Time travel stories almost always involve someone insisting that time travel is very dangerous and that the slightest misstep could unspool reality itself. That’s why Doc Brown wants the DeLorean destroyed in the Back To The Future sequels, that’s why The Doctor gets to drive the TARDIS and not any of her human friends, and that’s why (in the most relevant example for our purposes here) The Ancient One kept the Time Stone on a little pedestal in New York rather than using it herself.
Most of these time travel stories don’t actually ever let you see reality getting unspooled, though, because The Doctor always has some trick up her sleeve and Universal needs to keep the Back To The Future reality in place in case Bob Zemeckis ever dies and stops preventing the studio from making more sequels. Well, in What If…?, we’ve got a TV show that’s all about alternate realities that don’t really matter and (mostly) won’t ever be readdressed, so let’s burn this reality down and just see what happens when someone disobeys the rules of time travel.
The episode begins with self-obsessed super-surgeon Doctor Stephen Strange driving his Lamborghini on the night of a big doctor event. MCU fans who have seen the Doctor Strange movie will remember that—in the regular timeline—Strange gets distracted while driving and ends up crashing the car, destroying his hands in the process and preventing him from ever performing surgery again (though it does send him on a journey of self-discovery that ends with him learning magic and becoming a better person). In this What If…? reality, though, Strange decides to invite Rachel McAdams’ Dr. Christine Palmer to the event, and the evidently inevitable car accident ends up killing her rather than shredding the nerves in his hands.
The show flies through plot here in a way I really liked, especially when it becomes obvious why it skipped through so much plot. But Christine’s death ends up sending Strange down a path to learning about magic, and other than that, the plot of Doctor Strange happens in the exact same way. That’s kind of surprising, since Christine’s surgery skills end up being useful in the movie, and also fridging as a meta plot point is still fridging (cough Deadpool 2 cough), but whatever. There’s a lot of stuff that needs to happen here.
At some point after the events of the movie, Doctor Strange is sad and decides to use the Time Stone to go back and save Christine, kicking off a grim montage where everything he does results in her death. He uses his turn signal while driving? They still crash. He takes a different route? Still crash. He lets her drive? They crash. They skip the event and get pizza? She gets shot by a mugger. He decides to not pick her up at all? Her house explodes. This is an interesting wrinkle in the What If…? concept that I hadn’t considered, with this being a reality where one divergence absolutely must happen rather than a reality where one different thing just happens by chance (the fact that the episode actually sits with that wrinkle for a bit is why it works so much better than the last one).
Eventually, The Ancient One shows up and explains to Strange that he can’t just keep altering the timeline or else he’s going to break something. Apparently, in this world, Christine’s death is an “Absolute Point” that cannot be changed, which is a very Doctor Who concept, and being told that he absolutely cannot do something is exactly the motivation that Strange needs to try and do it (seriously, has The Ancient One seen the first act of Doctor Strange?). Strange goes to a mystical library where a sorcerer named Cagliostro supposedly figured how to break the rules of time, and there he meets a man named O’Bengh (he’s really Cagliostro, naturally) who helps Strange figure out that he needs to absorb the magical power of other beings in order to become strong enough to mess with time.
After trying to convince an extra-dimensional tentacle monster to give up its power (a strangely familiar tentacle monster, at that), Strange realizes that he’s going to have to take power by force and kicks off another grim montage where he summons progressively larger and more impressive magical beings and then… eats them. He does this for centuries, becoming more and more monstrous, physically and mentally, to the point where he’s so powerful that he can actually hear The Watcher’s ominous narration.
O’Bengh admits that he fucked up by telling Strange how to break time, but lets it slip that there’s another Doctor Strange out there who can stop him, setting up another cool wrinkle: This What If…? is actually a What If…? within a What If…?, and this increasingly evil Strange (captions called him Strange Supreme, but I’m going to call him Bad Strange) exists in an alternate reality from a Sad Strange who saw Christine die but wisely chose not to go back in time and save her.
As Sad Strange’s reality starts to collapse due to the evil machinations of Bad Strange, The Ancient One’s ghost show up and tells him he has to fight Bad Strange, which leads to a disappointingly straightforward (at least visually) magic fight. There’s some good stuff, like the Cloak Of Levitation fighting Bad Strange’s bug cape, and Benedict Cumberbatch does some growly gurgling with his voice to differentiate between the two versions of the character, but it’s a little Dragon Ball-y in a dull way—especially when the ridiculous reality warping stuff at the end of the Doctor Strange movie is one of the more visually interesting things in the whole MCU.
Bad Strange ends up winning and saves Christine, but in doing so he succumbs to all of his evil monster power and becomes a big bat/tentacle/dragon monster that just makes Christine freak out (there are very cool swirling fire effects when he transforms, and it makes me wish the whole fight were that interesting). As this reality also starts to collapse, Bad Strange sees the error of his ways and looks up to the one being with the power to save the universe: The Watcher. He pleads with The Watcher to save this reality, saying “punish me, not the world,” but The Watcher just can’t do it. He must never intervene! That’s his whole job!
And so this reality blinks out of existence. No hope for redemption, no opportunity to fix things, just… nothing. “One life, one choice, one moment, can destroy the entire universe,” Jeffrey Wright’s Watcher opines as the screen turns black. Another downer, but much more successful than last week’s.
- What’s the What If? What if… Christine Palmer died? It doesn’t matter how or when, she just dies.
- Did they chat? The rules for this specific What If? are so different from previous episodes that I’m going to say no.
- Did The Watcher interfere, even though that’s the one thing he must never, ever do? No, but he really wanted to. You could argue that just physically showing up the way he does in this episode breaks his rule, but that reality got destroyed so there’s no one left to tell on him to Watcher HQ.
- One of the magical monsters that Bad Strange ate was a six-eyed raven, and it’s hard to imagine that it was anything but a conscious reference to one of my all-time favorite characters from a different multiverse. Is this a sign that I should finally try watching Titans? And does that mean the other monsters are similar meta-cameos?
- Lots of celebrity voice actors in this one. Benedict Cumberbatch is the Stranges, Rachel McAdams is Christine, Benedict Wong is Wong, and even Tilda Swinton is back as The Ancient One. It’s kind of surprising that she’s always so willing to reprise this character, to say nothing of the fact that the character keeps coming back at all.
- There’s a nod to the “Mister Doctor” exchange from the movie, which I’m going to say is still one of the best jokes in the entire MCU. For as funny and quippy as these things are supposed to be, I’m not even sure if there’s a close second. Maybe “we’re using our made-up names,” which also involves Strange as the straight man. Is he secretly really funny?