Doctor Who, Free Will… and stuff

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This is normally something I try to avoid thinking about too much, lest it interfere with my enjoyment of the show, but since Jon Pertwee’s Doctor has now brought it up, it’s finally time to break down my perception of the Doctor’s reality. I’ll be comparing it to the sci-fi reality I am most familiar with: the Star Trek multiverse. More on that in a minute, as I continue to cover episodes in roughly chronological order.
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Spearhead from Space was the first episode shot in color, and the first to star Jon Pertwee as the Third Doctor. I absolutely recommend it, especially its first episode, which is full of fun bits for fans of the new series. I chose definitely to watch it because of this page:  “New To Who? 10 Classic ‘Doctor Who’ Adventures Worth Checking Out
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also this happened

The regeneration is implied as extremely recent in the episode, and as Pertwee adjusts to his new form as the Doctor, he finds himself facing against new villains in the plastic army of Autons, controlled by the Nestene Consciousness. This scenario is echoed in 2005′s Rose, when Eccleston faces the Nestene Consciousness again, also after a recent regeneration never seen on film.

BLABBER TIME: Having been exiled by the Timelord Council to Earth, with a hacked and useless TARDIS, the Doctor finds a home with UNIT, the United Nations Intelligence Taskforce, which is to him what SHIELD is to the Avengers. UNIT investigates alien threats, and defends the Earth from them. (I find it odd to see the UN portrayed as a benevolent entity with real power for good; but this is a fantasy show from the 70’s, so I can accept that.) The Doctor works closely with UNIT’s Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart, who becomes (according to the special features) a sort of Watson to the Doctor’s Holmes, with the Doctor even referring to him as “my dear Brigadier.”
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THEY SEE ME STYLIN’

I am very pleased with Jon Pertwee as the Doctor. Despite having had his TARDIS disabled, he seems to have more wisdom and confidence than the first two. He has a likable quiet and gentle manner, but turns his sharp wit and temper against foolishness, often quite amusingly. As far as I’ve seen, he never panics and never despairs. Bonus kewl points: he knows Venusian karate, which harmlessly disables opponents much like a Vulcan nerve pinch. This is a handy skill, which the Doctor apparently lost when he next regenerated. And his costumes are both flamboyant and stylish, certainly the ones I’d most want to wear myself.

I skipped Doctor Who and the Silurians, although it was recommended on a few fan lists. Having been spoiled by the Eleventh, I don’t think it’s something I want to watch, especially not spread out over seven episodes.
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Inferno is another seven-episode ordeal, but it’s somewhat justified in its length by its intricate plot. From the TARDIS wiki –
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UNIT is providing security cover at an experimental drilling project designed to penetrate the Earth’s crust and release a previously untapped source of energy. Soon however the drill head starts to leak an oily green liquid that transforms those who touch it into vicious primeval creatures with a craving for heat.

And then, unexpectedly, and close to an hour into the story:

!!!!!!!!!GO AWAY!!!!!!!!! NAZI WATSON

The Doctor is accidentally transported by the partially repaired TARDIS control console into a parallel universe where the drilling project is at a more advanced stage. Thwarted by his friends’ ruthless alter egos, he works to save both universes.

I found this serial impressive in what it achieved, but not particularly enjoyable. Too much of watching people being endlessly insufferable, in both universes. And that’s the extent of my review of Inferno itself.

The Whoniverse Multiverse

Here is a very deep review of the episode by Fiona Moore and Alan Stevens:
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It is, however, worth noting that this is not a matter of ambiguity or moral grey areas. The Fascist universe is undeniably a bad place in which to live; however, it is not portrayed as unambiguously so. Similarly, the democratic universe is not necessarily portrayed as the “good one”; it may be a happier place than the Fascist world, but it also incorporates graft, prejudice, the abuse of authority, and so forth. It is also interesting to note that the scenario opposing Stahlman and Sir Keith reverses the usual stereotype of the intelligent scientist and the unfeeling politician; just as some people are happier and/or more successful under a Fascist regime than under a democracy, so a politician can be intelligent and a scientist a petty, self-serving dictator. Again, it is not a matter of apologising for Fascism or portraying authority as a good thing, but of questioning the significance of the individual versus the group.
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At first, I thought that this “fascist universe” was a special parallel universe, like the “Mirror Universe” which repeatedly occurs in Star Trek.
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The mirror universe was so named because many people and places seemed to be opposites of their characteristics in the prime universe, with numerous ‘good’ aspects now ‘evil’ and vice versa, thus ‘mirror-like.’

However, this perception of mine was changed by the Doctor’s quote at the end of the episode:
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“An infinity of universes. Ergo an infinite number of choices. So free will is not an illusion after all. The pattern can be changed.”

Rather than addressing this immediately, I’m now going to paste in a long block of further text from the Moore/Stevens review.

This leads us into the final and most important theme of the story, which is revealed in the Doctor’s remark upon returning from the Fascist universe: “So free will is not an illusion after all.” This remark works on several levels. Firstly, it relates to the Fascist universe itself; the idea of free will being an illusion is the sort of Nietzchian (sic, apparently it’s supposed to be “Nietzschean” but I really don’t care), deterministic doctrine which tends to be common among Fascist groups. Certainly most of the people in the Fascist universe do not seem to feel they have a choice in their actions. The Brigade Leader refuses to believe that the crew will be abandoned to their deaths, asserting almost to the last that his superiors will save them. Liz is more pragmatic, but even then she does not leave her post. Around them, meanwhile, we see the reversion to the primitive of the project’s technicians, which flies in the face of the Nazi ideology of upward progress while at the same time embodying Nazi principles thoroughly; in the end, Nietzchian philosophy just comes down to brutality and the survival of the strongest and most vicious.
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It is also worth noting that the Fascism we find here is a particular sort of Fascism. It is not the ideology of Germany or the totalitarianism of Stalinist Russia, which were both triumphant and triumphalist. The England we see is a defeated country and, as in the Weimar Republic, its people are defensive, upset and disillusioned; if Britain fell in 1943, most of the people whom we see would have been children or teenagers at the time. This again reflects the Nietzchian nature of this universe; the idea that they had no choice in the matter justifies their submission to conquest, and ignores the fact that the situation in the Fascist universe is as much a product of free will as is ours.
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The quote about free will also, however, links into the continuous rethinking in Doctor Who on the subject of the ability to rewrite history. In “The Aztecs”, the Doctor asserts that it is impossible for Barbara to change history; however, by this he appears to mean that her attempts to eliminate human sacrifice will ultimately come to naught against the tide of Aztec society. Later, this statement is rethought into a literal lack of change: by “The Reign of Terror”, Dennis Spooner is asserting that it is physically impossible to change history, (somewhat ironically, given that the actions of the Doctor and companions have had an impact on events in all the historicals). By “The Time Meddler” Spooner has changed his mind and is now stating that history can be changed and interfered with, and that the Doctor, in not doing so, is just following a golden rule. The Doctor’s reasons for following this rule are later stated in “The Massacre” when he says that he “dare not change the course of history,” because “We are all too small to know its final pattern,” (although this does not seem to stop him abducting schoolgirls from 1966!). In “Inferno”, however, the idea is put forth that there are infinite futures, each hinging on actions and decisions taken; the future is therefore not fixed, and so the impact of the Doctor’s forays into the past and future can be taken into account without violating the idea of history having unfolded as the viewer knows it.
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Finally, the quotation refers to the Doctor himself. He was seemingly powerless to prevent the conclusion of the Inferno Project in the Fascist universe. Consequently, although he asserts to the Brigade Leader that by returning to the other universe he may be able to prevent the same events from occurring, the thought must have crossed his mind that perhaps he couldn’t. However, the fact that the project has evidently been proceeding along a different timeline in his absence reveals to him that the events are not predetermined, and therefore that his intervention can help stop the project.
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“Inferno” has long been acclaimed for its stunning characterisation and intelligent portrayal of a Fascist society. It is also worth praising, however, for its philosophical depth and clever reflections on other aspects of the Doctor Who mythos.

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Changing the Past

I confess, I’ve always been a bit baffled by the way time works in this show. I generally assume that we are seeing a single, malleable timeline, but it works in different ways as required by the writers.
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With threats to history frequently occurring in the past, I would expect it to be impossible to constantly catch and neutralize all of them. It should be easy for the Doctor’s strongest enemies to travel back in time and prevent or alter his existence, and otherwise constantly reshape history according to their needs. And little changes to the timeline by small-scale time travelers must be happening all the time, with unknowable repercussions, considering the butterfly effect. It’s safe to leave the TARDIS if we assume that every adventure happens within a predestination paradox, which appears to be the case with River Song’s life. But if you think about it, this is a fatalist perspective on time travel, because every choice has exactly zero impact, and in the end nothing can be changed. (Wikipedia: Predestination paradox)
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The Doctor’s going back in time to prevent change by another time-traveler would be merely a part of the general fate of the universe: no change to history occurred because the Doctor prevented it, and the Doctor prevented it because he was fated to do so. He had already done so from the point of view of an observer in the present, either before or after he went back in time – there would be no difference at all, because it’s a closed loop. This is clearly not the only way things work in the Whoniverse, though, as attested by the Moore/Stevens review. The Series 5 cracks’ ability to delete people’s entire existence is a blatant example of something “new” happening to the timeline. But do changes affect and erase the original timeline, or do they somehow begin a new one which coexists with the original? I’ll return to the matter of timelines later.
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New Worlds of Possibilities

I am long familiar with the concept of infinite universes from the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode ParallelsAccording to Memory Alpha, these are fundamentally distinct from the Mirror Universe in that they are defined by their quantum signature – the fundamental “frequency” of each universe – rather than by their dimensional structure, the Mirror Universe existing in completely different dimensions.
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There are an infinite number of alternate quantum realities, one for every possible outcome of any event that occurs. Each reality has its matter resonating on a unique constant quantum signature. Quantum universes were separated by barriers from one another. Although each universe was separate, they had a similar past until the particular diverging event occurred.

Parallels intrigued and disturbed me when I watched it at about age 12. Red Letter Media’s Plinkett review of Star Trek XI commented on it, saying that it made everything that happens in Star Trek essentially pointless. Star Trek XI itself exists in a parallel universe (a different quantum reality, according to its writers), which I believe was already substantially different from the original timeline before the time-travelers arrived in the past and altered the universe further. (This is seen by many as a move to pacify fans upset with the various changes, by asserting that rather than having been rebooted, the original universe is still completely intact. I wasn’t aware of this until I saw the film at that amazing preview screening on 7 May 2009, and I was very pleased that they took this course.)
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But aside from providing convenient settings for stories, should establishing infinite parallel universes confirm to a time traveler that free will is real? The quote again:
 
“An infinity of universes. Ergo an infinite number of choices. So free will is not an illusion after all. The pattern can be changed.”
 

Blogger Steve Goble brilliantly debunks this:

That last line brings me onto the meagre push-backs that I can come up with. To me, an infinity of universes in which every choice is played out suggests no free will for their inhabitants, who must follow whichever alternate choice their universe is there to accommodate. Granted though, we could probably argue about this forever, but only if we were in the right universe for it.

Data’s diagram of quantum realities

Back to TNG: Parallels for a moment. The way I remember it was that new universes (quantum realities) actually form every time you make a decision, one for every possible action, which at surface glance is what this diagram would seem to indicate. That would make a somewhat decent case for free will, but it is clearly not the situation, as the quantum signature of your universe – an essential constant of its entire existence in time – would necessarily change at every point of divergence. Rather, Data’s diagram is showing only the recorded history of each universe. Although there is a universe for every possible situation, they do not grow from each other like branches from a tree. Rather, each one exists purely on its own, from its big bang to its heat death. This is the exact same fatalist multiverse suggested by the Third Doctor.
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Timelines

Interestingly, Moore/Stevens describe not these infinite unconnected universes, but “infinite futures, each hinging on actions and decisions taken; the future is therefore not fixed, and so the impact of the Doctor’s forays into the past and future can be taken into account without violating the idea of history having unfolded as the viewer knows it.” I think this could have been better established by describing a single malleable timeline which is constantly being rewritten. By describing the Doctor’s statement in this way, Moore and Stevens seem to be suggesting that the Doctor is actually traveling into a different universe every time he travels in the TARDIS. Not a drastically different one like the “Fascism world” seen in Inferno, but an infinitesimally different one, which will now derive its unique identity from the Doctor’s actions in it. It’s like when I used to draw something, scan it, make changes on the computer, print it, draw on it some more, and on and on – each of the Doctor’s trips places him in a universe which retains his prior work from past trips, but which also “lets in the light of his bright shadow” in a new place, a new time, and a new way.
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This apparently canon description of Whoniverse time travel indicates that this is indeed happening, not with different universes, but with different time streams of the same universe.
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An alternate timeline is a reality that diverges from the ‘true’ timeline due to the actions of time travellers or other temporal phenomena. They are different from a parallel universe in that they do not exist as seperate continuums. … Whether it is possible or not to travel to a timeline after it has been negated is unknown, though every point in time has its alternative, and so every alternative may always exist.

The image in my mind is of a violin bow threaded with many strings, some tight and straight, others longer and loose. Perhaps the Doctor is creating a new timeline with every trip – a string looser and farther from the original center, but still belonging to the same bow. The result would be a finite number of time streams, created by free choice, like the older Amy’s choice to help the younger Amy escape. On the other hand, infinite time streams would be just as useless for free will as would infinite universes. The TARDIS wiki article goes on to apparently contradict itself:
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Because the universe only has a finite amount of mass and energy, the creation of an alternate timeline adversely affects the real timeline, causing chaos throughout the universe; releasing enough energy can destroy the timeline and set history back on its correct course.
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Definitely no infinite timelines, then, and now it’s asserting that there is an absolute “correct” timeline which must and will be preserved in the end. It may include predestination paradoxes, but according to these words of warning, anything that is not a closed loop – anything that changes what has already happened – is fundamentally bad for the universe. Does the universe suffer a much greater degree of harm from the saving of a planet than it does from some grass being flattened millions of years ago by the TARDIS, if these are not parts of closed loops? Consider the butterfly effect – there would be no such thing as a harmless trip to the past, unless it were predestined.
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In my opinion, the most ideal case would be a single timeline that can be changed from within, as demonstrated in A Christmas Carol. Sardick’s changed past gives him new memories, yet he keeps his old ones, rather than being deleted and replaced by a new time stream’s version of himself. This is not a fatalist predestination paradox; it’s… a pure fantasy. And I think I may conclude when I’m done that it’s better than any other mechanics the show has to offer. I would certainly, prematurely, do so now.
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By the way, the sort of thing where the Doctor is able to bring Sardick as a boy from the past to meet his adult self, without consequently removing him from the timeline, is only conceivably possible if it’s a closed loop. Yet the changes made to Sardick are not a closed loop.

Inevitable Outcomes and Fixed Points

Back to the Moore/Stevens interpretation of the free will statement:
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Finally, the quotation refers to the Doctor himself. He was seemingly powerless to prevent the conclusion of the Inferno Project in the Fascist universe. Consequently, although he asserts to the Brigade Leader that by returning to the other universe he may be able to prevent the same events from occurring, the thought must have crossed his mind that perhaps he couldn’t. However, the fact that the project has evidently been proceeding along a different timeline in his absence reveals to him that the events are not predetermined, and therefore that his intervention can help stop the project.
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There is a similar interpretation in this book: Inside the Tardis: The Worlds of Doctor Who, by James Chapman
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But shouldn’t the very existence of that parallel universe, and its many drastic differences from the Doctor’s world, have made it very clear to him from the start that different outcomes are possible in each world? There already have been different outcomes for just about everyone and everything; what’s so special about these events that would seem to make them more unpreventable than others? And again, as Steve Goble pointed out, none of this is proof that free will is real. But speaking of unpreventable events, here’s a fan ranting about Moffat’s writing. (There’s something new!)
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it seems to me that the very notion of the Doctor dying being “fixed point in time” is daft anyways and contradicts the eminently sensible concepts presented in ‘Inferno’ about ‘an infinite number of choices… and ergo an infinite number of parallel universes … so free will is not an illusion after all’
 
– the Silence people DECIDED to bump off the Doctor. 
 
So why would that make it a ‘fixed point in time’? If they were persauded to CHANGE THEIR MINDS and not kill him (as, indeed, River Song did, decided she didn’t want to!) then the future would be changed, and he’d not be killed.
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Moffat’s idea of “fixed points” appears to be depend on predestination paradoxes; the Doctor was able to escape only by changing what actually happened before it even did, which became a part of that closed loop and defined that fixed point, one of various fixed points in an otherwise malleable timeline. I mean that the timeline can changed to create new time streams, but only if the new time streams contain the exact events of each fixed point. But how malleable can a timeline containing fixed points really be? Now that 5:02 PM in Utah has permanently happened, it must be utterly impossible in any new time stream to, for example, destroy the earth at any point in time before April 22, 2011, right?
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The idea of a fixed point was presented a bit differently, and in my opinion elegantly, in the 2002 adaptation of H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine. I would recommend watching the first 24 minutes, which play like an episode of the Twilight Zone. After this, there are a couple of beautifully realized (for 2002) time travel sequences, set to Klaus Badelt’s wonderful score. Unfortunately, as I recall, the rest of the film was hardly worth watching, and it’s widely panned by viewers and critics. In this film’s portrayal of time travel, a fixed point (not described with that term) is an event which must happen one way or another, although the exact mechanism and setting of its occurrence are not fixed. It’s later explained in the movie that the fixed point was created because it was the motivation for Hartdegen to develop time travel, but this reasoning ought to apply to any travel into the past for a specific reason. For example, if bound by this law of The Time Machine, a Dalek saucer that travels into Earth’s ancient history in order to conquer or destroy the planet there would be unable to do so, because negating the current human Earth would negate the Daleks’ original motivation to travel into the past. Even though this is a fatalist picture compared to the Doctor’s apparent ability to create new and radically different series of events, I’ve always found its presentation in The Time Machine hauntingly beautiful. There are, after all, many things in life that cannot be fixed, even if you could “go back a thousand times.”
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(That whole story which opens The Time Machine, I should add, is not even in the original book. Sometimes, film adaptations get it right in amazing ways when they diverge from their source. The best example I know is one of my favorite scenes from The Return of the King, Arwen’s vision – Part 1 / Part 2 – which dramatically depicts her choice of her future. Best movie ever.)
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The Real Question

All this time, I’ve been avoiding this question: do unavoidable events negate free will? Is the impossibility of changing either the past or the future a limitation on free will? I would say not; and I would again refer to The Lord of the Rings, the classic exchange:
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Frodo: I wish the ring had never come to me. I wish none of this had happened.

Gandalf: So do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.

This applies equally to what will happen: that is not for us to decide; we can only decide to try to make a difference for the good of others, ourselves, or some higher cause.

The Doctor is literally given much more time – or rather, more of time –  in which to make decisions, but why should any outcome lead him to think that he was not free in the decision he made? Until he came to the point at which he made the free will statement, the Doctor thought that he may have been observing events which were inevitable in both known universes. But the addition of a second universe does nothing to further the proof that free will is real. It does demonstrate that different decisions lead to different results, but it does not prove that the decisions were free. One’s assumptions about free will from this world merely carry over into others.

As for myself, I do believe free will is real, and yet I also believe in inevitable events, fixed points in time. I believe in prophecy. I believe fixed points in the future are the outcome of free choices. The choices we make are far more important than their apparent success or failure in the end. But if I believed that free will is an illusion, the existence of a multiverse would do nothing to persuade me otherwise.

A closing word: I have taken issue with Moffat’s belief that the Doctor should “apologize for fighting evil,” but if the Doctor should decide that it is really his role to determine what happens wherever he goes, well, then he would be playing God. His endless failures to save creatures should keep a lid on that delusion, though.

Post Scriptum

My next post will cover Terror of the Autons, The Mind of Evil, The Claws of Axos, The Curse of Peladon (which I am currently in the middle of), The Three Doctors, Carnival of Monsters, The Time Warrior, and Planet of the Spiders, assuming none of them provide anything as richly indecipherable as that infernal free will quote from Inferno.

I’ve also just re-watched an old favorite, one of the best Star Trek episodes ever: The Inner Light. In it, Captain Picard encounters an alien probe which, in twenty-five minutes, gives him the full experience of living the rest of his life on a world which died out a millennium before. He has a wife, children, and a grandchild, only to reawaken on the Enterprise, the only living remnant of that lost civilization. The closing scene of Picard back on the Enterprise, left alone with only the music of his dream-life, made me tear up when I was 12, and still does. It’s on Netflix instant view (I rented the DVD), and I highly recommend it.

Wait, what’s this?

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2 thoughts on “Doctor Who, Free Will… and stuff

  1. Pingback: Season 13: Sponges, Mummies… and Plants | The Altair Snail

  2. Pingback: My Friend the Doctor | The Altair Snail

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