Time Tales and National Psyches and the Eternal Family Oedipal Triangle
Doctor Grace Holloway: He’s British.
The Doctor: I suppose I am.
The Paul McGann DOCTOR WHO movie (1996)
Time Tales and National Psyches
Gallifrey is a distant planet, yet the aliens on it are strangely familiar if the various incarnations of one of their kind is anything to go by. Namely, the Time Lord Doctor Who. A strong Manchester accent, a lover of both Jelly Babies and custard creams, a cricket fanatic, and someone who sometimes goes by the alias of John Smith, once the most common name in England. Here we have a Time Lord who dresses as a Victorian Dandy in one incarnation and the lead singer of a Northern Indie band in another. He and now she has a strong sense of fair play, a sense of humour that depends on irony and always a pragmatic approach to fixing problems. Yes, Doctor Who may well have been born in Gallifrey but this Time Lord could only ever have been conceived in Britain. Whatever the colour of the Doctor’s passport, what’s likely to be embossed on isn’t the Ood or an Emojibot but rather the British Lion and the Unicorn. The question all this raises is: Why do Time Tales often reflect the national psyche, cultural traditions and even psychology of their country of origin?
TIMELESS and DARK
TIMELESS was an American series that ran on NBC from 2016 to 2018, created by Shawn Ryan and Eric Kripke. Coincidentally, if anything is ever coincidence when looking at Time, this series overlapped during some of those years with the German Time Travel Tale DARK, which ran on Netflix from 2017 and was co-created by Baran bo Odar and Jantje Friese. These were two of the biggest televisions series involving Time Travel in recent years, but watch them side-by-side and it’s impossible to imagine that DARK could have been made in America or indeed anything like TIMELESS could ever have been made in Germany., for they both very much reflect the nations that gave them birth.
TIMELESS and DARK do have certain similarities, so let’s start with those. Both use certain plot devices that often feature in Time Tales. For example, both series have scenarios where objects are buried in the past in order to be found in the future, plus diaries or journals with pages torn out that are essential to the plot and motivational action. In both series, there are photographs of Time Travellers who have journeyed to the past which are then discovered in the present. In TIMELESS there is the murky world of Rissenhouse, and in DARK there is the mysterious Sic Mundus. Both turn out to be secret organisations that seek to impose order, or what they see as order, in their respective domains. Both series make reference to Saint Christopher, the patron saint of travellers and each series makes allusions to classic Time Tale adventures. In TIMELESS, for example, a telegram is sent via Western Union, a direct steal – and it’s acknowledged as such – from the BACK TO THE FUTURE, and in DARK, it’s clearly no fluke that The Watchmaker H.G. Tannhaus has the same initials as that most famous of all Time Tale writers, one H.G. Wells.
Both TIMELESS and DARK use songs to establish mood and set scenes, but here differences begin to emerge, for the moods of the two series are strikingly at odds. So too is the cinematography, for whereas TIMELESS has that glossy look you’ll find in many US television series (think AMERICAN CRIME STORY or HOLLYWOOD), DARK lives up to its name, with subdued greys, browns and greens, and where each character seems as if they were lit and shot with more than just their foot in the shadows.
And then there’s the aliases that the characters use when they travel back in time. In TIMELESS, when the agents go back into the past, they give themselves names that are culturally playful. In a Civil War episode, the name given by Wyatt Logan is ‘Rhett Butler’ from the movie GONE WITH THE WIND, in the episode Hollywoodland Rufus Carlin says he’s ‘Robert de Niro’ and in the Reagan 1980s episode the two women agents claim they ‘Cagney’ and ‘Lacy’. But in DARK the aliases are very different. Jonas and Martha become Adam and Eva, biblical names of course but also in the world of Sic Mundus icon images from the Lutheran world of black cloaks and medieval religious painting.
It’s worth now taking a closer look at some of the cultural influences on each series, beginning with the German series DARK.
The story of DARK begins where a child becomes lost in the woods. Immediately we are in the world of Hansel and Gretel, and that distinct Bavarian folklore found in all those strange stories collected by The Brothers Grimm. A more modern cultural influence in DARK might be said to be the filmmaker Michael Haneke, whose movies such as THE WHITE RIBBON and HIDDEN are enigmatic explorations of unexplainable events. Germany is ever questioning. Unique among nations over the last seven decades, Germany is a country that has made itself confront its own past and, as the one-eyed Helge Doppler says, “It’s good if everything is out in the open.” It’s a dark past, yet in DARK, there is no mention of the war as such, and why should there be, for this is a psychological detective story about pain, loss and grief. That said, DARK’s theme is how the power of the past keeps its hold on the present. DARK explains behaviour – alcoholism, infidelity, abuse – but it never lets an explanation become an excuse.
Germany, unlike say Britain with its reserve of coal that fuelled its development in the nineteenth century, or oil from the North Sea in the late twentieth century, never had any natural resources it could fall back on. Germans only ever had hard work and their own ingenuity to make its way in the world. Germans then not surprisingly are a serious people not prone to frivolity, and DARK as a drama reflects that. Compare it to the American TIMELESS and we really are in two completely different universes.
TIMELESS rather than being about confronting the past, is about protecting it by keeping it as it was and protecting its values. And it’s culture. Celebrity and fame, those very American obsessions, are key features in most of the stories whether they be centred on famous anti-heroes, such as Al Capone or Bonnie and Clyde, or true American heroes like Katherine Johnstone and Mary Grace Quackenbos Humiston, known as Grace Humiston. Some of the myths of history are debunked, notably Davy Crockett, but they are never totally trashed. Often each episode takes on a different movie genre. There’s the classic world of 1940s Technicolor, The Western, The Warner Brothers gangster movie. America enjoys portraying itself cinematically. It’s most powerful export has always been Hollywood.
The balance of the Mission Team of agents very much reflects the modern world of America. Or how America would like itself to be seen. There’s the strong intelligent and independent well-read woman, the good looking all-American WASP hero and law enforcer, and African-American, whose common decency and humour so often gives the series its human touch. It’s liberal America incarnate, or at least the television version of American liberalism.
TIMELESS is more openly political that DARK. Where Sic Mundus has a religious feel, Rissenhouse, the right wing supremacist group the team are fighting, belongs to the likes of Joe McCarthy, the ultimate bad-guy in the eyes of American liberals, who, not surprisingly, makes a guest appearance in the series. The Rissenhouse philosophy is mocked and its treatise is described as Mein Kampf as if written by Philip K Dick. And that’s not the kind of a joke you’d ever find in DARK. Not that there are any jokes in DARK.
It’s perhaps flippant to say this but the only way TIMELESS could have been like DARK would be if it had been written by Charlie Kaufman and directed by David Lynch. And for DARK to have been like TIMELESS it would have needed a screenplay by Melissa Mathison, with Ron Howard helming the project as director and showrunner. But TIMELESS and DARK are great Time Tales in their own right, and both, though very different, are now recognised as such.
The Eternal Oedipal Family Triangle
The Korean series ALICE (AELLISEU), written by Kim Kyu-Won, is an Oedipal prophecy fulfilling time travel adventure directed by Baek Soo-Chan. Many dynamics of the Eternal Family Triangle of Mother-Father-Child are explored. There’s Mother-Daughter, Mother-Son (which has a distinctly sexual element to it), Father-Son (involving many physical battles that get close to a killing) and ultimately, towards the climax of the story, Mother-Father-Son. Even Sophocles would have raised an eyebrow at some goings on in ALICE, plus he only had one Oedipus and one Jocasta, but there are several versions of Mother and Son to deal with in the multi-dimensional world of this series.
Alice Time Agents Yoon Tae-yi (Kim Hee-sun) and Yoo Min-hyuk (Kwak Si-yang) travel back to Seoul in the year 1992 to search for The Book of Prophecy, a book that predicts the fates of certain people and the end of time travel. However, the father of the young Tae-yi ee is murdered for this precious book before the agents arrive, but not before the father gives the daughter the final page. His murderer is quickly arrested by the Time Agents, who then take possession of the book, but not, of course, the most important page.
The Time Agents are a couple and they are expecting a child but as time travel radiation would cause serious defects, the mother, Tae-yi, stays in 1992 and renames herself as Park Sun-young. In this timeline, Tae-yi single-handedly raises her son, Park Jin-gyeom (Joo Won), who, because of that time travel radiation, is born with Alexithymia (a lack of empathy and emotional connection).
In 2010, Park Jin-gyeom, then still at school, comes home to find his mother dying of stab wounds and vows to find her killer. Suddenly orphaned without a family, Detective Go Hyeon-seok (Kim Sand-ho)) and classmate Kim Do-yeon (Lee Da-in) look after him. By 2020, Jin-gyeom is a detective under Hyeon-seok and as a result of an investigation he learns about time travellers, Alice, the Master, The Book of Prophecy and the truth behind his mother’s death.
Park Sun-young (originally called Yoon Tae-yi) in her dying moments instructed her son never to follow anyone who he may meet in the future who looked like her. But when the now grown up Park Jin-gyeom encounters Yoon Tae-yi, a genius physicist with an interest in time travel, he cannot but notice the striking resemblance to Park Sun-young/Yoon Tae-yi. And being a detective his instincts are to follow her and to question her.
Kim D-Yeon (Lee Da-In) is very fond of Detective Park Jin-gyeom girl but she cannot understand his seeming near obsession with Professor Yoon Tae-yi. Kim D-Yeon’s jealously leads to several embarrassing confrontations with both Jin-gyeom and Tae-yi. As the complex relationship between Jin-gyeom and his doppelganger ‘mother’ Tae-yi develops, the detective’s investigation leads him to the Time Agent, Yoo Min-hyuk (who gave up Yoon Tae-yi and for the time travel Alice project). It takes a while for Jin-gyeom to realises that this man is his father, but by then they’ve had numerous encounters and fights where both have nearly killed the other.
In a flashback, Tae Yi as a child is revealed to be an expert at maths and has considerable skills in drawing. Sun Young is shocked when she sees that the drawings are The Book of Prophecy. Tae Yi then shows Sun Young the night gown still covered in blood stains that she wore the night her father was shot and there in the pocket is the last page of the book of prophecy that everyone has been after. It speaks of opening “the forbidden door of time” and seeing “a world that was not meant to be seen.” Sun Young burns the parchment and, believing Tae Yi will be safer in an orphanage, takes the child to Hope Orphanage.
Two and two can soon be put together when you consider the scene between the older Professor Yoon Tae-yi and Detective Park Jin-gyoem where she says, “Do you know why I became a physicist? My mom is a really good mom, but she’s not my biological mother. My biological mom left me at the orphanage and disappeared. Detective, do you remember when you were five? I remember my mom’s scent. Though it was only a day and I don’t even remember her face, I remember her warmth and her scent vividly. When she left me at the orphanage and didn’t come back, do you know what I thought of? Time travel. I thought that if I could travel back to the day I parted from her, I would never let her go. That’s why I became a scientist. I want to go and meet my mom.” But of course Detective Park Jin-gyoem in another time dimension is her son, a son who was there when his own mother, a doppelganger for Yoon Tae-yi herself, was killed.
ALICE has had its critics. The series does occasionally get lost in a labyrinth of its own complexity and yet the scenes of connection in the dynamics of that Eternal Triangle are very affecting, powerful and moving. A Universal Psyche you might say.
Korean Time Travel
The Korean movie and television industry has been producing high quality films and programmes for years now. Perhaps, however, it was only with the American Academy’s recognition of PARASITE at the Oscars in 2019 that the world truly began to acknowledge the considerable accomplishments and artistry of Korean media production, which, thanks to Netflix and other platforms, now has a worldwide audience. And Time Tales in television series form have proved to be a particular Korean speciality. But are there any distinct characteristics that make these series uniquely Koran? Well, let’s take a look at two time travel mystery adventures, SIJIPEUSEU: THE MYTH (SISYPHUS) written by Lee Je-in and Jeon Chan-ho, and ALICE (AELLISEU), written by Kim Kyu-Won, and see if in these popular and highly rated series there are any similarities in style, plotting and themes.
There are some obvious points to make first. Both series are stylistically very much alike, with bright colourful cinematography and a modern soundtrack of with popular music. The editing is fast and in both series there are numerous scenes with car chases and martial arts fighting. There are also moments of heightened comedy with scenes played essentially for light relief. Advanced technology and gadgets also feature, for there are clever earpieces and flying drones that prove to be crucial at important plot points in the two tales.
Both series are intriguing mysteries with numerous plot twists that require a lot of figuring out and detective work (in ALICE one of the lead characters is an actual police detective.) Both stories feature orphaned high achievers, a story trope, of course, that goes back as far as the Greek myths and the foundation of Rome. However, what makes SIJIPEUSEU: THE MYTH (SISYPHUS) and ALICE (AELLISEU) perhaps different on this point is that in each story there the high achiever also lacks social skills and has, to differing degrees, mental health issues. In SIJIPEUSEU: THE MYTH the high achiever is a geeky Mark Zuckerberg type character with a drug dependency who also, frankly, a bit of a jerk, at least at first. ALICE (AELLISEU) has two high achievers. One is a detective with Alexithymia, a condition that results in a lack of empathy and emotional connection. The other is the more normal orphan Yoon Tae-yi who is a genius physicist in one timeline and an Alice Time Agent in another.
Another similarity is that both series have a book or text which tells of the future. In ALICE (AELLISEU) this is the almost mystical Book of Prophecy, whereas in SIJIPEUSEU: THE MYTH (SISYPHUS) a diary is found in a coffin by the same person whose coffin it is.
Such similarities of course are hardly unique to Korean Time Times, though the nature of high achievers is worth noting. However, there is one specific aspect of Korean Time Tales that you don’t see elsewhere. It may seem trivial but it’s not. And what we are talking about is the number of scenes where families are gathered to eat. You don’t get such many scenes of families eating together in DARK, or TIMELESS or for that matter DOCTOR WHO. And it’s these scenes that lead us to the aspect of these two series which do make these Time Tales distinctly Korean. And that is Family.
There is ceremony commonly practiced in Korea called Jesa that is essentially a memorial to one’s ancestors and it is usually held on the anniversary of the loved one’s death. There is no equivalent tradition in America, the UK or Germany. What we have in both ALICE (AELLISEU) and SIJIPEUSEU: THE MYTH (SISYPHUS) is a fascinating exploration through time travel of the wish fulfilment of the present generation who have been separated from their parents to meet their mother and father. In the stories both mothers and fathers are killed as a direct result of time travel, yet ironically it is time travel that allows their sons and daughters to meet them once again. There are more scenes of dramatic reuniting and recognition of passed loved family members in these Korean stories than in other Time Tales. The Greeks, incidentally, also loved scenes of anagnorisis or ‘recognition’ and there are many in both the ODYSSEY and the ILIAD, notably Odysseus meeting his mother in the Underworld. Yes, there are well known scenes and experiences in other Time Tales, notably when Rose in DOCTOR WHO meets her father, but the point is the multiplicity of the scenes of family reuniting in ALICE (AELLISEU) and SIJIPEUSEU: THE MYTH (SISYPHUS). Also important in these scenes is the open sentiment that you will find on display. The emotional dynamics of that Eternal Triangle that is Mother-Father-Child can be very affecting, powerful and moving. For those who have seen ALICE (AELLISEU) will know, the picking up a simple scarf and handing it over is a bit of tear jerker. And this kind of open sentiment is no that often found elsewhere. There are more tears shed in one episode or either ALICE (AELLISEU) or SIJIPEUSEU: THE MYTH (SISYPHUS) than in the entire series of DARK, TIMELESS or DOCTOR WHO put together. And this is in no way a criticism, rather a welcome reminder that Time Tales, especially those dealing with family, can be greatly moving with a powerful and emotional impact.
There are other Korean time travel tales such as ROOFTOP PRINCE, a fish-out-of-water story about a prince from the Joseon era; THE KING: THE ETERANL MONARCH, a parallel world concept of two co-existing realities; QUEEN IN-HYUN’S MAN, another fish-out-of-water tale this time about a Joseon scholar who finds himself three hundred years in the future; MOON LOVERS: SCARLET HEART RYEO, a love story about a twenty-five year old woman who is transported back the Goryeo Dynasty; CHICAGO TYPEWRITER, a reincarnation storyline where three resistance fighters from the 1930s find themselves in the bodies of men of twenty-first century; MR QUEEN, another ‘body swap’ Time Tale where a modern day man becomes a female monarch of the Joseon Dynasty; TUNNEL, a murder crime thriller; FAMILIAR WIFE, a time fantasy romance and GOD’S GIFT: 14 DAYS, about a mother who travels in back in time to bring her child back to life.
The Yorkshire Granny
In SWIDGERS, Granny, William’s Mentor and friend, is a font of homely wisdom. She’s a Yorkshire woman and proud of it. Her speech has the natural poetry of those Edmund Burke called the ‘unlettered’, and with it comes a simple philosophy, but an endearing one. It’s a non-nonsense, straight talking, tough-love way of thinking and feeling, but always positive even when the world is not. As Granny says herself, “I’m a Yorkshire lass at heart, and when the world is wanton, our way of dealing with it is to have a good cry, blow us nose, make a cup of tea and then go and get our hair done.” Perhaps this is not quite how all British people are sometimes presented, for in Britain as in any nation there is no one national identity. Just let’s say Granny is Yorkshire-British with all that that entails. And as people say in Yorkshire, ‘Thou’ll just have to tek me as thee find me.’
“We should strive to welcome change and challenges, because they are what help us grow. Without them we grow weak like the Eloi in comfort and security. We need to constantly be challenging ourselves in order to strengthen our character and increase our intelligence.”
H.G. Wells in THE TIME MACHINE