Friday, 30 December 2011

Time Travel - Part Two

In Part One, I used my extensive knowledge of physics (I’ve watched a few documentaries and I think I read a book without pictures once) to elegantly (clumsily) explain the universe in which you will be time-travelling. Now, in Part Two, we’ll be mocking popular examples of incorrect time travel.

If you want to argue with anything I say below or in Part One, please leave your comment there instead. Obviously there’s no proof that anyone has ever actually traveled in time (I’ve been very careful) so it’s really all just speculation. Maybe I’m wrong and I’ll honestly be thankful of the education. Or maybe you’re wrong, in which case there’s an old saying my great-grandfather used to repeat: ‘a pageview from an angry opinionated asshole is still a pageview’.

For now, here are some complaints I have!

Change the Past, Return to a Different Future

This is apparently the main issue with time travel, from Quantum Leap to something that isn’t Quantum Leap. I understand why they use it, obviously. It’s easy to understand, and slightly comforting because it means we exist in one linear timeline.

Sure is nice to be the center of the universe

It’s pretty much the whole point of Back to the Future. These films are like beloved pets: they’re stupid but we love them. I don’t even know where to start, and most of it has been dissected several times already. What about when Marty plays the Undersea Dance? Apparently that was the final nail in the coffin of his mother’s wild youth – she marries the creepy 50s voyeur. If his mother got married because of a thrown punch and tender kiss, what the hell happened to all those wild dancers during Johnny B Good? (More on the song itself later) That was like the 50s version of an orgy! How many teens went home blushing and tingly? How many then had awkward, stiff, fully-clothed 50s-teenager sex? The exciting, anachronistic sound of Chuck Berry has thus changed countless hundreds of lives, possibly creating some, probably slowly erasing others.

But hey, now Marty has a nice new truck.

In time travelling civilizations, it’s often important to have a Jean Claude Van Damme around to do the splits and police the timeline.

Yes, we get it Jean Claude, you’re very flexible. Wait, how are you going to get down from there?

Time Cop is another movie like a family pet, at least to me. There’s some gloriously stupid stuff, which I’ll have fun with in some other article. But there’s one moment that makes everything massively, incredibly complicated: The villain’s two selves, past and present, are fighting Van Damme. The poor men (or rather, these poor versions of one man) don’t realise they’re fighting… a Belgian! So the past-self gets a face wound that suddenly manifests as a scar on the present-self. You may not realise it, but that means a lot. The time-traveller is changed by the changes he makes! Does that mean when the two versions of the villain have conversations, the present-self is suddenly remembering watching himself from the eyes of his past-self? Or is it just his face that gets updated, and his memories are somehow invulnerable?

Oh for… Yes, WE GET IT. You can do the splits. Learn a new trick!

If the changes you’ve made to the past also manifest on your own body as you make them, you’re due for a paradox as soon as you do anything that might cause you to never have time-travelled – such as succeeding! I told you this was complicated. That’s why the time-traveller is so often (correctly) immune to the changes he makes. Which brings us on to…

Time Traveller… or Maybe Just Brain Damaged

When Marty finally settles into his idyllic new life, he doesn’t remember the universe being different. But oftentimes when the past is changed, the time-traveller’s old memories stick around while he’s also blessed with the memories of his new life. Like, he remembers two different birthday parties from when he was five: in one, his family are booze-addled, jobless sexual deviants and in the other his family are unhappy.

This one is used all over the place. It was the whole point of the film Butterfly Effect, while Ashton Kutcher pretended unconvincingly not to be a douche. But at least he suffered from major health problems because of it. It happened to Scrooge in Doctor Who’s Christmas episode of 2010. In relative time to the narrative of the episode, no less! Even people not well educated in time travel found it insultingly stupid (despite sometimes enjoying the emotional side of it) no matter how much technobabble they threw around.

Timey wimey? No? Well, check out this flying shark instead!

Despite all these new memories magically appearing in the old man’s brain, probably causing more activity in the memory centres than he’s ever experienced, he’s perfectly fine.

It never makes any sense except as a terrible narrative device. Personally, if I started remembering two different versions of my life then I would book myself a doctor’s appointment at the very least.


The opposite of a linear, alterable narrative is that your changes to the timeline have already happened. As if you were always destined to go back in time, and there’s no randomness or chaos in the universe. The things you did back then are often what caused you to go back in time in the first place. That’s a standard ‘stable time-loop’. But sometimes, as a comedic aside, you’ll mention to Roald Dahl that he should write a kid’s book, or to Abraham Lincoln that he should free the slaves, or maybe offer Andy Warhol some tinned soup. Hilarious! Possibly even ironic! But now there’s a problem. Did they ever actually think of it? Was it ever their idea? Maybe it was always your idea? But you only suggested it because you knew they did it… ARGH MY BRAINS! When your head starts hurting, you’re probably dealing with a time-loop.

Imagine how much worse your head would hurt when you’re a nearly-omnipotent super-computer, right? That’s why I sort of feel sorry for Skynet. Dig this noise: If Skynet had never sent back a terminator to kill John Connor, the human rebels would never have sent back Kyle Reese to stop the terminator. Kyle Reese ends up being John Connor’s father. (I’d warn of spoilers, but I mean, come on!) So the easiest thing for Skynet to do now is to send a message to itself in the past, warning not to send back a terminator. Then the rebels never send Kyle Reese, and John Connor is never born! Skynet wins!

Good point! Sweet! Hey guys, new plan…

Except it’s more complicated than that. A company called Cyberdyne recovered parts of the first terminator and reverse-engineered them, becoming a major defence contractor. Without the advanced Cyberdyne components, Skynet would never have become self-aware. So if Skynet stops itself from sending back the first terminator? Yes, it prevents John Connor from being born. But it might also prevent itself from being invented.

Oh... yeah. Quick, cancel the new plan!

The poor world-conquering machine thought it was being sooo sneaky, inventing time-travel to erase his nemesis from existence. But did it ever really invent time-travel if time-travel was necessary for its existence? Does Skynet have free will, or is it a puppet of the cosmos, each of its actions preordained? Is it even self-aware in that case? Thoughts like that will keep an A.I. awake all night.

What? But… I mean… Oh god, I need a drink!

You might think further examples of this are Marty McFly’s own name, or the career of the black mayor he meets in the diner in the 50s, or the song Johnny B Good which Chuck Berry overhears. But these aren’t idea-loops. They’re just changes he made to the timeline where things turned out the same as before. Marty McFly didn’t invent rock and roll, and he certainly didn’t start the civil rights movement, as some people have suggested – albeit hilariously.

Doc Marty Luther King. See what I did there?


I could go on for hours – cartoons, films, hell I could even name several books – except now I’m off to travel back in time to meet my great-grandfather. I’m going to explain what a pageview is so he can start using the phrase ‘a pageview from an angry opinionated asshole is still a pageview’.

If you’d like to find out how to use time travel for fun and profit, check out the upcoming third instalment: HOW TO BUILD YOUR OWN TIME MACHINE!!


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