Timey Wimey

Doctor Who Is Finally Addressing A Classic Time Travel Trope

Is Doctor Who changing the laws of time? Again?

Ncuti Gatwa as the Doctor in 'Doctor Who' Season 1 (2024).
Doctor Who

The oldest science fiction series — that still produces new episodes — is easily Doctor Who. In 1963, the inventive time travel series debuted on the BBC, and on Friday, May 10, this venerable show relaunches anew with a brand-new set of adventures featuring Ncuti Gatwa as the 15th Doctor. But this Doctor Who is coming back as “Season 1,” meaning that although the show is honoring its long and wibbly-wobbly continuity, this new season feels like a bit of a back-to-basics season, complete with one very old time travel trope.

In the new trailer, Doctor Who references a time travel concept nearly as old as science fiction itself — the butterfly effect. Here’s how this very specific reference pulls from Ray Bradbury, and what this brand of time travel could mean for the future of Who canon.

Doctor Who Season 1 (2024) trailer

The latest full-length trailer for the new 2024 season of Doctor Who features a joyful version of David Bowie’s classic track “Changes,” as we see the Doctor and Ruby (Millie Gibson) travel through various historical periods; from the 1960s, to the 1800s regency era, to the prehistoric time of the dinosaurs in the Mesozoic era. And it’s in those dino-days that Who drops a very pointed Ray Bradbury reference, that might give a clue to the direction of the entire season.

The timey wimey butterfly effect

As the Doctor and Ruby stand outside the TARDIS near a large sauropod (probably a Brachiosaurus), Ruby says, “What if I change history by stepping on a butterfly?” The Doctor responds, “That’s not gonna happen is it?” But then, a butterfly is stepped on, and Ruby becomes a reptilian humanoid — similar in appearance to Who creatures known as the Silurians.

The idea of a time traveler stepping on a butterfly in dinosaur times and thus altering the present comes from the 1952 Ray Bradbury short story “A Sound of Thunder.” In that story, members of a time-traveling safari step off their designated path, step on a butterfly and return to a present that they don’t recognize. The Back to the Future version of this was the Sports Almanac, and the trope exists in tons of sci-fi stories in all sorts of mediums.

But, Doctor Who has never really gone all-in on the butterfly effect. In previous eras, including the reign of the 10th Doctor (David Tennant) we were told certain points in time were “fixed” and thus, unchangeable, while other times were in flux. In “The Fires of Pompeii,” the Doctor was unable to prevent the eruption of the volcano but became part of a predestination paradox that made him and Donna part of history. Conversely, in “The Waters of Mars,” the Doctor tried to change a fixed point in time by rescuing astronauts from Bowie Base One (David Bowie reference again!) and found time itself rebelling against what he’d tried to change.

Of course, Doctor Who would frequently lampshade the butterfly effect, like in the 12th Doctor (Peter Capaldi) episode, “Thin Ice,” in which companion Bill Potts (Pearl Mackie) wonders if she would change the future by stepping on a butterfly, only for the Doctor to joke, “That’s what happened to your friend Pete.” (There is no Pete.)

Is Doctor Who changing time travel canon?

The Doctor and Ruby surrounded by dinosaurs...and butterflies.


Throughout its 61 years, Doctor Who has played a bit fast and loose with the butterfly effect relative to cascading changes in the timeline. Interestingly, although the classic era (pre-2005) finds the various Doctors showing up in historical eras, or traveling to the far future, the number of classic Who episodes that are actually focused on time travel paradoxes are much smaller than you think. While “The Day of the Daleks” (1972) and “City of Death” (1979) both deal with bootstraps paradoxes, it really wasn’t until the modern version of the show that the rules of Who time travel started to get codified.

However, this trailer seems to suggest that the newly launched “Season 1” of Doctor Who may go back to basics and put everything on the line when it comes to the domino effects of even tiny changes in history. Later in the trailer, the Doctor warns “...the whole world could slide into the pit,” and we see various timelines in which it appears that history, or at least the present, has been changed on a massive scale. The Doctor states clearly, “This is what we’re trying to stop.”

In this way, it seems that the new season of Doctor Who is making the role of the Doctor more than just the defender of Earth. Since he’s still the Last of the Time Lords, it appears that this time, he’ll be the guardian of history as we know it.

Doctor Who Season 1 (2024) hits Disney+ on May 10.

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