So some of my favorite stories are time travel stories. Partly because it is interesting to think what the future would be like, but also what it would be like to go into the past. Sometimes Time Travel is the main part of the story, other times it is a by product, and then other times it can be used as a Deus Ex Machina to solve all problems. In any way it is used it is still interesting how it is used and the rules that the creator sets up around said time travel.
As David and I were discussing this post we came up with three areas that we felt define the differences in time travel stories. One, how is time travel possible? Two, how does time travel affect the greater universe and timeline? Three, how does time travel affect the traveller?
How is Time Travel Possible?
Obviously, there are theories about how time travel would really be possible, but what is great about stories is the reason can really be anything. Some of the question is do you explain the time travel or not, and is it “magical” or scientific?
If the storyteller chooses not to explain how the time travel works it is not a bad thing. Sometimes it is the idea that we are the people who are living in the past of the time traveller and thus it is some thing that has not been discovered or invented yet and is possibly outside our understanding. Some people see this as a cop out, but I really do not mind. In the end how many people really know how certain things that they use today work? Think of simply turning on a computer – or better yet starting a car – if you don’t know how it works, it might as well be an unexplainable force that just makes it happen.
Which brings us to the other way to explain time travel and that is magic (basically something that cannot be explained). This is sort of along the lines of not really explaining it, but in a way that brings in some magic item or tool that makes it possible. In the world of Harry Potter, magic exists to do so many things – so it is not a hard leap to think that someone invented an item that could mess with time. Now in Harry Potter they could only really go into the past, but in many other stories they use this magical, unexplainable object or ability to travel all directions in time. It all depends on the rules they have decided on for time travel in their story.
The final explanation for how time travel is possible is science or pseudo-science. Usually this is some scientific observation or invention that has not been discovered yet that is still tied to current real world science. In Back to the Future Doc Brown has a eureka moment to discover the flux capacitor. Still grounded in science and invention but something that currently does not really exist or hasn’t been proven yet (i.e. black holes being time travel pathways). Now when time travel is explained using science the rules can be very important because there was a specific method used (reach 88 mph), and you may end up stuck in a different time if you cannot recreate the method.
How does time travel affect the world and the timeline?
I would consider this one of the biggest questions when discussing time travel because the implications from the different possibilities have interesting moral implications. If you went into the past and killed Hitler how would that change the present? Or how does any time travel affect the points of time to the future? It is similar to Chaos Theory where a butterfly flaps it wings one place and causes a tornado some place else. Of course this depends on what the storyteller has decided the effect will be.
One option is that even with time travel, the way things have happened have already happened and are therefore not changed. One well-known example of this is Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. Harry and Hermione only thought things had happened a certain way, but really they had in their future and in the past already saved Buckbeak and Sirius. Their going into the past did not actually change any of the experiences for them, but just explained what happened. As Harry explains to Hermione about the patronus, “I knew I could do it because I’d already done it.”
Another option is that any change you make changes the timeline. In Isaac Asimov’s End of Eternity this is taken to the extreme, where they are purposefully trying to make changes to the timeline. They do so by making the smallest changes in the past to create the least negative effect possible in the future. Someone figures out that getting someone to break down on their way to an interview 50 years earlier will change the outcome of a war, but at the same time 1 million people will cease to exist in the future.
Now usually we think of the past affecting the future, but there are times (Doctor Who, Final Fantasy XIII-2) where the future can also affect the past. A change in one point in time can cause ripples that not only ripple forward, but backward in time. Bad Wolf and Doctor Donna are two examples of this which we will explore in later posts. This does not even go into the concept of a paradox and how that is dealt with from a story perspective.
How does time travel affect the traveller?
Now this can be some of the more interesting storytelling methods, especially if we are experiencing the story from the perspective of the traveller. One of the methods I think we see most often is that the traveller themselves, by traveling through time, becomes removed from the timeline and therefore is unaffected by the changes made. In Back to the Future 2 Biff ends up stealing the time machine in the future to go to the past to change his personal future. Marty, when he ends up going back to his personal current timeline, finds everything changed but has no memory of what happened. Even though Biff created an alternate timeline, Marty still has all the memories from the old timeline. He was removed from the time, so the timeline changing did not change him or his memories.
Alternately, the time traveller can be affected by changes to the timeline, especially if they relate to their personal time. An example of this is new Doctor Who series 5 with the crack in time and space. When someone falls through the crack it is like they never existed. Amy, during her travels with the Doctor, has a group of soldiers who go through the crack in time one by one. As each soldier goes through the crack the other soldiers forget them and think they never existed, but Amy remembers them because it is outside of her personal timeline. Then at a different point Rory gets pulled into the crack, and even though it is not during her home time, because he is part of her personal timeline it affects her.
While that is an example of it affecting the traveller based on their personal timeline, other stories have made it so that any change that could affect the traveller personally changes the traveller. For example, if a change would alter how a traveller grew up, their memory would change so that they remember the new timeline and have no recollection of the old life, or perhaps have competing memories. This has the possibility to cause problems because what if you change something and forget what you were doing in the past or never travel to the past in the first place (wibbley-wobbley timey-whimey)?
The end is the beginning is the end
So these are just a few examples, obviously there are more iterations of each of these, but David and I felt that these hit the base of what the time travel stories we have read and seen are built upon. Of course this does not even go in to the idea of alternate universes / timelines or paradoxes, but that is a whole other can of worms to explore later. The complexity of time travel is part of what makes it such an interesting storytelling device and also might be what we LOVE about Doctor Who.
So this is the end, but also the beginning, because we will continue to explore time travel in our favorite stories and how it is used, as well as exploring some of the nuances of time travel. What is a time travel story or concept you would like us to explore and / or what is your favorite time travel story?