Podcast transcript

Podcast transcript

Where does Doctor Who come from?

 Professor Andrew Brennan


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My name’s Andrew Brennan, and I'm the Professor of Philosophy at La Trobe University. One of the things that I do when I teach first year Philosophy is give a series of lectures on time travel, and in these lectures, I tackle a question that’s very old but also very up-to-date, the question that many people are asking now that it’s the fiftieth anniversary of the television series Doctor Who. Where does The Doctor come from? Who is the doctor’s father? Who is the doctor’s mother? And today I want to tell you a story that was published in a philosophy journal back in 1982 by one of my colleagues at the time, at the University of Stirling in Scotland, where I was teaching philosophy. And he was called Murray MacBeath and he wrote an article with the provocative title, Who was Doctor Who’s Father? and in this article he offers one interpretation of the mystery of where the doctor comes from.

Murray MacBeath’s story opens in Northern Australia, back in 1984. A young woman called Annabel Watt is out prospecting with her metal detector and to her surprise she finds a freezer, a freezer under a mound of earth, rigged up to a primitive solar generator, and when she opens the freezer and looks inside, she finds a frozen but otherwise apparently healthy young man. Perhaps unwisely, Annabel unthaws the man, who survives the experience, but although he’s in good health, he’s completely lacking in any memories. And she has to give him a name. Being rather whimsical, she reflects that since she’s called Annabel Watt, she might call him Arthur Who.

After a few months, they get married, and before long they have a child. And the child is called Young Arthur. That child grows up to be incredibly brilliant. By the age of fourteen, he’s got a PhD in Engineering and by the age of sixteen, he’s built a time machine. Since he takes after his mother and is a bit whimsical, he makes his time machine look rather like an old London police box, and that pleases his mother a lot, although it doesn’t please his mother when she discovers that he intends to climb into the time machine and set off on a journey. Annabel eventually consents on the condition that Arthur and his father both travel together.

They pack enough food for a short journey back into time, climb into the time machine and set it in motion. As they look through the window of the TARDIS, as Arthur calls his time machine, they see the world apparently running in reverse outside. But it becomes clear, as they are travelling back through time, that Arthur has miscalculated how long the voyage is going to take. By the time they get back to 1951, they’ve run out of the food and in despair, Arthur kills and eats his father. Eventually the time machine stops in what is 1941 by world time. It’s only twelve months since he entered the TARDIS in 2001, and he is marooned in Northern Australia with a broken time machine and consumed with guilt over having killed his father.

Now there are many different stories about what happens next. He spends some years looking for the means to repair the TARDIS, and in despair, all that Young Arthur can do is actually build a freezer, rig it up to a solar generator that he’s able to improvise, climb into it, and put himself into a state of suspended animation, which he does in 1945. And as external time ticks by, and the world changes and the planets revolve, he lies there in deep freeze until, in 1984, a young woman prospecting with a metal detector, finds a freezer hooked up to an ad hoc solar generator, and inside, the frozen body of a young man.

Now what’s interesting about this story is that it actually tells an apparently consistent history and we are lured into thinking that this story has three characters in it – that there’s Annabel, Annabel Watt, who whimsically calls the amnesic young man she defrosts Arthur Who, and that they have a child, who is a third person in the story. But then as the story unfolds, we see rather interestingly, that there are actually only two people because the child is no different from the father. The child who consumes his father is actually eating himself, and has married and had a child by his own mother, so he is one of the most evil people in the world, as well as one of the most interesting and mysterious people that anyone has ever met.

One of the strange things about the story that I've just told is that it appears to be perfectly consistent, even though Young Arthur has eaten himself, married his own mother, and created himself.

How is this possible? One way of making sense of this, and treating the story as consistent, is to make a distinction between what we might call the time measured by the clock in Greenwich, or by atomic clocks, the objective external time, which measures all events in history, and time is measured in other ways. For example, for the time traveller, time measured by beats of his heart. We could say that for Young Arthur, when he’s travelling, he is travelling in a certain, particular, personal time, as measured by the number of beats his heart makes every minute, every month, every year.

Suppose his heart, for example, beats 40 million times a year. Then every 40 millionth beat of the heart would be one year of Arthur’s personal time. Now that one year of Arthur’s personal time can elapse independent of which direction he happens to be moving in external time as measured by the Greenwich clock, and that’s how it’s possible for Arthur to meet up at different times of his life, with other stages of himself. Arthur can meet an older stage of himself when he gets into the time machine with his father, and when they are travelling together, although there is one person in the time machine, they are different stages in the personal or particular life of that person. There’s an older stage of Arthur travelling in the time machine alongside a younger stage of Arthur. And when Young Arthur commits patricide in despair at having no food, he’s actually killing an older stage of himself. And that’s why it’s a perfectly consistent story. We’re not saying that Arthur is killing himself at one particular moment in time. He’s killing himself at two different times. He’s killing himself at a particular moment in external time, say 1951, but this stage of himself he’s eating is a much older stage than the stage that is doing the eating.

And so there are two times to be considered here – there’s Arthur’s personal or particular time, and there’s also external time.

So does Arthur ever actually die? Because he’s going round and round in a loop forever so it seems. But not so. The strange thing about Arthur is that he does have a birth and he does have a death, even though his lifeline is a kind of loop in space time.

So here’s the big puzzle. If it’s the 50th birthday of the Doctor Who series, how old is the doctor himself? And does it make sense for us to say, happy birthday Doctor Who?

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