In my last article about the Doctor Who universe, I asked the question “What is the point of Time Travel in an Eternalist universe where nothing can be changed because everything has already happened?” I wanted to briefly discuss one possible answer.
I mentioned in that article that the only way the Weeping Angels could have evolved is if they inhabited an inherently Eternalist universe, in which every point in time is a “fixed point in Time” – Past, Present, and Future – and thus, changing any event creates a timeline instability that the Angels feed upon. In such a universe, the Doctor serves as the Moving Spotlight, showing the Present to his companions (and thus the audience) as it is occurring; no matter what Time it is outside the TARDIS, the Doctor is the Present.
But if the Doctor is an Eternalist – if he understands that all points in Time are fixed and immutable – then why does he get upset about choices he’s made, such as destroying Gallifrey or allowing Davros to live? Choices which, according to the Eternalist framework under which he supposedly operates, were fixed and immutable by the time he had the opportunity to make them?
The answer, I think, lies in how the Doctor serves the narrative of the show. He doesn’t just act as the Moving Spotlight for his companions and the audience; no, he is a Moving Spotlight for his own Timeline. Within his Eternalist universe, the Doctor is an Egocentric Presentist.
Presentism is the logical opposite of Eternalism. Where Eternalism states that every moment in Time is real because it has already occurred, Presentism holds that only this exact moment right here is real, and everything else is either memory (Past) or deductive reasoning (Future). Egocentric Presentism is Presentism with a hint of Solipsistic Hedonism, however, which favours the subjective experience of Time (and, in the above linked article by Hare, avoidance of pain) over all else. It is the Philosophy of Time’s response to the Philosophy of Science’s “Perspectival Realism,” which argues that only objects that the subject witnesses are real. (Interestingly, both terms were coined by the same philosopher.)
Knowing what we do about the Doctor Who universe, we can see that having the Doctor be an Egocentric Presentist is the best answer to why Time Travel works (as a narrative technique, at least). His personal timeline is the only one that matters to the narrative and, of course, to him. He befriends his companions, helps them, and receives their help – but ultimately, he is the only character whose Past, Present, and Future are never manipulated or questioned. While, yes, this courtesy is nominally extended to some of his companions (such as when the Eleventh Doctor (played by Matt Smith) offers to return his companion to the night before her wedding so that they can go adventuring), it doesn’t fully apply. Companions will occasionally meet younger versions of themselves, or older versions of themselves; the Doctor will sometimes run into Past versions of his companions or alternate versions of his archenemy. However, with only one (thinly veiled) exception, the Doctor’s own timeline is untouchable. His timeline is the timeline around which all other story arcs, plot devices, and character development must revolve.
Which answers two questions in one go: Why does he put so much emphasis on predetermined (from the Eternalist viewpoint) tragedies? And, why does he bother Time Travelling at all?
Because, from his perspective – and from the perspective of the audience, the companions, and the universe at large – his Present is the only Real Present. Everything else is just supporting, background information.
In an Eternalist universe, the Perspectival Realist is king.