Wibbly-Wobbly Stuff: Doctor Who and the Case for Eternalism

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The Doctor's controversial claim is deconstructed for the second instalment of the new series about time in science fiction

One of the most iconic episodes in the recent Doctor Who reboot is season 3’s “Blink.” In this episode, the Doctor and his companion, Martha, are the supporting characters, trying to assist one-off character Sally Sparrow, even though they are trapped 38 years in Sally’s past. The complicating factor here is the Weeping Angels, a race of quantum-locked villains (they don’t exist when they’re being observed), which this episode introduces into the series.

Leaving physics aside for a moment, this episode asks a whole (angelic?) host of questions regarding how Time actually works in the Doctor Who universe. Between the Doctor’s unusual role as Cassandra when dictating to Billy the exact moment of his death, and the culinary preferences of the Weeping Angels, this episode seems to make the argument that all events in Time are inherently immutable – they are all “fixed points in Time.” Which, as any fan knows, flies in the face of the argument made by many Doctors in the last twelve years.

Let’s start with the most famous line from the episode:

People assume that time is a strict progression of cause to effect, but actually, from a nonlinear, non-subjective viewpoint, it’s more like a big ball of wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey… stuff.

Here, the Doctor has put on his Philosophy Professor hat and is trying to educate his hapless helpers via a cleverly-timed one-sided video conversation. But what he is saying is nonsense, isn’t it?

  • A strict progression of cause to effect. Although his main thesis is that Time is not linear, everything he does in the episode relies on the intimate relationship between cause and effect. He manipulates things such that the end result – the desired “effect” – is caused by, well, something he caused. If cause and effect really were not related, as he posits, then he would be stuck forever in 1969, because nothing would affect anything in any meaningful way.
  • Nonlinear, non-subjective viewpoint. We are never told whose viewpoint this is, but it doesn’t matter anyway because this statement is absolute nonsense. A point of view requires a subject to hold it. Viewpoints are, by their very nature, subjective.
  • Big ball of wibbly-wobbly, Timey-wimey stuff. With this line, one might imagine a tangled skein of yarn, or a bowl of spaghetti. He is claiming that Time does not exist in a line, but rather, Time is a scattershot of events that humans sort of force into a line in order to keep from going mad. Which is a nice thought that builds on the ‘nonlinear, non-subjective’ argument, except that even he doesn’t buy it.

Okay, so now that we’ve set up the science fiction, let’s look at the philosophy aspect.

In Philosophy of Time, there exist two major theories of how Time is experienced, and proponents of each theory tend to be adamant that their theory is the correct theory. These theories are cleverly called “A Series” and “B Series.” The A Series assumes that the way humans experience Time is constantly changing: along a timeline, there exist events M, N, O, and P. At any given moment, N will be the Present, which means M is in the Past and O is in the Future. But the next moment, O will be the Present, and so on. The A Series explains our experience of time as “Past, Present, and Future,” which means it is mutable.

The B Series, on the other hand, says that Time is immutable and fixed: along that same timeline, M is earlier than N, O is later than N. Because the B Series states the experience of Time is a series of relationships (earlier vs later), they will never change. Put another way, Queen Elizabeth I’s birth will always antedate Sir Isaac Newton’s, the same way 1901 will always come before 2001. (There are several assumptions here that I will not be unpacking because if I tried, we would never, ever get back to Doctor Who.)

Now, what McTaggart asserts in his 1908 essay “The Unreality of Time” (linked above) is that humans use both the A Series and the B Series when experiencing and describing Time. However, the two Series are mutually exclusive – Time cannot be both constantly changing and permanently immutable. Because Aristotle determined that Time is a measurement of Change, the A Series is a given. Which means that if the B Series is also legitimate, then Time cannot be real.

One popular idea that accompanied the B Series in the early 20th century was that of the Moving Spotlight, which was a subset of the theory of Eternalism. Eternalism states that all points in Time are equally valid, because everything that has happened or ever will happen is already on the metaphorical timeline. It is the opposite of the A Series’ Presentism, which states that the only Reality is the immediately Present moment. The Moving Spotlight Theory, which fell out of favour amongst Philosophers of Time in the later 20th century, argues for a preferential perspective (arguably the Present), which happens to “light up” the already pre-existing events on the timeline – like a roving police spotlight.

Several times in the episode, the Doctor plays the role of Cassandra – Cassandra, the daughter of King Priam who was cursed by Apollo to always prophesy the truth and never be believed, because her prophecies were horrible. She was very popular at parties. The Doctor channels this seeress when he tells Billy that he will meet Sally Sparrow again on the day that he dies. He goes one step further, and mentions that he, Billy, won’t pass until “the rain stops.” Similarly, at the climax of the episode, Sally and her friend, Larry, are having a “conversation” with the Doctor, via pre-recorded one-sided speeches on an unlikely collection of DVDs. Larry begins to transcribe Sally’s half of the conversation, leading to a transcript that looks like a genuine back-and-forth talk.

At this point, Sally asks, “How can you have a copy of the transcript? It’s still being written!”

And the Doctor replies: “I’m a Time Traveller. I got it from the future.”

Later, after everything is resolved, Sally sees the Doctor and Martha in the flesh, and runs out to greet them. Sally is a bit put out when they don’t recognise her, and we, as the audience, can understand why: She’s just been through some very unpleasant events, including the death of her best friend; she nearly died helping the Doctor and Martha; and she had a pretty huge violation of privacy in the course of events – the unlikely collection of DVDs on which the one-sided conversations were recorded were the only seventeen DVDs Sally Sparrow owned. After all that, these people dare to pretend that they don’t know who she is?

The Doctor pauses and explains: “Things don’t always happen to me in the right order.”

And Sally realises that she is the initial vector for the information for the rest of the episode, hands over everything she’s collected, and goes off to start a relationship with Larry.

So, what are we seeing in this episode?

  1. We are seeing an episode that assumes Eternalism. As opposed to the entire second half of season 7, where some version of the companion Clara Oswald appears, helps the Doctor, and dies, only to reappear again – and each instance is, for her, the only instance of living – what “Blink” shows is a universe where everything that will happen has already happened, and the Doctor is playing the role of the Spotlight, shining light on events as they occur. Wherever the Doctor is is “the Present.”
  2. We are seeing evidence of a universe that assumes Time is linear. Despite the Doctor’s insistence that Time is actually a big ball of wibbly-wobbly Timey-wimey stuff, the way he lives his lives is with a Past, a Present, and a Future – along a line, in other words. His explanation to Sally further assumes a linear progression – “Things don’t always happen to me in the right order” – and from the way he seems to believe those events are permanently placed (whether they occur in the “right order” or not), we can assume that he is a B-Theorist, where N happens before O but after M, no matter what.
  3. We are also getting a hint at the power of historiography. Historiography is the writing of history – specifically, the study of written history. If that written history is inaccurate – or worse, is outright propaganda – then how will that affect future students who rely on these texts as factual sources of information? What if Larry had mis-transcribed something Sally said to the Doctor? What if he’d gotten bored, or his mind had begun to wander? What if Sally, typing up the conversation six months later, had misread something that Larry had written? How would that have affected the conversation that ultimately saved the Doctor, Martha, Larry, and Sally? We can’t assume that Sally has perfect recall, because psychologically speaking, no one does. Not even the Doctor. What if Sally’s best friend, Kathy, had misremembered the date or time of her encounter with the Weeping Angel? It had been sixty years, after all. In short, this episode requires good faith actions on the parts of everyone involved, and it has zero wiggle-room for clerical errors. And as anyone who has ever studied medieval manuscripts can tell you, clerical errors are the norm.

What about the Weeping Angels themselves? The Doctor tells us that they are “the only psychopaths to kill you nicely. No muss, no fuss, just zap you into the past and let you live to death.” They are a race of quantum-locked beings who can’t exist if they’re being observed. They survive by sending their victims into the past, and feeding on the victim’s “lost potential” in their erstwhile Present – which means a Time Machine like the TARDIS would be an all-you-can-eat buffet for them.

We see here that the existence of an Eternalist universe is the only way the Weeping Angels could have evolved. By thrusting their victims into a Past that they would have never otherwise inhabited, the Weeping Angels feed on the resulting chaos of an adulterated timeline. And if they thrive on that instability and that chaos, that means that there is already a set, dictated series of events that were meant to happen. “Fixed points in Time,” then, don’t just apply to Big Events, like the 79 CE eruption of Vesuvius or the nuclear explosion on Mars after the discovery of water there; every single person, place, and thing is a fixed point, that is supposed to have been there.

Which makes one wonder: if the Doctor has this understanding of Time, then why does he spend so much energy wringing his hands over silly things like allowing Davros to live or destroying Gallifrey? Those events, like literally everything else, were fixed on the timeline by some unknowable “objective observer” and could therefore never be manipulated or avoided.

What is the point of Time Travel in an Eternalist universe where nothing can be changed because everything has already happened?

SP Hofrichter
SP Hofrichter was born and raised in Albuquerque, New Mexico. The proximity of nuclear labs, volcanoes, and alien landing sites led to their first love affair with science. After working towards a double degree in meteorology and geophysics from the University of Oklahoma, they realised that their relationship with science was more of a one-night stand that lasted a decade. They ultimately went on to get degrees in Creative Writing (science fiction focus) and Medieval Scandinavian Studies (Ragnarök focus), and are currently in the middle of writing their PhD dissertation (Philosophy-of-Time-cum-Old-Norse-and-Old-English-poetry focus).

For fun (but not yet profit), they create science fiction, fantasy, and horror-type art. Their writing can be found at http://lokisdraumar.wordpress.com and their paintings can be found at http://lsbart.wordpress.com. If you’re feeling particularly brave and/or reckless, you can find them on Twitter at @FlytingNWriting. Don’t say you weren’t warned.

3 Comments

  1. Amazing interpretation of this episode! I appreciate the explanations of the philosophies of time. Ultimately, until we are able to experience time travel, it will all be theories and ideas!

  2. Hey Adolfo! Thank you so much for reading! I plan to keep exploring Time Travel for awhile – especially the different ways it gets used across different media and storylines. I hope you find those articles as edifying as this one.

    Best wishes,
    SP

  3. In eternalism even if everything is fixed it is a pattern and causes still precede effects at least in an illusionary way. So the “wringing of the hands” and worrying would just be a part of the time line that can’t be avoided

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