I don’t mind time travel. I like it to make sense, but how would I know, exactly, what that would look like? I was once reading some reviews of Looper, which, frankly, I found to be quite a respectable depiction of time travel, as I understand it, which I don’t, which is kind of the point, but in one review a person said something about how that particular film contravenes everything we know about time travel. One of the responses was, “WE DON’T KNOW ANYTHING ABOUT TIME TRAVEL!”
I thought that was fair.
You may have noticed that I’m a fan of science fiction. I like it on paper as much as on film. It doesn’t have to be fancy. It can range from something with a newly created disease, like Frank Herbert’s The White Plague, which, why isn’t this a movie already? to space travel a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. My preference is for stories where a small thing is different and it leads to a lot of other things, based in my interest in the consequences of one’s actions. Time travel doesn’t really fall into that framework, it’s kind of a big deal, but at its heart, it’s about how changing one thing changes a lot of other things, which is the case for any action. There’s always a lot of panic in movies, TV, and books about how the present will be changed when we travel into the past, but how would we know, exactly, that it had been?
How do we know that someone hasn’t already invented time travel? I say “already” because, well, it’s time travel, right? so when it’s invented in one time, it’s effectively invented in all times. The time line gets changed, we don’t know what happened before, big deal, it’s what happened before; no one notices the change because nothing’s changed. But that wouldn’t make for a very interesting movie, would it?
A lot of time travel shows are concerned with how to make things better now by fixing things in the past. Last posting discussed Quantum Leap at length and we see the same theme in movies like 13 Monkeys, where they want to stop an outbreak, and Yesterday’s Enterprise, that episode of ST:TNG where they’re suddenly at war with the Klingons again, although in this situation they’re trying to restore the original timeline, but again, who’s to say what’s original? As far as the new timeline’s concerned, this is their life. They’ve already met the mirror universe, their time line is original to them, so it’s hard to say what the Right Choice is. Obviously, though, everyone wants to get back to their own universe. Unless their universe sucks (the Borg are everywhere!), or they’re dead in it (poor Yar).
Speaking of the mirror universe, Star Trek is rife with timeline changes, which is why I had absolutely no difficulty with the reboot. Canon didn’t change, and what’s important in Star Trek is the themes, not the actions. The major complaint is that the original series’ events no longer exist, but they co-existed with various timelines within the TV series itself. In the original series, our heroes appreciate the Federation and Star Fleet that much more after they see how things are different with different choices. The mirror universe continues into the newer versions, especially in Deep Space 9: Crossover, where Nana Visitor is at her scenery chewing best awesomeness EVAR as the station Intendant. There’s also the ST:TNG episode, Parallels where Worf returns from a tournament and becomes unstuck in various realities, possibly having moved through some kind of space-time mumbo-jumbo, crossing timelines where events have transpired to create very different universes, including many in which he is married to Deanna Troi, leading to a different direction in his personal life when he returns to his original timeline. While these episodes do not depict history as subjective, exactly, it is highly malleable depending on circumstances.
There are also films where the point is to avoid changing the timeline but where it’s still important to go back in time. I’m thinking here of Terminator, and Millennium — the one with Cheryl Ladd and Kris Kristofferson, not the other one. If you haven’t seen the latter, it’s worth a watch. The story is well structured and you have to figure out what’s going on; it doesn’t spoon feed the plot. There are some overly cheesy love story elements at the very, very end, but otherwise a movie that would have been very successful if it had A-list actors in it, or at least not actors who, shall we say, had made some poor career choices. Ladd and Kristofferson do a good job, don’t get me wrong, but it would be like making the X-Men today with Kurt Russell and Darryl Hannah or Sean Young; the movie might be good, and the actors do a good job, but no one would watch it. Anyhow, in those films, they are desperately trying to not change the past, are even trying to strengthen it. In Millenium, when a change happens in the timeline, there is a kind of quake; time literally shakes, causing ripples and rifts as it progresses through the years. Future people, who are in the past when the change is made, return to their own timeline and are aware of the differences, but to the people who remain in the future, the timeline is the way it has always been.
In terms of intentionally changing the present, there’s an episode of TV that’s stuck with me: the X-Files’ Synchrony. An old man shows up on a university campus and predicts various occurrences and kills, or tries to kill, a few different people. Eventually, Mulder figures out that the old man is a time traveller from the future trying to correct his earlier actions to make things right. The man (his name is Jason) almost succeeds in killing his entire former circle, including his younger self (only one body is found afterward), missing only his old girlfriend. The old man tells Mulder that he and his younger friends created something (a compound or a machine, I can’t remember) that made time travel possible, thereby making “a world without history.” Jason used his own technology to stop it in its tracks—his own version of going back in time to kill Hitler, although in his scenario, he’s the villain. It is revealed in the course of the story that Scully had written a paper on time travel, and this got me thinking, in later seasons, that maybe the Smoking Man, rather than possibly being Mulder’s father, was actually Mulder, back from the future to fix things he’d done wrong. It would have explained the cryptic nature of the Smoking Man’s communication, his seeming affection for Scully without being creepy, and the disdain of Mulder’s mother. I could easily see Mulder thinking this might be the way to fix things, in his older years, and the best bad guys are the ones who do the wrong things for the right reasons (see: Magneto). Before the end of the series, I had the opportunity to share this idea with William B. Davis. He liked it, but it looks like it wasn’t something that had occurred to the writers as the X-Files’ arc continued its weirdly futile and pointless path.
The most recent example of this idea of going back to fix things is X-Men: Days of Future Past. I haven’t read that specific run of comics so I’m going only by the movie. Based only on the previews, I don’t think anyone would be spoiled if I said that in this film, no one will be disappointed if this timeline simply stops. In fact, that’s what they’re aiming for. Ideals we find in Star Trek, with everyone working together despite their differences is the very antithesis of almost all of the X-Men series, but especially in this film. Humans have so turned against mutants that even those who have the potential to have mutant grandchildren have been targeted. This evokes the holocaust, and harkens back to Magneto’s personal history, as people with only one Jewish grandparent were considered Jews and subject to the Final Solution. In this film it appears there’s only one timeline, and when you change something in the past, the future (or present?) disappears. No muss, no fuss. There’s a judgment implied, that the timeline that is being changed is fundamentally wrong, and given the holocaust analogy, I’d say they’re probably right, but to the non-mutant humans, a few mutants have proven themselves a danger to everything. I know, anyone can be a danger – any tool is a weapon if you hold it right – but ordinary humans can’t compete with a man who can manipulate magnetic fields, or a woman who can read minds and move things telekinetically. If those people go bad, the inclination is to shoot first and ask questions later.
The philosophy of who’s right and who’s wrong is not what I’m trying to talk about , although it is important; this article is about time travel. This X-Men movie neatly bypasses discussion of alternate timelines or the effect any changes to the past will have on the future; the past is simply the past. The present we live in is as it has always been. Only one person knows what the present used to be, to everyone else, it’s as it is. It retcons a lot of stuff, granted, but its depiction of time travel is kind of the way I’ve always seen it. I understand that alternate timelines are considered possible, even likely, by actual scientists, but in terms of how it’s presented in fiction, this has always seemed the most likely scenario to me: one timeline, one past, one present. Nothing changed.
I started thinking about this a few weeks ago during a conversation about memory. Memory is important to any discussion of time travel because what we remember may or may not be affected by changing the past. In Star Trek, every mirror universe and alternate timeline has its own history and each split creates a new version of every person who ever lived, each with his or her own memories of a given situation. In Millennium, a time quake resonates through time as everything is reset, but there’s only one timeline and anyone in the present when it changes remembers things as they’ve ‘always been.’ I imagine it’s like that in Terminator, Looper,and a lot of other movies involving time travel; only people who were in the past know what the present used to be. I thought that Wolverine’s memories were interesting in DOFP because he had none from the period between when he went into the river and when he returned to the right year in the new present. It would certainly provide a good reason for Wolverine’s general negative outlook on things; he would know better than anyone how things might have turned out.
Anyhow, I got on this track via a conversation with a friend about a specific event. He remembered things I didn’t, and vice versa. I also recall going through some email print outs from years back. I’d printed the emails only a couple of years before, but I had no recollection of some of the events as recorded on paper. I ended up burning most of them in the fireplace because I didn’t want to remember some of them, coming out of a discussion of a volatile friendship, in order to have a chance of remaining friends. Those memories are gone. I don’t even remember what I read. I also recently had a discussion of certain events of which I have a clear and reasonably good, if not fond memory, but which a friend recalls me relating with horror, and which completely changed his perception of a mutual friend to one of disdain and distrust. I can’t even imagine having presented events in the manner he recalls as I have no negative impressions of what happened and have remained friends myself with the mutual friend, with no change in my perception of him. I was mind boggled that I could have been so misinterpreted.
These are only a couple of situations that I recall differently from other people, but we’ve all had it happen where something that had great personal meaning for ourselves is not even remembered by the person we were with when it happened, and vice versa. Everything resonates differently with different people, but it got me wondering, what if that were a way of registering that our timeline had changed or split? It allows for residual recollection of some event but we’d simply dismiss the discrepancy as poor memory. How often have any of us waved off some confusion as ‘getting older’ or ‘I must have been drunk?’ This might also account for alternate timelines; we’re ‘remembering,’ or not, events that happened in a branch separate from our current universe. Perhaps déjà vu might function in a similar fashion. This is a little disconcerting, that somewhere we each exist differently as a result of choices by ourselves or others, but I like to think that somewhere I am a famous writer, or travelling the world, or with the man I lived a whole life with one evening. I’ve made a lot of conscious choices and sometimes I wish I’d done it differently. Maybe somewhere I did, and one version of me can’t quite recall teaching in Thailand, but wishes she had, or that she followed that man across the continent to be with him the way he wanted, and she can’t imagine ever having done it differently. Maybe all my wishes and hopes have been accomplished somewhere, and even if they’re not remembered exactly that way by myself or my friends, it makes me glad to consider it happened, because then all things are truly possible. I don’t have to go back and change things, because they’re already different, somewhere.
I still have to work on the famous writer and world traveller things, though, because I’d like to remember that in this timeline.