I’ve never cared much for time travel stories. There’s a simple reason for this. Due to recording far too early in the morning and without enough coffee, I didn’t explain it (or anything else) on the podcast very well so here it is again. Hopefully I can do better in writing. Again without enough coffee.
The premise that drives most time travel stories is the fear of, or complications arisen from, altering the past and thus altering your present or future. You know, the old gimmick about going back in time and doing something where your grandma was never born and you wink (or in worse stories slowly fade) out of existence. It’s a cute premise and writers have delighted in twisting it into progressively more convoluted webs of cause and effect. I will admit, they can fun stories. except there’s a logical flaw I can’t get over.
These stories are based on the notion there has been a version of history that goes up to the point in time where the time traveller goes back in time. There is a 1955 without the presence Marty McFly since he obviously hadn’t been born yet. Then he’s born, meets Doc Brown and in 1985 he goes back to 1955 and the highest of jinks ensue. Awesome. It’s a fun time.
The logical problem is this: there would not be a 1955 where he didn’t go back in time. When 1955 rolls around, so would Marty McFly in the DeLorean. The plot operates on the assumption Marty couldn’t be in 1995 until he travels back in time from 1985. Except as soon as he travels back from1985 he’s already done so, thirty years earlier, in 1955. There simply could not be two separate 1955s, one with, and one without, Marty McFly playing Chuck Berry songs. Just the one, the one with Marty fighting off his mom with a stick in his Calvin Kleins and discovering his dad’s a peeping tom named Crispin Glover.
With Back to the Future, I can accept this flawed logic. It’s a comedy and the story is a lot more fun with Marty scrambling to make sure his parents hook-up and changing the 1985 he returns to for the better. Which, by the movie’s own logic, doesn’t make sense because if he’d changed that 1985, circumstances would have been changed so that the chain of events that lead to him going back in time wouldn’t have happened and he wouldn’t have gone back in time to change it. But fuck it. It’s Michael J. Fox and the movie’s awesome. But many time travel stories use this logic and I can’t take them as seriously as they require me to.
Time travel stories that work better, take into consideration that time that has occurred, has occurred. An example might be The Terminator. When the time traveller goes back in time and their actions bring about the circumstances that lead to them travelling back in time, it’s a nice neat closed circuit loop.
My problem at this point is either there’s no dramatic tension because you know it’s going to work out to a pre-ordained future/present, or they’re going to change the past which, as I’ve said, I can’t swallow unless it’s Michael J. Fox.
As far as whether or not I believe time travel is possible, there’s proof it’s not. Time travellers are not showing up anywhere. Some people say, Well, maybe they just haven’t invented it yet. This falls prey to the same flaw in logic I’ve outlined. If someone was going to travel back to 1955, they would have shown up in 1955 and we’d know. The counter argument is, What if they successfully disguised themselves? My response is, Are we talking about the same fallible species of fuck-ups and selfish opportunists? There’s no way humans will ever time travel covertly. We will always be way too incompetent for that. Unless we evolve into small grey munchkins with big black eyes, become anally facinated and our time-machines are saucer-shaped, I don’t think we’ve visited ourselves from the future.
I’m not sure I’ve explained my stance on time travel any better than I did in the episode. Which you can listen to here.
Thanks to Elton McManus of the Apotheosis of a Bombast podcast for the topic suggestion (time travel, not porn).
Links: Poland was totally under communist rule; Robotic Forest Gump suits; Time Cat; Peter Pond was not a crazy axe-murdering cannibal; Deadwood; Minority Report commercials; Life expectancy calculator.
This week’s task: Go back in time and change something.