The Appeal of The Time Tale
“Design is not just what it looks and feels like. Design is how it works.”
When the Design is Right
Sid Sheinberg, who was in charge of Universal Studios when BACK TO THE FUTURE was made, said, “That screenplay is like a Swiss watch.” And indeed he was right. There’s not a plot beat that doesn’t advance the story or enhance the characters. In fact, it’s somewhere near perfection in construction. And there is great pleasure too in the inventiveness with which the writers Bob Gale and Robert Zemeckis deal with the many challenging anomalies, contradictions and paradoxes that time travel always raises. Somehow BACK TO THE FUTURE never fails to be logical and so avoids the plot holes many Time Tales find themselves falling down. And this continues throughout the whole series. Take this exchange from BACK TO THE FUTURE II:
DOC BROWN: Obviously, the time Continuum has been disrupted, creating this new temporal event sequence resulting in this alternate reality.
Marty: English, Doc.
(DOC BROWN DRAWS A LINE ON A BLACKBOARD WITH POINTS MARKING PRESENT, FUTURE AND PAST.)
DOC: Here, here, here. Let me illustrate. Imagine that this line represents time. Here’s the present – 1985 – and the future, and the past. Prior to this point in time (POINTING TO THE PRESENT, 1985), somewhere in the past, the timeline skewed into this tangent, (CHALKING A SECOND LINE DOWNWARDS FROM THE TIMELINE) creating an alternate 1985. Alternate to you, me, and Einstein, but reality for everyone else.
A Sports Almanac is then retrieved from the DeLorean. Marty begins to understand what has happened, how Biff must have somehow taken the time machine with the sports Almanac in it, passed the Almanac with all those sports results on to Biff’s younger self, thus allowing him to place bets that can’t lose and so become the richest man in the world. But Marty suggests a solution:
MARTY: So we go back to the future, and we stop Biff from stealing the timing machine.
DOC BROWN: We can’t, because if we travel into the future from this point in time, it will be the future of this reality, in which Biff is corrupt and powerful, and married to your mother, and in which this has happened to me.
(DOC SHOWS MARTY A NEWSPAPER WITH THE HEADLINE ‘EMMETT BROWN COMMITTED’.
DOC BROWN: No. Our only chance to repair the present is in the past, at the point where the timeline skewed into this tangent. In order to put the universe back as we remember it, and get back to our reality, we have to find out the exact date and specific circumstances of how, where and when young Biff got his hands on that sports almanac.
But Marty still has his worries.
MARTY: Doc, what about Jennifer? What about Einstein? We can’t just leave them here.
Doc Brown: Don’t worry, Marty. Assuming we succeed in our mission, this alternate 1985 will be changed to the real 1985, instantaneously transforming around Jennifer and Einie. Jennifer and Einie will be fine, and they’ll have absolutely no memory of this horrible place.
It’s neat and it’s logical. And there’s a real joy in watching how these carefully constructed time travel rules are played out in this entertaining fast moving comedy adventure series. Amazing then that the original screenplay was rejected 42 times because, Bob Gale was repeatedly told, “time travel movies don’t make money”. Clearly said by someone who did not have their eye on the future.
As said before, the design of your Time World, its rules and restrictions, is created for the purpose of the story. Content always dictates Design, and never the other way round. Yet the fascination and appeal of the Time Tale goes way beyond the clever concept idea or the rules established, for Time Tales are fundamentally ‘Thought Experiments’, where speculative intellectual and moral questions are posed and explored. Put simply, Time Tales are the ultimate ‘What If’ stories.
“Good design is like a refrigerator – when it works, no one notices, but when it doesn’t, it sure stinks.”
“Time is a dictator, as we know it. Where does it go? What does it do? Most of all, is it alive? Is it a thing that we cannot touch and is it alive?”
The ‘Hitler…’ Question
There is a famous question often posed to first year students of moral philosophy: If you could go back in time and kill Hitler when he was a new born baby, would you do it? It’s a question that raises many other questions. Killing is wrong, we take that for granted, but surely the greater good would be served by his death? Or is murder murder no matter who it is? Besides, can you really be sure that killing Hitler as a baby wouldn’t result in an even greater tragedy than the Second World War? Difficult to imagine anything much worse but when the Law of Unintended Consequences comes into play anything can happen. Indeed, this is the premise of MAKING HISTORY by Stephen Fry.
The moral dilemma of the Hitler question is at the heart of the classic DOCTOR WHO storyline The Genesis of the Daleks. In the final episode, The Doctor (Tom Baker) has in his hand the wires that could kill the Daleks at birth. But he chooses not to. His rationale is a fine piece of philosophical thinking about what is and what isn’t justifiable in the relationship between what is good and what is bad. And similar scenarios are played out in many Time Tales.
IN THE SHADOW OF THE MOON has a Time Traveller going back in time to kill those who are seen as a threat to the future. Perhaps they are, but the weakness of the movie is the morality of this is never even discussed. LOOPER on the surface is a shoot and kill ’em film but at its heart it is a moral fable about the cycle of violence. Old Joe’s self-sacrifice to break the circle is a moral choice. It’s a far more reflective movie than others of its kind. THE TERMINATOR II: JUDGMENT DAY arguable lies somewhere between the two. The computer technician, Miles Dyson (Joe Morton), working on the chip that came from the future, does not know its origin, nor, of course, what it will lead to. When he is confronted by Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) Miles points out she is judging him on things he hasn’t even done yet. And it’s a tough day when you learn you’re responsible for the death of billions. THE TERMINATOR II shows Miles’s domestic world, with his loving wife and children. He’s no monster. And of course when Sarah does have the opportunity to kill Miles face to face, she cannot pull the trigger. The movie IN THE SHADOW OF THE MOON fails to offer any background or context to those it tries and does eliminate. And it’s ultimately the lesser for it.
Essentially then the Hitler question boils down to the Utilitarian argument of The Greater Good versus Moral Absolutism. Most of us in practise find a middle ground. But it’s always an interesting field to explore. And the Time Tale usually does it exceptionally well.
“The really difficult moral issue arise, not from a confrontation of good and evil, but from a collision between too goods.”
“The old sins have long shadows.”
What Is It that Makes Us Who We Are?
The Korean time travel series ALICE (AELLISEU), written by Kim Kyu-Won, explores multi-dimensions. In this scene, Professor Yoon Tae-yi (Kim Hee-sun) asks Seok Oh-won (Choi Won-young) Director of Kuiper Institute of Advanced Science how a version of the Park Jin-gyoem she knows could in another dimension have become the ultimate killer:
Yoon Tae-yi: Are they [the Master and Park Jin-gyoem] really the same person?
Seok Oh-won: By any chance, have you heard of a story like this? It’s a story of a monster. A long time ago, a monster kidnapped some woman’s son. The mother begged him to spare her son, and the monster said he’d spare her son if she gets the right answer to his question. The monster’s question was very simple. She had to guess if the monster was going to kill her son or not. Fortunately, the woman was wise and found the answer that monster couldn’t get away with. She said the monster would kill her son. So the monster couldn’t kill her son. Why? If the monster killed her son, she would be getting the right answer, and would have to release her son.
Yoon Tae-yi: Isn’t that just a common paradox where a question contradicts itself? Why are you telling me this?
Seok Oh-won: Every question in this world is filled with these paradoxes and contradictions. But there’s always an answer and a consequence. So tell me, what do you think the monster decided to do? He killed the mother. The monster kept his promise. He didn’t harm her son. But instead, he turned her son into a monster like himself.
What and who makes us who and what we are? In an alternate dimension and an alternate life, would we be that different? Do old sins have to cast long shadows or can people learn to accept and even forgive?
“For what is life but alternate times of light and shadow? When we work out the shadow part in ourself, the times of the shadows are not so dark.”
“History is a pack of lies about events that never happened told by people who weren’t there.”
A Peek into the Olden Days
There is obviously the historical appeal in Time Travel stories. It’s not just cats in life who are who are curious, for which historians hasn’t wanted to see for themselves what really happened at the court of King Whatever the Fourteenth? A Time Machine gives you a front row seat at The Theatre of History.
DOCTOR WHO was in part conceived as a series for children in order to introduce them to historical characters and events, and recently returned to this idea in a story around the American activist Rosa Parks. This theme of historical enquiry was also there in the 1970-1971 children’s television series TIMESLIP. Although the case in favour of BILL AND TED’S EXCELLENT ADVENTURE is that it is very funny, the plot itself is about two students who go back in time in order to gather up historical figures which they need for their school report. And who hasn’t wished when wading through a dry history book that it would have been quite fun to meet Ching Shih, Boudicca, Sappho, Nefertiti and Eleanor of Aquitaine for real.
That said, the ethics of the historical Time Tourists in TIMESCAPE is morally questionable. The movie’s scenario involve human-like beings from the future, where it’s a seemingly perfect world, travelling back through time to witness the ‘spectacle’ of natural disasters, such as the San Francisco earthquake. However, when visiting a small American town that is about to be destroyed by a meteorite strike, the hotel owner Ben Wilson (Jeff Daniels) becomes suspicious when the local driver who picked them up tells Ben that it’s odd these apparent tourists carry no cameras. Ben later discovers that their cameras are somehow in their brains and these tourists are in fact from the future. One tourist claims his reason to be on the trip is not voyeuristic but purely academic. In fact, he goes as far as calling himself a ‘retropologist’, which he says is one who studies the past first hand.
Time Tourists are not unique to TIMESCAPE. THRILL SEEKERS (also known as THE TIME SHIFTERS) was a 1999 science fiction television movie featuring Tom Merrick (Van Dien). Tom is a TV reporter who films a fire at a power plant and spots a strange-looking man, Murray Trevor played by Julian Richings, who Tom later sees in pictures of other disasters, including the sinking of the Titanic and the explosion of the Hindenburg airship. It is later discovered that Murray is a time traveller using an enterprise company called Thrill Seekers, who sell trips to the past that allow travellers to witness a catastrophe, but are then able to return to their own time before getting killed.
The theme of both TIMESCAPE and THRILL SEEKERS could be said to be voyeurism. Yet in a way aren’t we all guilty of that when we watch a disaster movie, especially one based on a real event. In principle, are we any less a voyeur than those time travellers? Yes a movie isn’t real but what we seek is the same as that which the time tourists want, namely thrills and spills. We could argue that we are merely watching to understand, say, why the Titanic sank, but does that – excuse the pun – really hold water. We can call ourselves ‘retropologists’ if we like, but we’re kidding no one.
A more fun and certainly more family friendly academic is Mr Peabody in MR PEABODY AND MR SHERMAN (2014), an animated science fiction comedy film, where Mr Peabody is in fact a dog, and Mr Sherman is a seven year old boy and together they have time travelling adventures. Mr Sherman on his first day at school is none too impressed by the history being taught in class. And he should know because he was there! MR PEABODY AND MR SHERMAN is an adventure story but it is also packed with witty lines and historical curiosities. A long way from the dry history lessons of 1066 and all that.
In SWIDGERS, William’s Mentor Granny comes from a different era. It’s never explicitly said which time period but as it is established she can’t read or write and that she only ever went too Sunday School, so it’s possible to assume it was before the 1891 Elementary Education Act. Granny isn’t a time traveller as such, it’s just that Swidgers, though human in appearance, age differently. But being from another age introduces William not only to shillings, tanners and sixpences, but ideas and thinking that come from another age too.
“Ordinary people think merely of spending time, great people think of using it.”
“Our society is run by insane people for insane objectives. I think we’re being run by maniacs for maniacal ends and I think I’m liable to be put away as insane for expressing that. That’s what’s insane about it.”
‘It’s About Today, Stupid!’ – The Social Politics of Time Tales
The irony of most Time Travel adventures is that they are not really about the past or future at all, for their focus is nearly always on the world we live in today. The past is a mere backdrop for our modern concerns. This is as true for the contemporary series TIMELESS and TRAVELERS as it was for THE PLANET OF THE APES in the 70s, or for QUANTUM LEAP in the 80s, or indeed H.G. Wells’s THE TIME MACHINE in the late nineteenth century. And will it be long before someone comes up with a scenario where a time traveller from the future goes to the year 2019 and intentionally creates the COVID-19 pandemic as the only way of preventing global warming destroying the planet in her time? You see, scientists in the year 2458 worked out that only a worldwide event, such as a pandemic in the early part of the twenty-first century, could stop carbon emissions to the degree that was necessary to prevent the world becoming a dead desert of sand. Except in some ways that plot has already being used in episode five of Series Two of TRAVELERS (2017), Jenny, where a deadly virus is intentionally spread all over the world. Oh how life imitates art. Or was just that the Chinese Government were fans of TRAVELERS and when the Chairman saw that episode it him a good ideas to how to bring down the Western liberalism?
As a matter of fact, ecological catastrophe, global warming and worries about the pollution are not topics that have only concerned the twenty-first century generation. You’ll find ecological scenarios in 1970s episodes of both DOCTOR WHO and TIMESLIP that have underlying concerns about the quality of the air and the lack of trees and grass, and Peter Fonda’s IDAHO TRANSFER (1973) is a Time Tale movie where people learn of future environmental problems. But that’s science fiction writers for you: always ahead of their time.
Future nuclear wars or nuclear accidents feature regularly in the back story (or should that be ‘ahead story’) of Time Tales. It’s there in WORLD WITHOUT END (1956), THE TERMINATOR (1984) and IN THE SHADOW OF THE MOON (2019), plus the television series such as TRAVELERS and DARK. There are occasions when you’d think, watching a Time Tale that Time Machine fiction was actually created for the sole purpose of allowing political writers to explore issues such as civil rights, the environment, sexual freedoms and the rest. And in a way you wouldn’t be far wrong, for it was a divided and unequal society that was the theme in H.G. Wells’ seminal novel THE TIME MACHINE, way back in 1895.
Of course STAR TREK in the 1960s was well known for smuggling in moral messages into its storylines. And in its casting too. STAR TREK was way ahead of its time when it came to diversity and gender representation in the starship crew. Of course it famously had the first interracial kiss on the American television, but having Chekhov on board was as controversial as it assumed that the Cold War between American and Russia had long ended. STAR TREK had an utopian ethos about journeying out in peace and friendship. That was the 60s for you: Make love, not war. Of course, it didn’t exactly work out like that… but people had a damn good time trying.
“If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales.”
“My past is everything I failed to be.”
Away from the cerebral and political appeal of Time Tales, there is also the personal. It is a natural human want to help people, even fix them if necessary. And this can equally apply to ourselves, for who has wanted to go back in time and have a conversation with our younger self and try to come to an understanding of why we did what we did? Think of Time Tales then as Therapy Tales.
“Regret,” is the one word answer that Gang Seo-hae (Park Shin-hye) gives in SIJIPEUSEU: THE MYTH when she is asked why people want to time travel. It can be more complicated than that but regret is perhaps the key word in the motivation of time travellers. There are people who are often dealing with psychological flaws or traumas that have to be confronted. In certain tales, a Time Traveller is given the ability somehow to change their life or even live it again. These plots are called the ‘Re-do’ scenario or the ‘Second Chance’ story, for the tragedy of life isn’t so much that an opportunity passed you by, but rather an opportunity was ignored in favour of an easier option. It’s a popular type of Time Tale for it can show that in the past you may have underestimated yourself and your capabilities, and that your potential went further than you thought possible and that the other path would have taken you there.
17 AGAIN, starring Zac Efron, is about Mike O’Donnell who is unhappy about how his life has turned out, but, after trying to save the life of a janitor jumping from a bridge – in a nod to IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE – O’Donnell finds himself going through a Time Vortex and when he returns to where he was staying he finds that he’s 17 again.
TWICE IN A LIFETIME, a Canadian television series created by Steve Sohmer that ran from 1999 to 2000, features individuals at the end of their lives who are offered the chance to speak to their younger selves and try to convince them to make different choices at key moments across the years. THAT WAS THEN, an American series made in 2002 created by Dan Cohn, Jeff Kline and Jeremy Miller, has James Bulliard as the 30 year old Travis Glass who believes he can pinpoint his downward spiral to a single week in High School in 1988. One night, as he listens in bed to “Do It Again” by the Kinks, Travis is struck by lightning and sent back in time to his teenage days. DO OVER, created by Rick Wiener and Kenny Schwarz, has Joel Larsen (Penn Badgley) at the age of 34 who is involved in an accident that sends him back to 1981, when he was 14. But his adult memories remain intact and he sets about setting right the wrongs that befell his family. This American fantasy sit-com ran from 2002 to 2003. Curiously all these Time Tales were created round about the Millennium. It was almost as if looking back was a theme there in the zeitgeist itself.
DARK takes the idea that when The Past haunts our parents, it becomes Our Present. And in DARK that Present is a bleak one. The series explores the reasons why people became alcoholic or abusive and discovers that people will do anything when caught in a well of grief. That said, although DARK may try to explain, it never makes an attempt to excuse.
But Time Tales as therapy are nothing new. Arguable it was Charles Dickens in A CHRISTMAS CAROL who got that ball rolling in 1843. As said, you’ll find many protagonists in Time Travel stories who are psychologically damaged or coping with the impossibility of grief, notably LA JETÉE, and, more recently, the young widower Wyatt Logan (Matt Lanter) in TIMELESS. But dwelling on the past or reliving it isn’t always that straight-forward. In JE T’AIME JE T’AIME, a suicide survivor, who intends to travel back a year to relive a single minute, finds himself trapped in a vortex confronted by key moments in his marriage.
Male angst is the theme of both GROUNDHOG DAY and the cult low budget movie PRIMER. PRIMER is a kind of Faust Story where life has not turned out as it was expected to or hoped to have been. The Faust legend comes in when the question is asked, ‘What would you do if, without impunity, you knew you could?’ Aaron says to his best friend Abe, “Like, I wish that there was a way that I could do it, you know, no one would find out or get hurt or anything… I just want to know what it feels like. That’s all really.” Well, he gets his Faustian wish. PRIMER is a jigsaw puzzle with more than half the pieces missing so it’s impossible to say exactly what was done, but you get the impression that it didn’t work out well, for it destroys the special bond between best friends Aaron and Abe.
MR DESTINY is a comedy where Larry Burrows (James Belushi) believes it was one mistake while in high school during a baseball game that resulted in the unhappy life he lives now. An Angel (Michael Caine) offers Larry a drink called ‘Spilt Milk’ which transports him to an alternate universe where that mistake was not made. In this world Larry is more successful, but the wife he had in his other life is in this one married to someone else.
On a more cheerful side there is PEGGY SUE GOT MARRIED, where Peggy Sue gets the opportunity to meet her grandparents. And THE TIME TRAVELER’S WIFE is especially moving when the grown up Henry meets his mother before her death and likewise, Henry’s time travelling daughter seeing and meeting him after his. Time Travel Tales are especially good at those moments.
The most personal episode of TIME TUNNEL is where Tony Newman (James Darren) goes back to the days before the bombing of Pearl Harbour and meets his own father who he knows dies in the attack. Of course Tony tries to save his father (it wouldn’t be Time Tale if he didn’t), but his father is a Navy man and therefore must do his duty. However, the older Tony does save himself, the Young Tony, plus Tony’s friend and the friend’s mother by telling them to run to the hills. The scene of Tony’s father dying in the arms of his son is heartbreaking and in many ways the series was never bettered. And it’s similar in many ways to Father’s Day, the episode in DOCTOR WHO where Rose was able to go back in time and briefly meet her father. And such scenes as these, plus those in PEGGY SUE GOT MARRIED and THE TIME TRAVELER’S WIFE, are pure emotional wish fulfilment for those of us who lost parents at a young age.
“The perfect time to do what you love is now.”
“Well, the moral of the story,
The moral of this song,
Is simply that one should never be
Where one does not belong.”
In the Korean series ALICE (AELLISEU), written by Kim Kyu-Won, the Alice time travel project was created with the intention of healing the wounds of the past, but certainly not interfering with the past. As the Alice Time Agent Yoo Min-hyuk says to Detective Park Jin-gyoem, “Have you ever lost someone you love? It’s as painful as death. Going through the Door of Time means you will be freed from that pain.” And when travellers break the rules there can be tough punishments – “There’s something interesting about time travel,” says a Time Agent to a woman who has interfered with Time, “the fact that we can control travelling time as we want. What I mean is, ten years in 2020 can be just a day in 2050. In other words, I have the power contain you here for ten years or a hundred years if I want.”
The story arc of the series though belongs to time travel genius Professor Yoon Tae-yi. She says to the Detective Park Jin-gyoem, “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. You asked me often if time travel was possible. Let me ask you this time. Is time travel possible?” And all this is addressed to the man who in another time dimension is her son, a son who was there when his mother died, who was a doppelganger of Yoon Tae-yi herself.
You can certainly understand Yoon Tae-yi’s good intentions but her view changes as the series develops, for later she says again to Park Jin-gyoem, “Do you remember why I wanted to become a physicist? I wanted to make a time machine and meet my mom again. But do you know what I realised after travelling through Time? No matter where you go and who you meet, they are not as precious as the people who know this place and remember me as who I am now. Because this is who I really am, and the people around me now are really my people. Even when I was with my family there, I still missed and longed for my family here.” Park Jin-gyoem argues that she could meet those she can’t meet here instead, but Yoon Tae-yi replies, “What would change if I did? Just because you meet that person, doesn’t mean that they can stay with you forever.”
Yoon Tae-yi in the final episode goes even further when she says when interviewed by a journalist, “I think [time travel] is possible… But I also think it shouldn’t be invented, the more precious your past is, the more it should remain in your memory. Turning back Time forcefully is just human greed.” And when she talks with Director of the Kuiper Institute of Advanced Science, Seok Oh-won, Professor Yoon Tae-yi essentially ends the possibility of time travel once and for all by giving up her study of the subject. As she says to Seok Oh-won, “Please forget about everything you heard from me, as well as our research… It’s all my fault. I have to be responsible. I thought time travel would make people happy. That they’d be able to mend any heartbreak and turn back things for what they regretted. But I was wrong. Wounds and pain as well as despair and sorrow were all necessary. I invented time travel to erase the painful past, but it only led to obsession and desires.”
“The moral of human life is never simple, and the moral of a story which aims only at being true to human life cannot be expected to be any more so.”
James Anthony Froude
“Where troubles melt like lemon drops
Away above the chimney pots
That’s where you’ll find me.”
SOMEWHRE OVER THE RAINBOW
music by Harold Arlen and lyrics by E.Y. ‘Yip’ Harburg
Emotion or Intellect – Are you Tin Man or Scarecrow?
It is sometimes said that science fiction stories appeal to ‘thinkers’ over ‘feelers’, that is those people who enjoy conceptual ideas and Thought Experiments rather than romance and sentiment. Solving Rubik’s cubes and Sudoku games always win out over holding hands under duvets. Yet when you look at series such as DOCTOR WHO and STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION, you will often find that the most popular and enduring episodes are those with the biggest emotional heart. For example, The Girl in the Fireplace, where Doctor Who falls in love, or The Inner Light where Captain Jean-Luc Picard lives a lifetime of someone else’s memory, with a wife and family on a now dead but at least not forgotten planet. These are the ones stick in the mind precisely because they’re about the complexities of the human heart. The heart the Tin Man so wished to have.
It is true that when it comes to the Grandfather Paradox and the potential of killing your own grandfather, physicists think mainly in terms of cause and effect and billiard balls and it’s left to philosophers and therapists to ask, ‘So, why you do want to kill your grandfather?’ Of course the appeal for physicists, particularly theoretical physicists, is that Time Tales allow them to explore the logic of what could happen in space-time if factors allowed it. The emphasis is on ‘could’ and ‘if’, but that is why they are called speculative physics in the first place. Such brain-work would appeal to the Scarecrow who so wanted to be an expert in ‘thinkology’.
“Some people without brains do an awful lot of talking… don’t they?”
The Scarecrow in THE WIZARD OF OZ
“Only through new words might new worlds be called into order.”
New Words for the OED and the Metaphors of Time
The ‘coulds’ and ‘ifs’ of Time Travel also raises the intellectual and indeed emotional challenge of coming up with new language for an imagined or speculated world. Some even end up being added to the Oxford English Dictionary.
Let’s start with Dilithium crystals. Is that an existing word or made up? Well, Dilithium exists, it’s a molecule made from two Lithium atoms bonded together, but Dilithium crystals do not. As far as we know. Mugwump? This is a wonderful old word for a fence-sitter and it is also to be found in William S. Burroughs’ NAKED LUNCH, but now it is also a well-known term for having your face in one half of a time-space and your backside in the other. Kate Mascarenhas’ novel THE PSYCHOLOGY OF TIME TRAVEL even has a Glossary of ‘Time Words’. There is ‘Liebestod’, meaning a trip to see a lover for the last time before death and which can trace its etymology back to Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde. Then there’s ‘Zeitfzorn’, meaning feeling angry with someone for something they haven’t done yet. Neat. Oh and ‘Me-timing’, which is sex with yourself in another time period. That word is a great twist on Woody Allens’ observation that masturbation shouldn’t be mocked because it’s only sex with someone you love.
It’s doubtful whether ‘Me-timing’ will catch on, you’d need time travel for real for that, but some words do make it to the OED. ‘Warp-drive’, for instance. It’s a phrase that’s almost conventional now. Of course, ‘warp’ already existed as a word. In science, both the power of gravity and travelling at the speed of light can ‘warp’ space-time. ‘Warp-drive’ is merely the fictional superluminal prolusion of the spacecraft itself. As said, it’s a common express in everyday use. Not that everyone gets is. When the British actress Beryl Reid was at the read through of her episodes playing Captain Briggs in Earthshock, DOCTOR WHO (1984), she was apparently a little confused by the term. “‘Send the ship into Warp Drive.’ ‘Warp Drive?’” she said again, looking over her script at her fellow actors, “Is like ‘Acacia Avenue’?” Much laughter ensued, but Miss Reid still remained puzzled. The language of science fiction will always be a mystery to some.
And what of those inventive metaphors people come up with to explain Time? The movie projector, where the film of time passes second by second across the power beam of The Now giving us our moment by moment images of The Present on the screen of life. Then there’s all those water images. The flowing river, for example, as presented by Marcus Aurelius in his Meditations: “Time is like a river made up of events which happen…. as soon as a thing has been, it is carried away, and another comes in its place, and this will be carried away, too.” Perhaps, but at its end does it gently flow into a calm ocean of oneness or does the river drop off like a waterfall into an empty oblivion? Paul J. Nahin in his book TIME MACHINE TALES, suggests an alternative ‘water’ image: “How about this of an image of time: Time is a snowball, with the centre marking the beginning of the past, with ever new ‘presents’ accreting on the ever increasing surface as the snowball rolls down the hill of history!” Is the appeal here intellectual or emotional? Or does it mainly bring a smile?
“It is very important to understand that emotional intelligence is not the opposite of intelligence, it is not the triumph of heart over head – it is the unique intersection of both.”
“It’s the little things that are vital. Little things make big things happen.”
Sometimes it’s the Small Things that Bring the Greatest Pleasure
Time Travel Tales often have scenes in them where the time traveller is doubted or even mocked. This happens in 12 MONKEYS, THE TIME TRAVELER’S WIFE, THE TERMINATOR, BACK TO THE FUTURE and STAR TREK. Of course, this is often a set-up for the pay-off later in the story where the doubter sees a flash of light and then the traveller suddenly vanishes into thin air. That dropping jaw of the doubter is always worth the wait. A small pleasure maybe, but a rewarding one. For example, the jailor in TIMESCAPE whose locked up Ben Wilson (Jeff Daniels) in a police cell after he claimed the tourists in his house were all time travellers. The police officer has been quietly counting coins and then in walks Ben Wilson ‘number two’, who did some time travelling himself, and the piles of coins drop to the floor.
Solving the practical problems of time travelling such as in those plots where a time traveller arrives naked and needs to find some clothes sharpish, can also be quite fun. Equally entertaining though can be the looks on the faces of time travellers who journey to the past when they are suddenly confronted by ancient plumbing and sanitary conditions. Sometimes characters need a quick buck now they’re in their new world. If the future is known, the easiest option is a big win on the lottery, for example in TRAVELERS and in THE TIME TRAVELERS’S WIFE, but back in the 70s, the only option was a football pools win, as was the case in the plot of THE FLIPSIDE OF DOMINICK HIDE.
Sometimes how a character uses their knowledge of the future to get themselves out of a scrape can be inventive and engaging. Hank Martin (Bing Crosby) in A CONNECTICUT YANKEE IN KING ARTHUR’S COURT remembers that a major eclipse is due that day and that is his means of threatening the Court. It has been suggested that this idea in Mark Twain’s novel was inspired by a real incident where Christopher Columbus who used his knowledge of an eclipse to get his way with the native Arawak Indians when he first came to America. Of course, selfish misuse of knowledge can lead to a dystopian world, as in BACK TO THE FUTURE II.
The names people call themselves in the future can be creative and help set a mood and tone for the story itself. FUTURAMA, for example has names such as Ziodberg, Cartridge Bot, Flex o, HG Blob, Morbo, Pazazu, Slurms McKenzie and Head Cat. Someone had fun thinking those up. Yet there can be a serious side to all this. In JUST IMAGINE (1930), people of the future no longer have names but simply refer to each other as RT-42 and J-21, giving the dystopia an inhuman feel. In the television series TRAVELERS, again the people of the future have no names only numbers. A small detail but it gives us a glimpse into the nature of their broken society.
In Time Tale genre cross-over movies such as the Rom-com, the Crime Detective Story or the Action Thriller, there is the pleasure of ticking off the predictable, and sometimes unpredictable, genre moments. For example, in the Action Thriller Time Tale crossover there is always the obligatory ‘smashing through the glass window’ scene. The tally in THE TERMINATOR was 2, whereas in TERMINATOR 2: JUDGMENT DAY it rose to 4 (if you include that big truck).
The eagle-eyed viewer often finds the smallest detail the most fun. There are those who believe the three path layout of the town square in BACK TO THE FUTURE is deliberately designed in the shape of the three pronged flux capacitor. Maybe. And have you ever noticed the pine trees in the Mall? In 1985, when Marty leaves the parking lot of Twin Pines Mall to go back to 1955, he is going at such speed that when he arrives in the past, the DeLorean destroys one of the young saplings. On his return to 1985, the shopping mall sign now reads Lone Pine Mall. It’s a subtle joke from the production team, but one that fans love. And you can even buy Twin Pines Mall and Lone Pine Mall paperweight souvenirs.
“No act of kindness, no matter how small, is ever wasted.”
“Time flies like an arrow; fruit flies like a banana.”
Time Can Be Fun, Too!
Time Tales aren’t always deep thinking meditations on the nature of the human condition. They can be fun too! Early science fiction comics even boasted of ‘Sensational Fiction with No Philosophy’. Yes, Time Romps can be pure schlock and hokum – think AUSTIN POWERS: THE SPY WHO SHAGGED ME, HOT TUB TIME MACHINE, DEADPOOL, GALAXY QUEST. Many of these can be laugh out loud hilarious. And if you don’t find BILL AND TED’S EXCELLENT ADVENTURE funny perhaps you should time leap your mind back to that hormonal period in your own life when you would have done. As for PALM SPRINGS, well, that genuinely is a witty and smartly constructed farce from director Max Barbakow and writer Andy Siara. It features Andy Samberg as Nyles who really is a guy who’s seen it all before. And will do again. And again. With hilarious consequences, until of course he finds love, because PALM SPRINGS is also a fun Rom-com too. And for more big laughs who can forget these exchanges in BACK TO THE FUTURE:
MARTY: Why do you keep calling me Calvin?
LORRAINE BAINES: Well, that’s your name, isn’t it? Calvin Klein? It’s written all over your underwear.
DOC BROWN: Who’s the President of the United States in 1985?
MARTY: “Ronald Reagan.”
DOC BROWN: Ronald Reagan the actor? Then who’s vice president? Jerry Lewis?
It’s often the smallest detail that the eagle-eyed movie viewer finds the most fun. There are those who believe the three path layout of the town square in BACK TO THE FUTURE is deliberately designed in the shape of the three pronged flux capacitor. Maybe. But what can’t be denied is the name of the Mall. In the first feature, have you ever noticed the pine trees? In 1985, when Marty leaves the parking lot of Twin Pines Mall to go back to 1955, he is going at such speed that when he arrives in the past, the DeLorean immediately destroys one of the young sapling and as a result of this, on his return to 1985, the shopping mall sign instead now reads Lone Pine Mall. It’s a subtle joke from the production team, but one that fans love. And you can even buy Twin Pines Mall and Lone Pine Mall paperweight souvenirs.
In fact, there are numerous fun background moments to enjoy all through the BACK TO THE FUTURE series. In BACK TO THE FUTURE III, The Hill Valley Theatre can be seen to be under construction and the clock tower clock is there in one shot being unloaded from the train. And if you look closely at the loose change Marty takes out of his pocket in the diner, you can spot a guitar pick, which all good guitarists would always carry, setting up Marty’s readiness to play with the band at the school dance.
There quite are a few industry in-jokes in BACK TO THE FUTURE as well. The non-speaking part of the photographer who takes the picture of Marty and Doc in the Wild West is none other than Dean Cundey, the actual Director of Photographer (or DoP) of all the BACK TO THE FUTURE movies. There’s also a few not so well hidden ‘Easter Eggs’ for movie nerds. In the window of the ‘antique’ store in BACK TO THE FUTURE II there is a VHS copy of JAWS, which was of course the hit movie directed by Executive Producer Steven Spielberg. Also in that window, if you look closely, you can see a JVC camcorder similar to the one used by Marty to record Doc Brown’s first experiment. There is as well a WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT? doll, merchandise from the movie directed by Robert Zemeckis, the director of all three BACK TO THE FUTURE features. Movie buffs will pick up on how when Marty disappears towards a cinema in his nuclear DeLorean, the sign above says what’s showing is, appropriately enough, THE ATOMIC KID, a 1954 movie starring Mickey Rooney and Robert Strauss. 1955, the year BACK TO THE FUTURE III is partially set in, marked the film debut of Clint Eastwood in REVENGE OF THE CREATURE and it’s actually the poster of that movie which can be seen on the walls when Marty is seen in his ‘cowboy’ outfit. Later, when Marty returns on the railway line, the sign has changed to ‘Eastwood Ravine’ rather than ‘Clayton Ravine’. It was originally called ‘Clayton Ravine’ after Clara Clayton, but the past has been altered and Clara was saved, so now it is ‘Clint Eastwood’, the pseudonym Marty used in the Wild West, who, it must have been assumed, fell to his death.
The pseudonym-joke was taken up in TIMELESS, where the Time Team, when they travel into the past, give themselves aliases such as ‘Wesley Snipes’, ‘Agent Mulder’ and ‘Hans Gruber’ and ‘John McClane’. There’s a nice touch too in the Classic Hollywood 1941 episode of TIMELESS, Hollywoodland (2018) where there’s already talk of a JURASSIC PARK screenplay.
FIDDLERS THREE is a 1944 British comedy where a pair of Jolly Jack Tars on shore leave, take a Wren, a female sailor, to Stonehenge and get caught up in a Time Warp transporting them to ancient Rome. A HITCH IN TIME, a Children’s Film Foundation production from 1978, features Patrick Troughton as Professor Wagstaff, who can never get his time machine called OSKA to work properly. But two children come along and he sends them back in time where they meet the ancestors of a bullying teacher. Oh yes, nothing wrong with a bit of popcorn fun on Saturday morning at the flicks. And on the subject of food, the comic relief in TRAVELERS is usually food related for the Travelers from the future haven’t a clue about the proper stuff because they’ve been living a diet of what sounds like protein based gruel. Hot Dogs are a complete mystery to them, and as Trevor, Traveler 0115 says, “I knew corn existed. I knew popcorn existed. I just never made the connection.”
A rare television sit-com Time Tale is TIMEWASTERS (another being GOODNIGHT, SWEETHEART). The premise of TIMEWASTERS, which ran from 2017 to 2019, is around a struggling black jazz band from contemporary South London who are propelled back in time to the 1950s. As with many other Time Tales, the series includes social commentary, mocking and exposing bigotry and the ridiculous attitudes of the 50s. The novelist Dexter Palmer famously wrote in VERSION CONTROL, “I can’t comprehend why any black man with even a lick of sense would have the slightest bit of interest in time travel. Going backward in time? A black man? You have got to be out of your mind.” In a way, that’s a perfectly sensible question, but, as TIMEWASTERS showed, and TIMELESS too, such a premise does open up many dramatic and comedic possibilities.
“I have made good judgments in the past. I have made good judgments in the future.”
“If I could save time in a bottle
The first thing that I’d like to do
Is to save everyday ‘til eternity passes away
Just to spend it with you.”
Did Cher have a crystal ball when she was starting out in the business? Or maybe even a time machine? If I Could Turn Back Time features in quite a few Time Tales, including DEADPOOL 2 and even DARK. And of course I Got You, Babe was the wake up song every morning in GROUNDHOG DAY. And Cher always looks so young. Probably cosmetic surgery but can a time machine be ruled out?
Music generally is often a very enjoyable feature of a Time Tale. Think of Marty ‘inventing’ rock’n’roll in BACK TO THE FUTURE or even Bing Crosby adding a bit of swing to the medieval minstrels in A CONNECTICUT YANKEE IN KING ARTHUR’S COURT. And in HIGHLANDER Connor MacLeod maybe centuries old but that doesn’t stop him from enjoying the music of Queen. Sometimes it is there to help set the time period and sometimes to comment as it were on the action or the theme. What a Wonderful World features in this way in both DARK and 12 MONKEYS.
“I know that the most joy in my life has come to me from my violin.”