Part VII – Time Travel and Romance

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?

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File under: t-shirts I need in my life (From TeeFury)

Any discussion of time travel stories would be lacking without a nod to what may be the most popular genre of the mainstream time travel narrative: romance.

On Fringe, “White Tulip” features a romance plot that fuels Alistair Peck’s desire to reunite with his dead fiancée. Audrey Niffenegger’s best-selling 2003 novel The Time Traveler’s Wife set the bar for 21st-century time travel romances, and indeed, the 2006 Doctor Who episode “The Girl in the Fireplace,” penned by current Doctor Who showrunner Steven Moffat, was directly inspired by Niffenegger’s tale of love and loss. Nearly every story ever told hinges on the theme of love, and time travel stories are no exception.

Nearly every story ever told hinges on the theme of love, and time travel stories are no exception.

At the end of the day, time travel is just a plot device— it’s never really about time travel, it’s about the characters and their relationships,” says Damon Lindelof, former showrunner for Lost (2004-2010). “So, even the best time travel stories, like The Terminator or Back to the Future— two very different kinds of time travel stories— are really about the same thing.”

Back to the Future, that madcap adventure of Oedipal hijinks and science fiction shenanigans, grounds its tale in a twist on the typical love story— to fix his future, Marty  McFly needs to get his parents to fall in love in the past— and is propelled by the none-too-subtle Huey Lewis and the News hit “The Power of Love.” Stripped down to its bare-bones narrative, The Terminator is about Kyle Reese traveling back in time and falling in love with Sarah Connor, Skynet be damned.

The TV show Lost, for all its metaphysical mysteries, is perhaps remembered most fondly for the romance between Desmond Hume (Henry Ian Cusick) and Penny Widmore (Sonya Walger), a love story that reaches its pinnacle in the season four episode “The Constant.”The episode served up double helpings of brain-busting twists and heart-wrenching drama, epitomizing everything that was excellent about the show— and, indeed, everything that is so exhilarating about time travel tales.

As in X-Men: Days of Future Past— and, Lindelof says, inspired by Kurt Vonnegut‘s Slaughterhouse Five “The Constant” uses the Brain Method of time travel, moving a person’s consciousness (rather than body) through time. Unlike in X-Men, this time travel is uncontrollable, unexpected, and ultimately fatal— as we observe in the case of poor George Minkowski, who is already at the late stages of the affliction when we meet him in this episode. (In true Lost fashion, the character is named after a notable figure— in this case, Hermann Minkowski, the super rad mathematician who actually coined the term “spacetime.”)

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A mulleted Daniel Faraday explains spacetime and time travel to Desmond in 1996.

Traveling from the mysterious island to an equally as mysterious freighter, Desmond begins experiencing “consciousness jumps” between 1996 (the past) and 2004 (the present). At the urging of scientist Daniel Faraday in 2004, Desmond sets out to find the younger Faraday at Oxford in 1996, who in turn tells Desmond to find a “constant”— something or someone familiar in both times. He settles on Penny, his former girlfriend, recalling the picture of him and Penny that his 2004 self had been studying on the way to the freighter. The photograph is the link between the two times, and Penny is his constant.

The only issue is that 1996 Penny has no desire to see or speak to Desmond. In fact, she wants nothing to do with him anymore. And she changed her number. And moved.  

With the time jumps occurring more and more frequently, Desmond seeks out Penny’s (totally evil!!) father, Charles Widmore, who provides Penny’s address after a severe talking-to. He remarks— in a thoroughly disparaging tone indicative of how (un)successful he thinks Desmond is going to be— that what Desmond really wants is for Penny to give him another chance.

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One of the most thrilling aspects of this episode is the breakneck speed of the plot, but this scene pauses the action for a concentrated meditation on Desmond’s personal regrets, specifically when it comes to Penny. When he arrives at her doorstep, she reacts in the manner predicted by her father, angrily telling Desmond that “it’s too late to change things.” But Desmond makes his case— without going to much into the whole “my head will explode because time travel” thing— and secures her phone number.

“I won’t call for eight years,” he promises her. Indeed, eight years pass for her, but only seconds for Desmond (and us), as his consciousness is zapped back to his 2004 self, and, trembling, he dials the number from memory. Buoyed by an impeccably strong storyline leading up to the ensuing phone call, the scene is one that truly earns its emotional payoff— not least because of the way the story plays with our conceptions about the passage of time.

Fittingly, Penny and Desmond’s eventual connection all depends on an act of faith— Penny taking Desmond at his word, forgiving him, and trusting that he would call. Desmond, in turn, can do nothing after she slams the door in his face but hope that she, too, would keep her word.

“At the heart of everything, long before Flight 815 crashed on that island, this love story powers the meta-narrative of ‘Lost,'” says Lindelof.

The time travel in this episode enables Desmond to exorcise his biggest regret by expressing his love for Penny at a time when the stakes could not be higher, as his own health deteriorates and the fate of his fellow castaways hangs in the balance. Having witnessed their fall-out in previous seasons, we find Desmond’s climactic reconnection with Penny enormously fulfilling on an emotional level. And in terms of the structure of the show, their relationship is what eventually enables Penny to provide rescue for the survivors of Oceanic flight 815.

Lindelof and his Lost co-writers spent close to a month crafting “The Constant,” an episode they knew would be key to the entire show because it distilled the overall Lost narrative down to the fate of a single relationship.

“By the time ‘The Constant’ aired, the Desmond and Penny love story was repositioned as the essential love story of the entire series,” Lindelof says. “At the heart of everything, long before Flight 815 crashed on that island, this love story powers the meta-narrative of Lost. It wasn’t just an episode that was a fun little excursion from the main storytelling, it really plugged into and essentially rewrote and reframed the entire narrative of the series.”

“The Constant” resonates so strongly because it is, at its heart, a love story, and one between two characters in whom audiences have been invested since their introduction. For Desmond, there is a supreme sense of catharsis because he has finally gotten what he needs: a reconciliation with a lost love.

“This show is about loss,” Lindelof says, “and these two people have found each other again. There’s also this hopeful aspect to the way the episode ends, that even though Desmond ends up back on the island where he started, there’s a fundamental level of fulfillment that he accomplished his mission.”

Below, watch the fated phone call in action. Note keywords “hope” and “belief,” and make sure to have a box of Kleenex handy. You know what? Just watch the entire episode on Netflix. You won’t regret (see what I did there? *wink*) it.

Check back in next week for a discussion of alternate histories, including ‘Harry Potter and the Cursed Child’ and a favorite episode of ‘Star Trek.’ 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…

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