One of the most common threads that can be found in the science fiction genre is that of time travel. From H.G Welles’ ‘The Time Machine’, to James Cameron’s ‘The Terminator’ series. You know, the concept has been around, for like, forever. It’s a deceptively simple sounding premise. People go back in time, or people go forward in time. That aspect, on it’s face, is the basic premise of the concept, but where it get’s interesting is when you start discussing the implications of time travel. Any self respecting group of nerds, with a couple of drinks in them, have probably talked about this stuff, because hypothetical conversations are fun! Well, they are to me. So, stuff it. There are so many theories out there. Like, the butterfly effect, and the creation of alternate timelines. The one that interests me the most is neither of those, actually. I’m not sure what the technical name is, for what I perceive to be the most plausible scenario, but I guess you could call it a “fatalists” approach to the concept. Whatever happened happened.
In most fiction that uses time travel as it’s plot device, the goal is usually to prevent something from happening. To ostensibly, change the past to effect the present. A good example would be the ‘Back to the Future‘ series. In that series, Marty is constantly repairing the timeline that he has unwittingly changed. The very existence of himself and those around him are at stake. We see Marty literally fading from existence right in front of our eyes, whenever Marty does something to threaten the relationship his parents were meant to have. This is where I start to have a problem with the way ‘Back to the Future‘ uses the time travel conceit. Well, calling it a “problem” might be an overstatement. I like ‘Back to the Future‘ just fine. It’s more of a nerdy annoyance, I guess you could call it. Logically, if Marty traveled back in time, he would have always have traveled back in time. So, everything he did while in the past always happened. I understand that Marty would not be aware of this, because even though it’s the past of the timeline he exists in it’s also his present. Even if he had been told about his actions by Doc Brown, or even his parents, he still would have ended up there. Even if he tried to actively avoid it. I mean, Marty travels back in time because of happenstance anyways. So, I don’t think his level of awareness would actually change anything. The sequence of events that take place in that series would have always have happened, otherwise, Marty would never have existed to travel back in time in the first place. In my opinion, the only way to make ‘Back to the Future‘ at all plausible, would be if we started talking about alternate timelines. Then we could argue about which Marty we are actually watching in the series. If Marty goes back and changes the way events play out in the past, then he would have created an alternate timeline that is independent of the one that he had been existing in. So, I guess you have to wonder if we are watching an alternate Marty. Does the timeline split as soon as he interacts with the past, or is it the alternate time from the get go? If that’s the case, then we are watching an alternate Marty, and have never actually seen the “original” Marty. It would be an alternate timeline to a timeline that is only implied in the films.
The series, ‘Lost‘, I think, is a good example of dealing with time travel, in what I feel, is a plausible fashion. In season five of the series, some of the cast spend most of the season skipping through time. For the majority of the season, the characters have the same belief about time travel that I do. Whatever happened happened, and they cannot actually change anything, because they always did it. The present is informed by the past. They traveled from a specific time in the present, and everything they do in the past creates the present they came from. Their actions are the past, even if it’s their present. It seems confusing, and my word choices probably don’t help, but it’s pretty simple stuff if you just take a moment and ponder it yourself… Done? Okay, we’ll move on. It isn’t until one of the characters dies that the concept of “changing things” comes into play. It’s a very human response to loss, and the fact that time travel, even in fictional scenarios, isn’t an exact science. It is an unknown enough of a quantity to hope you could change stuff. As the series goes on it falls in line with my ideas about time travel, but it’s a great ride because of the human elements at play. There is some really great foreshadowing, and definitely worth checking out if you haven’t already. Forgive the obtuse nature of this paragraph. I’m trying to be as vague as possible while still making my point. Because, you know, spoilers are for suckers.
My last example, may be slightly contentious with some of the nerd community. ‘Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines‘. Back when this movie came out, I had a similar reaction to what most people thought. ‘Terminator 2′ wasn’t exactly subtle with it’s central message. In fact, the last lines of the movie spoken by Sarah Connor, “Our fate is what we make of it,” is pretty on the nose. At the end of the movie, they had stopped judgement day, and now the future was theirs. It’s a pretty definitive ending, but when has that ever stopped a studio from making sequels? The answer is never, by the way. So, to make another flick in the series, they would have to disregard the ending, or at the very least, find a plausible explanation as to why terminators would still be coming back in time. I think the movie handles it pretty well. It’s explained that they had only delayed judgement day, and that’s all they could really ever hope to do. I kind of think that maybe the dates for judgement day were wrong, and what happens in the series narrative has always happened, but that’s just me. I mean, if civilization collapses and the world goes to shit, who is going to be concerned with keeping a calendar. Just a thought. Okay, I had to stretch a little bit to make that fit my “theory”, but whatever, you know?
Anyways, I’m not entirely sure why I have been thinking about this stuff for the past few days, but I have been. So, there you go. It’s an interesting topic for hypothetical discourse. So, the next time you’re hanging out drinking with friends, turn to one of them and say, “You know why ‘Back to the Future‘ is bullshit… No? Well, I’m about to tell you. Prepare yourself!”. It doesn’t have to be verbatim, but feel free to do so if you like.