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I'm rewatching Watchmen, and the question occurred to me - can Doctor Manhattan actually travel through time?

It is made quite clear that he can perceive all time as coexistent, but can he only look through that temporal window, or can he actually step through it and go back (or forward) to another time than his actual linearly existential time-frame?

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Dr Manhattan doesn't perceive time as coexistent, he EXPERIENCES it as such.

There are clues in the syntax Alan Moore uses to articulate Osterman when he is speaking in the first person: notice the tense.

No matter where he is, he always expresses himself in the present tense: 'I am watching the stars', 'The Photograph IS in my hand', 'It IS 1985, I am on Mars'.

He never makes a statement using the past participle, because for him he is experiencing the past simultaneously as the future and as such it is all very much the present for him.

He's a deliberately obtuse creation, and that's why he's discussed so much, because he holds a position and standpoint outside of human experience and understanding.

He cannot travel through time, because he is IN and ACROSS time simultaneously. All moments occur simultaneously, and as such time has become an abstract construct for him, one in which the idea of a sequence of moments becomes meaningless.

This doesn't mean he can alter or change time; no more than his very personal history anyway. Whilst he can see what is about to happen as far into his own experience as possible (before tachyon interference, hence his distress that this foresight is impinged upon), he can do nothing to stop its steady march, its progress.

Hence his muted sorrow when Laurie decides to go to dinner with Dan. He knows it is the beginning of an affair that will separate them, but can do nothing to stop it because he has seen into the future and KNOWS that it happens, because he is already experiencing it.

He perceives the world as a 'Watchmaker' would, so to speak:

He knows that 4pm is coming, and nothing he can do will stop 4pm from arriving shortly after 3, and before 5, which is also just as certain to occur. He doesn't try and skip 4pm and move straight onto 5pm, because he knows that's not what happens.

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  • 1
    Excellent answer! I'd only clarify that he can't change his future for the same reason we can't change our past... for him it has ALREADY happened, even though we haven't seen it yet. And based on this: wimp.com/illusiontime is oddly plausible in our real-world understanding of space-time. – Matt Mar 26 '14 at 14:17
  • Great answer. For Dr. Manhattan, I think Alan Moore were more than a little inspired by the protagonist in Kurt Vonnegut's novel "Slaughterhouse five". Both characters experience time in a nonlinear back-and-forth manner without being able to affect their own actions. Where Moore brings in the Vietnam War and nuclear apocalypse, Vonnegut used the bombing of Dresden during WWII to some of the same effect. Others [1] have pointed out that Vonnegut's "the sirens of titan" is an even closer match, but I have not yet read it. [1]:bit.ly/1lmaaYl – Abulafia Mar 26 '14 at 15:09
  • He's characterized this way at times, and yet, if I recall, he also seemed taken by surprise by the cancer claim. It doesn't seem entirely consistent. – Jacob C. says Reinstate Monica Dec 9 '19 at 22:02
  • If you remember, his memories are disrupted by Tachyon interference; a fact known and exploited elsewhere by Ozymandias. As Janet's cancer is part of Veidts plan, it's more than plausible that the same such tactic was used to blind Manhattan to the cancer. Ultimately, it is all revealed to be part of Adrians plan. – John Smith Optional Jan 25 at 19:02
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Against the Idea of Time Travel

No. His perception of time is asynchronous with his location. Meaning, Dr. Manhattan could perceive the past, present and a wide array of possible futures. But as a body with mass, he would be prohibited from traveling through time because it would require infinite amounts of energy to reach the speed of light.

  • Dr. Manhattan was vulnerable to a burst of tachyons, theoretical, faster than light particles which scrambled his temporal awareness for a time. In essence, obscuring the perception of the future because they traveled through time, blinding Dr. Manhattan.

  • If there was ever a moment to utilize the ability to move outside of time, an exposure to faster than light particles should have been the time. Instead he was destroyed and reformed himself mere seconds later.

A lack of a body was not an impediment to his continued survival which gives me a chance to COUNTER MY OWN ARGUMENT.

For the Idea of Time Travel

As an aside, the laws of physics prevent matter with mass from moving faster than light, (allowing the possibility of time travel) but since Dr. Manhattan's body only exists as an extension of his mental process, even when it was destroyed, he was able to continue to exist.

  • This paints the possibility of his psychic essence potentially moving through time and violating causality.

  • Since Manhattan can be at more than one place at the same time, he already has the ability to violate some degree of causality and his ability to cross the galaxy in an instant should also mean he may have a limited time travel capacity since he is crossing vast distances far faster than the speed of light (which becomes a form of time travel).

Also See: Can Dr. Manhattan Cease to Exist?

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He can travel through time as a mental being not a physical one.

If he needs to know the answer to a question he can ask someone the question 10 years from today but know the answer yesterday.

If that makes any sense at all.

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I'm a little late to this party, but I think Dr. Manhattan has a uniquely realistic reason/ability to perceive time in this way based on his ability to transport himself vast distances instantaneously.

The theory of relativity would thus imply that he could see events in the future by virtue of being able to be in one place then another so rapidly. His speed would theoretically be far greater than the speed of light constant.

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  • This doesn’t really answer if he can travel through time. – Mal Apr 21 '18 at 22:33
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Dr Manhattan has relative consciousness, he says in the movie that he can only see his own futures. His consciousness exists at every point in his relative conscious timeline...

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  • Hi, welcome to SF&F. It's not clear if you are arguing that he can travel in time, but limited to the times when his consciousness exists, or if you are implying that he can't. It's also a bit unclear what your point is without a definition of "relative consciousness". Please read How to Answer. – DavidW Dec 8 '19 at 2:24

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