Are the Daleks on Gallifreyan Mean Time Now?

A Doctor Who essay by Adam Gobeski

After Doctor Who returned to our screens in 2005, it was perhaps inevitable that we'd see the return of the Doctor's greatest and best-known enemies, the Daleks, and that we'd get a number of return engagements for these most popular of foes.  But as the Doctor's 21st-century encounters with his old foes have added up, a curious pattern has emerged: virtually every Dalek story has been set after the previous one in terms of the Daleks' personal history and interaction with the Doctor, regardless of the year the stories were set.

This is notable because, with one rather large exception, the original run of Doctor Who wasn't concerned with continuing the stories it had created in earlier serials.  Indeed, Doctor Who's first sequel, 2.2, "The Dalek Invasion of Earth", is actually a prequel:  "My dear boy," the Doctor tells Ian, after Ian wonders how there can be Daleks on Earth after their defeat in their first story, "what happened in Skaro was a million years ahead of us in the future.  What we're seeing now is about the middle history of the Daleks."  (Of course, this "million years" line is going to be contradicted when we get to 10.4, "Planet of the Daleks", but let's not get weighed down by pedantry.)  The implication is that the TARDIS can travel anywhere up and down a species' timeline without issue, and fans can have all sorts of fun trying to work out when all the stories fit in a species' given history.  However, as television storytelling has become more serialized, it makes sense from a dramatic point of view that we would want to see rematches, rather than prequels and side stories, and so many of the returning villains are explicitly coming off their most recent defeat.  The only problem is that this is happening in a show about time travel, which does rather complicate the issue.  It's one thing to return to a specific time zone and see what's been happening since the last visit, as with Cassandra in the year five billion (X1.2, "The End of the World"; X2.1, "New Earth"), or the Zygons in the early 21st century (X7.15, "The Day of the Doctor"; X9.7/X9.8, "The Zygon Invasion"/"The Zygon Inversion") -- it's quite another to deal with a different time-travel-capable race in various time zones but still have everything follow on from the last televised encounter.

Of course, this isn't an issue that's entirely confined to the 21st-century series.  That large exception mentioned above is the Doctor's own people, the Time Lords.  From the moment the Monk made a return appearance in 3.4, "The Daleks' Master Plan", it was the case throughout the original run that every time the Doctor met one of his own race, it was in sequence.  "So you escaped from Castrovalva," the fifth Doctor says to the Master in 19.7, "Time-Flight", not "Castrovalva.  Have we done that one yet?"  And moreover, all these meetings seemed to be anchored to a Gallifreyan "present" -- so it's the Time Lords of the third Doctor's era who need help in "The Three Doctors" (10.1), while it seems as much time has passed between "The Deadly Assassin" (14.3) and "The Five Doctors" (20.7) for Borusa as for the Doctor, despite Borusa's alarming number of regenerations.  (Let's acknowledge the debates about when in Gallifrey's timeline "The Two Doctors" (22.4) and "The Trial of a Time Lord" (23.1-23.4) are set and then quietly draw a veil over the subject, as nothing there explicitly contradicts the idea of a shared "present".)  It's perhaps a coincidence that, with one minor deviation, all the stories involving Gallifrey or Time Lords seem to take place in sequence, but as this is nevertheless the case it's meant that fans have created the idea of a "Gallifreyan Mean Time", where the reason all the Gallifrey stories follow each other is because the Time Lords have made it that way.  This makes sense from an internal logic point-of-view; after all, the last thing you'd want to do as a time-travelling species is change your own past or future and potentially ruin everything, so you'd want to have safeguards in place.  (That deviation, by the way, is "Shada" (17.6), where the Doctor is said to have met Professor Chronotis in 1955, 1960, and 1964, as well as in 1958, "but in a different body".  But as this story wasn't actually broadcast we can probably safely ignore it.)

So in fandom the idea of a Gallifreyan Mean Time took hold, and, perhaps remarkably (given Steven Moffat's fascination with time travel), nothing in the BBC Wales series has contradicted the idea.  The Doctor can't go back and visit Gallifrey in the past, and when he meets the Master it's always after their previous encounter.  (Let's assume that the one sort-of exception to this, X10.11/X10.12, "World Enough and Time"/"The Doctor Falls", is governed by the same rules that govern multi-Doctor stories -- since the twelfth Doctor and Missy are both still in sequence for each other, this still works.)  And in fact the three instances of Gallifreyan Mean Time being violated in the modern series -- X4.17/X4.18, "The End of Time", X7.15, "The Day of the Doctor", and X8.4, "Listen" -- are pitched as unusual circumstances rather than as a matter of course: Rassilon is trying desperately to escape, the Moment is letting all the other Doctors back into the Time War, and the Doctor has turned off the safeguards in the TARDIS, respectively.  (And note that we're only concerned with televised stories here -- the books and audios have played a little looser with Time Lord meetings.)

So far so good.  But as the name suggests, this is a Gallifreyan thing rather than a universal law.  And yet the Dalek stories of the modern series seem to follow one another in the order that the Doctor experiences.  X2.12/X2.13, "Army of Ghosts"/"Doomsday" is explicitly followed by X3.4/X3.5, "Daleks in Manhattan"/"Evolution of the Daleks", which is explicitly followed by X4.12/X4.13, "The Stolen Earth"/"Journey's End", which is implicitly followed by X5.3, "Victory of the Daleks" and the following Matt Smith Dalek stories -- no matter the time period they're set.  The most obvious piece of supporting evidence for the Matt Smith stories following in sequence is the design of the Daleks themselves; we never see a bronze Time War Dalek until X1.6, "Dalek", and until "Victory of the Daleks" we'd never seen a New Paradigm Dalek (aka the chunky colour-coded ones) before, but then they started popping up in every Matt Smith Dalek episode, mixing with those RTD-era bronze Daleks by the time of X7.1, "Asylum of the Daleks" -- so we can't just pretend that that's what the Daleks always looked like, because that's explicitly and repeatedly shown not to be true. (Ah, we hear you saying, but then why aren't there any iPod Daleks in X9.1/X9.2, "The Magician's Apprentice"/"The Witch's Familiar"?  Maybe they had to change shells because their bulky ones couldn't make it through the Skaro doorways.)  So sequential encounters it is.  But what reason would there be for this to keep happening?  Six stories in a row (or nine, if you include the three stories -- "Dalek", "Bad Wolf"/"The Parting of the Ways" (X1.12/X1.13), and "Into the Dalek" (X8.2) -- that are ambiguous as to their placement in the grand scheme of post-Time War Dalek history, and there's no real reason not to), with "The Magician's Apprentice"/"The Witch's Familiar" definitely after those six, is stretching coincidence to breaking point, so there's more likely something else going on.

(Let's take a moment to examine the two instances to date where this doesn't actually seem to hold: first, the Doctor visiting Davros as a child in "The Magician's Apprentice"/"The Witch's Familiar".  This is problematic for our working theory because, if the Daleks are locked in step with the Doctor, shouldn't that be true for Davros as well?  But this is actually even weirder when you think about it: Davros almost dies as a child, and yet this is somehow not part of the Time War's time lock?  That seems like an event just ripe for the Time Lords to try to take advantage of and thus a natural candidate for inclusion in the time lock.  So how can the Doctor be present at all?  Besides, the rest of that story (plus its online prequels, "The Doctor's Meditation" and, er, "Prologue") has the Doctor hiding from Davros throughout time and space, and yet Colony Sarff can track him down -- a sequence of events that only makes sense if this story is indeed governed by the Doctor and Davros (and thus his lackeys) being on the same time track. (This, by the way, is why we don't want to argue that the lack of colourful Daleks in the story is because it predates "Victory of the Daleks": because if that were the case, then the Doctor and Davros being in sync would make even less sense.)  This is starting to look like another one of those explicit violations, with a force requiring that Clara be spared from being killed while inside a Dalek shell.  Perhaps her death in Trap Street (X9.10, "Face the Raven") is a Fixed Point, and so the TARDIS takes Twelve to kiddie-Davros in order to ensure that time goes right.

(Second, the brief sequence in X10.1, "The Pilot", where the Doctor plunges the TARDIS in the middle of a Dalek/Movellan battle in order to escape an intelligent oil slick.  Other than the Doctor telling Bill that this is the past, not the future, we don't really have any idea when this is: is it part of the Dalek/Movellan War (17.1, "Destiny of the Daleks")?  Is it part of the Time War (hence the bronze shells)? Is it some other conflict? For all we know, it could be happening in the Doctor's present but taking place in the past as far as Bill is concerned (i.e., before 2017); there's just no way to know for certain.)

Is it a universal law?  Perhaps there's some higher law regarding time travel that governs not just Time Lords and Daleks, but all species who have conquered free movement in time and space; maybe when you can travel back and forth in time you become subject to a higher-dimension physical law that ensures everyone moves along the same amount.  Do we have any evidence for this?  Well, discounting all the time travellers that we've only seen once (as we have no idea when, say, the Navarinos from 24.3, "Delta and the Bannermen" fit into all this), this pattern does hold up for a large number of the rest: the Trickster from The Sarah Jane Adventures; the Black and White Guardians; even the Daleks themselves, if you assume that "The Chase" (2.8) is set before "Remembrance of the Daleks" (25.1) and don't worry about the stories that don't involve free movement through time (for the sake of the current argument we're assuming that time corridor technology isn't bound by the same rules, or else we'll never get anywhere).  In all these cases, they encounter the Doctor in the same order as he encounters them.

Alas, it's not perfect; even if you believe "Silver Nemesis" (25.3) doesn't involve time-travelling Cybermen, you'd still have to accept the somewhat counterintuitive idea that "Earthshock" (19.6) is set before "Attack of the Cybermen" (22.1), even though "Attack of the Cybermen" sure looks like the Cybermen's first flirtations with time travel -- and, of course, there's the issue of how the Cybermen can review a moment from "Revenge of the Cybermen" (12.4), which is set after "Earthshock"'s date of 2526.  Plus there's the big problem of River Song; untangling her personal timeline is a bit tricky, but even if we accept that she couldn't time travel on her own until she acquires a vortex manipulator in "The Pandorica Opens" (X5.12), the scene in "The Impossible Astronaut" (X6.1), where River and the old Doctor compare notes and then River subsequently encounters the younger version, seems to put paid to this idea of meeting in sequence being a universal property of time travel.  It therefore looks like this idea of a universal law governing all time travellers is ultimately a nonstarter.

Still, that leaves the impressive number of encounters between the Doctor and the Daleks in the same order for both parties across time and space, and almost never in linear order; in other words, every jump forward in time is followed by a jump back.  As noted earlier, this is hardly a straightforward sequence of events, so there must be something going on to keep these foes meeting in sequence.

Perhaps the answer is related to the Time War.  (But don't worry; while this might look at first blush like the default "anything that doesn't make sense continuity-wise must be a result of the Time War" explanation that some corners of fandom love to trot out, we're going to attempt to justify this instead of treating it like a hand-wavy catch-all solution.)  Specifically, let's look at the time lock that the War is said to have been put under.  We're told that the entire War has been time locked but we're never really told what that means.  The closest thing we get to an explanation is in "The End of Time": "The whole war was time locked.  Like sealed inside a bubble," the Doctor tells Wilf.  "It's not a bubble but just think of a bubble."  This was essentially a piece of technobabble designed to deal with the "hey, why doesn't he go back and change history?" question that kept cropping up periodically, but it was an explanation that left more questions than answers.  How do you lock off parts of history, particularly in a war that spans all of time?  What stops you from travelling to the right time period and moving the rest of the way through physical space?

But let's run with this idea.  What if the time lock doesn't just seal the War off in a non-bubble bubble?  What if it also affects any possible survivors, regardless of where/when they are?  After all, one way to prevent anyone from reentering the War would be to impose Gallifreyan Mean Time on them, to stop them from trying to change their past.  It's just a side-effect of this that causes the Doctor and the Daleks to now meet in sequence.  As with most of the Time War, the mechanism by which this happened is unclear, but given the other things we've seen and heard about during the Time War, it doesn't seem like a stretch that something could impose GMT on people/Daleks -- indeed, based on what we see the Moment might be very well be capable of such a thing.  This would also potentially stop any survivors from starting a new Time War: if you can't go back and try and change time because you're locked in sequence with your foes, the use of time travel ceases to be a significant advantage.  (Again, this leaves us with the vexed question of Kid Davros, but maybe the TARDIS really is trying to keep everything on track; the instigator of Clara's danger is fellow Time Lord Missy, after all, who may therefore be slightly outside the laws of causality the way the rest of the Time Lords seem to be, and so the TARDIS needs to take extreme measures to ensure Missy doesn't break time à la "The Wedding of River Song" (X6.13) by making Clara die too soon.)

So no, it's not a coincidence; the Doctor and the Daleks are meeting in sequence as a side-effect of the Last Great Time War being time locked.  Of course, it's possible that future Dalek stories will throw this into doubt, but for now we have a robust set of converging data that points to a clear result: the Doctor and the Daleks are locked in step, forced to keep encountering each other in the same order.  No more chances to alter each other's histories; from now on more mundane methods have to be used to defeat one another.

Page last updated: May 7, 2019

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