Time travel is cool.
It’s a popular element in just about every storytelling medium. For good reason, too—it captures our imaginations, challenges our understanding of causality, and allows stories to go in directions that they otherwise couldn’t. Plus it’s pretty friggin’ awesome. But what I find interesting about time travel is that, one way or another, it’s almost always bad news.
Think about it—although time travel lends itself to complex plots and less linear storylines, even the most straightforward time travel scenario can be a bit of a mindbender. The more time travel takes place, the more difficult it becomes to diagram the events explain those events to the audience. Some of the craziest time travel stories leave the confused reader at the end thinking, “either there were no plot holes at all, or there were more than three hundred.”
And when the characters interact with their own pasts, things get even more confusing. Marty McFly’s heroics in Back to the Future Part II supposedly had taken place in 1955 the whole time, even when we were watching the first movie and his attempts to retrieve the sports almanac from Biff hadn’t even been scripted yet. And in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Hermione and Harry travel back on their own timeline to basically trick themselves into doing stuff they’d already done. Considering how hard the audience might struggle to grasp the intricacies of the situation, just think of how confused our protagonists are….
When our heroes engage in their adventures in temporal manipulation, there are frequently hazards to the act of unnatural movement through time. Michael Crichton’s Timeline has “transcription errors” (which are compared to smudges or imperfections in a fax) that can crop up after too many trips. And in season 5 of Lost, Charlotte meets her tragic demise due to some kind of aneurysm brought on by the characters’ uncontrollable shifts through time.
And even when someone survives a jaunt through history, simply existing in another time can be even more dangerous. The further you travel through time, the less likely you are to understand the world that confronts you and the more likely it is that you’ll make a possibly fatal mistake.
It also complicates things when time travel isn’t a power wielded by the heroes of the story. The very potential for time travel in a fictional universe can mean that the protagonists could be the victim of some future invention—like a really badass robot in human disguise who can jump into the past to prevent you from doing something you haven’t even done yet.
Even in the hands of someone who is good and virtuous, the ability to move at will across the eons can still have some very negative, if unintentional, consequences. In Dean Koontz’s Lightning, Stefan Krieger tried to save Laura from a life of tragedy through repeated use of time travel. The problem was that fate kept reasserting itself and despite Krieger’s efforts, Laura watched the death of her wonderful husband—whom she’d have never met had it not been for Stefan’s meddling. And there’s also the amusing example of the Doctor accidentally saving Hitler from an early demise.
When you go deeper, a lot of time travel stories involve some kind of philosophical or logistical struggle over a person’s ability to change the past or the future. Depending on the narrative’s parameters for time travel, this can be impossible, or just unlikely, or, hell—sometimes both. Almost invariably, however, the effects that time travel will have on the reality that our protagonist knows are murky at best and horribly confusing at worst.
Regardless of whether the mission in another age has been successful, too few will join our heroes on the return trip. Minor or major characters have often been killed off before going home even becomes viable. And too often, it seems, somebody chooses to stay behind for some noble reason like true love or self-sacrifice. I can’t imagine how much guilt this guy’s friends will feel. It’s a very permanent kind of decision to make and letting him go through with it, despite his assurances that he was okay with it, would make me feel like a really crappy friend.
But despite how complicated and tragic it can all get, this stuff makes for some fantastic stories. Time travel may be bad news, but it’s the bad news that creates the conflicts at the heart of the books we love to read and the movies we love to watch. Whether it’s something heavily based on time travel (like Doctor Who), or something that only utilizes it once in a while (like Supernatural), one thing’s for sure—
For more confusing time travel excitement and hilarity, please check out my novel,Tiem Mechine.