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…

Advertisements

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…