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?


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

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.

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.) 

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?

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.

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.
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Part I – Time Travel: The Story with a Thousand Faces

Lost, Fringe, Doctor Who, Star Trek, The Flash, Outlander, Legends of Tomorrow, even the Harry Potter play. Why do so many of the stories we love involve time travel?

An overview.

Half a century ago, Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek declared space “the final frontier.” Now, as the beloved sci-fi series gears up for a reboot, the final frontier is just about visible on the horizon: NASA expects to send astronauts to Mars by 2030, while SpaceX intends to colonize the Red Planet in this lifetime. Certainly, space travel is still a burgeoning field of real-world scientific study, and the stars still beckon us upward in fiction as well.

But there is another dimension of the cosmos that science has yet to crack open, a concept of exploration that rose in popularity with Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity and ensnared our cultural imagination for many years to come: time travel.

When Einstein published his theory of relativity at the dawn of the twentieth century, he shattered previously held notions about the complex nature of our physical world. Of course, time travel stories existed well before Einstein, as in, most famously, H.G. Wells’s 1895 novel The Time Machine. But Einstein’s notions about temporal dilation galvanized the creative community to delve more deeply into the moral, physical, and psychological implications of traveling through time, setting the stage for a century of time machines, time ships, time turners, TARDISes and more.

This pilot season, three time travel-centric shows on three separate networks were given the green light.

As time travel fiction branched out toward film and television in the mid-twentieth century, certain science fiction touchstones emerged. Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek contains nearly as much time travel as space travel (indeed, the two are often one and the same), and is responsible for exploring several different iterations of the time travel trope over the course of its five television series and 13+ films. This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the original series, a milestone celebrated with the announcement of an upcoming addition to the Star Trek canon in the form of a 2017 series airing on CBS, from showrunner Bryan Fuller.

Another time travel classic is currently undergoing a renaissance: Terry Gilliam’s 1995 cult film 12 Monkeys, starring Bruce Willis as a time traveler intent on preventing the outbreak of a virus that devastates humanity. The tech-noir film is known for its bleak consideration of fate and free will. But it also has earned its place in cinematic history as a remake of the French New Wave classic, Chris Marker’s La Jetée, which itself was an homage to Alfred Hitchcock’s masterpiece, Vertigo. In 2015, 12 Monkeys made the leap to television, and the Syfy series— developed by Terry Matalas and Travis Fickett— wrapped up its second season in July.

These are only two examples of Hollywood’s time travel fascination, which is making itself right at home on the small screen. Legends of Tomorrow, featuring a ragtag group of misfits chasing an immortal villain across time, began its run on the CW in late January. 11.22.63, Hulu’s adaptation of Stephen King’s JFK-themed time travel novel, debuted on Presidents Day, and Starz predated both of those shows with Outlander, based on Diana Gabaldon’s best-selling book series.

This pilot season, no fewer than three time travel-centric shows on three separate networks were given the green light: Timeless on NBC, from Supernatural creator Eric Kripke and The Shield creator Shawn Ryan; Fox’s Making History, a comedy from Phil Lord and Chris Miller of The Lego Movie fame; and ABC’s Time After Time featuring Freddie Stroma as H. G. Wells. And hey, even the stage has snagged a time travel tale in the form of J. K. Rowling’s latest addition to the Harry Potter canon: Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.

The trend highlights a truth universally acknowledged by legions of science fiction fans: All the best stories are time travel stories.

The evidence has presented itself on television screens for decades, hearkening back to the most memorable episodes of sci-fi classics, many of which utilize time travel to tell their tales. Who could explain the beauty of Lost without referencing Season Four’s “The Constant”? How would Fringe have ended if it weren’t for the popularity of the Season Two episode “White Tulip”? What catapults “The City on the Edge of Forever” to the top of nearly every Star Trek list? And is there a Doctor Who fan who hasn’t tried to indoctrinate someone by making them watch “Blink”?

It is a truth universally acknowledged that all the best stories are time travel stories.

Stories involving time travel resonate on a multiplicity of levels, and for a multiplicity of audiences. Some time travel tales illuminate the meaning of personal choices and identity, as time-based emotions like hope and regret (one looking forward, the other looking back) are thrown into sharp relief for characters that can fast-forward and rewind their own stories.

Time travel allows for the wrangling of personal and macro histories, whether you wish to ponder the implications of killing Hitler or to explore a life in which you had attended a different college. Many time travel enthusiasts merely enjoy the tantalizing allure of brain-busting cosmological paradoxes. (If you want to keep a time travel nerd busy for days, ask them to disentangle the plot of Looper, Primer or X-Men: Days of Future Past.) And when it comes to love— that prototypical “tale as old as time”— time travel is uniquely able to magnify the theme of a star-crossed relationship.

In 1990, Stephen Hawking— our latter-day Einstein— scoffed at the notion of time travel and famously declared: “If time travel is possible, where are the tourists from the future?” But he has since softened his view on the subject matter, and the debates he has fueled within the scientific community have whetted the public’s appetite for time travel over recent decades. In fact, time travel has become such a prevalent subject that everyone seems to be attempting to drag it into their own corner.

Time-based emotions like hope and regret are thrown into sharp relief for characters that can fast-forward and rewind their own stories.

Kip Thorne, the scientist who consulted on Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, famously hurled down the gauntlet as time travel stories rose in prominence at the turn of the century. “Physicists have realized,” he declared, “that the nature of time is too important an issue to be left solely in the hands of science fiction writers.”

Fortunately for us, science fiction writers are more than up to the task.

Check back in next week for a consideration of the logical and philosophical  (im)possibilities of time travel! 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…

8 Inspiring, Hilarious, and All-Around Awesome Commencement Speaker Addresses

Bleary-eyed, you turn the final page of the final chapter of one of your numerous $200 textbooks and, emerging from the dungeon of your school’s library, brush the months-long accumulation of dust from a nearby window in order to peer outside at the world beyond. The sun is shining (metaphorically if not literally), the flowers are blooming, and months—nay, years!—of exams and essays and polar vortexes are now just fading memories of the past. Even if you completed your studies earlier and have spent the last week or so in a euphoric, drunken stupor, you’re probably clawing your way out of a similar haze.

Senior Week ftw!
Senior Week ftw!

Either way, the season of graduation is upon us, and the future, as they say, is bright. But before you toss your caps in exuberant triumph and set up your corner office at your brand-new, high-paying job (or, you know, not), you still have the actual graduation ceremony to sit through—and though these ceremonies are often unbearably tedious, there is one aspect of commencement that inevitably garners anticipation and excitement: the speakers.

Commencement speakers are generally chosen to speak at graduations because they attended that school themselves, or they have a vague connection to the university, or they grew up in the area, or simply because they’re super famous and they actually said yes. More often than not, said commencement speakers didn’t step foot in an institution of higher education at all, and they’ll make a light jab at their position in life versus your position in life before immediately backpedaling and hastily insisting that you haven’t totally wasted all of your time and money on pursuing a college degree, as every single graduating senior in attendance spirals further and further downward into a pit of crippling despair.

But despite all this, many commencement speakers throughout the years have managed to impart profound pearls of wisdom to students who are about to enter the “real world.” So whether you’re graduating from college, high school, or a prestigious and highly selective New York City preschool (or, if you’re simply searching for your daily dose inspiration), these memorable commencement speeches are not to be missed.

Bonus drinking game, because everything must always have a drinking game: Take a shot when you hear anything along the lines of “I never even graduated college, SUCKAS,” “I graduated from a different college, LoL,” “I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life” or “Failure is AWESOME.”

J.K. Rowling (Harvard University, 2008)

It may be difficult to picture J. K. Rowling as being “as poor as it is possible to be in modern Britain without being homeless,” but the woman who enchanted a generation of readers went through many rough patches before the sudden success of Harry Potter. In her 2008 Harvard commencement speech, JKR recounted some of her pre-HP experiences and exalted the surprising benefits of failure and the profound importance of imagination.

Sound bite: “We do not need magic to change the world, we carry all the power we need inside ourselves already: We have the power to imagine better.”


David Foster Wallace (Kenyon College, 2005)

David Foster Wallace’s speech is unflinchingly honest—but also surprisingly comforting, as far as unemployed liberal arts college grads are concerned (holla!). His vivid portrayals of the types of people we will meet—and become—in the Real World enables him to explain the profound benefits of a liberal arts education.

Sound bite: “This is what the real, no-bullshit value of your liberal arts education is supposed to be about: How to keep from going through your comfortable, prosperous, respectable adult life dead, unconscious, a slave to your own head and to your natural default setting of being uniquely, completely, imperially alone– day in and day out.”


Neil Gaiman (Pennsylvania University of the Arts, 2012)

This particular speech means a lot to me because Gaiman reminisces about a point in his life that feels very, very familiar, which in some obscure way suggests that I have the potential to become Neil Gaiman when I get older, which would be totally awesome because he is THE BEST. Gaiman gets a bit mind-over-matter-y at times, but his message about doing what you love and loving what you do is something that will never get old.

Sound bite: “Make. Good. Art.”


Ellen DeGeneres (Tulane University, 2009)

Because it’s Ellen, you’ll be laughing out loud within the first ten seconds. Much of her commencement address really is just a bundle of laughs, but nestled in between the many puns and gags are some more solemn anecdotes that provide a heartening backdrop to Ellen’s life story and career.

Sound bite: “Look at you all, wearing your robes. Usually when you wear a robe at ten in the morning, it means you’ve given up.”


Meryl Streep (Barnard College, 2010)

Streep’s speech contains large chunks of humblebrag about how she loves/hates being so famous. (We feel for you, Meryl.) But her advice about “studying the world” and treating everyone with empathy are sincere, and she’s Meryl freakin’ Streep so who the hell cares.

Sound bite: “Being a celebrity has taught me to hide but being an actor has opened my soul.”


Steve Jobs (Stanford University, 2005)

Even in death, Steve Jobs seems larger than life, but this heartfelt speech containing three personal anecdotes reveals the more human side to  the technological titan.

Sound bite: You have to trust in something, your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever, because believing that the dots will connect down the road will give you the confidence to follow your heart even when it leads you off the well-worn path, and that will make all the difference.”


Amy Poehler (Harvard University, 2011)

Newsflash: Amy Poehler is funny. But the Boston College grad also had a lot to say about the joys of collaborating with others and the importance of not being afraid to take risks.

Sound bite: “Take your risks now, as you grow older you become more fearful and less flexible — and I mean that literally. I hurt my knee on the treadmill this week — and it wasn’t even on.”


Elle Woods (Harvard Law School, 2004)

I learned so many important things from Legally Blonde: how to execute the “bend and snap,” how to sit up absurdly straight while riding a bicycle, and how to properly care for permed hair. Though Miss Woods’ speech is the last on this list of esteemed commencement speakers, her speech is also the most memorable, probably because it’s the shortest and therefore easiest to memorize.

Sound bite: “You must always have faith in people, and most importantly…you must always have faith in yourself.”

To paraphrase Elle’s concluding remarks: Congratulations class of 2014; we did it!