Lost, Fringe, Doctor Who, Star Trek, The Flash, Harry Potter, Legends of Tomorrow, even Game of Thrones. Why do so many of the stories we love involve time travel?
The Doctor explains the nature of time better than I ever could.
If there was ever a time travel story that apotheosizes storytelling— as well as nearly every other time travel-centric theme I’ve discussed, such as romance, regret and wish-fulfillment— it’s the 2007 Doctor Who episode “Blink,” a Steven Moffat script and another one for the top of the “favorites” list (high praise for a show with 35 cumulative seasons worth of material, to be sure).
“Blink” sees the Doctor trapped in 1969 sans time machine, so he leaves clues for a young woman named Sally Sparrow (played by the as-of-yet unknown Carey Mulligan) to help him retrieve his TARDIS from the Weeping Angels. Why he chooses Sally does not become clear until the end, when she encounters the Doctor on the run towards one thing or from another (“Well, four things and a lizard”) and hands him a folder containing everything he needs to know to help her help him: a conversation transcript, a letter from her friend Kathy, and a picture of a Weeping Angel.
Yes, the predestination paradox is strong with this one, but that heightens rather than diminishes the fun. Regardless of whether the original “author” of this story is Sally or the Doctor, the significance of the episode is that it utilizes time travel to construct a story that deconstructs storytelling— the characters themselves write the sequence of events, including the transcript of a dialogue that the Doctor uses to communicate with Sally across time, and the “Easter Eggs” the Doctor recorded and left for Sally to find on the 17 DVDs she owns.
The Weeping Angels, who are among Doctor Who’s most memorable and menacing villains, set in motion the overarching plot (stealing back the TARDIS) while facilitating the smaller plots that highlight the characters’ interactions with romance and regret. Weeping Angels are “the only psychopaths in the universe to kill you nicely,” the Doctor explains. “They just zap you into the past and let you live to death.” Infusing the Basilisk myth with a dose of quantum physics, Weeping Angels don’t exist when they’re being observed— hence the Doctor’s now famous imperative: Don’t. Blink.
The Angels are responsible for two romances in the episode, one triumphant and one tragic. Sally’s friend Kathy is zapped back to 1920, where she falls in love with the first person she meets, but Sally’s love interest is sent to 1969, negating the possibility of a relationship between them. Some of the most devastating romances are the ones that never happened; as the famous lament goes, better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all. The Weeping Angels embody this notion, consuming the potential energy of all the days you might have lived, feasting on “all of your stolen moments.”
By the episode’s final scene, one major mystery remains: Where did the Doctor get all the information about how to find Sally? Sally’s companion, Larry, tells her: “Some things you never find out, and that’s okay.” But Sally is adamant that this story is not yet complete.
Just then, the Doctor hurries past and Sally realizes that she was the one who provided him with the information all along. Larry’s line is a good life lesson, but this episode illustrates the conception of time travel as wish fulfillment, allowing for— in fact, necessitating— closing the loop in order to make sense of the narrative. For the temporally bound, time moves inexorably forward, but the time traveler— like the storyteller— is in a unique position to actually act on hindsight, thereby establishing a measure of control that the rest of us lack.
“Blink” is also responsible for a description of time that has become familiar to anyone with a passing knowledge of time travel fiction. “People assume that time is a strict progression of cause to effect,” says the Doctor, “but actually, from a non-linear, non-subjective viewpoint, it’s more like a big ball of wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey… stuff.”
Make sense? No, of course not. After all, this is time travel, a genre that celebrates logical, linguistic, and physical paradoxes, and a topic that boggles the brightest minds in startlingly disparate disciplines— from philosophy, to quantum physics, to ethics, to all genres of fiction, to storytelling itself. Time travel stories are endlessly captivating because they dramatize our deepest regrets and deepest desires, imprisoning us within the claustrophobic confines of fate or imbuing us with the power to alter destiny.
The possibilities are infinite, and all of time and space awaits.
That’s all, she wrote — for now. Thanks for coming along for the ride, and look out for some extra time travel posts in the future! (I’m sorry for all the time-related puns in this note.) (No I’m not.)