Part IX – Time Travelers and Storytellers in the Best Episode of Doctor Who

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?

The Doctor explains the nature of time better than I ever could.

If there was ever a time travel story that apotheosizes storytelling— as well as nearly every other time travel-centric theme I’ve discussed, such as romance, regret and wish-fulfillment— it’s the 2007 Doctor Who episode “Blink,” a Steven Moffat script and another one for the top of the “favorites” list (high praise for a show with 35 cumulative seasons worth of material, to be sure).

“Blink” sees the Doctor trapped in 1969 sans time machine, so he leaves clues for a young woman named Sally Sparrow (played by the as-of-yet unknown Carey Mulligan) to help him retrieve his TARDIS from the Weeping Angels. Why he chooses Sally does not become clear until the end, when she encounters the Doctor on the run towards one thing or from another (“Well, four things and a lizard”) and hands him a folder containing everything he needs to know to help her help him: a conversation transcript, a letter from her friend Kathy, and a picture of a Weeping Angel.

blink kathy letter picture.png
Letters and photographs are oft-used time travel props. See also: The Back to the Future  saga, the Lost episode “The Constant,” the Fringe episode “White Tulip,” Terminator, etc…

Yes, the predestination paradox is strong with this one, but that heightens rather than diminishes the fun. Regardless of whether the original “author” of this story is Sally or the Doctor, the significance of the episode is that it utilizes time travel to construct a story that deconstructs storytelling— the characters themselves write the sequence of events, including the transcript of a dialogue that the Doctor uses to communicate with Sally across time, and the “Easter Eggs” the Doctor recorded and left for Sally to find on the 17 DVDs she owns.  

blink-easteregg.jpg
The Doctor as DVD Easter Eggs, via BBC

The Weeping Angels, who are among Doctor Who’s most memorable and menacing villains, set in motion the overarching plot (stealing back the TARDIS) while facilitating the smaller plots that highlight the characters’ interactions with romance and regret. Weeping Angels are “the only psychopaths in the universe to kill you nicely,” the Doctor explains. “They just zap you into the past and let you live to death.” Infusing the Basilisk myth with a dose of quantum physics, Weeping Angels don’t exist when they’re being observed— hence the Doctor’s now famous imperative: Don’t. Blink.

The Angels are responsible for two romances in the episode, one triumphant and one tragic. Sally’s friend Kathy is zapped back to 1920, where she falls in love with the first person she meets, but Sally’s love interest is sent to 1969, negating the possibility of a relationship between them. Some of the most devastating romances are the ones that never happened; as the famous lament goes, better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all. The Weeping Angels embody this notion, consuming the potential energy of all the days you might have lived, feasting on “all of your stolen moments.”

By the episode’s final scene, one major mystery remains: Where did the Doctor get all the information about how to find Sally? Sally’s companion, Larry, tells her: “Some things you never find out, and that’s okay.” But Sally is adamant that this story is not yet complete.

blink kathy letter text.gifJust then, the Doctor hurries past and Sally realizes that she was the one who provided him with the information all along. Larry’s line is a good life lesson, but this episode illustrates the conception of time travel as wish fulfillment, allowing for— in fact, necessitating— closing the loop in order to make sense of the narrative. For the temporally bound, time moves inexorably forward, but the time traveler— like the storyteller— is in a unique position to actually act on hindsight, thereby establishing a measure of control that the rest of us lack.

“Blink” is also responsible for a description of time that has become familiar to anyone with a passing knowledge of time travel fiction. “People assume that time is a strict progression of cause to effect,” says the Doctor, “but actually, from a non-linear, non-subjective viewpoint, it’s more like a big ball of wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey… stuff.”

Make sense? No, of course not. After all, this is time travel, a genre that celebrates logical, linguistic, and physical paradoxes, and a topic that boggles the brightest minds in startlingly disparate disciplines— from philosophy, to quantum physics, to ethics, to all genres of fiction, to storytelling itself. Time travel stories are endlessly captivating because they dramatize our deepest regrets and deepest desires, imprisoning us within the claustrophobic confines of fate or imbuing us with the power to alter destiny.

The possibilities are infinite, and all of time and space awaits.

That’s all, she wrote — for now. Thanks for coming along for the ride, and look out for some extra time travel posts in the future! (I’m sorry for all the time-related puns in this note.) (No I’m not.)

Part VIII – Time Travel and Alternate Histories

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?

time-turner

We often wish that events had unfolded differently, not just in our own lives but also for the human race at large.

In Terry Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys and its television adaptation, this theme is dramatized to the extreme, as scientists seek to reverse the downfall of humanity by preventing the outbreak of the virus that started it all. On Legends of Tomorrow as well, Time Master Rip Hunter and his crew work to prevent the rise of the villainous Vandal Savage, who is responsible for the destruction of our species. Quantum Leap (1989-93) adopted a similar conceit of changing history for the better, as Scott Bakula’s Dr. Sam Beckett jumps back in time to right historical wrongs.  

On the flip side, NBC’s new time travel drama Timeless has (so far) sought to preserve the “original timeline”— that is, history as we know it. With antagonist Garcia Flynn (Goran Visnjic) attempting to wreak havoc on key events in history (end goal: currently unknown), historian Lucy Preston (Abigail Spencer) and her cohorts are tasked with preserving the status quo. As one federal agent says to Lucy, working to sway her to their cause: “I’d think someone who loved history would want to save it.”

Time Travel in the Eighth ‘Harry Potter’ Story

cursed-child-friends
Photo cred: Manuel Harlan.

“Harry Potter and the Cursed Child” (spoilers, ahoy!) takes this Leibnizian “best of all possible worlds” approach as well. In J. K. Rowling’s latest addition to the Harry Potter saga, Harry’s son Albus and Albus’s friend Scorpius Malfoy steal a time turner in order to alter a single event in the past: the murder of Cedric Diggory during the Triwizard Tournament in Harry’s fourth year at Hogwarts.

As they travel back to different points in time in order to steer Cedric away from his impending death, they alter the timeline in small but critical ways, causing ripple effects that make each future they return to nearly unrecognizable. Eventually, however, they are able to find their way back to their original future by hiding a message in Harry’s baby blanket, encoding it with certain materials so that it will only emerge at a very specific time in the future— after Albus and Scorpius have disappeared on their time travel mission.

cursed-child-blanket
Photo cred: Manuel Harlan.

Before I explain what irks me about all of this, let’s revisit the two types of viable time travel tales, as explained way back in Part III: the closed, causal loop method and the multiverse method. In “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban,” Rowling weaves a beautiful, relatively airtight causal loop story, with Harry and Hermione using a time turner to travel a couple of hours back in time and fill in the blanks in a timeline that had already allowed for their presence. They live through the past as it always was. The ending of “Cursed Child” employs the causal loop method as well, but over a much longer stretch of time, implying that the message on the blanket from Albus and Scorpius was “always” there.

“Cursed Child” mucks with time travel conventions by trying to have it both ways— time is both a causal loop, closed and airtight, and an eddying river, branching off into different realities. Both are fascinating concepts to explore, but when jumbled together into one story, it feels like a giant narrative mess with no internal cohesion.

Despite this (and despite the many other ridiculous concepts in the play… coughVoldemort’sdaughtercough), “Cursed Child” also uses time travel in engaging ways. In an interesting twist on the “regret” trope, Albus must learn to come to terms with his famous father’s past (rather than his own) in order to repair the rift between them and move forward into his own future.

And for the more technical time travel nerds among us, Albus’s plot to deliver a message to his present-day parents via Harry’s baby blanket is reminiscent of Doc Brown’s telegram at the end of Back to the Future II, or the Doctor’s wall-scrawled message to Sally Sparrow in the Doctor Who episode “Blink.” In the latest episode of Timeless, Wyatt (Matt Lanter) tries to warn someone from the future by sending a telegram from the past, shrugging: “Hey, it worked in Back to the Future II!” (Of course, each of these stories assumes that all other conditions remain the same over the years so that the message will reach its intended recipient.) 

sally-sparrow-duck
The Doctor leaves a message that Sally Sparrow discovers in the nick of time.

Like any good piece of fanfic time travel fiction, Rowling uses the idea of alternate histories in order to flesh out the tantalizing “what if?s” of alternate universe realities. What if Hermione went to the Yule Ball with Ron instead of Viktor Krum in “Goblet of Fire”? What if Albus was sorted into Gryffindor instead of Slytherin? What if Cedric was pushed to the dark side and turned into the Death Eater that killed Neville Longbottom at the Battle of Hogwarts, leading to Harry’s own demise and Voldemort’s return?

everythingggg
That is, of course, the Darkest Timeline.

(There is such thing as taking too many liberties with this, though. Hermione would never become an angry cat lady just because she never married Ron. Please, Jo. Get a hold of yourself.)

Of course, the play ends with Albus and Scorpius returned to the now-fixed timeline they originally departed from, having patched up their relationships with their fathers and learned important lessons about meddling with time. (In a word: Don’t.) There may be a timeline out there in which Cedric just misses touching the Triwizard Trophy with Harry, preventing his own death without ensuring a fall to the dark side— but we will never know. In the timeline we know and love, all is not perfect, but at least all is well.

Time Travel in Star Trek’s ‘The City on the Edge of Forever’

Like “Cursed Child,” Star Trek mostly clung to the purity of the original timeline at all costs, and the historical and personal stakes are most fully realized in the critically acclaimed, fan-favorite episode, “The City on the Edge of Forever.” Originally penned by Harlan Ellison (also the author of the original “One Life, Furnished in Early Poverty,” reference in Part IV), the episode is a love story wrapped up in an alternate history narrative, as Kirk and Spock travel back to Depression-era New York to prevent Dr. McCoy from cataclysmically altering their timeline.

1426_star_trek_city_edge_forever_1_insert_enlarge
A page from the “City on the Edge of Forever” graphic novel, featuring the original teleplay from Harlan Ellison and gorgeous art by J. K. Woodward. Click here to enlarge.

Spock deduces that a drug-addled McCoy accidentally changed the course of history by saving the life of Edith Keeler, a pacifist who would gain national attention and delay the United States’ entry into World War II, allowing the triumph of the Third Reich. (Amazon’s series The Man in the High Castle, based on the novel by Philip K. Dick, gives us a glimpse at such a universe.) As with the scientists in 12 Monkeys, Spock in “The City on the Edge of Forever” manages to pinpoint a single event as the source of the divergent historical paths. Based on his findings, Spock logically concludes that Edith Keeler must die in order to preserve the original timeline that McCoy unknowingly disrupted.

Captain Kirk, always so confident and cocksure, is finally humbled by a true no-win scenario.

“The City on the Edge of Forever” is significant on a larger scale for its exploration of morality. Is the life of one good-hearted woman worth the lives of untold millions? Even if Kirk hadn’t fallen in love with Edith while waiting for the arrival of McCoy, the decision to let her die is an impossibly difficult one.

As in many time travel stories, the meaning of one’s choices is made explicitly clear through the exploration of a counterfactual reality. But the episode resonates on a very personal level as well. Captain Kirk, always so confident and cocksure, is finally humbled by a true no-win scenario, a lesson he overlooked by cheating on the Kobayashi Maru trial. This is no mere Starfleet Academy test— he can’t hack his way out of the laws of time.

We non-time travelers cannot see or experience alternate histories— we can only strive to find meaning in what has already occurred, haphazardly linking cause and effect and tracing hazy “what if?”s in the sands of time. The human mind craves meaning, and time travel allows for a particularly acute degree of meaning-making by breathing life into counterfactual realities.

In this vein, some of the best time travel stories don’t involve any actual time travel at all. Legends of Tomorrow EP Marc Guggenheim mentioned the Oedipus myth back in Part III. Philosophy professor Richard Hanley cites Frank Capra’s 1946 classic It’s a Wonderful Life (a sort of inverse “City on the Edge of Forever” tale), about a man who has decided to end his own life until an angel shows him how different the world would be without him. Lost showrunner Damon Lindelof mentions Charles DickensA Christmas Carol, which, though it draws on the spirit realm, also provides the lead character with a healthy dose of cosmic perspective, spurring a profound personality change.

Clearly, there’s more to time travel than simply traveling through time.
I’ll be taking a break for a few weeks, but make sure to subscribe to the blog for updates!

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?

tee-fury-tshirt-the-constant
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.”)

4x05danielexplainsconstant
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.

the-constant-photo

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…

Part VI – Time Travel and Self-Reflection

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?

back-to-the-future-2-old-young.png
Past!Jennifer meets Future!Jennifer in Back to the Future II.

The 2009 Star Trek film explores another quirk of time travel: the possibility of meeting oneself. Curiously, the encounter with a past or future version of the self has become inexplicably taboo in time travel stories. Back to the Future toys with this idea quite a bit. Marty McFly’s girlfriend-turned-wife faints upon looking herself in the eye in Back to the Future Part II, while Doc Brown sidesteps the conundrum by avoiding eye-contact with his past self altogether.

Meeting oneself in a time travel narrative introduces all sorts of mind-bending possibilities and impossibilities, the latter of which is probably what sends logicians (and Star Trek: DS9’s Department of Temporal Paradoxes) into a tizzy. On a thematic level, the narrative opportunity is equally as enticing: You can self-censure, self-congratulate, and gain much-needed self-insight.

Late author David Foster Wallace poignantly expressed that we are all, at the end of the day, “uniquely, completely, imperially alone.” We are irrevocably trapped within our own minds— we are our own worst enemy and our own best friend. Which is why a physical encounter with another version of the self can be so terrifying— or so fulfilling. David Wittenberg, author of Time Travel: The Popular Philosophy of Narrative, explains that this science fiction trope allows for a (re)negotiation of one’s personal origins, since “any story at all in which identity over time becomes questionable” is, in essence, “any story of a self.”

We anguish over who we are versus who we were while wondering about who we will be. The problem of identity over time is one that has enthralled philosophers for centuries, and perhaps it is within the power of science fiction storytellers to provide a semblance of an answer. As Wittenberg writes: “Selves are stories— time travel stories.

Stories like The Twilight Zone’s “Walking Distance” and “One Life, Furnished in Early Poverty” provide an example of a self-directed trip down memory lane, as Martin Sloane and Gus Rosenthal are forced to confront who they are by interrogating who they once were. Thus, time travel allows for a meaningful construction of personal narrative.

As Wittenberg writes: “Selves are stories— time travel stories.”

In the 2009 Star Trek movie, Spock Prime does end up encountering his younger, alternate universe counterpart, and he takes the opportunity to offer himself some sage advice. For old-school Trekkies, the scene allows for a delightful passing of the torch from the “old” Spock, Nimoy, to the “new” Spock, played by Zachary Quinto. In the film, Spock Prime waxes nostalgic over a friendship with Captain Kirk that would come to define them both, alluding to the fact that for young Spock, all that is yet to come. When Spock asks how Spock Prime convinced Kirk not to reveal Spock Prime’s existence to him, Spock Prime’s eyes twinkle as he mocks the “meeting of the selves” paradox fear: “He inferred that a universe-ending paradoxes would ensue should he break his promise.” Spock dismisses it as a “gamble,” but Spock Prime corrects him, calling it instead “an act of faith.”

spock and spock prime.gif

Faith is a prevalent theme in time travel stories— ironic, since time travel can be so easily correlated with God-like omniscience and omnipotence. But knowledge of a future does not paint a complete picture, making faith and hope even more necessary for these stories. Faith and hope are the future-oriented counterparts to the past-oriented themes of forgiveness and repentance, which Walter Bishop pursued so fervently in Fringe.

Faith and hope are integral to 2014’s X-Men: Days of Future Past, a time travel movie so convoluted that the title alone is enough to spasm the brain. (If you’re really curious, here are a couple thousand words on that subject to tide you over.) But even amidst all the mind-bendy, timeline-trippy, franchise-rewriting time travel, the climax hinges on Charles Xavier’s faith in his childhood friend, Raven (Jennifer Lawrence).

Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page) and an assortment of X-Men have sent back the consciousness of the ageless Wolverine (equally ageless Hugh Jackman) to his younger body with the mission of preventing the Key Event that ruined everything— Raven shooting the antagonist, Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage). They’ve orchestrated events and torn through time and space in order to stop her, but instead of taking that final step, Charles (James McAvoy) relinquishes his mind-control power and says simply: “I have faith in you, Raven.” Time travel can only take one so far— human action and emotion are necessary to carry out the rest.

Knowledge of a future does not paint a complete picture, making faith and hope even more necessary for these stories.

Mirroring Star Trek’s Spock-meets-Spock torch-passing, Days of Future Past invokes a particularly moving— and plot-relevant— encounter between the older Professor X (Patrick Stewart) and the younger, disillusioned Charles. Professor X gives his past self an up-by-your-bootstraps pep talk, concluding with: “Charles, we need you to hope again.” Hope, Professor X says, is “the most human power” we have.

Check back in next week for a conversation with Damon Lindelof about the most beloved episode of Lost. 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…

Part V – Time Travel and Nostalgia

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?

we-have-to-go-back

Traveling to one’s past is not necessarily a doomed venture. “Sometimes the only way to move forward is to revisit the things in your past that were holding you back,” Barry Allen says in the The Flash episode “Flashback.” “Because once we do, you’ll see that you can go further than you ever imagined.”

Even without the benefit of physical time travel, looking back with fondness recalls the pleasure of nostalgia— a word that’s been thrown around a lot recently thanks in large part to Star Wars: The Force Awakens, in which J. J. Abrams effectively invites audiences on a collective trip to 1977.

Behold, a side-by-side comparison of A New Hope and The Force Awakens:

For what it’s worth, most audiences and critics (and I include myself in both categories) loved The Force Awakens. The Hero’s Journey template has always been there, and Abrams capitalized on familiar iconography to remind fans what they loved about the original Star Wars movie to hook their emotions onto this new one. Change is scary. We revel in the familiar.

Terry Matalas and fellow 12 Monkeys Executive Producer Travis Fickett embraced this idea with their television series. “Nostalgia is an incredible way to connect to the audience,” Matalas says. “[It’s] a way to use the goodwill the audience has for the [Terry] Gilliam film or a particular time period to garner an emotional response and connection to our characters.”

(For an intensive study on how Inside Out utilizes nostalgia, check out my piece here!)

Nowadays, you’d be hard-pressed to find a franchise or beloved film that has not been summoned from the catacombs of pop culture history for an inevitable “reboot” or “revival”; Gilmore Girls, Twin Peaks, MacGyver, Lethal WeaponThe Exorcist and Xena: The Warrior Princess are only a smattering of fan favorites returning to a small screen near you. Though the sheer volume of reboots may feel excessive, the psychological appeal makes sense. As often as we look back with regret, we also hearken back to happier, simpler times from our childhoods, times that recall certain film and television franchises of yore.

As often as we look back with regret, we also hearken back to happier, simpler times from our childhoods.

One of the most high profile iterations of the reboot effect is Star Trek, which is undergoing separate renaissances in the cinema and on television. When it comes to Star Trek, nostalgia has been at play even within the narratives of the original universe, and more often than not, the writers used time travel to explore this theme.

In “Trials and Tribble-ations,” a fifth season episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine written by Ron Moore (now executive producer of Outlander) and René Echevarria, the DS9 crew travels back in time to prevent the assassination of Captain Kirk by a rogue Klingon. The weapon of choice? A booby-trapped tribble.

tribbles

The assassination plot allows the DS9 writers, in 1996, to insert their crew into the cherished Original Series episode from 1967, “The Trouble with Tribbles,” for a fun little romp of nostalgic mayhem. In “Trials and Tribble-ations,” Captain Sisko (Avery Brooks) and members of his crew get to live out every Star Trek fan’s dream: stepping aboard the USS Enterprise and meeting the inimitable Captain Kirk.

The episode is notable for its tongue-in-cheek approach to time travel, starting off with a visit from the sassy Department of Temporal Investigations. The two agents interrogate Captain Sisko and reveal that they hate predestination paradoxes, time loops and jokes. “Trials and Tribble-ations,” of course, indulges in a bit of all three.

For all of its humor, “Trials and Tribble-ations” sets up a pretty airtight time travel story in the vein of the causal loop model: The Deep Space Nine crew successfully conserves the original timeline from “The Trouble with Tribbles” in which Captain Kirk is not, in fact, assassinated.

Though he is still “bonked” by Tribbles…

The 2009 Star Trek film reboot by J. J. Abrams also takes a dip in the nostalgia pool. In the film, an elderly Spock (Leonard Nimoy, reprising his iconic role) convinces a young Kirk (Chris Pine) that they can change the course of events by remedying a mistake made by Spock 129 years in the future. Kirk— brash, idealistic, impetuous— takes this older Spock (dubbed “Spock Prime”) at his word and rushes into action.

What Spock Prime doesn’t let on is that our Kirk is already living out an alternate history. In the “prime” timeline, Spock’s failure to prevent the destruction of the planet Romulus catapults him and Nero (Nero), the Romulan villain of this film, through a black hole to another universe, whereupon Nero attacks a Starfleet ship captained by our Kirk’s father, killing him on the day of Kirk’s birth. Thus, Abrams’s franchise is not rewriting decades of original Star Trek history, but branching off into a different timeline altogether. It’s a neat bit of time travel trickery, allowing Trekkies to savor this new iteration while the original series lives on in a parallel universe.

Check back in next week for mirror images: Spock and Spock Prime, and hope and faith. 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…

Part IV – Time Travel and Regret

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?

Regrets footprints.jpg
Via thinglink

The causal loop time travel method can propel some of the most cathartic storylines despite— or perhaps because of— its fatalism. These stories parallel the constraints of real life. In the original film version of 12 Monkeys, Bruce Willis’s character cannot prevent the outbreak of the virus, even by traveling back in time. The fact that one event is in “the future” and the other event is in “the past” is irrelevant to the events’ immutability.

But still, we wonder.

“People are always interested by the road not taken,” says Marc Guggenheim of Legends of Tomorrow. “Time travel provides a very clear, concrete narrative framework to explore those issues.”

In a time travel story, characters’ choices are imbued with an extra layer of significance because that “road not taken” can actually be fleshed out onscreen or on the page. When time travelers come face-to-face with their regrets, the wish fulfillment fantasy of altering past mistakes becomes a reality. Meanwhile, the experience of overcoming these regrets takes center stage as well, forcing characters to quite literally confront their past.

Regret is a complex emotion, one that drives character development in all kinds of time travel stories.

The Twilight Zone was particularly keen on this theme. In the Season One episode “Walking Distance,” forlorn businessman Martin Sloane inadvertently travels back in time to his childhood town. What begins as a traditional nostalgia trip morphs into something deeper, because for Sloane, looking back has suddenly become going back. With the aid of a bit of time travel, Sloan taps into one of the most basic human desires. He seeks to vanquish regret by physically going back and fixing things, changing a current reality by modifying the past.

Image result for walking distance twilight zone gif

An almost identical Season One episode of The Twilight Zone was adapted from Harlan Ellison’s short story, “One Life, Furnished in Early Poverty.” Like “Walking Distance,” “One Life” features a discontented, middle-aged man who is unwittingly transported back in time to his childhood home. In “Walking Distance,” Sloan attempts to reconcile the gap between the happy boy he once was and the resentful man he is now. But in “One Life,” Gus Rosenthal knows exactly what made him so embittered, and he resolves to protect his younger self from bullies and to serve as the father figure his younger self never had.

Regret is a complex emotion, one that drives character development in all kinds of time travel stories. But when characters believe they can alter outcomes by changing the past, they often end up causing unintended— and frequently worse— consequences.

Taken from this angle, Damon Lindelof views many time travel stories as cautionary tales. “Look, regrets are good!” he explains. “Mistakes are good— you’re supposed to make them. You learn from them. You can’t go back and rectify them; all you can do is learn not make them again.”

Lindelof believes that all great science fiction stories are cut from the same thematic cloth as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. That message, he says, is: Just because we can, doesn’t mean we should.

Just because we can, doesn’t mean we should.

“Good time travel storytelling usually starts with someone having the best of intentions, in terms of traveling into the past and fixing something that has gone wrong,” says Lindelof. “But then, very often, you come to the realization at the end that you should not have tampered with it.”

On the CW show The Flash, speedster Barry Allen (Grant Gustin) has the power to run so fast that he travels through time, and he capitalizes on this ability in the Season One finale, “Fast Enough,” to jump back to the night his mother was murdered. Before Barry embarks on the journey, his father (John Wesley Shipp, who played Barry Allen in the CBS iteration of The Flash in 1990) tries to talk him out of it.

“Things happen the way they do,” Henry Allen says. “We may not know why at the time, but there must always be a reason.” Henry praises the person Barry has become despite— or because of— this tragedy in his past, and warns him of unforeseen consequences.

theflash finale.gif

Barry does, of course, go back in time, and it is only the appearance of another time traveling Flash that prevents him from interfering with the events of his past. Upon returning to Barry’s present time, the season’s antagonist is thunderstruck by Barry’s non-action. “You could have had everything you ever wanted!” he says. Barry, realizing the man he has become and the lives he has impacted along the way, says simply: “I already do.”

Spoiler and mini-rant alert:

Season 3 of “The Flash” is threatening to ruin everything with regards to Barry’s character development because of the implementation of a little story arc called “flashpoint.” The Season 2 finale saw Barry committing the very act he refrains from doing at the end of Season 1: saving his mother. Naturally, this massive change reverberates across his timeline, and the result, as the Season 3 slogan goes, is a common refrain of time travel narratives: “Time strikes back.” This simple (and simplistic) phrase is great for Hollywood billboards but rings totally false in terms of, you know, any sort of logical coherence. Time is not a sentient entity, nor does it deploy agents from some sort of Department of Temporal Investigations (a Star Trek: Deep Space Nine joke— but we’ll get to that later) to set things “right.” Either time travel and/or travel between universes is physically and logically possible in a given fictional reality, or it isn’t. The laws of the cosmos don’t suddenly re-awaken whenever a time traveler does something naughty.)

End of spoilers and mini-rant.

One particular episode of Fringe, Fox’s science fiction drama from the braintrust of J. J. Abrams, Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci, also centered on a defining tragedy in a character’s past, implementing time travel to elevate the subtle drama of Walter Bishop’s quest to atone for his biggest regret.

fringe_white_tulip_petrie.jpg
Art by Anthony Petrie

In the episode “White Tulip,” Alistair Peck (guest star Peter Weller) is a bereaved scientist who is intent on traveling back in time to save his fiancée from a car accident. Peck and his fiancée, Arlette, had argued before splitting up for the day; as a result, Peck wasn’t with her in the car when she was killed. Regret mingles with grief, and Peck decides that he can save her life if he alters the outcome of their argument. “If I’d have simply done what she asked me,” he explains to Walter, “I know it wouldn’t have happened.”

Peck acts on his regret by looking backwards, by literally regressing into his past, and his tale ends in tragedy. Walter, on the other hand, learns how to use his regret to move forward, to accept what is already done while striking out on the path to repentance.

tv celebrities fringe peter bishop walter bishop

If this sounds like a religious journey, it should. Indeed, one of Fringe’s storytelling strengths— like that of its older brother, Lost, another J. J. Abrams creation— was its exploration of the man of science / man of faith divide. Time travel bridges this gap by using a science fiction trope to probe the minefield of spiritual and moral responsibility. In a secular sense, time travel serves as a prayer for forgiveness: While the religious person humbly petitions God to wipe away her sins, the time traveler hubristically plays God, erasing the sins herself.

“You can use hubris in the religious construct in which it’s actually intended, which is ‘defying God,’” Lindelof says. “But then, on a sort of a meta level, God created you in order to defy him, and knows that you’re going to attempt to do so, and is going to try to teach you a lesson in the process: that destiny is fundamentally unalterable.”

In a secular sense, time travel serves as a prayer for forgiveness.

This is the point that Walter tries to make in his climactic conversation with Alistair Peck, as Walter spins his tale of regret. He tells Peck about how he, too, was compelled by his grief over a lost loved one to bend the laws of time and space in order to assuage his anguish. After failing to prevent the death of his sick son, Peter, Walter kidnapped an alternate universe version of his son and raised him as his own. Since then, he says, “not a day has passed without me feeling the burden of that act.”

Walter is searching for a sign of forgiveness: a white tulip. “If God can forgive me for my acts,” he says, “then maybe… it’s in the realm of possibility that my son, possibly, may be able to forgive me too.”

Peck’s time travel story also highlights Walter’s ordinary movement through time as he grapples with painful consequences that Peck, by time traveling, attempts to re-write. The episode is neatly framed by the image of Walter composing a letter to Peter as an explanation of the latter’s murky past and of Walter’s wrongdoing; in the opening scene, Walter pockets the letter as he is called away to investigate the deaths caused by Peck’s time jumps.

But the final scene takes place in a universe in which Alistair Peck successfully traveled to the past without causing any destruction in Walter’s present. Therefore, in this re-written timeline, Walter never receives a phone call summoning him to a crime scene, and he never meets Peck. Instead, he finishes the letter… and tosses it into the crackling fire. Immediately afterwards, he receives a letter in the mail to replace the one he just burned. In the envelope is a single, white tulip.

walter-the-tulip.gif

The audience knows that Peck sent this tulip before he jumped to the past and disappeared from this timeline. But this timeline’s Walter has never told another soul about his search for a sign of forgiveness. We can imagine that in his mind, the tulip was sent by God. This final image provides “The White Tulip” with the visceral punch that makes the episode so memorable— in fact, the episode’s popularity among fans inspired the writers to end off the entire series with a parallel scene involving a white tulip sent from a time traveling Walter.

Peck plays God by tampering with time, then inhabits a God-like role by delivering the white tulip to Walter. If we invoke St. Augustine’s description of God as a being “outside of time,” then the time traveler essentially occupies the same realm as a divinity. In other words: Time travelers see your creation myth, Mary Shelley, and raise you all of time and space. Time travel is in many ways the ultimate superpower— and because of that, it can very easily be abused.

On BBC’s time-and-space traveling epic, Doctor Who, the Doctor himself exposes this connection. When the Doctor’s traveling companion, Rose (Billie Piper) insists on using his TARDIS to go back and save her father in the 2006 episode “Father’s Day,” he scoffs: “I should have known. It’s not about showing you the universe, it never is. It’s about the universe doing something for you.”

Fringe, however, traces Walter’s journey away from the hubris that compelled him to tear the very fabric of the universe for personal gain. Humbled by his regrets, Walter makes things right in the present— in a regular, human way— rather than by time traveling to the past.

Check back in next week for Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Star Trek 2009, and an interview with Terry Matalas of 12 MonkeysOr, you know, just hop in your time machine and read it now. If you choose that option, hit me up, I have some questions…

Part III – The Two Types of Time Travel Tales

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?

time-travel-comic
Via xkcd

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.

hermione hair.gif

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.

harry-potter-prisoner-azkaban-15th-anniversary-cover-main
Scholastic’s 15th Anniversary Edition cover for ‘The Prisoner of Azkaban’

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.

kobiyashi maru.gif

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…