March 30, 2023
When there’s an immortal hero running around time and space and putting everything right, why on earth do bad things still happen?
Though the Doctor’s put a lot of work into the universe, they’ve yet to right every wrong there is or ever has been. Can we assume that there are certain things that are simply beyond the Time Lord’s purview? Or perhaps they fear that if everything were perfect, there’d be no adventures left to be had.
THE DOCTOR: “Some things are fixed, some things are in flux. Pompeii is fixed.”
DONNA: “How do you know which is which?”
THE DOCTOR: “Because that's how I see the universe. Every waking second, I can see what is, what was, what could be, what must not. That's the burden of a Time Lord, Donna. And I'm the only one left.”
As a time-sensitive individual, the Doctor has a knack for knowing what can and can’t be interfered with. Though they once confessed it was just a theory, it’s pretty clear that there are certain events that simply must happen for the universe to sustain itself, while the rest of time is in flux – ever changing and open to possibility. Time Lords had a no-interference policy, likely because they understood the dangers of meddling with fixed points, like the creation of paradoxes or worse, the collapse of al of time and space.
So, what are some of the fixed points that the Doctor has encountered?
“Rose, there's a man alive in the world who wasn't alive before. An ordinary man. That's the most important thing in creation. The whole world's different because he's alive.”
It wouldn’t be until Utopia that the term ‘fixed point’ was used onscreen. However, the consequences of Rose changing her father’s death suggest that the events that occurred on 7th November 1987 were indeed a fixed point.
With two sets of the Doctor and Rose present at Pete Tyler’s death, time was vulnerable. Then, when Rose crossed her own timeline and saved her dad from a hit and run, it fractured, creating a paradox. This summoned the Reapers, temporal predators who sterilise paradoxes by devouring everything in the area. The Doctor believed he could put everything right by summoning the TARDIS, but when Rose came into contact with herself as a baby, the paradox was exacerbated, making the Reapers stronger.
With the car that should have killed him whizzing in and out of existence, Pete realised that the only thing that could fix time would be to allow events to play out as they always should have and sacrifice himself. Though his death occurred slightly differently to the story that Rose was told as a child, this was enough to right time and make the Reapers disappear. The main events of this fixed point still stood. At least in this version, Rose and her dad got a few extra hours together.
“Pompeii is a fixed point in history. What happens, happens. There is no stopping it.”
The Fires of Pompeii is perhaps the most definitive exploration of fixed points in Doctor Who. It’s in this episode that Donna realised the weight of travelling with the Doctor. For all the wonderful things in the universe, there are atrocities. And having signed up for adventure with a hero who intervenes in the wrongdoings of others, Donna was instead made to bear witness to one of the biggest atrocities of them all. And worse, become complicit in it.
So, what makes Pompeii different to every other time something awful’s about to happen and the Doctor stops it? The Eleventh Doctor once described it as the Destiny Trap. “You can’t change history if you’re part of it.” The Doctor and Donna both knew that Mount Vesuvius would erupt and kill twenty thousand people since it’s established history. (Maybe you could make a case for being ignorant of established time so there’d be nothing to prevent you from changing it. But how, then, would you know what to change?)
Things got worse for the Doctor when he realised that Vesuvius was not in fact on a trajectory to erupt, since the Pyroviles had stolen its power as part of their plan to convert humans. He could save millions of lives if he inverted the system, but doing so would cause the volcano to erupt, destroying Pompeii and its people. Just like the Time War, the Doctor was faced with a terrible choice, and so was forced to consign twenty thousand people to their deaths in order to save the world. Were it not for Donna there to hold him to the mark, he wouldn’t have realised that there was wiggle room to be had in obeying history. That they could save just one family.
“This base on Mars with you, Adelaide Brooke, this is one vital moment. What happens here must always happen.”
When Captain Adelaide Brooke was a little girl, the earth was stolen and moved across the universe. When little Adelaide looked up into this strange new sky, it was there that she saw a Dalek. It stared right into her. Except, unlike any other time a Dalek has met a human, there were no exterminations. It simply went away. It was this moment that made Adelaide want to travel into the stars.
Just like Pompeii, when the Doctor arrived at Bowie Base One, Mars, November 21st 2059, he knew that it was Volcano Day. This time, history dictated that Captain Brooke had detonated the nuclear device at the heart of the central dome, taking the base and all her crew members with it. No one ever knew why. So, the Doctor’s curiosity got the better of him and he stayed to find out what happened, learning that the crew were being infected by the waterborne Flood.
When Adelaide finally asked the Doctor why he couldn’t save them, he revealed that the crew of Bowie Base One needed to die for the future to happen. Curious about the death of her grandmother, Susie Fontana Brooke would one day be inspired to follow in her footsteps, piloting the first lightspeed ship to Proxima Centauri. The Brooke dynasty was instrumental in humanity’s journey into the stars and it all started with Adelaide. For this to happen, she had to die. Until the Doctor changed his mind.
Sick of losing people in the name of time and his burden as Last of the Time Lords, the Doctor felt the universe owed him. For once, the laws of time would obey him! His ego inflated to the size of a Time Lord collar, he decided to take the life and death of others into his own hands and save the crew of Bowie Base One. However, Adelaide knew that her very existence was wrong, and so like Pete Tyler, she made the ultimate sacrifice to save the future. When that Dalek had spared her all those years ago, it knew that her destiny was sealed, that she had to die for her story to persist. And the Doctor realised he had gone too far. Never mess with fixed points!
“Your death is a fixed point, Doctor. You can't run away from this.”
According to Dorium Maldovar, 5:02PM on 22 April 2011 by Lake Silencio was a still point in time. And a still point made it easier to create a fixed point. The Kovarian Chapter of the Silence planned to exploit this still point to kill the Doctor and create a fixed moment, so that he would stay dead and silence would fall. However, their plan went horribly wrong when River Song (who they’d conditioned into the Doctor’s perfect assassin) said “no.”
Thus, the supposed fixed point was ruined, and 5:02PM on 22 April 2011 became the only time in the universe, with everything that had ever happened happening all at once, at that one moment. Pterodactyls ruled the skies, the Pyramids were a US military base, and Dickens was on the verge of releasing his new Christmas special. The Reapers would have loved it!
The only way to put this right was for the Doctor and River to return to Lake Silencio to meet his inevitable fate. The universe had to bear witness to the Doctor being shot by River in an Apollo spacesuit- these were the facts.
As always with the Doctor, there’s wiggle room. He knew there was only one way time could right itself, and he knew he couldn’t change established events, so he allowed them to happen. Safe inside a Teselecta version of himself! To the universe, it would look like the Doctor was dead. In reality, he was laying low. This was, perhaps, his greatest victory over time.
“This isn't any old future, Amy, it's ours. Once we know what's coming, it's fixed. I'm going to break something because you told me that I'm going to do it. No choice now.”
Perhaps the cruellest case of the Destiny Trap occurs when the Doctor, Amy and Rory encountered the Weeping Angels in New York. It transpired that the Angels had been using The City That Never Sleeps as an unlimited food source, feeding off their victims’ potential energy by sending them back in time to Winter Quay, where they would be confined for the rest of their lives. Everything was fine until the moment Amy stumbled on a room entitled “R. Williams” and found a wizened Rory inside. He passed away holding her hand, and in a cruel twist of fate, the Doctor revealed that Amy had never come back for him, since events had already established that “he was pleased to see her.”
Rory worked out a way to escape this destiny, by killing himself before the Angels could get to him and creating a paradox. This “poisoned the well” of the Angels’ food source and ousted them from Manhattan. Sadly for the Ponds, one Angel was able to survive, and touched him anyway. Amy chose to be sent back too, so that they could live out the rest of their lives together. But since the Doctor had already seen both their names on a gravestone, they created fixed time, forever fated to die in Manhattan. Unable to go back without ripping New York apart, the Doctor would never see them again.
“My death is a fixed event. The universe depends on it happening.”
The Doctor would again show shades of the “Time Lord Victorious” when Clara was killed by the Raven on Trap Street. The rebel Time Lord would stop at nothing to get his friend back, not four and a half billion years trapped in a confession dial, not his home planet, not the Lord President, not even all of time itself. Under the pretence of needing information on the Hybrid from an old friend, the Doctor duped the Time Lords into extracting Clara from the very end of her time stream. Despite being warned by the General that keeping her alive beyond that could fracture time, the Doctor hoped that if they ran to the end of the universe, Clara could stay being alive and time would heal since “it always does.”
By now we know that fixed points do sometimes allow for wiggle room. However, the Doctor was being complacent. It had been established for over half the lifetime of the universe that Clara was dead, and there was no way she could come back from that. Together, the Doctor and Clara had become the Hybrid. There was nothing they wouldn’t do for one another and this came at the expense of the rest of the universe. The Doctor had been planning to protect Clara from the Time Lords by using a neural block to wipe her memories of him. Clara however, knew that behaviour was unsustainable. She reversed the polarity and wiped his memory instead, thus ending the Hybrid. Eventually, she would have to meet her fate, but not before making a few stops along the way! Plus, the Doctor’s memories would one day be restored thanks to Testimony in Twice Upon a Time. Maybe after all this, they’ve learned not to mess with time.
Hopefully you’re now a little bit more informed about the sometimes-fixed and sometimes-not nature of the causal nexus. Next time something bad happens and you wonder why on earth the Doctor wasn’t there, maybe there’s a reason. And it’s a bit more wibbly than you first thought. But who knows? You can always run into a familiar face…