Wednesday, June 19, 2024

How is the Doctor’s Ghost a Bootstrap Paradox?

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The Doctor’s Ghost, the Bootstrap Paradox, and Other Time Travel Theories Explained.

If the Doctor’s ghost wasn’t enough of a cliffhanger at the end of Under the Lake, then the first two minutes of Before the Flood reels us in with typical Doctor Who logic. We find the Doctor alone in his T.A.R.D.I.S. where he speaks to us (directly) about a hypothetical situation: There’s a time traveler with a love for Beethoven’s works. When the time traveler goes back in time to meet the composer, he learns that Beethoven does not exist. Therefore, the time traveler publishes all of Beethoven’s work so the music will continue to exist. If this is all true, then who—or what—originally created Beethoven’s work?

This is called the Bootstrap Paradox. Google it.

The Bootstrap Paradox partially explains the circumstances surrounding the Doctor’s ghost, which appears in Under the Lake and Before the Flood. Clara tells the Doctor what his ghost is saying (lip-saying). In the past, the Doctor locks himself in a coffin and programs his hologram ghost for the future. He programs his hologram ghost to say (lip-say) the exact words Clara mentioned. As the Doctor asks in the end, who thought of those words? How can something simply appear without having been created by someone or something? This could lead us to question if there must be a beginning and end to all things, but the fact that the Doctor calls this the “Bootstrap Paradox” makes me wonder… what other types of paradoxes exist?

Theories of Time Travel (oh, they’re real alright)

Before we discuss paradoxes, we should first gloss over the three main theories of time travel. That way we fully understand how a paradox is created.

The most basic understanding of time travel is the FIXED TIMELINE. This means that all events in life are fixed points of time. If you were to travel to the past, nothing you do will change the past, present, or future. You actions will simply become part of history. The concept of a fixed timeline explains why the Doctor can (should) never communicate with his past, or future, selves. The Doctor points this out to Bennett in Before the Flood when they travel back in time to 10 minutes earlier. Bennett and the Doctor almost run into their earlier selves, but the Doctor pulls Bennett back before they could draw attention from their earlier selves. (Note: The only time the Doctor works with himself from other time periods, the incident is wiped from all of their memories—except for the present Doctor. This incident occurs in the special 50th anniversary episode The Day of the Doctor.)

Programme Name: Doctor Who - TX: 29/09/2012 - Episode: The Angels Take Manhattan (No. 5) - Embargoed for publication until: 25/09/2012 - Picture Shows: - (C) BBC - Photographer: Adrian Rogers
Amy reading spoilers in The Angels Take Manhattan

The next theory of time travel is the idea of a DYNAMIC TIMELINE. A dynamic timeline means that events can be changed in the past in order to alter future events. This is what occurs in the episode Before the Flood. The Doctor travels back in time in order to prevent deaths from happening in the future. The only catch is that in a dynamic timeline, once you know about future events, those events cannot be altered. This is best explained in The Angels Take Manhattan (Season 7 Episode 5). The Doctor and Amy read in a book that River must break her wrist, so when River is caught by a Weeping Angel, she can only free herself by breaking her wrist. There is also the moment when the book’s chapter titles are read aloud. “Amy’s Last Goodbye” is the last chapter title, so it comes to pass that Amy says her final goodbye to the Doctor at the end of the episode.

Since the episode Before the Food is essentially moving forward, showing us a string of chronological events, the theory of Parallel Universes is not addressed. This theory is known by some quantum theorists, like Stephen Hawking, as the Multiverse and Alternative Histories Approach. The concept driving this theory is that an alternate universe could exist for every decision made. This theory is best portrayed in Doomsday (Season 2 Episode 14). The 9th Doctor and Rose live in a universe where Rose’s father died when she was a baby. In Doomsday, we are introduced to a world where Rose’s father lived, but Rose’s mother died.

So What’s a Paradox?

A paradox is defined by the Oxford Dictionary as a situation, person, or thing that contradicts itself or has contradictory features.

The "ghost" of The Doctor in Doctor Who Series 9, Episode 4, Before the Flood
The “ghost” of The Doctor in Before the Flood

The Doctor’s ghost is considered a BOOTSTRAP PARADOX because the words the ghost keeps repeating have no discernible origin. The Doctor programed his hologram ghost based on what Clara said, and Clara is simply describing what she sees the hologram ghost saying. A Bootstrap Paradox is any object, person, or bits of information that exist without ever having been created. Fortunately, this paradox is on a continuous loop which doesn’t seem to cause any major problems.

What Other Paradoxes Are There?

Another famous paradox is the GRANDFATHER PARADOX. This would occur in a dynamic timeline where you travel back in time and kill your grandfather. If you kill your grandfather, then you were never born, and if you were never born, then you never traveled back in time to kill your grandfather. If you were to return to the future, this paradox usually results in an alternative, or parallel, universe where your life no longer exists. This could be horrible and cause a lot of emotional distress (due to the lack of friends, family, and life-history). OR if you’re Amy and Rory in The Angels Take Manhattan, then you will commit suicide with the love of your life in order to prevent the future (your present in the past) from happening.

The LET’S KILL HITLER PARADOX is quite similar to the Grandfather Paradox. Whereas the Grandfather Paradox would cause a light ripple effect through time, the Let’s Kill Hitler Paradox would cause a world-wide tsunami. If you were to travel in time to change a major event, then in the future, you would have no reason to travel back in time. Funny enough, Let’s Kill Hitler (Season 6 Episode 8) is an episode of Doctor Who which questions the nature of this paradox both figuratively and literally.


Then there’s the PREDESTINATION PARADOX. The Predestination Paradox occurs when you travel to the past to change a future event, but traveling to the past only ensures that the future event will occur. Of course, this paradox occurs in a fixed timeline since actions taken in the past become part of the history that happens in the future. The Predestination Paradox occurs in Listen (Season 8 Episode 4). The Doctor claims that everyone in the universe has the same dream of being in a semi-conscious state and something under the bed grabbing their ankle. During The Doctor’s hunt for answers about this occurrence, the T.A.R.D.I.S. happens to land in Gallifrey on the night that the Doctor has this dream. The Doctor is unable to leave the T.A.R.D.I.S., but Clara can. When Clara tries to discover the being under the bed, she incidentally becomes the being under the bed that grabs the Doctor’s ankle.

In The End

I’m sure there are other types of paradoxes out there in the world, so feel free to leave comments about theories I left out. And if you feel like you’re head is spinning around in circles, go watch The Wedding of River Song (Season 6 Episode 13). I’m sure you’ll have a good time trying to understand how almost every single one of these paradoxes exist in that one episode.

Images Courtesy of The BBC

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