Lost, Fringe, Doctor Who, Star Trek, The Flash, Harry Potter, Legends of Tomorrow, even Game of Thrones. Why do so many of the stories we love involve time travel?
Method #1: The Closed Causal Loop.
Most time travel stories follow one of two tracks: the “closed causal loop” method and the “multiverse” method. In the causal loop story, the time traveler brings about the future that always was. (Though tidy at first glance, causal loop time travel falls prey to the “predestination paradox,” a conundrum pointing out that a loop, by definition, can have no beginning or end, making causal loop time travel seem logically incomprehensible. Yeah, my brain hurts too.)
The prime example of this iteration is Chris Marker’s 1962 short film La Jetée, which directly inspired 12 Monkeys (1995) and also serves as a genetic antecedent to James Cameron’s The Terminator (1984). La Jetée, shot almost entirely in black-and-white photographs, features a man from post-apocalyptic Paris who travels back to a traumatic memory from his childhood and discovers that he was an integral part of that moment all along. (You can watch the entire 28-minute film on Hulu.) Causal loop stories can be viewed as distant descendants of the age-old trope of foreknowledge, which hearkens all the way back to Greek myths and prophecies in the Hebrew Bible.
Brad Pitt is a trip and a half in the original 12 Monkeys.
Marc Guggenheim, executive producer of the CW’s Legends of Tomorrow, invokes the myth of Oedipus to illustrate the key tension in causal loop time travel tales: “The lesson of Oedipus is, how do you know that having knowledge of the future and attempting to change the future isn’t the very thing that brings about the future you are trying to prevent?”
By treating events in time as immutable, causal loop time travel stories propose that fate reigns supreme. La Jetée and Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys apply this theory of time travel to tragic effect, while in Terminator, our heroes emerge triumphant.
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban celebrates a happy ending through time travel engineering, as Harry and Hermione Granger use a time turner to save Buckbeak the Hippogriff from execution and then use Buckbeak to help Sirius Black escape from his cell.
Unlike the time travel shenanigans that take place in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child (which I will, ahem, discuss when we start looking into “alternate histories”), the logistics of time travel in this story are actually pretty airtight in terms of following the rules of the causal loop. Rather than “changing” the timeline, Harry and Hermione actually work to preserve it: The “unmistakable swish and thud of an ax” that they heard was a reaction of anger from the executioner at the escape of the hippogriff, not the performance of the execution itself, and the wailing they heard from Hagrid was an expression of joy, not grief. So, when Harry and Hermione “prevent” Buckbeak from being killed, they are really just preserving the closed loop of the original timeline.
Sirius had been captured when he, Harry and Hermione were surrounded by soul-sucking Dementors, landing Sirius in the aforementioned cell and Harry and Hermione in the Hospital Wing. But before Harry passed out, he saw what he thought was his (dead) father producing a fully-fledged Patronus to drive away the Dementors. Naturally, given the chance to revisit this scene as a time traveler from the near future, he seeks out this mysterious figure in order to see for himself. However, when his father neglects to appear, Harry suddenly realizes the truth: He hadn’t seen his father, he had seen himself.
Armed with this foreknowledge, Harry is able to produce the extremely advanced Patronus charm, and so complete the timeline loop. As he explains to Hermione upon their return to the Hospital Wing, and to the present time: “I knew I could do it this time, because I’d already done it!”
In a way, this presents a reverse case of the Grandfather Paradox: Time Traveling Tim knows he cannot kill his grandfather in the past because he already didn’t, while Time Traveling Harry knows he can produce a fully corporeal Patronus because he already did.
As Harry explains to Hermione: “I knew I could do it this time, because I’d already done it!”
On the other hand, the causal loop method of time travel made a tragic appearance on Season Six of Game of Thrones within the episode “The Door.”
(Beware, the following is dark and full of spoilers.)
Hodor (Kristian Nairn) was originally known as Wylis, a stable boy in the service of House Stark who becomes a lovable bodyguard of sorts to the crippled Bran Stark (Isaac Hempstead Wright). Everyone calls him “Hodor” because that nonsense word is the only thing he has uttered since suffering from a seizure as a youth. But in “The Door,” Hodor’s true backstory is revealed.
Bran’s companion Meera (Ellie Kendrick) is desperately trying to escape with Bran and Hodor from the terrifying, zombified army of wights, but Hodor is his usually insensible self and Bran’s mind is ages away, locked in a vision of the past. In Bran’s vision, he is watching his father, Ned, say goodbye to his father, Rickard, as Hodor (then Wylis) stands by. But Bran hears Meera calling to him from the present, telling him to “warg” into Hodor so that he could puppeteer Hodor to carry them all to safety from the wights.
Yet Bran inadvertently wargs into the minds of both the Hodor of the present and the Wylis of the past, overwhelming Wylis’s mental faculties and causing him to collapse. Events play out in the present with Meera, Bran and Bran-controlled-Hodor darting out of their cave and Meera yelling to Bran-controlled-Hodor to “Hold the door!” as she carries Bran through. In the past, Bran’s presence has linked Wylis’s mind to his future self’s reality, causing him to hear and parrot Meera’s frantic “Hold the door!” which, said many times in quick succession, eventually morphs into: “Hodor!” As the loop is closed on Wylis/Hodor’s reality, his destiny is sealed; by dipping into the past, Bran cemented the future.
Regardless of the outcome, the condition of causal loop stories— that everything must play out as it already did, or will— seems troubling, removing human agency from the equation altogether and leading to a grim sort of fatalism.
Causal loop time travel stories propose that fate reigns supreme.
Which is why the 12 Monkeys television series has adopted a more flexible view of the intersection of time travel and fate. “In the film, you cannot change time,” Executive Producer Terry Matalas explains. “In the television show, you can. In that way, it can’t help but explore fate and hope in an exciting way. The ability to change your reality for the better through time travel is in itself a hopeful idea.”
However, not everyone views the notion of set-in-stone fate with despair. “I think that form of storytelling is really interesting too,” says Lost co-creator and writer Damon Lindelof. “There are certain inevitabilities that are fixed, either by some higher power or just by the biosystems of life. They are unalterable, and even in a world where time travel exists, you can’t change them. The fun of telling those stories is watching people try anyway.”
For Lindelof, having characters grapple with their place in the universe ultimately leads to a cathartic journey. “There’s a tragedy in that the initial mission was a failure, but along the way the character learns something that gives them a victory on a more intimate or personal level,” he says. “You start from a place of: I need more control, I need to control the people around me, I need to control my own destiny.
“But as life goes on you begin to learn that there are some things that you have no control over. You have to let go, and there is a certain freedom and evolution in accepting your own place in the world and the power that you have over it. So, even the failure can be transformed into a victory.”
“There are certain inevitabilities that are fixed, either by some higher power or just by the biosystems of life,” says Lindelof. “The fun of telling [causal loop] stories is watching people try anyway.”
This Zen-like acceptance of fate calls to mind the message of Star Trek’s Kobayashi Maru trial (first depicted in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan), designed to test the Starfleet cadet’s character by presenting a no-win scenario. Captain James T. Kirk infamously re-engineered the test in order to beat it, declaring that he doesn’t believe in no-win situations. Importantly, though, Kirk doesn’t necessarily beat the test; rather, he tweaks the conditions as a means of creating a different outcome more to this liking.
Method #2: The Multiverse Theory.
This second time travel track, the “multiverse” or “many worlds” theory, suggests that when time traveling in a multiverse story, the time traveler creates an alternate timeline in an alternate reality based on the different choices she makes. This theory has gained traction recently thanks to the expanding fields of multiverse physics and cosmology. It is also particularly appealing because it dodges the predestination paradox inherent in causal loop time travel without sacrificing free will.
The “multiverse” theory suggests that the time traveler creates an alternate timeline based on the different choices she makes.
In the 2009 Star Trek film, for example, a Romulan named Nero opens up a time portal to find Mr. Spock but ends up wreaking havoc and causing the death of Jim Kirk’s father. Rather than “re-writing” the timeline of the original Star Trek television series and wrangling with the accompanying paradoxes (not to mention the fan outcry), the film branches into an alternate universe and plays out the story of Captain Kirk with different initial conditions (specifically, Kirk growing up without a father).
Causal loop and multiverse stories approach the thorny problem of free will from opposing directions. In the former, our predetermined actions are out of our hands, while in the latter, our choices literalize worlds of possibility. Both, however, provide a framework with which to interrogate questions that have plagued humanity since the dawn of time itself: Are we like gods, creators and destroyers of worlds, or are we humble cogs in the larger machine of the cosmos? Time travel allows for an exploration of both.
Check back in next week for The Twilight Zone, The Flash and my very favorite Fringe episode. Or, you know, just hop in your time machine and read it now. If you choose that option, hit me up, I have some questions…