Time according to the citizens of Earth

"Yes, I'm seeing cataract problems here. What? Oh, just wait 'til you get my bill."

“Yes, I’m seeing cataract problems here. What? Oh, just wait ’til you get the bill.”

As detached viewers of the Doctor Who universe, we’re usually pretty sure that we know what’s going on. For example, we can watch the events of series 6 (all of the Impossible Astronaut, River Song, and the Silence) over and over again and plot out what exactly happened, and we probably understand it a lot better than the people who lived through it. However, in general, we view the show as a series of events, and even we can get confused as to what’s happening when. Here are a couple of things I thought I knew that I was wrong about.

When we watch the show, we assume that events that take place in the companion “present day” are also concurrent with our real timeline. For example, when “Rose” was first broadcast, it was April of 2005, and we assumed that the Doctor met Rose in 2005. Some episodes have clues to time of year (snow, for example), but the year is assumed to be the year of the broadcast. Did you know this isn’t true for most of the Ninth and Tenth Doctor’s run? First, let’s assume that “Rose” did take place in 2005. In “Aliens of London,” we discover that Rose has been gone for a year, so that episode takes place in 2006. Then the Doctor regenerates and returns to London at Christmas. He couldn’t have gone back in time, because Rose was still missing at Christmas, 2005, so the earliest it could have been is Christmas, 2006. The next Christmas episode was “The Runaway Bride,” in which the Doctor specifically states that he met the robot Santas “last Christmas,” so this episode must be Christmas, 2007. Then, the next Christmas episode was “Voyage of the Damned,” in which Wilf describes the previous two Christmases, so the present one is 2008. The next Christmas episode, “The Next Doctor,” is set in the Victorian era, so now we finally have the ability to resync the show’s time to our time. The End of the Time, which was broadcast on Christmas, 2009, could have happened on Christmas, 2009.

Then, the Eleventh Doctor appears and takes on Amy as a companion in our 2010. Again, we assume that their adventures happen in the same time frame that we watch them in, so, for example, the day before Amy and Rory’s wedding and the day of Amy and Rory’s wedding, we believe that happened in 2010. This means that the Atraxi, which were looking for Prisoner Zero two years before the wedding, threatened to incinerate the human residence in 2008. Thus, if you are a citizen of Earth in the Doctor Who universe, this is the order in which these major events happen:

  1. 2005: The Doctor meets Rose. (Not that you, as a random citizen, would know this.)
  2. Christmas, 2006: The Sycorax invade.
  3. Christmas, 2007: The Webstar attacks London and the Thames is drained.
  4. 2008: Huge spiky spaceships with eyeballs appear in the sky.
  5. Christmas, 2008: An enormous Titanic nearly flattens Buckingham Palace.
  6. 2009: The Earth is moved to a different place in space and Daleks attack.
  7. Christmas, 2009: A huge red planet appears in the sky, then disappears.

Had you noticed that the Atraxi actually happened before the starship Titanic? I certainly didn’t. I just sort of assumed that things happen in the order that they happen in the show, but really, the order in which they happen in the show is the order in which they happen for the Doctor, which isn’t the order it happens for anyone else. I have to say, though, figuring out things like this half the fun of watching the show.

One last thing: Never, ever, be in London during Christmas.

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From a non-linear, non-subjective viewpoint

People seem to be confused by the events in “The Day of the Doctor,” especially the part about how the Moment was never fired and the effects of this. In specific, there are a lot of questions on the internet about whether or not all the events of the past eight years of the show actually happened, and how does the events of The End of Time fit in at all. I think I pretty much understand and accept the new reality, but I decided to try and trace my thoughts through all of it and see if it came out coherently.

First, I want to point at a very famous quote which I think stresses the way we need to look at this issue: “People assume that time is a strict progression of cause to effect, but actually from a non-linear, non-subjective viewpoint, it’s more like a big ball of wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey stuff.” (Tenth Doctor, “Blink”) Couple that with another quote: “Every great decision creates ripples, like a huge boulder dropped in a lake. The ripples merge, rebound off the banks in unforeseeable ways. The heavier the decision, the larger the waves, the more uncertain the consequences.” (Seventh Doctor, “Remembrance of the Daleks”) In order to make all of this make sense, we have to view time like a Time Lord does: seeing not only the immediate effects, but the multiple time streams that can branch off from a single action.

The action in question is the refusal to fire the Moment and, instead, call all of the Doctor’s incarnations to freeze Gallifrey in an instant of time. From our viewpoint, Gallifrey stands and the Doctor no longer needs to mourn and regret his destruction of his people. Thus, the Ninth Doctor should not be angry and vengeful, and the Tenth Doctor is no longer the Man Who Regrets. This appears to invalidate the last eight years of the show. I posit that the last eight years of the show still stands, because from the viewpoint of a Time Lord, Gallifrey both stood and fell.

Here’s a visual aid for this. In it, I refer to the Doctors by their actors’ names rather than their numbers. Also, please note that the black arrows are the Doctor’s personal timeline, not the absolute universe time, though these blur into each other for a bit.

The horizontal timeline is the history we have seen in the show since 2005. Eccleston regenerates into Tennant, who deals with the Time Lords trying to come out of the time lock then regenerates into Smith, who will regenerate into Capaldi. The timeline is not to scale, as Eccleston and Tennant together didn’t live ten years, while Smith has lived over four hundred.

Just before Hurt regenerated into Eccleston, he fired the Moment, which obliterated Gallifrey and the Daleks (and a hell of a lot of other planets and species), creating the personal misery of the next three incarnations. In “The Day of the Doctor,” Tennant and Smith return to the Moment, just before it is fired, and with Hurt, come up with and enact an alternate plan to trap Gallifrey in an instant of time, obviating the need to fire the Moment. An alternate timeline is created, an alternate universe, in which the Doctor has no action to regret.

At the instant that Hurt does not fire the Moment, he becomes two people: the Doctor from both timelines. He returns with Tennant and Smith to the museum, but their timelines are not in sync. When he leaves in his TARDIS, the timelines re-sync: one with a War Doctor who fired the Moment (the horizontal line), and one with a War Doctor who didn’t (the vertical line). Neither can remember the actions of the other.

Which timeline does the show follow? It follows the original timeline. Smith went back and changed the fate of Gallifrey, but returns to his own timeline, the one in which it originally fell. He does not become the Eleventh Doctor from the timeline in which Gallifrey survived, and this is supported by the fact that when the timelines re-synced, he doesn’t have memories of a different past than what we’ve seen. (As this would be a huge plot point, I’d like to assume that the writers would have told us this if it had happened.) He does know that Gallifrey didn’t fall, because he knows what he just did.

Meanwhile, Tennant returns to the only timeline he knows, the one in which Gallifrey fell. When his timeline resyncs, he cannot remember what just happened either. You might argue that from the moment that the time fissure started opening, his timeline split in two, one in which the fissure didn’t appear and one in which it did, and he returned to the former, which is the “real” show timestream, thus forgetting.

A few other points about the figure.

  • Tennant appears in “The Day of the Doctor” sometime after “The Waters of Mars” and before The End of Time. In The End of Time, he lands on the Ood Sphere and mentions he had been traveling, one point of which was getting married to Elizabeth I.
  • Some people have wondered where the events of The End of Time fit into “The Day of the Doctor,” so I tried to indicate that. The attempt to escape the time lock could have happened at any time before the Moment was fired.
  • I marked alternate Eccleston with a (?) because I am not convinced that Hurt would have regenerated into Eccleston in that timeline. With the outcome of the war so different, his regeneration may have resulted in a completely different man.

Where exactly is Gallifrey in this diagram? It’s trapped in an instant of time, so it could be anywhere: it isn’t necessarily in either of the two timelines. In fact, I would say it’s outside of both, in its own little time pocket somewhere.

So there. Yes, it’s wibbly-wobbly as well as timey-wimey, but I think it makes sense and explains why we continue to regard what we’ve seen in the show as having happened. I definitely welcome any comments, feedback, and criticism, as I love working through theories like this and would love to see any holes that I’ve overlooked.