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.

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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.  

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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.)

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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?

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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.”

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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…