Funny things happen to time in Douglas Adams’ much-lauded Doctor Who classic, ‘City of Death.’ Thanks to Count Scarlioni’s experiments, the Doctor and Romana experience a time loop, whereby the fourth dimension slips from underneath them and they revisit immediate events.
Funny things happen to time in Douglas Adams’ much-lauded Doctor Who classic, ‘City of Death.’
No, wait, a minute. Haven’t we been here before?
Time loops mean circumstances are repeated – sometimes for a very brief time, but otherwise, for extended periods. And the Doctor’s dealt with time loops again and again. Here are just a few Groundhog Day-like examples from the Doctor Who episode guide which you should watch… or rewatch or re-rewatch.
1) The Claws of Axos
Still confused about what time loops are? Let’s ask Jon Pertwee’s Third Doctor to explain. “A time loop is – err… Well, it’s a time loop. One passes continually through the same points in time. Passes through the same—”
Yes, well, thank you for that, Doctor. His inability to explain, though, belies his ability to inflict time loops on other species. That’s exactly what he does in ‘The Claws of Axos,’ happily trapping the titular aliens when they enquire about time travel technology. It’s pretty cruel, considering this is the same Doctor who was cheesed off at the Brigadier for blowing up some Silurians the previous season.
2) Image of the Fendahl
In this serial, however, the Fourth Doctor (Tom Baker) is disapproving of a time loop, specifically one imposed by the Time Lords on Planet 5. That is, the fifth planet of our solar system, which is supposed to be found between Mars and Jupiter, but is instead locked in its own chronology.
It was home to the Fendahl, creatures made of cores and accompanying Fendahleen, which can kill off all life on a planet. This scared the Time Lords so much, they looped their planet of origin and wiped all records of the Fendahl. Unfortunately, one escaped to Earth…
3) The Armageddon Factor
The Doctor and Romana (Mary Tamm) have nearly completed their mission to collect together the various pieces of the Key to Time. And they have to stop a declaration of war.
As the Marshal of Atrios attacks the neighbouring planet of Zeos, the Doctor must stop him using a cobbled-together Key, trapping him in a loop. But the loop gets shorter and shorter, soon to snap back to its normal timeline.
This story also introduces the Black Guardian, written in by Producer, Graham Williams, and Script Editor, Douglas Adams.
This surely is one of the most torturous instances of a time loop in Doctor Who. The TARDIS is stuck in a chronic hysteresis which sees the Fourth Doctor and the second Romana (Lalla Ward) wagging K9’s tail, tripping over, and panicking over said time loop. They replay footage and replay footage and replay footage, making this surely one of the most torturous instances of a time loop in Doctor Who.
It’s at the behest of the ever-prickly Meglos, and makes for one of the most torturous – okay we’ll stop now.
Fortunately, the two Time Lords use their initiatives to get out of the chronic hysteresis (thanks be to Ti.)
5) The Chimes of Midnight
And now for something completely different.
‘The Chimes of Midnight’ is an audio adventure by Big Finish, starring Paul McGann as the Eighth Doctor and India Fisher (aka the voice of MasterChef!) as companion, Charley Pollard. It’s a festive tale of murder. But the dead don’t stay dead, and the killer doesn’t necessarily have a motive.
Written by Rob Shearman (‘Dalek’), this is considered one of Big Finish’s best stories and is a fab introduction to this TARDIS team.
6) The Wedding of Sarah Jane Smith
This two-part serial is actually part of The Sarah Jane Adventures, the Doctor Who spin-off starring Elisabeth Sladen reprising the role she became best known for in the 1970s.
The Sarah Jane Adventures tackled timey-wimey concepts beautifully in episodes like ‘Whatever Happened to Sarah Jane?,’ ‘The Mad Woman in the Attic,’ and ‘Lost in Time,’ and while it’s not a central focus of ‘The Wedding of Sarah Jane Smith,’ a time loop plays a part in keeping Sarah separated from her own companions – and the Tenth Doctor (David Tennant) who guest stars!
7) The Lodger
The Eleventh Doctor (Matt Smith) finds himself trapped on Earth while Amy Pond (Karen Gillan) is stuck in a TARDIS slingshot. Something in contemporary Colchester is affecting the progression of time, and that’s playing havoc with the Type 40 TT. To get to the bottom of things, the Doctor must live a normal life for a few days. Or attempt to…
This is a funny and charming adventure which pairs Smith’s Doctor with James Corden as Craig Owens.
8) The Pandorica Opens / The Big Bang
The universe is cracked, a result of a massive explosion throughout space-time. The TARDIS has blown up, taking all of creation with it. River Song (Alex Kingston) is inside, saved only by the TARDIS sealing off its own internal dimension, placing it and River in a loop.
The Doctor has to save her, reboot the universe, and not die in the process.
Which would be fine, except he’s been locked inside a perfect prison by an alliance of enemies including the Daleks, Cybermen, Sontarans, Silurians, Sycorax, Atraxi, and more. When asked what happens in the Series Five finale, writer Steven Moffat said, “Practically everything. And some of it twice.” Quite a promise, but one he certainly delivered on.
9) Space / Time
In these two charity shorts starring the Eleventh Doctor, Amy, and Rory Williams (Arthur Darvill), we learn the true dangers of having a glass floor.
‘Space’ and ‘Time’ find a TARDIS inside a TARDIS, two Amy Ponds, flirting, dropped thermal couplings, and a short skirt. These are joyous skits made for Red Nose Day in 2011 which plays with the notions of space-time circuits, written by Moffat (arguably the king of “timey-wimey” in Doctor Who.)
10) Heaven Sent / Hell Bent
Though Smith’s Doctor encounters time loops a few times, it’s Peter Capaldi’s Twelfth Doctor who really comes a cropper – this one, imposed on him by his own people, the Time Lords! Never trust anyone with such ridiculous hat-and-collar combos.
In ‘Heaven Sent,’ the Doctor is concealed in his Confession Dial, forced to repeat the same events over and over as the Veil teases truths from him. In the next episode, Ohila (Clare Higgins) suggests he was stuck in the Dial for 4.5 billion years, but because it’s a loop, he probably experienced this in fortnightly sessions. Still, he manages to get home – the long way round.
What do you think? Have we missed any time loop stories from our mini Doctor Who episode guide? Which story is your favourite?
Thanks Philip Bates from The Doctor Who Companion for contributing this guest post! If you’d like to learn more about time loops, paradoxes, and the cyclical nature of space-time, order Philip’s latest book The Black Archive: The Pandorica Opens / The Big Bang from Obverse Books now.