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 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?

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…

Part V – Time Travel and Nostalgia

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?


Traveling to one’s past is not necessarily a doomed venture. “Sometimes the only way to move forward is to revisit the things in your past that were holding you back,” Barry Allen says in the The Flash episode “Flashback.” “Because once we do, you’ll see that you can go further than you ever imagined.”

Even without the benefit of physical time travel, looking back with fondness recalls the pleasure of nostalgia— a word that’s been thrown around a lot recently thanks in large part to Star Wars: The Force Awakens, in which J. J. Abrams effectively invites audiences on a collective trip to 1977.

Behold, a side-by-side comparison of A New Hope and The Force Awakens:

For what it’s worth, most audiences and critics (and I include myself in both categories) loved The Force Awakens. The Hero’s Journey template has always been there, and Abrams capitalized on familiar iconography to remind fans what they loved about the original Star Wars movie to hook their emotions onto this new one. Change is scary. We revel in the familiar.

Terry Matalas and fellow 12 Monkeys Executive Producer Travis Fickett embraced this idea with their television series. “Nostalgia is an incredible way to connect to the audience,” Matalas says. “[It’s] a way to use the goodwill the audience has for the [Terry] Gilliam film or a particular time period to garner an emotional response and connection to our characters.”

(For an intensive study on how Inside Out utilizes nostalgia, check out my piece here!)

Nowadays, you’d be hard-pressed to find a franchise or beloved film that has not been summoned from the catacombs of pop culture history for an inevitable “reboot” or “revival”; Gilmore Girls, Twin Peaks, MacGyver, Lethal WeaponThe Exorcist and Xena: The Warrior Princess are only a smattering of fan favorites returning to a small screen near you. Though the sheer volume of reboots may feel excessive, the psychological appeal makes sense. As often as we look back with regret, we also hearken back to happier, simpler times from our childhoods, times that recall certain film and television franchises of yore.

As often as we look back with regret, we also hearken back to happier, simpler times from our childhoods.

One of the most high profile iterations of the reboot effect is Star Trek, which is undergoing separate renaissances in the cinema and on television. When it comes to Star Trek, nostalgia has been at play even within the narratives of the original universe, and more often than not, the writers used time travel to explore this theme.

In “Trials and Tribble-ations,” a fifth season episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine written by Ron Moore (now executive producer of Outlander) and René Echevarria, the DS9 crew travels back in time to prevent the assassination of Captain Kirk by a rogue Klingon. The weapon of choice? A booby-trapped tribble.


The assassination plot allows the DS9 writers, in 1996, to insert their crew into the cherished Original Series episode from 1967, “The Trouble with Tribbles,” for a fun little romp of nostalgic mayhem. In “Trials and Tribble-ations,” Captain Sisko (Avery Brooks) and members of his crew get to live out every Star Trek fan’s dream: stepping aboard the USS Enterprise and meeting the inimitable Captain Kirk.

The episode is notable for its tongue-in-cheek approach to time travel, starting off with a visit from the sassy Department of Temporal Investigations. The two agents interrogate Captain Sisko and reveal that they hate predestination paradoxes, time loops and jokes. “Trials and Tribble-ations,” of course, indulges in a bit of all three.

For all of its humor, “Trials and Tribble-ations” sets up a pretty airtight time travel story in the vein of the causal loop model: The Deep Space Nine crew successfully conserves the original timeline from “The Trouble with Tribbles” in which Captain Kirk is not, in fact, assassinated.

Though he is still “bonked” by Tribbles…

The 2009 Star Trek film reboot by J. J. Abrams also takes a dip in the nostalgia pool. In the film, an elderly Spock (Leonard Nimoy, reprising his iconic role) convinces a young Kirk (Chris Pine) that they can change the course of events by remedying a mistake made by Spock 129 years in the future. Kirk— brash, idealistic, impetuous— takes this older Spock (dubbed “Spock Prime”) at his word and rushes into action.

What Spock Prime doesn’t let on is that our Kirk is already living out an alternate history. In the “prime” timeline, Spock’s failure to prevent the destruction of the planet Romulus catapults him and Nero (Nero), the Romulan villain of this film, through a black hole to another universe, whereupon Nero attacks a Starfleet ship captained by our Kirk’s father, killing him on the day of Kirk’s birth. Thus, Abrams’s franchise is not rewriting decades of original Star Trek history, but branching off into a different timeline altogether. It’s a neat bit of time travel trickery, allowing Trekkies to savor this new iteration while the original series lives on in a parallel universe.

Check back in next week for mirror images: Spock and Spock Prime, and hope and faith. 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…

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?

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.

hermione hair.gif

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.

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.

kobiyashi maru.gif

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…

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…