Tuesday, March 25, 2008

The anachronauts

As regular readers might know – and those who’ve listened to me whinging in the pub – I do not travel well. I don’t fit on buses or trains nor tend to sleep on them either. So I arrive feeling beaten up and tetchy.

It’s not that I don’t like new places and people. I just need a bit of time when I get anywhere to regenerate my limbs and brain.

There’s a classic question asked of Doctors Who in interviews that was being discussed in the pub on Saturday. It’s been discussed many times before. And yet one astute reader of this blog insists I’ve never blogged my answer. So here goes.

Time travel would be rubbish.

Take, for example, this country. Until the mid-1960s when the white heat of technology meant people bought washing machines, most people didn’t wash their clothes (or themselves) as often as we do. This sudden change in personal hygiene led to a new kind of advertisement – people whispering harshly about something called “B.O”. Until then, the vast majority of people really stank. (The Victorian solution to being stinky was just to button up more clothes.)

Until the mid-1940s when the welfare state kicked in, most people would not see a dentist or doctor until they absolutely had to. People’s teeth and breath was on the whole pretty awful. Watch old films and see what the heroes and heroines get away with in their mouths. Penicillin, aspirin and Bugs Bunny were all brand-new inventions.

The further back you go, the worse the knowledge of medicine and basic hygiene, so the worse off everyone gets. Those who can get good food aren't necessarily eating well. Education reforms haven’t come in so illiteracy and child labour increase as you head back in time. Sexism, racism, regionalism, superstition… all hold more sway in the past. People live shorter, harder lives. Even the rich are crowded by frequent, premature deaths.

No, they might not think of themselves as living in abject misery. But we, as spectators, would. And we would be unable to help them without over-writing our own times. It is better we cannot go back; or at least, that the only solace we can give is through reappraisal of history.

David Tennant had a good answer on the Parkinson show a while back, saying if he could go anywhere he’d go back just a couple of decades, and have a word with himself in his teens. Give a few pointers about opportunities coming up, moments not to screw up. And blimey there’s loads I could go back and do better. Was going to give some examples but I'll let you choose your own.

But, as I had him explain to Martha on page 172 of The Pirate Loop, changing stuff like this is “just a world of messy and complicated.” Without those screw-ups and missed opportunities we wouldn’t be who or where we are. If it weren’t for a particular row in 2005*, would Martha ever have met the Doctor?

(* In the original draft, the row was with someone called Joe.)

So what about the future? I think there are two reasons why seeing it would be bad. First, there’s how well you can fit it, with your backward ways and health and assumptions. Skip forward 50 years and you’ll bring with you the same attitudes as the old folk there once had. But theirs will have been weathered and smoothed by getting to that point the long way. They might not even remember thinking like you do, aghast that anyone can be so Neanderthal.

Secondly, there’s the issue of spoilers. A book’s a disappointment if you skip to the last page. (The Dr and at least one of my exes do exactly that – but they’re probably used to disappointment.) If things are good you’ve ruined the surprise. And if things are bad is there anything you can do?

I’m with Ian at the end of The Time Travellers, who has seen a terrible future just a year or two away but will make the most of what time there is until then. But, as the Doctor says in that book too, we’re all time-travellers anyway. We all move at one second per second, crawling our way through the minutes and days and years.

And until the loops, bracelets and police boxes are invented that make time travel possible, all we can do anyway is make the best of now, wary of what’s coming next.


Le Mc said...

Bravo, sir, let me recommend a book to you that sort of corresponds to this. Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbert. He's a Harvard psychologist who has made a study of trying to find what makes people happy, if what they say makes them happy actually makes them happy, if what they think will make them happy does make them happy, etc. I think you would enjoy it.

And PS I love The Time Travellers.

0tralala said...

Ooh, that does sound good. PS so do I.

Anonymous said...


0tralala said...

Dammit, Jonny, you win.

Anonymous said...

Ah, see, now I love travelling, so I can't see that doing so through time would be any less fantastically awesome than travelling around the world.

And, of course, dinosaurs. Plus everything in the future will be silver and people will have mad hair :D

Le Mc said...

Like in the 18th century, natch.