Doctor Who isn’t really about time travel

The purpose of this article is to support the possibly controversial claim that for a show which claims to be all about time travel, Doctor Who doesn’t actually involve all that much time travel. Oh, sure, the Doctor has a time machine, but it tends to be used only as a means of getting to wherever he wants to go (or, as she herself once put it, wherever he needs to go), rather than time travel actually being relevant to the plot of the episode. Most episodes start with the Doctor and Companion turning up somewhere in the TARDIS and then staying in the same time zone all the way through; as we shall see, very few involve time travel which couldn’t be removed with no effect on the storyline.

I’m going to examine all the episodes of the Russell T Davies era, i.e. the Ninth and Tenth Doctor stories. Mainly this is because I haven’t finished watching the whole of the Moffat era yet, but I also suspect my point will be better made here since the show has tended to go further into issues of time travel, time paradoxes and so on under Moffat’s leadership.

Every Doctor Who story falls into one of the following three main categories (grey areas which may overlap between categories are explored individually).

Category A: bona fide time travel episodes

These are what the show prides itself on being all about, but there’s hardly more than one story per season which actually involves time travel in an indispensible way, rather than just as a device to get the characters in place at the beginning and take them out again at the end.

  • “Father’s Day” (S1E8): the central theme of this episode is the classic time-travel paradox of going back in time and changing your own history so that you never would have gone back in the first place.
  • “The Girl in the Fireplace” (S2E4): a woman whose life passes by in, from the Doctor’s point of view, almost the blink of an eye. This one is arguable – human lifespans are shorter than Time Lords’ anyway, so most of the story would have been identical even if the same number of years had passed in the Doctor’s timeline as in Reinette’s – but let’s be liberal and allow it.
  • “Blink” (S3E10): the Weeping Angels’ method of attack involves transporting their victims through time, and bootstap paradoxes also play a major role in the story; this episode is truly steeped in time travel.
  • “Utopia” / “The Sound of Drums” / “Last of the Time Lords” (S3E11-13): this three-part story is a queer edge case, since its first two episodes would be Category B2 and Category C if considered separately. But the Master’s “paradox machine”, and the reversal of time at the very end (even if that is simply a deus ex machina device to ensure that destroying the world doesn’t have any lasting effect) tips the balance and makes “Last of the Time Lords”, and therefore the whole three-parter, clearly a time-travel story.
  • “Turn Left” (S4E11): a parallel universe caused by changing a past event might not be enough on its own to qualify this episode for Category A (see “Rise of the Cybermen” / “The Age of Steel”), but the episode’s resolution, where Donna travels back in time to change her own past, surely is.

Honourable mention:

  • “Silence in the Library” / “Forest of the Dead” (S4E8-9): the main plot of this episode has nothing to do with time travel, but the character of River Song introduces a subplot which has perhaps more to do with time travel than anything else in the entire show.

Category B: simple past or future episodes

Many episodes are not set in the present day, but still involve no more time travel than is necessary to get the TARDIS there at the start of the story. Both historical and futuristic episodes fall into this category. The litmus test for differentiating between Category A and Category B is: “could the plot be essentially the same if the main characters, instead of hailing from the 21st century, were native to the time in which the episode is set?” If the answer is yes, then time travel isn’t necessary to the plot.

Category B1 – episodes set in the past:

  • “The Unquiet Dead” (S1E3): set in Cardiff, 1869.
  • “The Empty Child” / “The Doctor Dances” (S1E9-10): set in London, 1941.
  • “Tooth and Claw” (S2E2): set in Scotland, 1879.
  • “The Idiot’s Lantern” (S2E7): set in London, 1953.
  • “The Shakespeare Code” (S3E2): set in London, 1599.
  • “Daleks in Manhattan” / “Evolution of the Daleks” (S3E4-5): set in New York, 1930.
  • “Human Nature” / “The Family of Blood” (S3E8-9): set in England, 1913.
  • “The Fires of Pompeii” (S4E2): set in Pompeii, 79 AD.
  • “The Unicorn and the Wasp” (S4E7): set in England, 1926.
  • “The Next Doctor” (2008 special): set in London, 1851.

Of these, the most arguable case is “The Fires of Pompeii”, which introduces the idea of “fixed points in time” that only makes sense given that the Doctor is a time traveller. However, the main plot of every one of these stories is essentially a historical episode with some aliens or technology which could as easily have come from another planet in the present as from the future.

Category B2 – episodes set in the future:

  • “The End of the World” (S1E2): set in the year 5,000,000,000, forming a loose trilogy with episodes from Series 2 and 3.
  • “Dalek” (S1E6): set in the year 2012, and therefore in Category C in all but name.
  • “The Long Game” (S1E7): set in the year 200,000, forming a loose trilogy with the Series 1 finale episodes.
  • “Bad Wolf” / “The Parting of the Ways” (S1E12-13): set in the year 200,100, forming a loose trilogy with “The Long Game”.
  • “New Earth” (S2E1): set in the year 5,000,000,023, forming a loose trilogy with episodes from Series 1 and 3.
  • “The Impossible Planet” / “The Satan Pit” (S2E8-9): linked to “Planet of the Ood” via the eponymous creatures, and therefore presumably in a similar time zone.
  • “Fear Her” (S2E11): set in the year 2012, and therefore in Category C in all but name.
  • “Gridlock” (S3E3): set in the year 5,000,000,053, forming a loose trilogy with episodes from Series 1 and 2.
  • “Planet of the Ood” (S4E3): set in the year 4126.
  • “The Doctor’s Daughter” (S4E6): set in the year 6012.
  • “The Waters of Mars” (2009 special): set in the year 2059.

Here the most arguable case is “The Waters of Mars”, for the same reason as “The Fires of Pompeii”: it involves the concept of fixed points in time. But again there’s no actual time travel in the story, so it still counts as Category B.

Unclear cases:

  • “42” (S3E7) – no episode-specific clues to set the time period, but surrounding evidence suggests it might be set around the 42nd century, so let’s call it Category B2.
  • “Midnight” (S4E10): again, no episode-specific clues to set the time period, but presumably in the future since humans are travelling among the stars, so again Category B2.

Honourable mentions:

  • “Utopia” (S3E11): set in the year 100,000,000,000,000, this would be a classic Category B2 episode if considered alone without the rest of its three-part story.
  • “Silence in the Library” / “Forest of the Dead” (S4E8-9): set in the 51st century, this would also be a classic Category B2 episode if not for the River Song element.

Category C: bog-standard present-day episodes

There are a whole lot of stories simply set in the present day, usually involving the Companions or their families. These include the introduction and departure episodes of each Companion, and most of the Christmas specials, but also several more stories scattered through each series:

  • “Rose” (S1E1)
  • “Aliens of London” / “World War Three” (S1E4-5)
  • “Boom Town” (S1E11)
  • “The Christmas Invasion” (2005 special)
  • “School Reunion” (S2E3)
  • “Rise of the Cybermen” / “The Age of Steel” (S2E5-6) – it’s a parallel universe, but still the present time
  • “Love and Monsters” (S2E10)
  • “Army of Ghosts” / “Doomsday” (S2E12-13)
  • “The Runaway Bride” (2006 special)
  • “Smith and Jones” (S3E1)
  • “The Lazarus Experiment” (S3E6)
  • “Voyage of the Damned” (2007 special)
  • “Partners in Crime” (S4E1)
  • “The Sontaran Stratagem” / “The Poison Sky” (S4E4-5)
  • “The Stolen Earth” / “Journey’s End” (S4/E12-13)
  • “Planet of the Dead” (2009 special)
  • “The End of Time, Part 1” / “The End of Time, Part 2” (2010 specials)

Honourable mention:

  • “The Sound of Drums” (S3E12): on its own, without the rest of the three-parter, this would be a bog-standard present-day episode.

Summing up …

After all that categorisation, let’s count how many there are in each category. Multi-episode stories count only once, so there are a total of 46 stories to be considered. (Note that I’ve counted “Turn Left” as being separate from “The Stolen Earth” and “Journey’s End”, since it works better as a stand-alone story – albeit setting the scene for the climactic conclusion – than, say, “Utopia”.)

For the two grey-area stories listed above in the honourable-mention sections, I’ve counted each one two or three times so as to avoid fractions when splitting the stories between different categories. “Silence in the Library” / “Forest of the Dead” counts once in Category A and once in Category B2, while “Utopia” / “The Sound of Drums” / “Last of the Time Lords” counts as having one episode in each of Categories A, B2, and C. Thus the count is as follows.

  • Category A: 6 stories
  • Category B: 25 stories, including 10 in Category B1 and 13 (probably 15) in Category B2
  • Category C: 18 stories

With the resounding conclusion that the statistics support my initial hypothesis: only 12% of the RTD-era Doctor Who stories involve time travel in a meaningful way, compared to 51% which are merely set in a different time zone and 37% which are simply present-day stories involving advanced technology.


8 thoughts on “Doctor Who isn’t really about time travel

  1. And that’s why I like the Moffat era better than the RTD era. I can’t get enough time loops and paradoxes. People have called me insane, and other not very nice names for that.

    Anyway…good analysis, bro!!

    • Personally I feel that a lot of series – Artemis Fowl springs to mind – are spoiled by the introduction of too much time travel. This is part (admittedly a relatively small part) of why I prefer the RTD era to the Moffat era. But then I’m logical and like my stories to make sense, and it’s often impossible to make time travel make sense. Not insane, just different taste 🙂

      And thanks!

  2. I don’t have the data to prove it, but I have a gut feeling that your statements would apply to Classic Who, perhaps even more so.

    The TARDIS was a magical door that would lead one to exciting locations… where the story would then take place.

    Even discounting the third Doctor (who spent most of his time exiled to Earth, and therefore didn’t use his TARDIS at the beginning except as an interdimensional storage room), who’s actor notoriously disliked action sequences (Venusian Judo exists so he could “nerve pinch” bad guys) and technobabble (“Reverse the polarity of the neutron flow!” “That’s not going to do anything to this clogged toilet.”).

    • It changed over time, of course. A much higher proportion of the 1st doctor stories where category B1 — the original remit of the show included historical education, so the point of a large proportion of stories was to turn up at an interesting historical event and dramatise it. I’m not even sure when the first category A story turned up … perhaps the Time Meddler (season 2, serial 9) would count (the essential plot is to prevent another time traveller changing the future), but if not then I don’t think there are any until the 4th doctor at the earliest (Genesis of the Daleks? The story wouldn’t work without knowing what the Daleks would later become, so that must be category A). But even after that, there were relatively few. City of Death. Timelash. The Mysterious Planet. I think that might be all of them.

    • I think the premise of the TARDIS just being a “magical door to exciting locations” and isn’t really bound by much else is kinda why I like Stargate, yet another magical door to exciting locations. Most of SG-1 (to varying degrees) basically are akin to the companion, injecting a contemporary view over how “crazy” things are.

      Sure, the Enterprise can visit crazy worlds, but they’re in the 24th century where sufficiently advanced technology is all around them, so they’re less of a vehicle for us to relate to.

  3. I have to agree… even with the limited amount of Who that I have watched I would not ever describe the show as a Time Travel show. I would say there is a time machine, or a mad alien doctor who travels through time to evens in history but… But it is more about what they do while in a certain time rather than the traveling to that time that is important to the story.

    Great article!

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