“Everything seems simple until you think about it. Why is love intensified by absence?” – Audrey Niffenegger, The Time Traveler’s Wife
[Note: Plot spoilers for The Time Traveler’s Wife and Doctor Who]
It’s no secret that Steven Moffat loves Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife. The book’s concept of lovers living in out-of-order timelines became one of his most beloved – or hated – arcs of Doctor Who also known as the Doctor and River Song’s relationship, which found River knowing the Doctor more and him knowing her less as their travels in space and time progressed.
So when it was announced last week that HBO will be creating a television series based on the book with Moffat at the helm, it felt like the most natural fit – although many a Doctor Who fan questioned – is it too similar, too close to what he’d done before?
The answer – much like time travel – is complicated. Yes and no.
Yes, it’s true he’s toyed with this idea for a while – and even in other storylines (See “The Girl in the Fireplace” and “The Eleventh Hour”) of Doctor Who. Maybe because he felt he wouldn’t get the chance to ever direct The Time Traveler’s Wife. Or perhaps because the passage of time – and how it affects people on an emotional level. For Amy Pond and Rory Williams in Doctor Who, their daughter is lost to them – and due to experimentation, they can never have another child. This loss nearly tears them apart, if it wasn’t for the Doctor having a plan to help them see how much they truly love each other in “The Asylum of the Daleks.”
But for Henry DeTamble and Clare Abshire, there is no Doctor in a bow tie with a sonic screwdriver. There is no TARDIS or aliens to fight or learn from. There’s no explanation for why Henry travels back and forward through time, other than heightened emotions tend to make him travel more frequently. They seek out experimental medical treatments but at the end of the day, it’s up to Henry to keep himself safe until he returns back to the present and to Clare. He has to learn to steal, to hide, and pick locks. Clare, on the other hand, has trouble conceiving and the couple mourn the death of multiple miscarriages. This coupled with Clare waiting for Henry to return – even though he is with her younger self in most cases – causes strain and difficulties between the two as their relationship progresses.
The world these characters inhabit is very much like our own but the emotional weight of what they experience is what makes the book so compelling – and the 2009 movie so disappointing. To properly understand Henry and Clare’s connection and whirlwind life together, you need someone who understands what love, lust, longing and despair are – that’s Steven Moffat. While Doctor Who has always focused on adventure, exploration, and humanity, it’s Moffat that pushed the concept of how time travel can truly weigh on and change people.
Another major difference is showing how life itself can be so cruel and utterly random. In the case of the Doctor and River Song, Moffat was able to give them “a happy ending” (with the 12th Doctor) even though at the time of River’s death, the Doctor (in his 10th incarnation) didn’t know who she was. He did figure out that she would be important and so he saved her the only way he could, by uploading her consciousness to a database.
There is no saving Henry – and when he meets his daughter in the future (who can also time travel) he soon pieces together a timeline of when and how he might die. What should you do with that knowledge? Hide away or face it head on? Only Steven Moffat could explore these deeper questions in a way that will not be heavy handed nor overly dramatic. Moffat’s subtle way will bring Niffenegger’s meditations on free will, sex, and loss into clear focus. There is world and time enough for this.