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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