makes almost anything possible and when I watch Doctor Who, my imagination spins so fast sometimes I can’t keep up. I hold a special place in my heart for the TARDIS, that amazing box imbued with mind-blowing abilities. To travel backwards or forwards through time, in any point in space…incredible.

And that’s where the problem arises.

The Problem

I try to pay attention to how a story is constructed, analyzing it to see what works and what doesn’t. Where the plot holes appear and where the story is as sound as the hull of a submarine.

Ironically, the problem with Doctor Who is the time travel. How’s that, you might think? Don’t get me wrong—the time travel is one of my favorite parts of the show. Nothing would be the same without it.

Yet its presence creates plot difficulties. Maybe not obvious ones, but problems I’ve noticed more than once.

I’m usually willing to overlook inconsistencies. When the story is gripping enough, the minor details fade to the background and become unimportant in the face of the narrative holding my attention.

However, this one keeps bugging me because it undermines so many plots.

Here’s my beef: if the Doctor is a time-traveler, why can’t he hop in the TARDIS whenever a crisis surfaces, hop-skip-jump back through the timestream, get a head start on the predicament, and prevent it from happening?

twelfth DoctorAt times, the issue is addressed in the course of the story—something prevents the Doctor from reaching the TARDIS, or the TARDIS is trapped somehow and can’t perform its usual magic.

Other times, the idea of a fixed point in space and time is used as the excuse. Which is fine. The problem isn’t when a reasonable answer is given for why the characters have to solve the problem in the present time.

The catch comes when no one—especially the Doctor—brings it up. Everyone rushes through the course of the episode trying to solve the situation. Why not use the TARDIS? Go back. Save the day yesterday instead of now.

Did no one think of that?

I find it highly unlikely.

The Solution

What irks me even more about the situation is the ease with which it can be avoided. All you need is a couple lines of dialogue here and there to explain why they’re not going back in time to defeat the problem. Use a force to disable the TARDIS or prevent the Doctor from getting to it or using it properly.

A simple fix.

I don’t know, maybe I’m overthinking and letting my nitpicky side come out. Perhaps, given my less-than-admirable knowledge of Doctor Who, there’s an explanation for this discrepancy I’m unaware of.

If so, please enlighten me.

In the meantime, I’ll continue to devour Doctor Who and hope the entertaining appeal outweighs any potential plot weaknesses. Because what’s better than gallivanting through space and time with a madman and his blue box?

Does this bother you, Whovians, or am I barking up an empty tree? Have you noticed other inconsistencies in Doctor Who that bother you? As a fellow Whovian, I’d love to hear your thoughts.


The Problem With Doctor Who — 18 Comments

  1. Time travel has the potential to be a headache. (In fact, in my serial, that’s one reason not to mess with time – it gives a character headaches.) I can’t say for sure whether your issue has been addressed canonically in Doctor Who… I can say I’ve seen all of the reimagined show and more than a handful of the classic episodes (over 20 years ago), so if it’s come up, it didn’t register on my radar. (There ARE issues with crossing your own timeline.) But I’m going to address this from the time travel perspective, something we can assume a Time Lord would also be familiar with.

    1) Time Loops. If you go back in time to defeat the problem, you will never even encounter the problem when you first encountered it. But this means that you will never have cause to go back in time to defeat the problem. Meaning the problem will occur. Meaning you go back in time to defeat the problem. And now we’re in trouble. Did this thing really occur, or didn’t it?

    There is a way out of this, namely to go back in time and rejigger things such that you’ve solved the problem and yet you will still first encounter it on schedule. But isn’t that a lot more trouble than it’s worth? When we saw the Doctor try this in “Before The Flood”, he ended up lamp shading the Bootstrap Paradox all over the place. Why not simply solve the problem now?

    2) Causality. If you go back in time to defeat the problem, there is a chance you will cause the very problem you are trying to solve. Or at the very least, make the situation worse than it originally appeared. The EFFECT (the problem) has in essence come before the CAUSE (going back to prevent the problem). Subtly different from a time loop, but equally as problematic. And if there is always a chance that things will become worse, why not simply solve the problem now?

    3) Cleverness. Okay, so this is more of a narrative thing, but the Doctor prides himself on his creativity and clever tactics. The moment he starts relying on the time travel itself to get himself out of a mess… well, it’s a bit like giving up. But worse than that, it could become a crutch that he starts relying on. Meaning when those other events you describe come up (a force disabling the TARDIS), he’s left more vulnerable than he would be otherwise.

    There was an episode of the “Sarah Jane Adventures” when she thinks the Doctor has arrived to help her. But he hasn’t, she needs to work this out herself, without the TARDIS… and she asserts that it’s a good thing, that she is capable of doing it. Maybe the Doctor feels similarly about using time travel to fix yesterday. What’s done is done – look forwards, not back. Even if forwards is the more difficult path.

    • Wow. Thanks for the great analysis. I didn’t even consider time loops and causality, but what you’re saying about them makes sense. Your third point about the Doctor wanting to prove his cleverness by avoiding the easy way out is spot on, now that I think about it. It’s not so much that he *can’t go back in time* but rather that he’d prefer not to and solve the problem using his wits.

      Excellent thoughts, mathtans. Thanks for stopping by and sharing. 🙂

  2. For me, I feel like Doctor Who breaks Sanderson’s first law of magics. “An author’s ability to solve conflict with magic is DIRECTLY PROPORTIONAL to how well the reader understands said magic.”
    I don’t understand how the time travel, or much else, in that universe works. This makes me feel disconnected from the show because I don’t know enough rules to have a clue what the characters will do next. This makes it hard for me to relate to the characters since I can’t put myself in the shoes of someone that has a bunch of random info I don’t have or don’t know how to make sense of.

    • First off…geek out moment about Sanderson. I came across his laws a few years ago and absolutely love them.

      Getting back to your point about Doctor Who, I can see what you mean. Yes it does break the law, though as Sanderson pointed out, it’s not a universal law but one that helps him tell better stories. Personally, I don’t have the same problem with Doctor Who because like I said, the show fires my imagination and offers enough entertainment that I don’t care as much about knowing everything. But I get what you’re saying. It proves the point that “good” fiction is subjective. Not everyone will like the same thing.

      Thanks for commenting, Jessi. 🙂

  3. They’ve addressed this I think once or twice, which you might not know if you haven’t watched every episode of the reboot. Rose tries to do something like that, crossing their own personal timelines and creating a paradox that almost destroys the earth. This would imply that once they become involved with an event they can’t do anything time travel wise that would alter what they’ve already experienced, which is a pretty good rule for controlling the “time travel solves everything” problem, though they do get to break it on a few special circumstances and give adequate excuse for why this time it’s an exception.

    Another point of note (one which had me wondering) is brought up when Amy is trapped in an alien quarantine facility and Rory demands of the Doctor why he doesn’t just pick up a history book from time to time instead of repeatedly flinging them headlong into danger without any idea what awaits then when they land. The Doctor responds with something like “that’s not how I operate”. It might be a little unwise but it’s definitely in character.

    • Yeah, I haven’t watched all the reboot episodes. 🙁

      When, for whatever reason, they create a reason to solve the time-travel problem, I’m fine with that. And I’m also fine with them breaking said rule if adequate explanation is given (which doesn’t always happen, but I can’t remember which episodes bothered me on that count).

      I agree about the Doctor staying in character, which looking back is the biggest thing I didn’t address in the article. Sure it doesn’t always make sense, but like you said, it fits his character.

      Thanks for commenting, Luke. 🙂

  4. Do you give the same explanation why you don’t do something every time you don’t do it to your followers? On Doctor Who, the answer usually is, “it’s against the rules” and once the rules are given, it’s our responsibility to remember the rules when the characters do and thus don’t repetitively rehash them. Keep in mind, too, crossing his own time stream is against the rules. Nothing wrong with the rules. What annoys me is when the rules are bent or changed without any good reason.

    • Yep, rule-breaking annoys me as well. I just think the show isn’t always clear on what the rules are, so we’re not even sure when they’ve been broken. But that could be me because I haven’t seen enough shows to know. 😉

      Thanks for commenting, Andrea. 🙂

  5. Time travel in fiction is an endless, twisted black hole of plot problems. This is true, unequivocally. And that’s why it’s not a question of “Why do they allow this problem to stay when they could fix it?” There is no “fix” that would satisfy every possible permutation of time travel possibilities. (That is: There might be an obvious “fix” for a particular problem in a particular episode, but once you fix it, it creates other questions.)

    You always have to choose your rules and boundaries (“This is a fixed point in time and I can’t change it”, “the TARDIS takes me where she wills and I can’t help that”, “I’m a Time Lord and you just have to trust that I know this course is better than that other way to handle it”, etc) and then trust the audience to provide an inordinate amount of willing suspension of disbelief.

    At least, that’s how I see it. 🙂

    • Love the description, Teddi…black hole of plot problems. 😀 It brings up a good point you mentioned: at some point the audience has to be willing to suspend their disbelief about the way the world actually works, and ignore the paradoxes and problems, and enjoy the show. To some extent, that’s true of fiction across the board. We know hobbits don’t exist or that it’s impossible for the Enterprise to fly faster than the speed of light, but we accept it anyway for the sake of the story.

      Thanks for commenting. 🙂

  6. Luke said what I was thinking – that meddling in one’s own timeline is dangerous and not permitted for Time Lords. Of course, rules are made to be broken and the Doctor does break this one, but there are always consequences. The idea being that once he becomes involved in a situation, it is part of his personal timeline. See Father’s Day, Waters of Mars, etc. Sometimes the consequences seem minor such as in Day of the Doctor where in actually meeting himself, the only result was that the earlier versions would forget the encounter due to the laws of time. So yes… there is an answer 😛

  7. Pingback: SpecFaith Features: Why Do We Suspend Disbelief for Stories? — SpecFaith

  8. Piggybacking on the comment re: willing suspension of belief, I’ve always thought that Doctor Who was more like a fusion of sci-fi and fairy tale vs. straight sci-fi. There are several other things which might prove troublesome, if Doctor Who was trying to fit the mold of, say, Star Trek or Herbert’s Dune series (the never ending functions of the sonic screwdriver comes right to mind). The show does seem to be aiming at technical accuracy/believability. Instead, the focus is on the story and characters, with just enough technical details for us to get the gist of how/why those characters arrived on the scene and respond to the situation they find themselves in. In that sense, Doctor Who seems to mimic the storytelling style of fairy tales. Pretty far out, but with enough detail to make sense.

    This focus on the story is what keeps me watching the show—because I’m not focused on the gadgetry and how it works with the real world, I can enjoy philosophical themes that motivate the characters . . . and in turn perhaps learn a bit more about how to live a good life myself.

    • Ah, I hadn’t considered it from that angle, but I think you’re right, Jeff. It’s not meant to be hard sci-fi. The show is willing to sacrifice strict science and believability for the sake of creativity and storytelling. As you said, it’s about the characters and story, and it does lean toward the fairy-tale end of the spectrum, but using a sci-fi setting instead of the typical fantasy setting. Excellent point. 😀

      And yes, the sonic screwdriver seems a little too powerful at times with the numerous things it can accomplish. LOL

      Thanks for reading and commenting. 🙂

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