You can't rewrite history! Not one line!

As we all know, The Aztecs (TV Club’s current discussion - pop over and share your thoughts) is where this much loved quote comes from.

But what does it actually mean?

The show’s relationship with time travel and its ramifications has often been an ever-shifting rule-breaking conundrum.

Can the Doctor change history? Can anyone? Do the Doctor and his companions just become part of established history when they materialise? What about when the Doctor changes things in the future - surely those events are history from someone’s point of view.

We often assume, in The Aztecs, that the Doctor is saying that it is impossible to rewrite history but maybe he means that, ethically or morally, Barbara ‘shouldn’t’ rewrite history.

Later in both The Reign of Terror and The Time Meddler we get quite different interpretations of changing history.

In The Reign of Terror, Susan asserts that they can’t change history by giving Napoleon a note telling him about the future because ‘he’d have forgotten it, or lost it, or thought it was written by a maniac.’

Barbara then wonders if they tried to shoot him the bullet would miss but the Doctor dismisses her suggestion without, tellingly, giving an definitive answer either way.

And then in The Time Meddler, it is Vicki who postulates that if history was changed then their memories, in that instance, would change too.

Both The Reign of Terror and The Time Meddler were written by Dennis Spooner - who would also become script editor after David Whitaker (who was script editor for The Aztecs) - and it is clear he has a different opinion of how the ramifications of time travel should work in the show.

It is also Spooner who has the Doctor ‘give’ Nero the idea to burn down Rome.

Later in the series, with stories such as The Waters of Mars, we get the concept of ‘fixed points in time’ and (I think) in the novels there is the idea that when the TARDIS materialises it ‘crystallises’ the specific moment in time.

So how does time travel in Doctor Who work? Which theory do you like best?


What a lot of people don’t take into account is Doctor Who’s final plea to Barbara, “Barbara, one last appeal. What you are trying to do is utterly impossible. I know. Believe me, I know.” The way Hartnell delivers that line. It makes me think he’s tried to do it himself, with tragic consequences. Maybe that’s why he is traveling with Susan, did something happen to her parents due to Doctor Who’s attempt to change history?


That’s a marvellous point. There is a desperation in the way he says ‘Believe me, I know’ which, as you say, hints at something terrible. I’m surprised what he is referring to hasn’t been explored or even hinted at in the expanded Whoniverse.


I love stuff like this. When watching the Classic series I was surprised how little time travel is actually used as a plot device - it’s not really until New Who that it’s even used as anything other than transportation into a different era, with only a handful of exceptions. Then of course during Moffat’s tenure everything becomes very timey wimey. (It’s no secret that I love Moffat’s stories the most because of all the time-bending antics).

Personally I love the idea that time can be rewritten in most cases, but everyone except TARDIS travellers just remember things as if they had always been changed. That’s what makes the most sense to me, and what fits the stories we have had.

After all, so many stories set in the past are of some alien race coming to threaten time as we know it by rewriting the past.

I’m not a fan of the idea that all of time is fixed because then there is no such thing as free will. But I also love the idea of fixed points being so important that changing them would alter history in a huge way and possibly cause a paradox, which would then cause havoc with the timelines.

I love science fiction!


The excellent first novel by Simon Guerrier, The Time Travellers · BBC Books · TARDIS Guide, goes into this a lot. The novel is set between Planet of Giants and The Dalek Invasion of Earth and stipulates that the Doctor majorly changed history in The War Machines. It also provides a lot of foreshadowing of Susan’s departure as well as some excellent scenes between the Doctor and Barbara. (And I will never stop recommending it.)


Yeah same! Like, there’s gotta be some give with how liberally time travel is used in the whoniverse, but enough fixed points/structure to maintain the Web of Time etc. Really love how this was explored in the audio Neverland (Main Range 49), though how Charley not dying in the R101 crash managed to completely unravel the web of time might be a bit overkill, it did lead to one of my favourite audios ever.


This is something I think fans of the modern series are probably surprised by when they see the classic series for the first time and I’m not sure enough fans appreciate that the TARDIS is really just a ‘magic door’ which is common in children’s literature - literally a door which transports its characters to other worlds where they have adventures - The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (and others from that series), Tom’s Midnight Garden, The Phantom Tollbooth, Coraline etc.

It’s exactly what Moffat riffs on in The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe.

But there are times - as you say - when the classic series does look at time travel in different ways such as, for example, The Ark or even those brief scenes in stories like Pyramids of Mars and Day of the Daleks.


The Chase is the one that comes to mind for me first

What’s interesting about The Chase is it shows that other races have managed to work out how to time travel in a way almost as, if not more, reliable than the TARDIS.


I didn’t hugely enjoy The Time Travellers but I think I went into it expecting it to be about something that it wasn’t. I’d misunderstood what it was about I think and so it was always going to struggle because what I thought it was going to be was something I was very interested in.

I explained myself a bit in my review:


Part of my enjoyment might also be that it was one of the first Who novels that I read, so I had no expectations. I have since re-read it with a ton more Who under my belt and was able to catch more of the references that I probably missed the first time round.

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Yeah, I love that too! It makes the whole ‘time travel works however the plot needs it to’ thing more palatable, but also lets us have the interesting moments of fixed points and malleability.

I also really like the concept of reading your own future makes it fixed - The Angels Take Manhattan is the obvious episode that comes to mind for that. I think the sense of dread an inevitability that can bring is fun


Oh yes, The Angels Take Manhattan is a bit of a mess but the way it does time travel and your future getting fixed with the book and the chapter titles (and the gravestone) is just chef’s kiss


i always think that doctor who’s need to “not rewrite history” leads to some really funny storytelling/messaging. if they go to the future they can change all sorts of massive events but if it’s in the past they can’t change too much for the simple practical reason that they would have to do a ton of alternate-worldbuilding to figure out how the changes would affect the present day. which leads to stories like rosa where the story tells us that the doctor and co. have to do the racist thing (ie. not stand up for rosa parks) so that history doesn’t change.


It also means they have to put Hitler in a cupboard.

Although to be fair, changing the future wouldn’t create a paradox, but if Amy and Rory had defeated the Nazis early, it could have potentially changed the timelines so much that they were not born, which would create a whopping big paradox.

Or as the Fifteenth Doctor puts it:

We would fall into the deepest, darkest paradox


yeah–it’s just interesting how that does sometimes force the characters to go along with some pretty awful stuff. sometimes that creates an interesting moral dilemma (like in fires of pompeii where the doctor and donna have to blow up vesuvius to save the rest of the planet) but sometimes it gets uncomfortably close to aligning the doctor with some pretty awful stuff.


The early 5th Doctor audios explore this with Erimem, a companion from ancient Egypt. To her, most of our history is the far future, so she sees no difference between overthrowing a corrupt ruler on a distant space colony, and doing the same in pre-revolutionary france


Some interesting ideas, personally I think if time travel were possible our actions will have already happened in the past before we decided to go there.


Eh, probably not a great example as the bus strike was planned by Rosa Parks (she wasn’t “just tired and needed to sit down”) and the Doctor swooping in to intervene would’ve been very White Saviour™️ish


i would agree if the show said literally anything about it being planned–but the whole “we need to make sure the exact right bus comes at the exact right time” thing makes it feel completely spontaneous. because in real life if the bus hadn’t come at the right time and if there hadn’t been the right number of people on it, she would’ve just done it the next day.