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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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…

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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…