I fussily read The New Yorker in chronological order. New issues of the venerable magazine go to the bottom of the occasionally hefty pile, awaiting their turn behind older, as yet unread issues.
In an event almost as rare as the Transit of Venus, I recently jumped an issue to the top of the queue, ahead of some that had been waiting, patiently, for a month or more. But then, the “Science Fiction” issue demands no less, in particular a short piece by Emily Nussbaum focusing on Doctor Who (“Fantastic Voyage,” June 4 & 11, 2012).
Nussbaum looks at notions of fandom in arc-based genre television, or “cult fanhood,” as she puts it, through the lens of Doctor Who. My interest, though, is with a specific point she makes about the use of time travel as a literary device in the original and new iterations of the show:
The old “Doctor Who” dealt with time primarily as a mode of transportation: it jumped in a linear fashion, usually no more than one adventure per series. On the new “Who,” time travel is a philosophical and an emotional challenge: it braids together flashbacks, alternate realities, and so on, exploring with poetic verve some truly wrenching themes of mortality and loss.
Nussbaum’s point was timely (no pun intended), given my recent analysis of “The Space Museum,” which explores time travel as a philosophical phenomenon rather than a pneumatic tube shuttling the Doctor and his companions from place to place. I don’t seek to quibble here, as she points out that she’s not lifelong Whovian; rather, I tend to agree in broad terms that time travel, especially in the early stages of the series, remains a plot device in Doctor Who rather than an integrally woven element of the drama itself.
What time travel does, however, in the early stories, is begin to weave together a continuity, a coherent world that remains invisible to casual viewers yet imparts the very sense of fanhood that Nussbaum attributes to shows with multi-episode arcs. After a point, the fan assembles a timeline of the Doctor’s existence through asides and seemingly throw-away lines: he’s met historical figures, visited previously unmentioned planets, remembers past visits to locales in the current story, and so on. The Doctor’s ability to have been anywhere, anywhen, via time travel layers the show from its earliest days with the complex nuance that drives fandom.
Without continuity, there is no fandom. It’s important that the First Doctor wields his walking stick from “Marco Polo” throughout his tenure, without its being implicitly mentioned; its continued existence in the show remains necessary on the level of continuity. The characters, the world, had a past and will have a future. Continuity signals to the careful viewer that the creators of the show—the actors, writers, producers, directors, set and costume designers—care deeply about the world the show brings to life, that contemplation will be rewarded with insight. When a show promises continuity and then fails to deliver on it (see Lost), fans who have devoted time and energy to following the show feel slighted.
The use of time travel in early Doctor Who functions as an important literary element of the show, because it is used to further the creation (and maintenance) of a living world: no matter where in time the Doctor travels, no matter how convoluted the timeline gets, he still has his cane (or his scarf or, ah, celery stick).