"Don't do anything that affects anything, unless it turns out you were supposed to do it, in which case, for the love of God, don't not do it!"
- Professor Hubert J Farnsworth
That first time I saw the 1960 movie of H.G. Wells' The Time Machine was something. For a start, it was the first film I ever watched all the way through (Who had time to sit through a whole film when there was so much going on outside in the street?) It gripped me from start to finish. I was wowed by the Oscar winning effects of the accelerated passage of time and disturbed by the shiny-eyed Morlocks who remained in my dreams for many months afterwards. But the scene that blew my mind was one where the inventor gathers his friends at a table around a model of his machine for a demonstration. He then sends the machine forward in time and it... disappears. He explains that it has not moved in space but because it is travelling in time it's no longer visible. This image had got me thinking. Time travel had its hooks in me
The idea of travelling in time is ancient, but the means of leaving one's time in these stories was typically a great sleep or some magical or supernatural influence. Wells' idea of a machine that could be controlled was new. Although The Time Machine succeeds as a "fantastic tale" (which is why it appealed to movie makers), Wells distanced himself from fantasists. He insisted he was writing "speculative fiction", in other words he was imagining what a time machine might really be like, and how time travel might affect someone, but basing his speculation on the sum of knowledge available at the time. The book is also an allegory about his own society's strict social stratification and the harm it might do. In this sense it is part of a tradition of "admonition" stories where a character - such as Marley's ghost in A Christmas Carol - presents a vision of some terrible future to warn of the consequences of not amending present behaviour.
In fitting with the author's own preoccupation, Wells' unnamed time traveller chooses to venture into the future. The 1979 film Time After Time makes Wells himself the time traveller, with the premise that Jack the Ripper has absconded with his time machine (the mystery of jack's sudden disappearance from Victorian London is solved!) and it is Wells' duty to pursue him. In a terrifically entertaining story encompassing real suspense, fish-out-of-water comedy (Seeing Wells' Victorian tweeds Amy asks: "Is that what they're wearing in London?". "It was when I left", comes the reply.) and romance (Wells falls in love with Amy Robbins his real life second wife) what's also interesting is the carefully thought out "rules" of time travel employed. The Ripper takes Wells' machine, but it automatically returns. Wells follows and finds himself in San Francisco in 1979 where the machine, regarded as a mock up, is part of an exhibition about the celebrated writer of The Time machine. He finds himself here because that's where the machine is in 1979. A security guard chides him for being in the exhibit - in other words he has "materialised" inside the machine which was already there. Later we discover after returning to his own time Wells rendered the machine inoperative which is how it ended up as a museum exhibit. At the end of Time After Time the disembodied Ripper is sent drifting through time. In the Star Trek episode Wolf In The Fold a disembodied Jack The Ripper turns up on the Enterprise, having accompanied humanity on its journey to the stars. In a neat twist Nicholas Meyer, the writer/director of Time After Time, was hired to work on the screenplay of Star Trek 4 in which the crew of the Enterprise travel back through time to - guess! - modern day San Francisco. :
What Time After Time demonstrates is that - time travel or no - a cracking story is a cracking story, but if you are going to use TT as a plot device, it helps to figure out the rules of time travel, or at least the rules best suited to your own story. In the South Park episode Goobacks, a satire on immigration where people from the future have come back in time in search of jobs, a news reporter explains:
"(This is) time travel which scientists say follows Terminator rules - that is: one way only. This is in contrast to Back To The Future rules where travel back and forth is possible, and Timerider rules which are just plain silly".
In typical South Park style the solution to the Gooback problem is for the men of South Park to participate in an enormous gay gang bang to prevent future overpopulation.
Because no-one knows whether time travel is possible or how it would work the writer of time travel fiction has a certain degree of lattitude when draughting stories. However travel into the past or stories involving multiple trips present so many pitfalls that it really helps if the writer has considered at length what happens when (to use Professor Hubert Farnsworth's colourful phrase) you "tear the universe a new space hole".
H.G. Wells didn't have much to work with but several new scientific ideas developed in the 20th century give pointers on how TT might work.
Indeed, I say Time travel may not be possible but Einstein showed that, for a vehicle accelerating at enormous speeds, a time difference from its point of origin was not only possible it was inevitable. The opening scene of Planet Of The Apes consists of a lengthy monologue where Charlton Heston explains how the astronauts have travelled 2000 years into the future in just 18 months. Here we see a weakness of TT fiction; either screentime must be devoted to explanation or nothing will be explained leaving the viewer confused. Although not explaining can be used to your advantage - in sequel Escape From The Planet Of The Apes three apes from a pre-industrial society pilot Heston's damaged ship back through time sans any awkward explanatory monologue.
Future travel may be only a question of engineering but real difficulties arise with the question of time travel into the past. The smart money is still on this being impossible, but there's no story in that. Equally the possibility that you could somehow go back to witness events and return safely provided you didn't interfere in any way makes for a boring story. Writers have no interest in the girl who doesn't investigate the noise in the basement. There are many reasons for going back in time - like In the 2000AD strip Flesh where people travel back to the era of dinosaurs to hunt them for their meat (I don't think it's explicitly stated in the text, but i always assumed the implication was that time travel caused the extinction of the dinosaurs and therefore the rise of the mammals). In Time Bandits a bunch of small people exploit a time map to pillage swag they feel is owed to them for their role in helping to create the universe). In 12 Monkeys Bruce Willis is sent back to investigate the cause of a global catastrophe.
But by far the most common motive for backtravelling is to fix something. This is despite the fact that the time machine operator in Spanish movie Timecrimes tells us that "This machine doesn't fix problems, it causes them". And, as this character is played by the writer/director Nacho Vigalondo, we might consider this "knocking down of the fourth wall" a warning worth heeding.
The thing to remember about "Fix" stories is that they are as much about what just unhappened, as they are about what happened. And going back in time to fix something is all well and good as long as you heed Stevie Wonder's warning:
"Opening Pandora's Box
May leave you in a Past Time Paradox".
In the simplest interpretation of time travel the past is rigid and cannot be changed (One might say Nothing can Unhappen). Although this doesn't sound very promising for storytellers, in fact, it is returned to frequently for "tales of the unexpected" style stories. A typical example would be the Twilight Zone episode Cradle of Darkness where a time agent is sent back to between-the-wars Germany to assassinate baby Hitler. She becomes the family's nanny and, overcoming her empathetic nature, eventually leaps into a river with the baby killing them both. The Hitlers fill the void by acquiring another baby from a gypsy woman (irony!) and this baby turns out to be Adolf. So by her actions the nanny has caused history to happen as it should. There is much fun to be had from these "self fulfilling" stories. I have seen one strange tale where a fan accidentally kills Elvis and is then obliged to live his life, and another where a traveller encounters Shakespeare during a writers' block, tells him how his play ends, and is rewarded by being imprisoned by Shakespeare and made to write the rest of The Bard's works from memory (good memory!). Where writers trip up here is in introducing new information. In the infamous Back to The Future scene ("Chuck, it's your cousin Marvin. Marvin Berry") Chuck Berry hears "that new sound" he's "been looking for" over the phone as Michael J Fox is onstage performing one of Chuck's own compositions. In Quantum Leap Sam Beckett gives a young Michael Jackson a demonstration of "The Moonwalk". This dilemma, where time travel can allow an idea to materialise from thin air, is so common it has a name, "The Bootstrap Paradox" (like pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps). My favourite example of this is in the aforementioned Star Trek 4 (Star Trek is the show, remember, which coined the term "The Prime Directive", which values non-interference above all) where Scotty gives an engineer the information to construct transparent aluminium, and when challenged responds "How do we know he didn't invent it?".
In Timecrimes things are even more bizarre as Héctor the protagonist finds himself doing some very strange things only because he has already seen himself do them (still, if you must be caught in a logical time loop, one where you get a pretty young Spanish girl to remove her top is not the worst). In the sequence we see events unfold, we intuitively feel Héctor has a choice in how he acts but logic tells us he does not. (Héctor thinks so too. At one point he tries to defy the inevitable by throwing way his walkie-talkie only for another to fall into his hand later. He picks it up with a gesture of resignation). It's no good protesting about this as the whole premise of backtravel is that if I witnessed a traffic accident yesterday then when I go back these events must unfold in exactly the same way like re-running a tape. These other players do not have free will.
In The Terminator Kyle Rees is sent from a machine-ruled future to pursue a cyborg bent on killing Sarah Connor before she can give birth to the man who will lead the human resistance. It turns out Kyle Rees is the father of resistance leader John Connor. This is a genuine causality loop as, unless the Terminator is sent back to prevent his birth, John Connor will not be born. Such a loop is logically tidy but it has implications for the role of free will in the distant future. The man John Connor is not free to choose who to send back. As the series goes on more difficulties emerge. For example, you can't but wonder during Terminator 3, as John Connor races against the clock to prevent the "Judgement Day" apocalypse, whether he'd be better off letting the bombs fall (knowing he somehow survives to be a legendary resistance leader) than stopping them (and, possibly, blinking out of existence). Mind, the actor playing JC in T3 (Nick Stahl) pretty much blinked out of existence anyway.
If time travel has such implications for free will, both in the past and the future, it might be reasonable to ask whether a universe where time travel is possible is incompatible with one in which there is free will. As it happens, there are serious scientists who believe that ours is a deterministic universe and free will is an illusion. Determinism is the idea that if you had complete information on all the particles in the universe at a single moment you could predict future events with precision. And you could just as easily wind things backwards, like one of those mechanical models of the solar system. But you wouldn't be limited to predicting the movements of astral bodies, you could actually forecast the actions of people too. This theory was scuppered by the discovery of bizarre probabilistic behaviour of subatomic particles. While quantum weirdness tortured physicists for decades it was good news for time travel fiction, as we'll see later.
The alternative to a past that is rigid, is one with some amount of elasticity, like toffee. What this means is that small changes are actually possible (you can pull at the toffee slightly, it will distort, but retain its overall structural integrity) but "historically significant" changes are strongly resisted (if you yank too hard the toffee senses it will be permanently damaged and pulls back). Things Can Be Made To Unhappen, But With Difficulty. This idea is explored in detail in Stephen King's most recent book 11.22.63. A schoolteacher discovers a route into 1958 and decides to prevent the assassination of John F Kennedy. What he finds is that "The past is obdurate. It resists change" and the greater the change the more powerful is the resistance. This takes the form of suddenly getting the trots on your day of destiny or fluke motor accidents which delay your progress. But what does it even mean to say that the past is resisting change?
Some stories resemble the plot of the Final destination movies, where fate will not be denied. In the 2002 remake of The Time machine Guy Pearce watches his fiancée die and then builds a time machine so he can go back and save her. Building the machine turns out to be the easy part (Einstein is a pen pal) but when the events of the tragic night are re-run his fiancée just dies in a different way. Fate will not be denied; the past, as if having a will of its own, refuses to be changed.
Sometimes the timeline has visible guardians. In the Doctor Who episode Father's Day, The Doctor brings Rose to the moment of her dad's death so she can be with him when he dies. Rose can't resist saving her father's life which causes a wound in time. Soon Pterodactyl-like monsters appear which, The Doctor says, have come to "sterilise the wound". (Personally, I like this metaphor, as the idea of time being "conscious" bothers me, but the notion that it would resist unravelling as a body would unthinkingly resist bacterial contamination seems plausible. It's funny how you will accept all sorts and then baulk at one further fiction; I accept the plausibility of all the X Men, and then they introduce one who can instantaneously teleport across the world, and I want to kick in the telly with disgust).
Incidentally, Rose is responsible for one of my favourite virgin time traveller moments. The first time she travels into the past, as she steps out of the Tardis, she stops to look with wonder at her own footprint in the 100 year old snow. In contrast, The Doctor is a veteran of time travel the very first time we meet him. He knows bringing Rose back to that day is risky (it's the only time we see him cross his own timeline) and he's immediately aware her actions are catastrophic. Oddly though, he is unanware of one of the staples of Time travel fiction, which is that everything will be fine provided you put things back approximately the way they were. It is Rose's Dad who realises he must be let himself be killed by the car that should have already killed him. Not close, but close enough to send the Terrordactyls back to bed.
The Doctor is a veteran, but we meet most time travellers just before their first journey. This is in sharp contrast to bankrobbers, for example, who we usually meet just before they are coerced into doing "one last job". That first time trip is often a chastening experience necessitating the destruction of the apparatus. This is one of the reasons you don't see many second hand time machines in Exchange & Mart. One particularly memorable Future Shock in 2000AD featured a time traveller whose machine resembled a huge computer in his bedroom. After engaging the machine he looks out his window to see the same street outside. In a fit of rage, he smashes his machine to pieces. The next panel is a long shot, showing his entire street has been transported back in time, and is now surrounded by hungry dinosaurs.
"This time travels s**t fries your brain like an egg" (Jeff Daniels, Looper)
Contrast the Bruce Willis of 12 Monkeys, being interviewed by a panel of psychiatrists -
"So you're from the future after a war?".
"Are you here to save us?"
" How can I save you? It's already happened".
with Bruce's character in the film Looper, who we have just seen living a great life on the proceeds of executing his older self while a young man, now trying to save himself from this brutal "retirement".
"How can he save himself?", asks 12 Monkeys Bruce, "It's already happened".
Welcome to the world of parallel universes; the place where Nothing Truly Unhappens. An infinity of universes seems like the ultimate get out clause (it does resolve some of the paradoxes of other theories of time travel). Furthermore it is inspired by hard science, more specifically the Many Worlds Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics. Most people have heard the idea of Schrodinger's Cat - the thought experiment used to explain the strange nature of the quantum wave function. The idea is that the cat remains in a state of "superposition", neither alive nor dead until it is observed to be so. This is a metaphor for the very real phenomenon of the collapsing of the quantum wave function which happens only upon observation. Since it was postulated it has made people uneasy as it implies a subjective universe where the observer interacts with the observable world to manufacture reality. It's as if a particle "decides" what to be only when observed. The many worlds interpretation sidesteps this problem by suggesting that all possible histories happen but each takes place in a separate universe (we might say on a different timeline). In this universe I see a spin "up". At that instant, in a parallel universe another version of me sees a spin "down". So one explanation for what we see in Looper is that when Bruce returns to the moment of his execution, by saving himself, he has opened another timeline. For Bruce, the future he has come from immediately begins to disappear (he says his memories "aren't really memories") and nothing he does can possibly affect the future from which he has come. It's a highfalutin' idea for a blockbuster movie but it poses a problem for the writer and his audience which is this: what is Bruce's motive? What does he hope to achieve? We are used to the idea that people travel back to the past to fix things, but now Bruce has left a future he can never fix. Perhaps his motive is pure revenge? His intention is to kill "The Rainmaker" (again, you'd be tempted to think this is "fixing" - stopping his adult future, but maybe it's just murderous revenge?). He also invades local mob chief Jeff Daniels' lair and shoots everything that moves. Now that definitely looks like revenge. There's also the curious exchange between Bruce and his younger self (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) in the diner to consider. Bruce tells him about the murder of his lover. JGL vows never to speak to her (thus, he reasons, saving her life in the future) but Bruce isn't interested in this.
Nowhere in the film are we told that this fork-in-the-road model of multiple universes is in play, but it's the closest thing to a logical explanation for the fantastic scene where a runaway looper sees his limbs disappear as he flees in the same real time as his younger self is mutilated. It also explains JGL's method of communicating with Bruce by scarring himself.
One wonders whether Jeff Daniels' quote, above, is the writer being coy. Or is it the entirely plausible scenario that, in a world where time travel is illegal, and is used by the mob as just another earner, alongside drugs and prostitution,, why should we imagine that the hoodlums would understand how it works? In the same way gangsters must employ chemists to cook their Methamphetamine, we can imagine guys with guns standing over scientists who work the time machines.
In Robert Zemeckis' Back To The Future (which we can now read as a remarkably prescient warning about how bad things happen when teenagers spend time alone with eccentric white haired old men), Marty returns to the future to see the results of his handiwork. He is now on a split timeline so returning to the family as he left them is impossible. Unless the timeline is split there is no way Doc could read Marty's note and act upon it. As with The Terminator films, in the BTTF sequels they completely lose control of the time narratives and the logic unravels.
Although the many worlds interpretation was conceived as a way of extricating us from a subjective universe, using it to explain away the difficulties of time travel stories pushes subjectivity back to the fore. I said that in the 1990 version of The Time Machine Guy Pearce's fiancée is killed so he constructs a time machine to go back to prevent her death. But if he succeeds all he will really be doing is switching himself from the tragic timeline where his wife died to the happy future where she did not. The many worlds interpretation would suggest that the universe in which she dies is still there and is no less real than the one Guy Pearce would prefer to occupy.
And if this isn't bothering you, consider another interpretation of the multiverse - the multiple reboot (Everything Unhappens). A feature of the rules of Stephen King's universe in 11.22.63 is that "every time is the first time" . Whenever the protagonist travels through the "rabbit hole" he comes out at precisely the same moment in 1958. Any changes that happen, happen in real time. Rather conveniently - and, it seems to me illogically - returning through the rabbit hole brings you straighforwardly back to the present you left (minus two minutes). If you go back down the rabbit hole you return to the same moment you entered the first time, and anything that you altered on your first trip is erased. Whatever implications this has for logic and for the nature of reality it has serious implications for storytelling as the question arises how do you maintain suspense, or a sense of danger, in a world which can be completely re-edited. Stephen King's great idea is to drop his protagonist into 1958 so he must live in the past for five full years before he can achieve what he has set out to do. Thus his story becomes about falling in love while living a lie, becoming seduced by fifties life and thus having a stake in the past, and - even in a world that is capable of multiple revisions - knowing every attempt at this mission will cost five years of your life so being under pressure to get it right first time.
Lunopolis is a remarkable film about a conspiracy combining Moon landing secrets, Roswell, the lost city of Atlantis, UFOs, Scientology and of course time travel. We observe a humdrum group of science-students-with-a-camcorder as they uncover the true nature of things. One of the revelations is that what we consider history has been re-edited many times. So in contrast to all the warnings in other TT stories about mucking about with the past, here the history we know is the nth rewrite so the moral imperative not to interfere doesn't apply. We are told that some of the strange things people experience such as the appearance of ghosts, odd noises during the night and the phenomenon of deja vu are all evidence that "the stacking of multiple realities in a finite universe" is causing interference across the timelines which has implications for the fabric of reality itself.
In the face of this lunacy, it's time to step aside and leave things to the satirists and the pisstakers.
The Family Guy episode The Big Bang Theory, attacks the effect-before-cause paradox of time travel by having baby prodigy Stewie cause the big bang when his time machine overloads while he is outside the space time continuum. Thus he is the creator of the universe, even though he is in it, and was born 13 billion years after the big bang. To further complicate things his nemesis uses Stewie's time machine to travel back and kill one of Stewie's direct ancestors. His plan is to prevent Stewie from ever existing, but as Stewie is the creator of the universe this will also cause the universe to cease to exist. All in 25 minutes. With jokes. And an ace chase scene involving Leonardo Da Vinci's flying machines. The Futurama episode Roswell That Ends Well addresses the famous Grandfather Paradox. Professor Farnsworth tells Fry that if he kills his own grandfather he will cease to exist. "But", Fry protests, "existing is pretty much all I do". (Naturally, it turns out that Fry is his own grandfather). In The Futurama movie Bender's Big Score the secret of time travel is found encoded in a tattoo of Bender on Fry's butt ("It's like looking in a smelly mirror", says Bender). Nibbler warns that this is an awesome and dangerous power and using it even once could tear the universe apart. Later Fry uses it to travel seven minutes back in time to when his pizza was still hot. Bender's Big Score also plays with cause-before-effect: Bender's very last act (which he almost forgets to do) is essential for anything that happened in the previous 90 minutes to be possible.
It's noteworthy that daft films like Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure and Dude, Where's My Car? make a better job of dealing with TT than more serious films. I suspect this is because comedies often just move from one set piece to the next whereas thrillers may need to take dubious liberties with their own premises to get to where they are going. And comedy writers are just sharper.
So what might a time machine look like and where can I get one?
The most plausible current idea for a working time machine involves exploiting wormholes. As of now, none have been found, but it is believed there may be millions of them in quantum field fluctuations. Then it's just an engineering problem to blow one of these up to size. The next problem with wormholes is that they are unstable and are likely to collapse in milliseconds, so that would need sorting. Even If you could make one stable and a comfy size all you would have is a shortcut across space. To turn this into a time machine you would have to transport one end of the wormhole away at fantastic speed as per Einstein's math, above. Then you would have a door from the present to way off in the future. This feature of the wormhole, that it allows you to travel from an exact point in the future to the present (kind of) resembles the machines in Primer. Shane Carruth's low budget debut is the time travel fan's time travel film of choice. It has many seemingly realistic elements. As said, the travellers use a box which allows them to backtravel from just before the box is switched off to just after it was switched on (satisfyingly plausible). This is a short trip of about six hours within the same storage facility. Two guys, six hours, one location helps with realism. Timecrimes, for example, involves three characters in an isolated location which allows the writer to keep a lid on paradoxes etc. The Primer travellers suffer from the effects of time travel - their handwriting deteriorates and one of them begins to bleed from his ear. There is a terrific scene when one of the travellers forgets he has his phone and it starts to ring and they speculate whether the phone of his co-existent self is simultaneously ringing. Also, in Primer they didn't set out to create a time machine and haven't really thought through the practicalities and things get out of control within a week. One problem, though, with the Primer boxes is the belief among scientists that a huge amount of energy would be required for time travel. (in Primer, the boxes are putting out more power than they are getting in).
Recall Superman in the 1979 film of the same name whizzing around the globe trying to reverse the rotation of the Earth. This might not be the most plausible method of reversing time ever conceived but, as an image, it illustrates the kind of energy input that the process might involve.
A machine I like is the one in the 1960s tv series The Time Tunnel. We are informed in the first episode that the project has cost 7.5 billion dollars (of sixties money) before the machine has been switched on. The base is hundreds of floors below the surface surrounded by what look like huge turbines. This series gets extra marks for plausibility because it was made at a time when people were regularly being amazed at advances in science.
So to summarise, if you're fixin' to go time travellin' (or time travellin' to go fixin')
You should remember:
Bring a box of matches - always useful, in any era.
An immobiliser for your machine to prevent carjackers.
A "boomstick" (if it's The Medieval Dead)
Extensive notes about the time you will visit. (Stephen King's protagonist brings a book of sports results for cleaning up at the bookies. And many of the problems of past interference are caused by insufficient information about the past).
You must expect:
You may find, like The Shangri Las, you can never go home again. In fact you may simply be annihilated from existence.
If you confide in someone you will be considered a liar. If you don't confide in someone you will have to be a liar.
Or maybe you will just be considered a nutter, or like Bruce Willis in 12 Monkeys the whole experience may cause you to start wondering whether you actually are a nutter.
Incidentally, if you have to explain yourself, it's worth remembering that some techniques work better than others. In Happy Accidents, Vincent D'onofrio explains how time can be bent back on itself by folding Marisa Tomei's leg so that her toe goes right up her skirt. Player!
Vincent also suffers from Residual Temporal Drag Syndrome, so, to be safe, pack some sea sickness pills.
If you take the cheap Ryanair-style option you may have to travel naked, like Arnie in The Terminator. This will mean having to strut into some seedy bar, approach someone roughly your size and say "GEV ME YUR KLOZE END YUR MODDERZYKKEL" as if you've spent the last fortnight memorising this line.
I don't have an ending but I want to post this guy's review of Escape From The Planet Of The Apes because I love his articulate enthusiasm and agree with every word he says about how you can make a terrific time travel-themed film even if your time travel is actually rubbish.
And because (if you watch from about five minutes in) he invents a brilliant sofa game; if you watch a film where an actor invents time travel or travels through time, every time you see that actor in another film you can pretend that (s)he is not who (s)he appears to be, but is the same time traveller incognito.
I would take this game a step further. Any actor in any film can be a time traveller. This can smooth out many a shocking plot gaffe. For example, in Skyfall how does Javier Bardem know exactly when that tube train is coming? S**t writing? - it can't be, for everyone knows Skyfall is The best Bond movie ever. Occam's Razor suggests the simplest explanation is that Javier is a time traveller who has rehearsed this moment ad infinitum so he will get his timing just right...