Part IX – Time Travelers and Storytellers in the Best Episode of Doctor Who

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

The Doctor explains the nature of time better than I ever could.

If there was ever a time travel story that apotheosizes storytelling— as well as nearly every other time travel-centric theme I’ve discussed, such as romance, regret and wish-fulfillment— it’s the 2007 Doctor Who episode “Blink,” a Steven Moffat script and another one for the top of the “favorites” list (high praise for a show with 35 cumulative seasons worth of material, to be sure).

“Blink” sees the Doctor trapped in 1969 sans time machine, so he leaves clues for a young woman named Sally Sparrow (played by the as-of-yet unknown Carey Mulligan) to help him retrieve his TARDIS from the Weeping Angels. Why he chooses Sally does not become clear until the end, when she encounters the Doctor on the run towards one thing or from another (“Well, four things and a lizard”) and hands him a folder containing everything he needs to know to help her help him: a conversation transcript, a letter from her friend Kathy, and a picture of a Weeping Angel.

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Letters and photographs are oft-used time travel props. See also: The Back to the Future  saga, the Lost episode “The Constant,” the Fringe episode “White Tulip,” Terminator, etc…

Yes, the predestination paradox is strong with this one, but that heightens rather than diminishes the fun. Regardless of whether the original “author” of this story is Sally or the Doctor, the significance of the episode is that it utilizes time travel to construct a story that deconstructs storytelling— the characters themselves write the sequence of events, including the transcript of a dialogue that the Doctor uses to communicate with Sally across time, and the “Easter Eggs” the Doctor recorded and left for Sally to find on the 17 DVDs she owns.  

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The Doctor as DVD Easter Eggs, via BBC

The Weeping Angels, who are among Doctor Who’s most memorable and menacing villains, set in motion the overarching plot (stealing back the TARDIS) while facilitating the smaller plots that highlight the characters’ interactions with romance and regret. Weeping Angels are “the only psychopaths in the universe to kill you nicely,” the Doctor explains. “They just zap you into the past and let you live to death.” Infusing the Basilisk myth with a dose of quantum physics, Weeping Angels don’t exist when they’re being observed— hence the Doctor’s now famous imperative: Don’t. Blink.

The Angels are responsible for two romances in the episode, one triumphant and one tragic. Sally’s friend Kathy is zapped back to 1920, where she falls in love with the first person she meets, but Sally’s love interest is sent to 1969, negating the possibility of a relationship between them. Some of the most devastating romances are the ones that never happened; as the famous lament goes, better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all. The Weeping Angels embody this notion, consuming the potential energy of all the days you might have lived, feasting on “all of your stolen moments.”

By the episode’s final scene, one major mystery remains: Where did the Doctor get all the information about how to find Sally? Sally’s companion, Larry, tells her: “Some things you never find out, and that’s okay.” But Sally is adamant that this story is not yet complete.

blink kathy letter text.gifJust then, the Doctor hurries past and Sally realizes that she was the one who provided him with the information all along. Larry’s line is a good life lesson, but this episode illustrates the conception of time travel as wish fulfillment, allowing for— in fact, necessitating— closing the loop in order to make sense of the narrative. For the temporally bound, time moves inexorably forward, but the time traveler— like the storyteller— is in a unique position to actually act on hindsight, thereby establishing a measure of control that the rest of us lack.

“Blink” is also responsible for a description of time that has become familiar to anyone with a passing knowledge of time travel fiction. “People assume that time is a strict progression of cause to effect,” says the Doctor, “but actually, from a non-linear, non-subjective viewpoint, it’s more like a big ball of wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey… stuff.”

Make sense? No, of course not. After all, this is time travel, a genre that celebrates logical, linguistic, and physical paradoxes, and a topic that boggles the brightest minds in startlingly disparate disciplines— from philosophy, to quantum physics, to ethics, to all genres of fiction, to storytelling itself. Time travel stories are endlessly captivating because they dramatize our deepest regrets and deepest desires, imprisoning us within the claustrophobic confines of fate or imbuing us with the power to alter destiny.

The possibilities are infinite, and all of time and space awaits.

That’s all, she wrote — for now. Thanks for coming along for the ride, and look out for some extra time travel posts in the future! (I’m sorry for all the time-related puns in this note.) (No I’m not.)

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Part 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?

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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

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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.

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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.) 

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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?

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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.

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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 VII – Time Travel and Romance

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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File under: t-shirts I need in my life (From TeeFury)

Any discussion of time travel stories would be lacking without a nod to what may be the most popular genre of the mainstream time travel narrative: romance.

On Fringe, “White Tulip” features a romance plot that fuels Alistair Peck’s desire to reunite with his dead fiancée. Audrey Niffenegger’s best-selling 2003 novel The Time Traveler’s Wife set the bar for 21st-century time travel romances, and indeed, the 2006 Doctor Who episode “The Girl in the Fireplace,” penned by current Doctor Who showrunner Steven Moffat, was directly inspired by Niffenegger’s tale of love and loss. Nearly every story ever told hinges on the theme of love, and time travel stories are no exception.

Nearly every story ever told hinges on the theme of love, and time travel stories are no exception.

At the end of the day, time travel is just a plot device— it’s never really about time travel, it’s about the characters and their relationships,” says Damon Lindelof, former showrunner for Lost (2004-2010). “So, even the best time travel stories, like The Terminator or Back to the Future— two very different kinds of time travel stories— are really about the same thing.”

Back to the Future, that madcap adventure of Oedipal hijinks and science fiction shenanigans, grounds its tale in a twist on the typical love story— to fix his future, Marty  McFly needs to get his parents to fall in love in the past— and is propelled by the none-too-subtle Huey Lewis and the News hit “The Power of Love.” Stripped down to its bare-bones narrative, The Terminator is about Kyle Reese traveling back in time and falling in love with Sarah Connor, Skynet be damned.

The TV show Lost, for all its metaphysical mysteries, is perhaps remembered most fondly for the romance between Desmond Hume (Henry Ian Cusick) and Penny Widmore (Sonya Walger), a love story that reaches its pinnacle in the season four episode “The Constant.”The episode served up double helpings of brain-busting twists and heart-wrenching drama, epitomizing everything that was excellent about the show— and, indeed, everything that is so exhilarating about time travel tales.

As in X-Men: Days of Future Past— and, Lindelof says, inspired by Kurt Vonnegut‘s Slaughterhouse Five “The Constant” uses the Brain Method of time travel, moving a person’s consciousness (rather than body) through time. Unlike in X-Men, this time travel is uncontrollable, unexpected, and ultimately fatal— as we observe in the case of poor George Minkowski, who is already at the late stages of the affliction when we meet him in this episode. (In true Lost fashion, the character is named after a notable figure— in this case, Hermann Minkowski, the super rad mathematician who actually coined the term “spacetime.”)

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A mulleted Daniel Faraday explains spacetime and time travel to Desmond in 1996.

Traveling from the mysterious island to an equally as mysterious freighter, Desmond begins experiencing “consciousness jumps” between 1996 (the past) and 2004 (the present). At the urging of scientist Daniel Faraday in 2004, Desmond sets out to find the younger Faraday at Oxford in 1996, who in turn tells Desmond to find a “constant”— something or someone familiar in both times. He settles on Penny, his former girlfriend, recalling the picture of him and Penny that his 2004 self had been studying on the way to the freighter. The photograph is the link between the two times, and Penny is his constant.

The only issue is that 1996 Penny has no desire to see or speak to Desmond. In fact, she wants nothing to do with him anymore. And she changed her number. And moved.  

With the time jumps occurring more and more frequently, Desmond seeks out Penny’s (totally evil!!) father, Charles Widmore, who provides Penny’s address after a severe talking-to. He remarks— in a thoroughly disparaging tone indicative of how (un)successful he thinks Desmond is going to be— that what Desmond really wants is for Penny to give him another chance.

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One of the most thrilling aspects of this episode is the breakneck speed of the plot, but this scene pauses the action for a concentrated meditation on Desmond’s personal regrets, specifically when it comes to Penny. When he arrives at her doorstep, she reacts in the manner predicted by her father, angrily telling Desmond that “it’s too late to change things.” But Desmond makes his case— without going to much into the whole “my head will explode because time travel” thing— and secures her phone number.

“I won’t call for eight years,” he promises her. Indeed, eight years pass for her, but only seconds for Desmond (and us), as his consciousness is zapped back to his 2004 self, and, trembling, he dials the number from memory. Buoyed by an impeccably strong storyline leading up to the ensuing phone call, the scene is one that truly earns its emotional payoff— not least because of the way the story plays with our conceptions about the passage of time.

Fittingly, Penny and Desmond’s eventual connection all depends on an act of faith— Penny taking Desmond at his word, forgiving him, and trusting that he would call. Desmond, in turn, can do nothing after she slams the door in his face but hope that she, too, would keep her word.

“At the heart of everything, long before Flight 815 crashed on that island, this love story powers the meta-narrative of ‘Lost,'” says Lindelof.

The time travel in this episode enables Desmond to exorcise his biggest regret by expressing his love for Penny at a time when the stakes could not be higher, as his own health deteriorates and the fate of his fellow castaways hangs in the balance. Having witnessed their fall-out in previous seasons, we find Desmond’s climactic reconnection with Penny enormously fulfilling on an emotional level. And in terms of the structure of the show, their relationship is what eventually enables Penny to provide rescue for the survivors of Oceanic flight 815.

Lindelof and his Lost co-writers spent close to a month crafting “The Constant,” an episode they knew would be key to the entire show because it distilled the overall Lost narrative down to the fate of a single relationship.

“By the time ‘The Constant’ aired, the Desmond and Penny love story was repositioned as the essential love story of the entire series,” Lindelof says. “At the heart of everything, long before Flight 815 crashed on that island, this love story powers the meta-narrative of Lost. It wasn’t just an episode that was a fun little excursion from the main storytelling, it really plugged into and essentially rewrote and reframed the entire narrative of the series.”

“The Constant” resonates so strongly because it is, at its heart, a love story, and one between two characters in whom audiences have been invested since their introduction. For Desmond, there is a supreme sense of catharsis because he has finally gotten what he needs: a reconciliation with a lost love.

“This show is about loss,” Lindelof says, “and these two people have found each other again. There’s also this hopeful aspect to the way the episode ends, that even though Desmond ends up back on the island where he started, there’s a fundamental level of fulfillment that he accomplished his mission.”

Below, watch the fated phone call in action. Note keywords “hope” and “belief,” and make sure to have a box of Kleenex handy. You know what? Just watch the entire episode on Netflix. You won’t regret (see what I did there? *wink*) it.

Check back in next week for a discussion of alternate histories, including ‘Harry Potter and the Cursed Child’ and a favorite episode of ‘Star Trek.’ 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 VI – Time Travel and Self-Reflection

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

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Past!Jennifer meets Future!Jennifer in Back to the Future II.

The 2009 Star Trek film explores another quirk of time travel: the possibility of meeting oneself. Curiously, the encounter with a past or future version of the self has become inexplicably taboo in time travel stories. Back to the Future toys with this idea quite a bit. Marty McFly’s girlfriend-turned-wife faints upon looking herself in the eye in Back to the Future Part II, while Doc Brown sidesteps the conundrum by avoiding eye-contact with his past self altogether.

Meeting oneself in a time travel narrative introduces all sorts of mind-bending possibilities and impossibilities, the latter of which is probably what sends logicians (and Star Trek: DS9’s Department of Temporal Paradoxes) into a tizzy. On a thematic level, the narrative opportunity is equally as enticing: You can self-censure, self-congratulate, and gain much-needed self-insight.

Late author David Foster Wallace poignantly expressed that we are all, at the end of the day, “uniquely, completely, imperially alone.” We are irrevocably trapped within our own minds— we are our own worst enemy and our own best friend. Which is why a physical encounter with another version of the self can be so terrifying— or so fulfilling. David Wittenberg, author of Time Travel: The Popular Philosophy of Narrative, explains that this science fiction trope allows for a (re)negotiation of one’s personal origins, since “any story at all in which identity over time becomes questionable” is, in essence, “any story of a self.”

We anguish over who we are versus who we were while wondering about who we will be. The problem of identity over time is one that has enthralled philosophers for centuries, and perhaps it is within the power of science fiction storytellers to provide a semblance of an answer. As Wittenberg writes: “Selves are stories— time travel stories.

Stories like The Twilight Zone’s “Walking Distance” and “One Life, Furnished in Early Poverty” provide an example of a self-directed trip down memory lane, as Martin Sloane and Gus Rosenthal are forced to confront who they are by interrogating who they once were. Thus, time travel allows for a meaningful construction of personal narrative.

As Wittenberg writes: “Selves are stories— time travel stories.”

In the 2009 Star Trek movie, Spock Prime does end up encountering his younger, alternate universe counterpart, and he takes the opportunity to offer himself some sage advice. For old-school Trekkies, the scene allows for a delightful passing of the torch from the “old” Spock, Nimoy, to the “new” Spock, played by Zachary Quinto. In the film, Spock Prime waxes nostalgic over a friendship with Captain Kirk that would come to define them both, alluding to the fact that for young Spock, all that is yet to come. When Spock asks how Spock Prime convinced Kirk not to reveal Spock Prime’s existence to him, Spock Prime’s eyes twinkle as he mocks the “meeting of the selves” paradox fear: “He inferred that a universe-ending paradoxes would ensue should he break his promise.” Spock dismisses it as a “gamble,” but Spock Prime corrects him, calling it instead “an act of faith.”

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Faith is a prevalent theme in time travel stories— ironic, since time travel can be so easily correlated with God-like omniscience and omnipotence. But knowledge of a future does not paint a complete picture, making faith and hope even more necessary for these stories. Faith and hope are the future-oriented counterparts to the past-oriented themes of forgiveness and repentance, which Walter Bishop pursued so fervently in Fringe.

Faith and hope are integral to 2014’s X-Men: Days of Future Past, a time travel movie so convoluted that the title alone is enough to spasm the brain. (If you’re really curious, here are a couple thousand words on that subject to tide you over.) But even amidst all the mind-bendy, timeline-trippy, franchise-rewriting time travel, the climax hinges on Charles Xavier’s faith in his childhood friend, Raven (Jennifer Lawrence).

Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page) and an assortment of X-Men have sent back the consciousness of the ageless Wolverine (equally ageless Hugh Jackman) to his younger body with the mission of preventing the Key Event that ruined everything— Raven shooting the antagonist, Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage). They’ve orchestrated events and torn through time and space in order to stop her, but instead of taking that final step, Charles (James McAvoy) relinquishes his mind-control power and says simply: “I have faith in you, Raven.” Time travel can only take one so far— human action and emotion are necessary to carry out the rest.

Knowledge of a future does not paint a complete picture, making faith and hope even more necessary for these stories.

Mirroring Star Trek’s Spock-meets-Spock torch-passing, Days of Future Past invokes a particularly moving— and plot-relevant— encounter between the older Professor X (Patrick Stewart) and the younger, disillusioned Charles. Professor X gives his past self an up-by-your-bootstraps pep talk, concluding with: “Charles, we need you to hope again.” Hope, Professor X says, is “the most human power” we have.

Check back in next week for a conversation with Damon Lindelof about the most beloved episode of Lost. Or, you know, just hop in your time machine and read it now. If you choose that option, hit me up, I have some questions…

Part II – The Philosophy of Time Travel

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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What is time?

The concept of time is, in many ways, the feature that lends gravitas to every story ever told. The ticking of the clock follows us wherever— and whenever— we go. We consider time wistfully when looking to the past; anxiously or excitedly when anticipating the future; even contentedly, when meditating on a continuous present. Time is what makes life meaningful; memories across time are what make us, us.

Time defies all description and definition. In his book Physics of the Impossible, theoretical physicist Michio Kaku notes that time is “not possible” because “the past is gone, the future does not exist, and the present exists only for an instant.” As such, we are forced to resort to metaphor to explain time— and, interestingly enough, most (if not all) of these phrases normally refer to objects in space: time flies, time flows, time crawls. Time moves, tautologically, in respect to itself.

Time is what makes life meaningful.

But is time travel possible? Einstein’s theory of relativity proposed that time is a relative concept, inspiring the proliferation of the term “spacetime.” This, in turn, yielded a neat idea: If we can travel in space, and space shares similar properties with time, what’s to say we can’t travel in time?

Thanks to the theory of relativity, certain types of “time travel” are already a fait accompli. Time moves ever so slightly faster at the center of Earth’s gravitational pull, so astronauts in orbit far above Earth’s surface age more slowly than terrestrial-bound humans. Because of this time dilation effect, astronaut Sergei Krikalev, who spent 803 days, 9 hours, and 39 minutes in space, technically traveled 0.02 seconds into his own future over the course of his space travel. And in 2014, physicists successfully simulated photons traveling through time while experimenting with the intersection of Einstein’s cosmological theory of stars and planets and the nanoscopic world of quantum mechanics.

If we can travel in space, what’s to say we can’t travel in time?

The most promising time travel theory piggybacks on what Einstein proposed more than a century ago, positing that the hypothetical existence of wormholes could serve as a bridge not only through space, but through time as well. Kip Thorne was one of the first to devote serious research to the practical connection between wormholes and time travel.  Nowadays, most physicists concede that they have yet to discover a physical law that explicitly prohibits traveling in time— so it’s not impossible per se, merely very, very improbable.

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A model of “folded space” proposes a way to also “fold” time, making it possible to travel to a different time via a wormhole.

(For more on Kip Thorne, wormholes and the actual physics of time travel, check out Space.com.)

The Grandfather Paradox and the Philosophy of Time Travel.

While physicists attempt to tackle the overarching practicality of time travel, philosophers deal with matters of logical consistency. (For a deep dive into the philosophy of time travel, the Stanford Encyclopedia has got you covered.) David Lewis, known for his rendition of the time travel-centric “grandfather paradox,” was philosophy’s best-known champion of time travel until his death in 2001. In his famous paper “The Paradoxes of Time Travel,” Lewis spells out the paradox like so: Tim wants to go back in time to kill his grandfather as a young man. But if Tim succeeds and his grandfather dies before he meets Tim’s grandmother, then Tim will never be born, and therefore will not be able to go back in time and kill his grandfather in the first place.

This paradox has puzzled time travel enthusiasts for ages, but Lewis proposes a solution: Even if Tim can kill his grandfather— that is, he has a time machine, a rifle, two hands and a clear shot— he won’t, because he already didn’t. Infuriating, perhaps, but elegantly simple, hanging on two different meanings of the word “can.”

“‘Can’ is a word of possibility, and possibility comes in different grades,” Richard Hanley, professor of philosophy at the University of Delaware, explains. “We flip around between these grades without contradicting it.”

We experience this phenomenon even without the added wrinkle of time travel, Hanley notes. “There are certain things that you’ll try to do today that you’ll fail to do,” he says. “Why? Not because there’s some ‘time police’ to stop you from doing things, but because something ordinary stops you.” We may be in an unusual epistemological position in the case of time traveling Tim, but Hanley says that it would be something similarly mundane that foils Tim’s mission— his gun jams, he gets distracted, perhaps he develops a conscience. In short, he won’t kill his grandfather, because he didn’t.

The idea that space and time could be connected emboldened time travel enthusiasts within the physics community and had a revitalizing effect on philosophers who hold an eternalist view of time. Eternalists like Hanley and Lewis view all points in time— rather than just the present moment— as equally “real,” the same way that all points in space are considered equally real.

“In order for me to talk to you in California,” Hanley says, “it would be plausible to say that California has to be there! It’s not like, when I’m wandering around, the only place that exists is the place that I’m actually at.”

Even if Tim can kill his grandfather, he won’t, because he already didn’t.

The eternalist view of time, Hanley points out, gets a good deal of support from people in disciplines as seemingly disparate as modern physics and medieval theology. “The other nice thing about it,” he says, “is that it’s a particularly friendly view to time travel.”

Check back in next week for a discussion of two popular, plausible time travel theories and thoughts from Damon Lindelof (Lost, The Leftovers), Marc Guggenheim (Legends of Tomorrow) and Terry Matalas (12 Monkeys). 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…