This is a good question. If the Doctor can travel anywhere in time and space, why doesn’t he always visit old friends? Why should goodbye mean goodbye forever? And why doesn’t he constantly meet people from his own future, who know more about his destiny than he does? In fact it’s a miracle that – as far as we know – the only person who meets the Doctor “out of sequence” is Professor River Song, who encounters the Doctor backwards in her own timeline. He first meets her towards the end of her own life, in ‘Silence In The Library’/‘Forest Of The Dead’. The Doctor has no idea who this strange and over-familiar space archaeologist is. But River Song has known him for a long time. In fact, it turns out that they were married (but only in a quick end-of-the-universe marriage which probably doesn’t count). Just because you travel in time, you’re no more time’s master than any of us are.
- “Have we met yet.…?” Poor Professor River Song demonstrates the hazards of a non-linear dating policy.
Regarding why the Doctor can’t meet his past companions, the explanations fall roughly into four categories.
There are the mysterious Laws of Time – the stuff that current Steven Moffat calls “wibbly wobbly timey-wimey”. Conveniently, these can’t be understood by ordinary humans, so if they don’t make sense then it’s the viewer’s fault, and the show doesn’t have to explain anything. When the story demands a heartbreaking moment, like Amy and Rory being cast into 1930s New York by the Weeping Angels, we’re told that the Doctor can’t possibly return to see them because it would create some sort of paradox and destroy New York. The Doctor can’t break the Laws of Time without terrible consequences, such as when Rose Tyler decides to save her father from his inevitable death in a car accident and some large bat-like monsters called the Reapers appear to “clean up the mess” i.e. kill everyone. Add to this the fact that you can’t shake hands with your past self without creating an enormous explosion – the Blinovitch Limitation Effect – and you’ll see why traveling into your own past is inadvisable.
- To save her dad, Rose interferes with the Laws of Time, which Doctor Who scriptwriters are definitely not making up as they go along.
But the Doctor breaks the Laws of Time whenever he (or the writer) feels like it. The reason behind this is of course plotting. What’s the point of setting up exciting first encounters and sad farewells if you can travel back or forward in time and undo them? If time travel means you can go anywhere to any time, it takes all the risk out of life – and stories without risk are not interesting because nothing is at stake. This is why the show has invested so much into limiting what the Doctor can do. In the classic ‘Genesis Of The Daleks’ the Fourth Doctor had a chance to destroy the tin monsters forever, before they were even created. At the last minute he decides to let them live, reasoning that no-one has the right to change the future. Come again? The Doctor changes the future every week. The story reason was that out of the Daleks’ great evil, some great good must come. But the real reason? Without the Daleks, there's no ‘Doctor Who’.
- ‘Genesis Of The Daleks’: Should the Doctor prevent the little tin Hitlers from ever existing? There was no ‘timey-wimey’ to get him off the hook back in 1974.
Which brings is to another reason why the Doctor can’t go back and meet his old friends. This isn’t a coherent story written by one person, the way JK Rowling wrote Harry Potter. It’s a work of piecemeal fiction. Different writers, producers and directors want to put their own stamp on the show, which means embracing new characters and leaving old ones behind. Some attain the status of beloved recurring characters, appearing with multiple Doctors like the Master or Brigadier Alistair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart. (When the actor Nicholas Courtney, who played the Brig, died in 2008, we never saw the Doctor nip back in time to meet a younger Brigadier. The Doctor respects his friends’ timelines too). And one story at least, the brilliant ‘School Reunion’ from 2007, brought back the best companion of all, Elisabeth Sladen’s Sarah-Jane Smith, to meet the Tenth Doctor. It was a poignant picture of what it’s like to grow old when your hero stays forever young. But these occasions are rare, and rightly so. The Doctor might be a time traveler but we don’t want him to live in the past. We want him to rush into the future.
- ‘School Reunion’: the Doctor meets Sarah-Jane Smith for the first time since the 80s. This is the real reason he doesn’t look up old friends – there are always tears before bedtime.
This, to me, is the most persuasive reason why the Doctor doesn’t spend much time revisiting his old friends. It’s just not in his character. He’ll travel with a human for a while but when it’s over, it’s over. As the show has suggested more than once, there is a reason why he can sometimes seem so callous. Time Lords live for thousands of years; they may be immortal. The Doctor can’t bear to watch his friends grow old.
- ‘The Angels Take Manhattan’: Amy and Rory are cast back in time, and the Doctor can never, ever visit them again because… reasons.
Whether he’s a distant and brittle Doctor like William Hartnell or Peter Capaldi, a younger and more optimistic incarnation like David Tennant or Peter Davison, or a deeply weird alien figure like Matt Smith or Tom Baker, the Doctor is both ancient and a bit childish and adolescent. He’s always in a hurry to get to the next planet and the next spot of trouble. “There's no point in being grown up if you can't be childish sometimes,” the Fourth Doctor once said, and he’s right. Perhaps he doesn’t revisit his past for the strongest reason of all: it would hurt too much.
Andrew Harrison is Editor of TheQstn.com and a massive Doctor Who nerd.