From "The Time Machine" to "Doctor Who". The Motif of Time Travel in British Science Fiction

Term Paper, 2014

12 Pages, Grade: 1,0


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. The Time Machine and Doctor Who

3. The Time Traveller and the Doctor

4. The Time Machine and the TARDIS
4.1. The Introduction of the Novum
4.2. The Description and Design of the Machine
4.3. The Journey through Time
4.4. The Essence of the TARDIS

5. Conclusion

6. Works Cited

1. Introduction

" [Y]ou are wrong to say that we cannot move about in Time" (Wells 7), states the protagonist of H. G. Wells' famous story The Time Machine written in 1895. The possibility of experiencing a historical event which happened before one's birth as well as the possibility of knowing, seeing, and maybe even changing the future fascinated writers and readers back then and has continued to do so ever since. In consequence, the motif of time travel has become a very common and well-known theme in the genre of science fiction. With its increasing popularity and an audience that started to get used to the idea of time travel itself, the theme was able to evolve from its simplicity depicted in The Time Machine into a much more complex topic, for example as seen in the British television show Doctor Who. In the following paper, I intend to introduce The Time Machine as well as Doctor Who by analyzing and comparing the way they introduce and depict time travel and the elements involved with it, i.e. the person time traveling and the time traveling device itself. Since Doctor Who is a show divided into an original show and a revival show, I picked two specific episodes which I am going to analyze: The pilot episode "An Unearthly Child" of the original series and the more recent episode "The Doctor's Wife" of the new series.

2. The Time Machine and Doctor Who

H. G. Wells' novel The Time Machine is often said to have introduced the topic of time travel to British readers. Therefore, the story has a fairly simple and straightforward structure compared to the time travel plots we can read about or see on television nowadays. It is the story of a man who invents a time machine, uses it for a trip into the future, and then comes back to his own time to tell his story. Since then, the British science fiction series Doctor Who, first broadcast by the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) in 1963, has been a crucial force in the development of more complex time travel plots, being “at least partly, inspired by [...] The Time Machine [...]” (Leach 3). As a well-known classic to British readers, the novel certainly played an important role in the creation of the show as it influenced many decisions concerning its concept - decisions to deviate from the story as well as decisions to create similarities.

“The original series ran for twenty-six years, reaching, at the height of its popularity, 110 million viewers in fifty-four different countries [...]” (Leach 1) and the show was revived in 2005. Its long television history has been made possible by its unique concept of an alien time traveler called the Doctor who can go to any location and any point in time as well as change his body when seriously injured. The long history of the show has allowed the writers to explore the motif of time travel further, for example by asking complicated questions, dealing with paradoxes like meeting one's future self, and addressing other consequences of time travel.

The pilot episode called “An Unearthly Child” aired on November 23 in 1963, the day after President John F. Kennedy's assassination (see Leach 1), which worried the producers of the show concerning its future success. However, the event did not restrict the effect Doctor Who had - and continues to have - on its audience. The first screening of the pilot episode was seen by 4.4. million viewers and its repetition, followed by the screening of the second episode, was watched by 6.4. million viewers (see Robb 41). The title of the episode refers to Susan, a teenage girl who is the Doctor's granddaughter and therefore also an alien. In the episode, two of her teachers discover that she and her grandfather own a machine called the TARDIS, which is an abbreviation for Time and Relative Dimension in Space. This machine is able to take them to different locations and points in time. The second Doctor Who episode used as a source for this paper is a part of the revival show. It is the fourth episode of the sixth season and called “The Doctor's Wife”. The title refers to the relationship the Doctor has with his “time-space ship” (Robb 37), the TARDIS, as it is much more than just a machine. This and the essence of the TARDIS are the main focus of the episode.

3. The Time Traveller and the Doctor

The protagonist of the novel The Time Machine and the protagonist of Doctor Who have a lot of characteristics in common, e.g. that there is very little the reader and the other characters know about either of them. The narrator in The Time Machine describes the Time Traveller's behavior at the dinner parties in great detail, but either does not know or does not want to share specifics about the Time Traveller's past and his current life apart from the dinner parties. Another element essential to his mysterious persona is a very important piece of information the reader does not have: his name - or, at the very least, an explanation for the absence of his name. The narrator calls the protagonist “The Time Traveller” (Wells 5) starting with the very first line and justifies this with convenience (see Wells 5). Even when the narrator asks specifically about the location of the Time Traveller, the name is removed from the direct quote, leaving the question: “ 'Where's ?' “ (Wells 13). What the reader does know is that the Time Traveller is an inventor and a scientist. He not only invented the Time Machine, but also chairs which “embrace[...] and caress[...]” (Wells 5) his guests, leads scientific discussion about time and establishes as well as rethinks several hypotheses to explain the future he experiences on his time journey. The Time Traveller has a lot of dinner parties which provide him with an audience for his tricks (see Wells 12). At the particular dinner party where he reveals his discoveries about time travel to his guests, “[h]is eyes [shine] and twinkle[...] , and his usually pale face [is] flushed and animated” (Wells 5), which reveals his passion and excitement concerning the subject. The narrator also describes him as “too clever to be believed” (Wells 12), i.e. as undoubtedly smart, but not trustworthy. In summary, the Time Traveller is a controversial character. On the one hand, he is a serious scientist who achieves time travel through a lot of research and commitment (“It took two years to make”, Wells 10), but on the other hand he likes to play jokes and tricks on people. He is a childish magician as well as a scientific traveler.

This description of the Time Traveller also fits the character of the Doctor. The Doctor is “a scientist figure, albeit of the amateur, self-educated variety” (Robb 27) and an “old man who has stolen the time space machine from his own people [...] [, a] civilization on a faraway planet” (Robb 24). His age would definitely define him as an adult and he wears conservative clothing, but his behavior is often child-like. Examples for this are the theft of the time-space machine as well as his rude and very direct behavior towards Susan's teachers, e.g. telling them to “[g]o away” (An Unearthly Child). The Doctor's undisclosed identity has its roots in the fact that Doctor Who was created to fill the “early- evening scheduling gap between the live afternoon sports programme Grandstand and the pop-music review show Juke Box Jury" (Robb 19), which meant that it had to appeal to the older audience of Grandstand as well as to the younger audience of Juke Box Jury. The character of the Doctor can therefore be seen as the personification of the cross-generational appeal of the show. He resembles the Time Traveller in having both very childish and very mature traits as well as a passion for traveling through time and an affinity for science. In “The Doctor's Wife”, which aired forty-eight years after the introduction of the Doctor in “An Unearthly Child”, the Doctor appears as his eleventh regeneration. A lot of the mentioned characteristics still apply to him, but this incarnation looks very young and is childish in different ways from the first Doctor. He is not rude or grumpy, but instead he uses explanations like “Imagine a great big soap bubble with one of those tiny little bubbles on the outside” (The Doctor's Wife), which is something one cannot imagine the first Doctor would ever say. This Doctor also displays a lot more affection for his companions and his TARDIS and is in general a figure with whom one can identify easily.

Like the Time Traveller, the Doctor lacks a proper name and was “dubbed 'Dr Who', reflecting his unknowable nature” (Robb 27) during the process of the show's creation. In The Time Machine, the lack of a name for the Time Traveller is never directly addressed or questioned and seems to be the deliberate choice of the - also nameless - narrator. In difference to this, no one but the Doctor himself seems to know his real name which turns this very essential mystery to a recurring question that also gave the show its title: Doctor Who?

As demonstrated in the previous passages, the Time Traveller and the Doctor have a lot of traits in common, but there are also characteristics in which they differ. One of these characteristics is that even though the Time Traveller has guests to whom he can tell his time travel story, he does not have a companion who experiences his time journey alongside of him. The Time Traveller wishes for such a companion (“If only I had had a companion it would have been different.”, Wells 42), but the Doctor has company on almost all of his journeys. During “An Unearthly Child”, his granddaughter Susan fulfills the role of a companion and by the end also two of her teachers. In “The Doctor's Wife”, his companions are the couple Amy Pond and Rory Williams. In contrast to the Time Traveller, the Doctor usually does not travel alone, but in a way he is alienated nonetheless. He has lived much longer, has a different understanding of time and the universe and knows much more than his human companions, because he is a different species than them. This is a very crucial difference between the Time Traveller and the Doctor. The first is a human living in the London suburb of Richmond who just invented a time machine and therefore discovered the reality of time travel for himself; the latter is a Time Lord, an alien, who has grown up with the knowledge of time travel on the planet Gallifrey and has already traveled extensively by the beginning of the series.

4. The Time Machine and the TARDIS

4.1. The Introduction of the Novum

In The Time Machine as well as in Doctor Who the machine used for time travel is the novum, the new element, which has to be introduced to the reader or the audience. By choosing the title The Time Machine for his novel, Wells makes it clear that the Time Machine is the most important element of the story, i.e. without it, there would not be a time travel tale. Also, since the title is the very first thing one sees when beginning to read the novel, the machine is introduced to the reader even before the Time Traveller is introduced and one is possibly already speculating about this machine when first opening the book. Doctor Who's pilot episode “An Unearthly Child” introduces “the Doctor's time­space ship” (Robb 37) in a similar way. Although the show is named after the person time traveling, the machine is the very first item the viewer sees. The camera first follows a security guard walking around at night and then moves into a junk yard, where it stops in front of a blue police box which is the TARDIS. At this point, the viewer knows even less about this machine than the reader of Wells' novel knows about the Time Machine, as he does not know of its ability to travel in time and space.

In both The Time Machine and Doctor Who the reader or the audience is confronted with the finished product of the machine, not with the process of its development. The pages leading up to the visual introduction of the device in The Time Machine contain a fairly long conversation about the general topic of time as a fourth dimension, the possibility of moving in this dimension and even a time travel experiment with a small model of the actual machine. The introduction of this novum has a very scientific character. The reader is acquainted with the topic of time travel in a very slow and careful manner, for example by stating that the dinner guests of the Time Traveller will not be asked to "accept anything without reasonable ground for it" (Wells 5). This assurance might as well be directed at the reader of the novel and shows Wells' consciousness of the possibly skeptical reader. The Time Traveller claims to "have experimental verification" (Wells 8) and asks his guests to "satisfy [themselves] that there is no trickery" (Wells 10), before he shows them that a small model of the time machine can disappear into a different point in time. The description of this experiment is very detailed; not only concerning the on-going events but also regarding to how the room looks. The reader is told exactly where each guest is standing and what he is doing (see Wells 9). Also, the Time Traveller does not send the Time Machine model into a different point in time himself, but uses the hand of one of his guests, the Psychologist. All of this is done in the pursuit of leading the reader to the same conclusion the narrator arrives at: that “there [is] no trickery” (Wells 10).

The further introduction of the TARDIS in “An Unearthly Child” is not accompanied by as many explanations as the introduction of the Time Machine. In a flashback of the science teacher Ian Chesterton, the Doctor's granddaughter Susan is struggling to explain that time and space as a fourth and fifth dimension are essential to the solution of a problem she is supposed to solve in class. This is an abbreviated version of the Time Traveller's conversation with his guests in The Time Machine, when he explains his opinion of time being the fourth dimension. Susan's teachers have the role of “audience surrogates, [...] human beings struggling to understand what is happening to them” (Leach 10), much like the Time Traveller's dinner guests are surrogates for the readers of The Time Machine. The protagonist of Doctor Who, the Doctor himself, does not have any interest in explaining himself or his machine. When Susan's teachers follow Susan and meet the Doctor, he immediately tries to get rid off them. His attempts reach from “I suggest you leave here” (An Unearthly Child) to the very direct order: “Go away!” (An Unearthly Child). When Susan opens the door of the TARDIS to see what is going on outside, the two teachers stumble inside of it, but the Doctor still does not want to explain the function of the TARDIS to them. “You don't deserve any explanations, you pushed your way in here uninvited and unwelcome” (An Unearthly Child), he says and repeatedly tells them that they would not understand when he barely gives them a chance to grasp what is happening. Unlike the Time Traveller who is very eager to convince his dinner guests of the abilities of his machine, the Doctor is worried that “[t]hey'll tell everybody about the ship now” (An Unearthly Child). For this reason, he does not intend to let the teachers go once they begin to understand that the TARDIS is the key to time travel. Instead, he sees no other solution than to take them with him on a journey through time.

4.2. The Description and Design of the Machine

The narrative technique used to describe the Time Machine is one that gives the reader details about certain parts of it, but nonetheless does not paint one specific picture of how the machine looks as a whole. The model used for the introductory experiment, which is a small version of the actual device, is characterized as having a “glittering metallic framework, scarcely larger than a small clock and very delicately made. There [is] ivory in it, and some transparent crystalline substance” (Wells 9). It has two levers - one to send the machine into the future and one to reverse that process - as well as a saddle, and therefore has similarities with a bicycle. With the bicycle being a fairly new and innovative invention in 1895 as well as a very popular means for transportation, these similarities make sense as they refer to inventions already made and also represent the possibility of further technical advances. On the one hand, the way the machine is depicted is rooted in this real-life invention, but on the other hand, the descriptions of the model and the Time Machine are constructed in a way that leaves a lot of room for speculations. The narrator describes it as “singularly askew, and [...] there is an odd twinkling appearance about this bar, as though it was in some way unreal” (Wells 9) with “[p]arts [.] of nickel, parts of ivory, parts [that] had certainly been filed or sawn out of rock crystal” (Wells 11).

When Doctor Who was developed, “[t]he problem with the type of time machine featured in Wells' philosophical social satire was that, built as it was around an Edwardian saddle, it could only comfortably carry one passenger at a time” (Robb 28). Since the series was to cover the adventures of the Doctor as well as his companions, there was the need for a larger and more complex transportation device which became the TARDIS. The interior and the exterior of the TARDIS differ from each other. The exterior of it, which is introduced first to the audience in “An Unearthly Child”, looks like a blue police box, but when the two teachers stumble into the box they see that the interior of the TARDIS looks nothing like the outside would suggest. The camera shows the audience a room with “the six-sided central control console, the circular indents on the walls and the computer banks and TV screen” (Robb 41). This room is already a lot bigger than the box itself, which means the TARDIS has different dimensions on the inside than on the outside. The inside of the TARDIS looks similar to the Time Machine in Wells' novel in that it has a lot of different kinds of metal, buttons and levers and therefore also looks like a new, innovative way of transportation. The exterior of the TARDIS on the other hand “served to ground the mysterious Doctor's 'impossible' vehicle in an everyday world that families could recognise from their own surroundings” (Robb 29), because police boxes “were a familiar sight on the streets of 1960s Britain” (Robb 29).


Excerpt out of 12 pages


From "The Time Machine" to "Doctor Who". The Motif of Time Travel in British Science Fiction
University of Constance
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Doctor Who, Time Machine, Time Travel, British, Science Fiction, English Literature
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Silvia Schilling (Author), 2014, From "The Time Machine" to "Doctor Who". The Motif of Time Travel in British Science Fiction, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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