Time Travel for Wholesale
After seeing Looper on Wednesday I’ve had time travel on the brain. Time travel is one of my favourite sci-fi plot devices and it’s something I hate to see done badly. Now Looper was a great film, even if it had some head scratching moments with its paradoxes. I’m not going to spoil the film since I’d recommend everyone go and see it as the story overcomes the paradoxes, like most great time travel films. So instead of talking about Looper I’d like to go over some of the things I like and dislike about time travel fiction. I will try to talk about this in the least confusing way I can for those who can’t wrap their heads around these concepts as well as I can.
To start with there’s Back to the Future, one of the most famous time travel movies. Now this is one of the best examples of badly thought out time travel being overcome by a great story. It’s not really a “time travel movie” so much as “a movie involving time travel” as the focus of the films is the story of Marty and Doc. The time machine is just a means to tell that story. The way the time travel suffers is how they use it for dramatic convenience. For example, the photo Marty has in the first movie that slowly fades away the people on it a little at a time. That just doesn’t make any sense since if time was altering so he and his family wouldn’t exist why is it not instantaneous? If the picture was fading away then Marty should’ve been doing so well before the end of the film. I’m fairly sure this started the trend in fiction where we see things fade away to show how time is changing, but the main character is mainly untouched.
Though again the movie is so well put together and well told that the logic problems can be overlooked. Unlike other movies that do the same things but aren’t as good so the problems aren’t so easy to overlook.
One of the things that annoys me is when there are changes to the time traveller, getting scares, their things fading away, or some such, but his memories stay intact. If time changes them then it should give them the memories of the new timeline. I always applaud when writers remember to do this. Sadly I haven’t seen it happen too often.
Now of course the biggest problem with any time travel story is the paradoxes. To put it simply anytime there’s a change in the timeline where it would make it impossible for that change to be made in the first place is causing a paradox. Killing your grandfather when he’s a baby means you won’t exist to kill your grandfather, so therefore you should still exist since you can’t kill your grandfather when you’re nonexistent. The Grandfather Paradox. That’s one of the simpler paradoxes and if you have trouble with it then time travel is not something you should be thinking about.
There’s one way around the paradoxes and that’s if the alternate timelines theory is used. Which is that every time you change the past you create and go into an alternate timeline. So when changes are made it doesn’t effect anyone, it’ll just shift to a different timeline. It’s probably the best way to get around a lot of the time alterations that is made in these stories.
On the other side probably some of the best time travel stories revolve around a stable time loop. Where everything happened and nothing can be changed because it’s already happened. The best example of this would be the first Terminator film, where sending a Terminator back in time to kill the head of the resistance, John Conner, before he’s born causes the resistance to send back the man who would be John’s father. Which leads to both John being conceived, as well as trained to become the resistance head, and the technology used to create Skynet. It’s a closed loop that creates itself. Of course the sequels killed that idea and went ahead and added a “you can change the future and your destiny” message. As good as Terminator 2 was it still ruins the first film.
The Gargoyles cartoon had time travel as a stable time loop and anything that was done to change time actually ended up being part of the timeline already. One of the greatest feats was one of the villains, David Xanatos, earned his fortune by sending himself a coin from the 10th century that was worth $20,000 and a note about how to go back to the 10th century so he can get that coin to send to himself. He is literally a self-made man.
One of the best video game examples is the Legacy of Kain series. It is probably one of the best written video games, and definitely one of the most complex and well thought out timelines. Travelling to the past and the future and being unable to change anything due to time being immutable. Unless there is a paradox, a massive one, where time must rearrange itself to suit the changes. Time is described as a river and any changes are pebbles swept up in the water. This clip describes it best.
On the other side of the coin there’s the badly done time travel, such as in the Wolverine and the X-men cartoon. In the show Xavier is in a coma in the present and wakes up in a future where the world is in ruins and Sentinel robots control what’s left as they hunt down and kill mutants. He communicates to the past and tells Wolverine how to change things. The storyline in the show was split between the future and the present and while there were some paradoxes the biggest problem came from the basic lack of understanding how time works. At the end as both storylines come to a head Xavier communicates one final message to Wolverine on how to stop the bad future from coming about, then the future storyline continues on anyway. Just to reiterate, after sending the final crucial bit of info that will change history and stop that future from happening entirely, we still see that future carry on despite the fact that after that message that future should’ve been wiped out. It had the present and the future happened at the same time when time, by its very definition, does not work that way.
And yes it could quite easily have been an alternate timeline we were seeing, not that there was any indication for that in the show. But from a narrative standpoint it’s still a stupid idea to do. The storyline of consequence had ended, there was nothing more to do in the future. It was time spent at the end of the show on a storyline where literally nothing mattered anymore. Xavier’s bad future was going to be stopped from happening and having it continue after his final message to stop it was meaningless padding that should’ve been cut and that time used to better effect.
From the same writer we got the Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes storyline in which Kang’s future timeline was destroyed, with the world having now ended sometime in the early 21st century, and he blames Captain America. This is because he thinks Cap died in WWII and his presence in the present means he must be a time traveller. Except we know Cap isn’t a time traveller and therefore nothing he does should have any effect on Kang’s future. Kang was the only one we saw actually do any sort of time travelling and could be the only one to change history. Which would’ve been an interesting story to tell, how he had been the arbiter of his own destruction, but we got no such story. In fact when the storyline was wrapped up it tells us flat out that Cap did alter the future, somehow despite that not being possible, and that the choice he made that did so was changed because of Kang’s warnings. Therefore the destruction of Earth was the original timeline and not Kang’s timeline, like it was shown to be. Even though we’re told that’s not the case it’s the only conclusion from what we saw in the show.
Then again at that point the show had shifted producers to the “we don’t care/kids don’t think” people of the Ultimate Spider-Man cartoon. So it’s hard to say if this was the intent or not. However since the same writer who created that storyline wrote the ending for it, and he’s the same man who wrote the Wolverine example above, I’d say the time travel plot was going to end in silly incomprehensibleness no matter what happened.
Finally there’s Dr Who, Star Trek, and all those shows where time travel is an inconsistent plot device and the rules governing it are changed from episode to episode depending on what the plot needs. I’d need an entirely new site to catalogue all the time nonsense both series do. One of my favourite Star Trek time silliness examples comes from the final season of Voyager. In that season we had the episode Relativity, where he got a good look at the 29th century time police that had appeared earlier in the show. In it we see their job is to stop alterations to the timeline and repair them, except when it involves the main cast of a Trek series, then those guys have to fend for themselves. Then came the Voyager series finale where the captain goes on mucking with time to get her crew home sooner, and it works. You’d think the time police would have a problem with that since they altered history in a huge way, they even got future technology out of it, but no. As the internet reviewer SFDebris put it when describing Relativity as, “They don’t give a shit” and that’s fairly apt when talking about the series finale too.
That’s probably the best way to sum up time travel for most of its use in fiction, it’s a plot device to get the story where it needs to be regardless of whether or not it makes sense. If it’s going to be a recurring thing in an ongoing series then, even if it doesn’t make 100% sense, it should at least have its own rules laid out. What can and can’t be done within the series so it’s at least consistent with its nonsense. But that’s too much to ask for it seems.
If you want to see some good time travel films then I’d recommend Twelve Monkeys, The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, Primer, Terminator 1, and Looper. Primer is probably one of the best time travel films I’ve seen, especially since they properly think things through about how it’s possible and what they can do. It’s also very dense so watching it a few times and properly thinking about it is a must if you want to understand what’s happening. I didn’t mention it till now because it’s a very complex film that deserves better than a paragraph of rambling from me.