“As a piece of technology, the clock is a machine that produces uniform seconds, minutes, and hours on an assembly-line pattern. Processed in this uniform way, time is separated from the rhythms of human experience. The mechanical clock, in short, helps to create the image of a numerically quantified and mechanical universe. It was in the world of the medieval monasteries, with their need for a rule and for synchronized order to guide communal life, that the clock started on its modern developments. Time measured not by the uniqueness of private experience, but by abstract uniform units gradually pervading all sense of life, much as does the technology of writing and printing. Not only work, but also eating and sleeping, came to accommodate themselves to the clock rather than to organic needs. As the pattern of arbitrary and uniform measurement of time extended itself across society, even clothing began to undergo annual alteration in a way convenient for industry. At that point, of course, mechanical measurement of time as a principle of applied knowledge joined forces with printing and assembly line as means of uniform fragmentation of processes.”
-Understanding Media by Marshall McLuhan
Time in Doctor Who is “advertised” or presented in overtly scientific terms less often than in mystical and often arbitrary terms.
Although sometimes packaged in Who as a “force” or an “effect”, and although symbolism and outward forms of science are used as guises when Who uses time in a story, this is not the scientific concept of time at work.
Instead, time in Doctor Who frequently has a capital ‘T’ and is in the nature of a “consented fantasy”. We are asked on one level to accept, not a scientifically possible or plausible concept made real for the purposes of a story, but rather to accept the existence of a magical power or entity, capable of manifesting in arbitrary, supernatural and openly magical or even divine ways.
That this is not simply a style of storytelling in some Doctor Who episodes is demonstrated by the uniformity, across all the years of the programme both “classic” and “new”, of concepts related to “time travel” as Doctor Who uses the phrase all of which belong in the fantasy and not the scientific realm.
Time has Lords and Ladies, who robe and ceremonially perform duties.
Time has a demonstrably feudal relationship with its “subjects” where only particular elevated individuals who form an aristocracy of sorts are permitted to time travel. Likewise the punishments for breaking the feudal Laws of Time are themselves harsh and Medieval – ranging from slow disintegration into dust, being burdened with dramatic suddenness with the full effects of venerable old age, to overtly being pursued like fugitive villeins.
Even those considered part of the fantasy aristocracy are subject to feudal law of course, being rendered invisible, duplicated, supplanted or physically replaced in their station (“it’s still the Doctor”) and so on.
Lords and ladies belong much more comfortably to fantasy stories than to science fiction unless the science fiction is using archaic forms deliberately to show “scientifically” how a similar context produces a similar result.
The enemies of both the aristocracy of Time and Time as an entity or element are all mechanical – belonging in form and attitude not to “Dark Ages”, “Ancient Times” or Medieval style periods of bucholia (or its modern urban equivalent, the happy working class poor – cf Rose et al) but instead to the periods of revolution, mechanisation, technological intrusion and anti-pastorality.
The Daleks are siege engines, mass produced objects, pollutants feeding on pollutants, germophobes who spread germs. The Cybermen are of course inanimate made animate, human replacements, “inhuman”.
When the Daleks enter the Time War it is not the contest between rivals within an aristocratic system. It is the revolution overthrowing the patriarchal Laws of Time. Ushering in a new “Time of Chaos”. Notice, that from the beginning the show has deliberately made the effects of time travel and consciousness of the “real nature” of Time sources of surreality, irreality and conjuring tricks. The show has said, consistently, that Time is not understood by those within its feudal system; that there is a separate Gnosis or initiatory knowledge to be had, but only by a chosen few – such as the Doctor, the Master, the Rani, the Monk, Chancellors… What do these titles have in common? Degree learning or nobility and in either case the implicit understanding that a refined elite are set apart in superiority and not just knowledge.
Just as the better fed aristocracies lived longer fuller lives than the peasantry, in Doctor Who it is a series of expressions of greatness of individuals blessed with extraordinary and unearned gifts. The Companions (as in of the Garter, of the Empire…) are special chosen few, and those amongst them who happened into the situation by accident more than design, or who never expressed conscious choices to assist and serve, are soon disposed of.
Doctor Who and its concept of Time imposes and explicit elitist Natural Order in feudal terms. When science competes with this Natural Order in the programme, it is science that loses. And this is not in fact due to “requirements of storytelling”. Frequently, a more scientific approach would have improved the internal logic of a story.
When offered the opportunity in some stories to subvert our concept of Time, and to show that time perception is a subjective and not objective matter for humans, the show invariably shows the opposite. It agrees that human perception is subjective, but always cleaves to the concept that this subjectivity is inferior to the special initiated knowledge to be held by the aristocratic elite. The time-locked peasantry of the universe have no place in the cosmic harmony.
Whither then the Sontarans? It is not clear why they were left out of the Time War, but it is significant even if it was not a conscious decision by the authors. The authors have through a lifetime of participation become attuned even if not consciously so to the fantasy feudalism of Who.
The Sontarans are a warrior race. They first appear in a story where they introduce revolution – the technology that is portrayed in Who as intrusive and offensive to the feudal order of Time. However, they are close to being entitled to elevation as aristocracy of Time. The Sontarans are prepared to act within the feudal framework, indeed would be very comfortable in it. Different from the Time Lords as are samurai to western knights, but recognisably fulfilling the same function. Therefore Sontarans work in stories best when they are potrayed as serious competitors within the feudal Time system and not as agents of revolution or chaos.
The absence of the Sontarans from the Time War is thus understandable. The Time War was an epochal conflict that destroyed an entire system – revolution / chaos. A war with the Sontarans would be inevitable reduced to a struggle between rivals, neither of whom wish to destroy the system. Medieval struggles for kingship did not attack the concept of a king itself.
From the early melting clock to recent “wibbly wobbly” or “Harry Potter” moments in Who, a deliberate decision has been made to use the trappings of physics as related to time to instead tell stories about an archon called Time, which is also manifest as an elemental ocean of Time.
On that basis, critiques of David Whittaker’s use of alchemy and “mirrors” as a means for time travel as in Evil of the Daleks etc. falls rather far of the mark. Especially when one reads the text of eg Masque of Mandragora. Where do they first encounter Mandragora? What are its servants? What transformation do they undergo? What is Mandragora attempting to achieve?
As a conservative aristocrat, the classic Doctor is “on the side” of inevitable processes. Thus although he is seen as protecting the Renaissance, and with it revolution and technology, note well the personages he is siding with, their station in life, and the contrast with not only the mystic revolutionary anarchists but also with the stock character peasantry and soldiers.
The Doctor in Masque is in fact protecting initiatory processes safeguarded by and for an elite. He is not assuring a personal and imminent elevation or mind opening for the general “herd”.
The classical Doctor believes in slow gradual change and/or things happening as they were always meant to happen – the very definition of a conservative. He also strongly defends local populations from any form of “mixing”- making him a nativist. And he is extremely jealous of his own station, making him every inch the feudal lord.
Seen in these terms one can better understand why some current producers and writers have a revolutionary zeal for changing the character in extremely breaking and damaging ways. If you do not support conservative views of slow gradualism in change, let alone feudalism (albeit of the fantasy sort), elements of the character might rise to levels of genuine offence. This is sometimes inaccurately expressed as “sexism” but in fact it is the absolute definition of being patronising. The Doctor patronises those around him much as Prince Charles does when he visits a farm for the day.
It would be interesting to survey the generally acclaimed “best” stories to see how many of them are free of Time feudalism and the patronising Doctor – are the best stories ones where he is vulnerable, un-aristocratic, not speaking in riddles and mysteries and not upholding ironclad laws of Time?
Finally a word about the current mini-controversy over “blackening” or racecasting the past history (of Britain, predominantly).
The way this is being spoken of by the producer indicates a silly desire to obviate perceived bias. The defence and kickback against is to say there were no black Vikings, there were no pakistani nobles in Tudor times and so on.
If Doctor Who already adhered to historical accuracy this argument would have enormous merit. And in spirit it is still absolutely the correct argument to make. However, there were coloured people in Britain from ancient times to now. Their numbers fluctuated, but Roman Britain was cosmopolitan, Medieval Britain had “devil’s children” visiting it as well as North-West African traders, and so on. It is the deliberate refusal to contextualise the non-white people that is infuriating, indicating a colossal pride and arrogance and betraying any good faith claimed for the exercise.
Doctor Who does not have anything remotely approaching a realistic portrayal of past time periods, at least not since the Troughton era. As Doctor Who crystallised into its final form it abandoned logical and mathematical time for fantasy feudal Time. Doctor Who and its ruler Time is a menagerie where monstrous historical figures are a bit of a laugh and where almost no one in any time period is permanently disfigured, an amputee or typically fat for the time period unless a point is being made or “laffs” are to be had.
Fires of Pompeii uses characters from the Cambridge Latin Course as historical figures appropriate for the setting. It states that the TARDIS translator makes a point about nativist speech. It depicts a Pompeii where its most common decoration, ithyphallic statues, are entirely absent.
When stories such as Time Monster bring characters from other time periods, none of them even impliedly commit arson or rape. English soldiers of all eras are, inaccurately, all white English, improbably tall, and equally improbably, impeccably well behaved.
And so on.
There is therefore no more reason for concern in having ahistorical black people in a story about the War of the Roses than in complaining that there are not enough blondes and redheads in the stories set in the eleventh century.
What it does do though, much as the arrival of colour and Pertwee did, is draw an unmistakable line under what has gone before, declares intent, and invites those unhappy with the result to exit from the rear before travel resumes.
The consented fantasy we accept in Who is, like accepting “whoosh” faster than light travel in Star Trek or Battlestar Galactica, more fundamental than suspension of disbelief. Both faster than light travel and feudal Time in Who alter the entire cosmos in which they occur. They change the beat of the stories and impose a modern conventional notion of passage of time and likely duration of events. This feeds back into the storytelling accelerating it further.