Donna Noble: “What time does Vesuvius erupt? When’s it due?”
The Doctor: “It’s 79 A.D. 23rd of August; which makes Volcano day-tomorrow.”
Donna Noble: “Plenty of time. We can get everyone out, easy.”
The Doctor: “Yeah, except we’re not going to.”
Donna Noble: “But that’s what you do. You’re the Doctor. You save people.”
The Doctor: “Not this time. Pompeii is a fixed point in history. What happens, happens. There’s no stopping it.”
Donna Noble: “Says who?”
The Doctor: “Says me.”

-Doctor Who, “The Fires of Pompeii”

This is related to a dream I had last weekend.  It presented me with a totally theoretical morality question, but one that I’d like to know on which side people tend to fall.

Let’s say that you had the power to travel back in time.  I don’t give a shit how.  DeLorean, police box, magic tampon dispenser, whatever.

You are given knowledge that someone in the immediate vicinity is about to die under accidental circumstances, but that you can easily prevent it without putting yourself in any danger.  Maybe a guy is about to get hit by a stagecoach in 1880 and you can prevent it just by talking to him on the curb so he isn’t standing at the street at the time he would otherwise have been run down.  Once you make your choice, you will pull the handle on the magic tampon dispenser and return to Donald Trump’s 2017 with all the safety and happiness that signifies, leaving the guy standing there in bewilderment.

Who here would talk to that guy and keep him busy and save his life?  It isn’t a big deal, after all, and you lose nothing from the effort.  Or is it even a big deal?  Keep in mind that the guy would be dead by now anyway so it doesn’t really matter, does it?

Do you still say that you save the guy?  Alright.  What if it turns out you didn’t realize that the man you saved was actually a potential suitor for your great-great-great grandma and since he lives, she doesn’t decide to just settle for second best and marry your loser great-great-great grandaddy as she was originally destined to?  You just cancelled your own existence.  How about that, McFly?

Also, because of the Butterfly Effect, you come back to 2017 and find that the Kardashians somehow became the greatest political dynasty since the Kennedy’s and La La Land won the Oscar for Best Picture in this new timeline.  Okay, one of those could still happen.

Some people find that the moral choice of saving a life is always justified, regardless of the costs.  When we’re given power and knowledge, we should use it for good.  Other people can have a more philosophical view and say that everything happens for a reason and that it would be wrong to change Fate or God’s Will or they’re just too lazy to get involved, I don’t know.

In TV’s Quantum Leap, Dr Sam Beckett participates in a botched scientific experiment and ends up finding himself travelling through time.  The whole series is him being sent back to different points in time and trying to figure out how to get home.  The scientists on the project and their AI are able to determine that Sam is always being sent back specifically so that he can change history and when he brings about the outcome of “putting things right which once went wrong”, he “leaps” to the next time period.  Sam and the scientists on his project don’t actually understand why this is happening, but they change history just the same and for the better as far as the individuals involved are concerned.  It’s very human in that they aren’t certain what to do, but decide that being good is probably the best course of action and the one that comes easy to Sam.

In Doctor Who, The Doctor is an alien Time Lord.  He sometimes randomly, sometimes deliberately travels through time and gets involved where he sees fit, but there’s a caveat: he’s not supposed to change certain “fixed” points in history.  There are some things he can’t change and it’s kind of shocking in those episodes where he calmly let’s people die, but when fixed points do get tampered with, the consequences can be much more horrific.  Unlike Sam, The Doctor fully understands what he’s doing and all of the implications that come from it.  He’s older, wiser, and knows the outcomes but what’s important is that he puts emotion aside.  It’s not human, but neither is he.  The human characters frequently have to provide that more emotional perspective [Edit: I had an unfinished thought there].

In the above conversation between The Doctor and Donna, she’s aghast that The Doctor is perfectly satisfied to let Pompeii burn with all the women and children and puppies.  If you never saw the show, I swear he’s a good guy.    Oh, and if you’ve seen that episode, don’t muddy the waters by telling everyone how it ends.  Yes, I know what he does, but he still lets lots of people die despite being fully capable of stopping it.  So shut up.

Here’s the question for the group then.  If I sent you back in time to save the lives of 10 random nobodies who all died off at least a century ago by stopping them from dying in easily-preventable accidents, would you intervene or would you not?  Why or why not?

Oh, and for those of you who think it’s easier to just let it happen, there’s a caveat: You have to stand there and watch them die.  And some of them will be kids.  You didn’t think I’d make this easy, did you?  You like this timeline so much, you get to see it play out, Mr. John Smith.

Where do you stand on this question of Compassion vs Wisdom, Morality vs Destiny, NBC vs BBC?  What would you do?

36 comments

  1. Well, I probably wouldn’t-if I could avoid it. Star Trek had the same dilemma for Jim Kirk and Edith Wheeler-he lets her die so that the happy future he knows will exist-if she lives, she becomes a pacifist leader whose good intentions allow the Nazis to win World War Two.

    Later Trek series (particularly Voyager) had characters being Doctor Becketts to save their own regardless of the consequences to the time stream, and it bugged me that they always seemed to have happy endings. Of course, Sam doesn’t know what’s going to happen half the time and the people he saves are important to the timeline. But it might have been a more interesting show if he couldn’t save everyone or had to make a choice as to who to save (and I liked the show.)

    From a purely logical POV, the Doctor has it right-some things can’t be changed. We learn from history, including its bad moments. Take them away and maybe something worse happens that we wouldn’t be prepared for. If you had a chance, maybe you could save an individual-but even there, if its a nobody in their own time, they might have descendants who become somebody, including somebody bad. Time travel can be tough, and sometimes you need tough love to deal with it.

  2. AT LAST I HAVE DRAWN OUT THE MIGHTY SANTINO! Good to see you! Hope you’re ready for some DJ thread action this week.

  3. Yeah, the Logic vs Emotion is the hardest one to grasp. You can be fully logical and utterly right, but I think we’d all on an instinctual level WANT to jump in and help. If we didn’t, it’s because reason would prevail but it would stink.

  4. I’d not intervene. Why? Command & Conquer: Red Alert. For those who haven’t played it, it’s a game I played years ago. The premise is that Einstein develops time travel, and goes back in time to just after a young Adolf Hitler is released from prison, and kills him, thereby stopping WWII and the Holocaust. Unfortunately by doing this, Stalin and his ambition is left unchecked, and he starts a war that makes WWII look like a schoolyard skirmish.

  5. Not to mention Marty McFly, and saving his stupid dad from the car…that could have ended very badly, and I like Marty too much.

  6. I’m just glad to see the old gang back (hello to kevinmkr)!! Thanks for doing this.

    The DJ threads will be much better now that I have access to YouTube at my new job.

  7. I love the hell out of RA2. Been a pain in the ass to run it right on Windows 10, but I still have it installed and play it every few months on the very laptop I’m typing this.

    Korean Black Eagle Squadron FTW!

  8. I just recently watched The Imitation Game, and there was a more realistic/plausible real world scenario that relates to this post. Ultimately they break the German code, and they have perfect information to save lives. However, they use this information more robotically and determine statistically how many attacks can be thwarted without the Germans figuring out their code’s been cracked. Sacrifice the few for the benefit of the many. Morally speaking, the math is hard to comprehend. Are the 100 deaths you knowingly let happen less than the potential 10,000 you’ve saved? You have to be cold to remove the human emotion from making those types of decisions.

  9. It definitely explains why so many Presidents, CEOs, and other senior authority figures need to be a psychopath to some degree, indeed.

    Churchill actually had sit there and say, “Do we let Coventry get pounded, or lose our intelligence edge by sending the whole RAF to stop a massive attack we know is coming?” Coventry was nearly wiped out. Churchill and The Doctor were good friends, though. This is known.

  10. Another great old movie on this theme is The Final Countdown from 1980-ish. The modern USS Nimitz with its complement of F-14 Tomcats goes through a wormhole and ends up on December 6, 1941 near Pearl Harbor.

    The captain and crew are fully capable of stopping the Pearl Harbor attack….but should they? Highly recommended.

    I like these time travel discussions not just because of the great movies and tv shows there are to discuss, but because it really says a lot about us and how we view the use of any great power for what we believe to be the greater good. People are quite different on this.

  11. Hey, Santino! Go Blue! I’ll be in your neck of the woods in May — flying out of YYZ. Might be back for a proper visit at the end of July for the Festival of Beer (and Sloan, of course).

  12. Man, it’s been years since I’ve been to the TFOB (I don’t even think it was called that the last time I went). Look me up if/when you’re in Toronto. It would be nice to catch up with you. We don’t make it to Michigan as often as we used to. I know we’ll be in TC early August.

  13. Also check out the books Timescape, Replay, and even Stephen King’s 11/22/63 for the consequences of changing the past. “A Sound of Thunder” (Ray Bradbury) is sort of the ultimate statement on this.

  14. Oh, yeah! A Sound of Thunder. Haven’t read that one since high school. It’s definitely big on the butterfly effect, literally, as I recall.

    Not remotely time travel-related, but have you read anything from David Wong, WVR? Either John Dies at the End or Futuristic Violence and Fancy Suits? He’s the Editor at Cracked.com and writes the most mind-blowing stuff.

  15. would you intervene or would you not? Why or why not?

    The Easy out:
    If Time travel is possible, then time travelers, have already been in from our view in the past and any interaction that they have had have already figured in to your world point of view. if those 10 died in accidents, then when you do travel back, for what ever reason you didn’t affect their fates. Simply what ever choices you might make were already made, and the end result was the fatal accidents.

    The Harder one.

    Assuming you can alter the fate of these dammed 10, then what ever action would take creates a new branching Multi verse of choices,continuously branch with each new decision that is made due to your immersion in that era, from the mosquito that you wave off , that goes on to give another person malaria , to making someone late for dinner by bumping into them in your haste, to actually stopping a accidental death.. branching branching branching into the Nth power.. and then what? could you ever go back to your time line? What would be that point in that since you decided to save those 10 dammed. your original time like they died, all you would get is the moral superiority feeling of saving 10 lives that in your time line are still dead.a empty feeling….

    The Hardest.one: . They die, you eat popcorn, and go back home. a product of the 21st century whom has watched countless Live Leak Videos of Death and mayhem seen ppl killed, and generally dont give a crap about many others because, you been burned too many times by other people, or just fucking tired of peoples shit………… or maybe you know deep down that ther eis no going home if you save them, and saving 10 could easily condemn millions to nonexistance, everyone you know could be gone, and far worse things could happen

    Me: Get nice and roaring drunk cry wail…. fuckit… go get back in the time machine go home hug my loved ones…hope i didn’t step on a fucking butterfly on the way back…

  16. poping historic figures that we all despise, is a great past time, till you sit and think about what could happen…. hell smothering Temijin in his crib, and no Mongol empire…Millions saved….. Putting Justinian and Theodora to a long dirt nap before he lets his paranoia get the best of him… so many points that coudl spawn radical changes in the world to follow… Orson scott card.Wrote a novel that postulated that Chris Columbus was derailed and sent off on a holy war against isalm, instead of trying to sail west..Teh result is the successor state of the Aztec empire which is more viscous and adaptability then its predecessor makes contact with Europe , and in dong so unleashes rein of terror that makes any of the European colonization horrors pale……

  17. really cool flick….

    Heh i had a general outline of a story where a WW2 era troop ship and its escort a DD eh ,, maybe a ED…, pop back to 1774……

  18. Eric flints 1632, is a fun read…. a bit out there, but the following books heavily influenced by the fans and a desire to wring actual historic events and effects out into the stories , makes it a worth wile read.,

    < a West Virginia town, residents and such all get whisked away by a alien industrial accident to 1632, ploped down inthe middle of the German forests during the worst of the Thirty years war..

  19. Are you watching Timeless on NBC? It’s literally this dilemma in weekly episodes. Plot holes you can drive a truck through, but fun. There are two time machines. A bad guy is using one to go to their version of fixed points in history to deliberately attempt to change them and the good guys chase him to limit the damage.

  20. passed on that, and this weird one im seeing advertisements for, about a Red Body bag with a time machine init????

  21. That one looks like Hot Tub Time machine and Drunk History had a baby. I also passed on that.
    Timeless is more like Quantum Leap with better costumes.

  22. Okay, so I’m not the only one who didn’t get Drunk History? Everybody keeps raving at me about that one and I just could not get into it.

  23. Oh, and I haven’t seem Timeless, but I’ll give it a whirl when I get a chance. I don’t have cable. We’re one of those Netflix/Amazon/Vudu only families. I’d have to find that one on Hulu, which I don’t have, I suppose.

  24. Do NOT watch the ASOT movie. I made that mistake. It’s awful. Or watch it. But watch it BECAUSE it’s awful. Either way, it diverges from the novel in most heinous ways.

  25. Have any of Bradbury’s works ever turned into good movies? I’m wanting to say no. I love his stories, but he’s in that category of sci-fi that doesn’t seem to transcend media. Hitchhiker’s Guide is like that too.

  26. Watched it yesterday while I was flying home from Kansas City. Pretty good movie. I never realized how much a younger Martin Sheen reminds me of Charlie Sheen…without the insanity.

  27. Wow. No kidding. I just had to go through the list on IMDB. I never would have thought that Stephen King would sit so high above the bar.

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