Wednesday, December 12, 2007


Daniel's Guide to Time Travel

Time Travel is one of those overused plot devices, along with amnesia or serial killers. Time travel stories are still quite popular as it puts new characters into familiar historical settings or brings future technology into the easy to film modern times. Doctor Who does this the best. I’ve always been very interested in time travel stories, even after Star Trek ran the concept into the ground. There are many different theories on how time travel plays out.

Theory #1 – The Christmas Carol format or view only. The easiest way to get over the inevitable paradoxes (paradoces?) is having the time traveler not be able to interact with anyone. The ghosts of Christmas Past and Future took Scrooge through time in this way. This was also the first occurrence of time travel in literature.
Theory #2 – The Terminator #1 format or cyclical timelines. In the first The Terminator movie, had Arnold not come back to kill Sarah Conner, Reese wouldn’t have come back to save her. Had he not come back, there wouldn’t have been a John Conner the machines were trying to eliminate. No paradoxes or re-written history happens since all the time travelers were integrated into the time line. Babylon 5’s story of the disappearance of B4 fit this model.
Theory #3 – This theory was here all along. It has no effect on the past for some reason that doesn’t need to be explained, just enjoy it.
Theory #4 – Alternate Timelines = Alternate Universes. This is sometimes discussed in Stargate, or maybe I just infer it. The idea is when you go back in time, you spawn off an alternate universe where the timeline is different than the one you came from. Since even the smallest of changes to anything leads to a big ripple effect which puts the birth of the time traveler in peril. Or at least it puts the circumstances in which he travels back in time in peril. With the alternate universe theory each time travel is now self contained and thus no perilous paradoxes. A short lived show in the 90’s called Time Trax ran on this theory.
Theory #5 – The Back to the Future format. This is the one most often used. Small changes lead to small improvements in the future where the time traveler remembers the original time line to the one he changed. This makes great stories but is the least likely. If Marty grew up in the functional household at the end of the movie, would he been hanging out with Doc Brown? Not likely. This is also the idea behind Quantum Leap and my childhood favorite, Voyagers! Small changes make the future better/right. This could lead to the biggest paradox, multiple versions of the time traveler. In the casino time line of BttF 2, there were theoretically two Marty’s: the one who returned from the future and the one away at boarding school who never went into the past. The impossibility here is the conservation of mass. Bringing things through time and creating an alternate timeline where they didn’t go through time creates a copy of the person/object and breaks a fundamental law of physics. For some reason I have a big problem with this, unless it is used humorously.
Theory #6 – The Year of Hell format or “It was all a dream”. The biggest middle finger to the audience is when the writers pull a Year of Hell ending out of their ass. This idea is the time traveler goes back in time to stop some horrible thing. This creates (or restores) an optimal timeline in which the characters never experienced the events causing them to go back in time. While this is more logical than the Back to the Future format, it is incredibly unsatisfying since none of the character development carries forward and so it was all a dream. I’m still bitter at Star Trek: Voyager for this.

So why am I rambling on and on about time travel? Two things recently came out which feature time travel. This first is the highly anticipated Futurama movie, Bender’s Big Score. In this, the evil aliens who took over planet express discover a one-way time travel format which is paradox proof. They send Bender back in time to steal stuff and then he just hangs around for thousands of years to deliver the goods. It was a highly complicated plot that was very funny and satisfying. They basically created their own theory for this which I call Theory #3. I went back and added later even though when I started writing this there were only 5 theories. Theory #3 is really Paradox Proof time travel.

The second time travel show is Life on Mars, season 2. This began last night on BBC America. You don’t really need to know much about this show to jump in. Each episode is a self contained police drama circa 1973 except the main character is from 2006. Detective Inspector Sam Tyler gets hit by a car and wakes up as a cop in 1973. He is a great fish-out-of-water character. In the first season it seems clear that he is dreaming this while in a coma. Everything leads up to the end where he saved the life of a woman whose murder he witnessed as a child at the hand of his father. He thought after that he would wake up but he didn’t. This season it looks like something more is going on after he got a phone call from the future telling him they couldn’t bring him back yet. It looks like someone put him there for a reason but who and why. But it still could be a coma. I wouldn’t be surprised if the series ended with a dance party on the back of a truck, this is British TV after all. Regardless, the changes are making a ripple effect and changing the future for the better just like Sam from Quantum Leap. This makes me wonder if that why they named him Sam. There are only 8 episodes this season and the show is done. No future seasons are going to be produced. The episodes are rather easy to follow for a time travel show and as I said one could pick it up at any time.

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