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 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.”
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…