Sometimes The Pattern Is More
Originally published in Celestial Toyroom Issue 479
One of the most enduring mysteries in fandom is the question of why so many people, the present writer included, spend so much time trying to square the circle of continuity, even when they know perfectly well there’s no way of making it work.
The classic example is, of course, UNIT dating. No one will ever succeed in some grand UNITfied theorem which will make it all work, due to the lack of a consistent policy as to precisely when the stories took place beyond some vague near-future period, meaning that all of the writers appear to have had a different idea of when that was even before “Mawdryn Undead” drove a 1929 Humber 16/50 Open Tourer Imperial through the lot. This is compounded by the fact that the physical nature of production means that outside details keep indicating the time as the early 1970s, including car number plates and building signs (a Ministry of Technology sign visible in in "Terror of the Autons” means that, since the Ministry was disbanded in 1970, the story can’t take place any later than mid-1971).
Another example of how production can affect continuity comes in “The Sontaran Experiment”, in which Sarah mistakes Styre for Linx, despite the two of them looking nothing like each other. The plausible retcon, applied to explain changes in the Sontaran mask, that although the Sontarans are a clone race, there are several different types of clone, does not help, as Sarah explicitly names Linx. Obviously, on the outside, what has happened is that Baker and Martin wrote the script assuming that the mask from “The Time Warrior” would be reused (or that any replacement would be very similar), but this was not successfully conveyed to visual effects designer John Friedlander.
These sorts of irresolvable discontinuities are an inevitable aspect of TV production. A television series is a group effort, meaning that miscommunications between teams, writers, and so forth, can happen; also, once a programme has run for a few years, it’s quite possible for the people working on it to forget their original ideas. Errors of this sort have even crept into programmes like reimagined Battlestar Galactica, which had a shorter run and a greater degree of continuity supervision than Doctor Who. And yet, even those of us who know perfectly rationally that this is the case, can tie ourselves up in knots trying to figure out ways to have these stories make narrative sense.
As with other quirks of human behaviour, anthropology might be able to shed some light on the subject. It’s well known that humans are pattern-seeking animals, due to our evolutionary past as hunter/gatherer/scavenger apes in a mixed savannah environment. The advantage of this pattern-seeking is that it allows us to perceive food, or danger, quickly, even when the item in question is camouflaged or only partly visible. A side effect is that we tend to have trouble with random input, and will see patterns even when they aren’t there: the classic example is seeing faces and objects in the clouds. We do this even when we know rationally that the input is random: it’s quite possible to know on one level that clouds are simply puffs of water vapour, and yet on another to see in that vapour a clear image of a rabbit or the Mona Lisa.
We also classify things, and develop schemes for organising the world, which make social sense rather than objective sense. It costs more to send a package from Toronto to New York than from Toronto to Vancouver, even though the distance is shorter in the former case, because between Toronto and New York there is an abstract, invisible, intangible barrier which causes humans who know about it to impose taxes, tariffs and shipping charges on the parcel. In other words, we don’t just perceive patterns, we create them and impose them on the world, in many ways unproblematically; the border between Canada and the USA may not exist as a physical object, but so long as people act a certain way around that particular stretch of geography, the pattern exists.
More abstractly, people look for ways of having their world make narrative sense. We retroactively believe that whatever course of action we took was the right one, with no way of objectively knowing if this was the case. We see people who survived an airline crash as “lucky”, even though they are presumably far less lucky than people who never got on the plane at all. Even scientists, atheists, and rationalists can’t quite lose the impulse to attribute things to luck, karma, providence, or whatever makes the event feel less random.
The problem with Doctor Who in the cases discussed above is that the material is not random, but it also doesn’t form a consistent pattern. It’s like a crossword puzzle where some of the words have been filled in wrong. The urge to find a pattern, even to believe, on some level, that a pattern is there and can be found, is irresistible. It’s also something that we can square with rationality: just as people can recognise that luck doesn’t exist, and yet consider themselves lucky, people can also know that there’s no way to make UNIT dating make sense, and yet still try to find an explanation that will do it.
But wait. Doctor Who is a fiction, isn’t it? So why can’t we accept that an error or a miscommunication in production occurred? This is because, when we approach fictional worlds, we treat them as things that have to make sense in and of themselves, without reference to their production. Characters don’t routinely break the fourth wall, and when they do, it’s got to be as a conscious literary device, an attempt to unsettle the audience (think of how many people still find “The Feast of Steven” problematic, even when they know that jokey, fourth-wall-breaching, Christmas episodes were a normal thing in 1960s television).
Anthropologists think that, broadly speaking, there are two approaches to things that defy ordering. The first is to reject them, and to exclude them or otherwise surround them with prohibitions, imposing order by rejecting the problematic (how many times have you heard it said that viewers should ignore Sarah’s line about coming from 1980 in “The Pyramids of Mars”, or that Sarah has made a mistake?). The other is to embrace them. In a sense, this is what we have with Moffat’s “wibbley-wobbly-timey-wimey” getout: the idea that many things in Doctor Who change, over and over, due to the nature of time travel and a history which is, at least to some extent, mutable. So, presumably, in one version of history "The Invasion” can take place in 1979, in others in 1969 (albeit a technologically advanced 1969 with videophones and miniature transistors). According the Doctor in “The Time Warrior”, Sarah’s encounter with Linx took place in "the early years of the Middle Ages", whereas now, according to “The Sontaran Experiment”, it happened during the "Thirteenth Century" and involved a Sontaran that was grey-skinned and five-fingered, just like Styre. Sorted.
So why are people still arguing about it? This is because Moffat’s getout solves one problem, but imposes another. That is, the question of how much time has changed and which Doctor Who stories did take place, which didn't, and which have now been changed beyond all recognisable form. The end result might wind up being like Twin Peaks, which currently has at least two distinct timelines, possibly more, as well as a dream sequence, leading to its fans trying to figure out what takes place in which timeline, and how much of it actually takes place in Audrey’s dream. The timey-wimey getout looks like an introduction of chaos, but it actually imposes a different sort of order.
So the way out, if there is one, is to thoroughly embrace the chaos. No explanations, no timelines, no systems of patterns to make broken continuity whole. Like Carnival, like trickster myths, we have to develop a culture of celebrating the chaotic rather than rejecting it.
If we can.