Monday, 24 May 2010

Time Is Not On Our Side

(Note: this started out as my SS v X article on Lucas Bishop - which will still hopefully materialise before the month is out - but in the end I managed to generate so much on the topic of time travel itself that I decided it was probably worth its own post.)

Time travel makes my head hurt. I think it makes an awful lot of people’s heads hurt. It’s frequently confusing, for one thing, because there are at least a half dozen fundamentally different ways to approach it and it’s frequently not clear which one has been chosen. It also has the dubious honour of being second only to virtual reality on the list of sci-fi concepts you can employ to rob your entire story of any dramatic consequences whatsoever and still be able to pretend you're not cheating.

As much as I like a good paradox, there’s something inherently frustrating about a time travel story. It’s like only half of you can be absorbed in it, because the other half is running simulations in some dark corner of your brain, trying to work out all the different ways the writer might be preparing to shaft you. Again, it’s just like the virtual reality/Matrix plot line. You spend every second of the last few minutes waiting for someone to discover they’re still inside. As much as I love T2, for example, I can sympathise entirely with anyone not on board with the idea that Skynet was actually created by its own creations, even before the eleventh hour twist that Skynet could also be prevented from being built by one of its own creations destroying itself. I don’t mean to imply the idea ruins T2, so much as I’m marvelling that the idea is in there and yet Cameron manages to make the film work. Plus, of course, not everyone who reaches for the Grandfather Paradox is James Cameron.

Beware the obligatory twist ending, in other words; that bane of late 90s and early 21st century horror films (at least). There’s nothing worse than a writer trying to be clever through the application of the most hackneyed device imaginable. Add it all up, and dealing with time travel is frequently exhausting. It might well not be coincidence that when the Star Trek franchise - arguably the most scurrilous of offenders in this regard - introduced us to those people within Starfleet whose job it was to keep track of all those temporal anomalies and errant era-hoppers they were portrayed either as dead-eyed bureaucratic misery-guts (Dulmer and Lucsly from the Department of Temporal Investigations) or ticking time bombs of goggle-eyed insanity (the captain of the USS Relativity). Of course, whilst that was a nice touch (the DTI especially just felt entirely right), it hardly makes up for getting us to that point in the first place. On the other end of the scale, Chris Carter swore he would never go anywhere near time-travel in the X-Files, apparently because he had similar concerns, and tellingly the one time he broke that promise, the episode in question was total shit.

Actually, the problem there wasn’t so much that time travel stories are inherently bad (which clearly isn‘t true, as proved by everything from the aforementioned T2 to Back to the Future to George R R Martin's Unsound Variations), so much as you need to be damned careful when you bolt them on to something else. If your viewers have spent the last 3 years watching Miles O’Brien keep DS9 together with spit and baling wire, they’re not necessarily going to be giddy with delight when he gets his ass entirely killed, irrespective of the fact that he’s immediately replaced with a time-displaced alternative. I mean, I’m not claiming to be Aristotle or anything, but a main character’s death is supposed to be a Big Fucking Deal, dramatically speaking. The vagaries of schedules and actor performance and ratings aside, I’d think the only reason you’d want to do it is because of said Big Fucking Deal-ness. The absolute last thing you ever want is for you to butcher a main character and have the audience shrug, so why the Hell would you do it yourself? [1]

With comics, this problem is very much compounded, because of the unique way in which they operate. Firstl, you have all the editorial mandates, either to satisfy the hundreds (thousands? Tens of thousands?) of fans clamouring for an immediate return to the comic era they personally believe represented the zenith of the era and who won‘t stop screaming until they get what they want [2], or as some kind of ridiculous attempt to shake up what they see as moribund and outdated back story (such as when Dark Beast and the Sugar Man were suddenly responsible for the Morlocks and Genosha, respectively, concepts introduced decades before those characters' were dreamt up). Then you have the exact opposite problem to such heavy-handed editorial dominance: dozens of different writers all playing in the same sandbox and trying not to step on each other’s toes, a difficult enough task when you only have the present to mess around with, bring in the fourth dimension and everyone can end up pretty screwed.

In fact, Marvel at one point dreamt up specific rules for its writers on the subject of time travel. Essentially, they stated that every act of time travel created a new dimension, meaning that whatever the time-traveller did in that dimension wasn’t technically relevant, because it wasn’t the same one as they had left. Needless to say, this is completely unworkable from the very moment one’s characters attempt to find their way home. Is that a new dimension, too? Is the new dimension we’re now reading about in X-Men the same as the one we just visited in Fantastic Four? It had the advantage of not enslaving the entire Marvel universe to the events portrayed in, say, Days Of Future Past or Askani’Son, but it was no less unworkable an idea in the long or even medium term.

That's the list of symptoms, then: lazy and hackneyed resolutions, developments that are catastrophically unsatisfying, the enabling of evil manipulations by dark lords in their darker towers, and pretty much fundamental chaos across the entirety of your fictional world of choice. So what's the treatment? Well, at best, you might be able to come up with better rules; ones that state whether or not the past can or can't be changed, and whether or not the future is fixed, but at that point you run the risk of making time travel boring, which is arguably even worse than frustrating. Besides, bending as many rules as possible is pretty much exactly what writers are designed to do. You want to test out whether a structure of laws is sound? You give it to a child, to an academic, or to a writer.

In truth, though, I'm not sure there is a solution beyond abstinence. The Marvel instruction guide I mentioned above was pretty clear: if you can't understand how these rules work, you have no business writing a time travel story. Well, amen to that. You could extend the idea to suggest that if you can't understand how the rules of storytelling still apply when time-travel is involved, then you shouldn't be allowed near a keyboarfd, but then "Hire better writers" is even more pointless of a recommendation than the one I'm already offering. Which is already pretty pointless. There's no way of getting around the fact that a total ban would have denied us both Days of Future Past and the Age of Apocalypse, and you'd have to be almost indescribably idiotic to suggest such a thing.

It's just... can we keep the noise down a little, please? Less is more, after all. And considering the first clue that a time-travel story is going to go off the rails is almost always too much having happened for the reset button to not need pressing, it would most definitely appear that more is less.

[1] Never knowingly outdone in the shitty storyline stakes, Voyager of course took this one stage further by killing Harry Kim and replacing him with a duplicate from another universe. Using my inestimable power of maths, I can state with utter certainty that this idea is at least ten million times worse. At least the ur-Chief was almost identical to the original - something like fifteen minutes younger or older, or something. Kim was from another freaking dimension. The dialogue for his induction scene on “our” Voyager had to specifically assure us that he was entirely identical, and it’s incomprehensible to me that when Braga was writing that scene it didn’t occur to him that if you’re having to literally tell your audience that the death of a main character has changed absolutely nothing, that you’ve got no fucking business involving yourself in the fiction biz.

[2] I guess it‘s a lot like feeding chicks, except you get paid for the privilege and also you fuck up Spiderman like a total dick. Also, was there anyone clamouring for the new status quo One More Day offered up?


Jamie said...

God that DS9 episode 'Visionary' annoyed me; even for a time-travel story it made no sense.

Senior Spielbergo said...

Miles O'Brian in DS9 was possibly my favourite Star Trek character of all time, and they had a habit of doing stories along that vein with him (one of the best episodes and at the same time worst carried through was Hard Time which suffered from exactly the same issue - but at least the episode itself was great).

SpaceSquid said...

Actually, I'd disagree regarding "Hard Time". Well, in part, at least. The problem there wasn't anything within the story itself, it was the total evaporation of the idea in-between that episode and the next. If I remember rightly they played the "He will never be the same again" card pretty heavily, which is the right way to do it, but then next week? Nothing.

The other episode that springs to mind regarding O'Brien weirdness is "Whispers", which I think is pretty awesome, if a little depressing.