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?