The Pitfalls of the Time Tale

time cogs type 6

“‘We all make mistakes,’ as the Dalek said climbing off the dustbin.”


The Pitfalls of Telling a Time Travel Tale

Terry Pratchett, no stranger to Times Tales himself, was once scathing about some of the storylines in DOCTOR WHO. Writing in the science fiction and fantasy magazine SFX, he argued that the popular television programme was guilty of ‘make-it-up-as-you-go-along-eum’ and that the science of the show was ‘pixel thin’. “I’m sorry about this,” said Pratchett, “I just don’t think you can instantly transport a whole hospital onto the moon without all the windows blowing out. Oh, you use a force field, do you!? And there’s the trouble, one sentence makes it all OK. I just wish that the science of the show wasn’t classed as science fiction.”

Pratchett’s point here is not just about solving all your story problems with a one line contrivance, it’s about credibility too. A problem Time Tales always have, or indeed any science fiction narrative, is staying the right side of absurdity. There is the famous Coleridge phrase concerning ‘the willing suspension of disbelief’, and although this is not the process by which any story is experienced or enjoyed, it is the necessary starting point. But push that willingness too far and the entire enterprise might collapse.

That which is strange can be fascinating and intriguing, but the dividing line between weirdness and absolute codswallop can sometimes be very thin indeed. Odd characters can be good too, but better design them so it’s at least possible to empathise with them, too. Peculiar is fine, but unsympathetic and weird can cause problems.

“We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.”

Albert Einstein

Time cogs type 3

“Trust is built with consistency.”

Lincoln Chafee

Consistency and Unanswered Questions

As said before, when you set your Time Rules they should stay set, just as the laws of our own universe are unchangeable. Which brings us to the problem of consistency. It’s not easy to maintain consistency in a science fiction narrative, especially if it is a television show over several series. TIMELESS, for example, has the Time Rule that when the past is altered, the ripple changes made across time are already part of memories of those still at the base. In one episode, Hedy Lamarr is now fully credited with the invention of Wi-Fi, the mathematician Katherine Johnson has been properly honoured for her work at NASA and as everyone knows, JFK was shot in Austin, Dallas. Not that anyone has yet told Wikipedia, but that’s fine, it’s a fiction. However, that memory rule has to be consistent, yet in one episode Emma in the present seems able to remember the original past even though it has now been changed. Oh, and while on the subject of Emma, she was built up over many episodes as the main villain, but then, suddenly she gets bumped off with hardly word being said.

And then there’s the problem of Rufus Carlin. The series creator said, “The universe of our show operates on one single timeline. There aren’t multiverse or alternate realities and dimensions. Just one timeline.” OK, but why then two Rufus Carlins? The one who died and the one who’s now alive? And where’s the jeopardy anyway if you’re shot in one episode and in the next you’re hearty and full of beans? And what of Jiya’s precognition? Why was it wrong in one instant yet right on all other occasions?

Such odd plot turns and niggly questions can sometimes be explained, but, as Terry Pratchett observed, the story deserves more than one line to sort out the anomalies. This has become a problem in DOCTOR WHO. The Doctor says, for example, that The Time War was a ‘Time-Locked’ event. OK, but how? And why hasn’t this Time-Locked thingummyjig been used elsewhere? It really is, in Terry Pratchett’s words, ‘make-it-up-as-you-go-along-eum’. You can get away with one of two of these, but we all have our limits. DOCTOR WHO is a great series but best not have the viewers too frustrated or they end up reaching for the remote because, as the Monty Pythons used to say, ‘It’s all getting a bit silly.’ And getting a bit silly is one of the main pitfalls of Time Tales.

TRAVELERS (using the American spelling), is a series where the consciousness of beings many centuries into the future are somehow sent back in time and put into the bodies of people in our era. Frankly, it’s a bit far-fetched, yet you go with it. After all, we’ve all seen INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS and numerous other body takeovers. But that isn’t so much the problem, what is hard to accept is that the future historians know the exactly time of death of every one of those human beings, but not what bacon is or even a carrot. If Wikipedia does exist in the future, it seems someone has wiped the groceries section. The lack of understanding or knowledge of food does give the series some humour, but it’s difficult to square this with the omniscience elsewhere. Besides, in order to survive, surely Travelers would need to know what is and isn’t safe to eat. ‘Oh, see there, those things they call mushrooms look very tasty… especially the ones with the red and yellow spots on top…’

TRAVELERS as well has a problem with the kind of unanswered questions that viewers probably ask themselves when watching. ‘If the eyes drops medication Philip is given hasn’t been invented yet, then where did it come from? And that nanite technology? And those lazar beam pens that heal scars?’ OK, they’re from the future and so they have advanced medicine, and these questions are partly answered when The D Team (Doctor Team) is eventually mentioned but exactly where or how those things were manufactured is left vague. But it’s a balance. Explaining it all would take time, an essentially TRAVELERS is an action thriller not a medical documentary on the Discovery Channel.

In THE TERMINATOR, the time machine famously teleports you back to the past as naked as the day you were born. However, the time displacement equipment itself – rotating wings and lightning – isn’t actually seen until 2015’s TERMINATOR GENISYS. Time travel in the original THE TERMINATOR resulted in one of the great Causal Loops in Time Tales when John Connor sends Kyle Reese back in time to save Sarah Connor so Reese can become John Connor’s father. And it’s presented as closed loop because the actions of the time traveller bring about the effects that cause the time traveller to go back in time. That said, TERMINATOR: DARK FATE rejects the closed loop rule and introduces the multiverse concept that alternative timelines are created with each decision. Hmm. Maybe so. However, the decision to go with that scenario, at least on the timeline we live in, resulted in TERMINATOR: DARK FATE becoming one of the biggest flops of 2019 and there are no plans whatever to continue the franchise. And perhaps we should live in hope that that consistency continues.

“Success isn’t always about greatness. It’s about consistency.”

Dwayne Johnson

Time cogs type 3

“Deus ex machina not only erases all meaning and emotion, it’s an insult to the audience. Each of us knows we must choose and act, for better or worse, to determine the meaning of our lives… Deus ex machina is an insult because it is a lie.”

Robert McKee

The Deus ex machina

Deus ex machina literally translates as ‘machine of the gods’. It comes from Greek theatre where a physical device lowered the actors playing the gods from the stage building (skene) onto the playing area or stage (proskenion) to sort out any problems with the plot. The Greeks were ship builders and maritime people so it’s not that difficult to image some sort of device or platform operated by pulleys and ropes. That said, Aristotle in his Poetics was pretty scathing about the use of the machina as a dramatic device. But, if Aristotle had in mind the plays of Euripides, as certain people think he did, then Aristotle simply didn’t understand irony, for little in the work of Euripides can be taken at face value. The gods may indeed come down and appear to solve all the plot problems, but a more intelligent understanding of Euripides’ dramatic intentions will tell you the playwright is actually being more satirical about the nature of life, the gods and indeed Athenian society. Euripides was after all the first political playwright.

Anyway, the point is that the use of the deus ex machina is not in itself always a bad thing. Even Robert McKee, who is not a fan of the deus ex machina, acknowledges that there are movies, RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK being one, where the deus ex machina is carefully set up within the story and so can be used legitimately. McKee’s key point is that you should never take what he calls the ‘Crisis Decision’ out of the protagonist’s hands, otherwise the story becomes meaningless. Indiana Jones, argues McKee, still does make a Crisis Decision in that he could destroy the Ark but chooses not to because of its importance to history and archaeology. So having said all that, how do Time Tales handle the deus ex machina problem?

Season One of TRAVELERS (using the American spelling for the series) ends with the discovery by the FBI of the machine built to host The Director. Not only that, the Traveler Team are in custody with no means of escape. Great cliff-hanger, guys. Well done! But then came Season Two, with the first show teasingly entitled Ave Machina (‘Welcome, Machine’). In it, the contraption itself solved all problems by turning every FBI agent into a Traveler in just one fell swoop. You could argue it was set up, but it was ultimately dramatically unsatisfying because it took the action and choices out of the hands of the protagonists. Besides, wasn’t taking the lives of people not about to die hard-wired into The Director as a no-no? It seems that rule was thrown out the window. In Season Three, The Director was at it again with a deus ex machina, except this time He was God, or pretending to be, by offering a ‘miracle’ to save a little girl from incurable cancer. This act ultimately leads to the attack on the Team Mission being called off with only seconds to go. How the ‘miracle’ happened is never made clear, except through one throwaway line about ‘advanced technology’. Besides, once again the action is taken out of the hands of the protagonists in a dramatically unsatisfactory way.

TIME BANDITS has a deus ex machina of sorts in that the Supreme Being makes a guest appearance at the end in a Euripidean manner – “Right. Come on then,” says God, “Back to Creation. We mustn’t waste any more time. They’ll think I’ve lost control and put it all down to evolution.” The Supreme Being is played by Ralph Richardson, in a fittingly supreme manner.

A deus ex machina will never appear in real life so you best make other arrangements.”

Marisha Pessl

Time cogs type 1

“Two things are infinite: the universe and human stupidity; and I’m not sure about the universe.”

Albert Einstein

Wilful Stupidity

It’s strange how some people when confronted with incontrovertible evidence still deny and refuse to accept what’s right there in front of them. Pure dumbness and wilful stupidity. And it’s so frustrating for the viewer. Phil in GROUNDHOG DAY figures out what is happening pretty quickly and Ben Wilson is equally smart in realising his house guests are from the future, but there are so many Time Tales where people remain blind to the bleeding obvious. The team in TIME TRAP, for example. They seem to take an age to realise what is going on, so much so that their credibility as characters all but disappears. And it’s often those in authority who are the most witless in realising what is really going on – notably the police and judicial psychiatrists in 12 MONKEYS and TERMINATOR 2: JUDGMENT DAY. But there is always the consolation of them getting their comeuppance.

“The problem with the world is that intelligent people are full of doubts, while the stupid ones are full of confidence.”

Charles Bukowski

Time cogs type 2

“The law of diminishing returns means that even the most beneficial principle will become harmful if carried far enough.”

Thomas Sowell

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The Time That Never Was - Swidgers cover
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The Law of Diminishing Returns

DARK is a brilliant Time Tale. A classic of its kind. DARK is a stimulating and often profound television series that is inventive and daring in equal measure. Yet it’s not without one weakness. And that is The Law of Diminishing Returns.

The Diminishing Returns Law is the economic principle that states that if you keep repeating a factor in the production process it will eventually lead to a decrease in the yield or, as economists call it in their equations, ‘negative returns’. It’s an everyday principle we know when eating chocolate. The first piece is great, the second bite good too, but the sixth and seventh less so, not all by the tenth and by the twentieth you’ll be throwing up. And this principle can be applied artistically, with the effect lessening with every repetition. In DARK, so many people end up travelling in time that it becomes as easy to do as an off-peak Saver Return to Brighton. And there are only so many occasions you can hear the profundity of “The End is The Beginning and The Beginning is The End” without it sounding like a tag line from an annoying advert, or worse, descending into metaphysical pretentious gibberish.

The interconnections in DARK are essential in understanding the tragedy of Winden, yet they become so convoluted that you end up shouting at the screen ‘I’ve got no idea what’s going on!’. And the incestuous genealogy in the series, where a woman gives birth to her own mother, makes the Oedipal family tree look positively virginal. The House of Thebes has nothing on Winden. The result is that lines such as “I know how completely insane all this sounds” can end up being unintentionally comic.

DARK has much that can be admired, yet even fans are aware of the problem of empathy and sympathy. ‘With so many versions of characters in past, present and future,’ they say, ‘which one am I meant to care about or root for?’ The beating heart of the story is Jonas and Martha, and ultimately the tale packs a strong emotional punch, but there’s so many Jonases and Marthas and Adams and Evas to meet, and even watch die, before you get to the emotional climax.

Because of its complexity (or should that be ambition?), DARK is an easy target – there are so many people who disappear you can’t help thinking the Winden Polzie Department for Missing Persons really must have had their work cut out – yet despite its intricate plotlines, it’s difficult to fault its consistency. Once the Time Rules of DARK are set, their boundaries and limitations are strictly adhered to. And as Terry Pratchett observed, that’s not something that can always be said for DOCTOR WHO.

“The one negative to horror is that it’s always law of diminishing returns. When you go in the funhouse, the ride is never scary the second time. You will never have that pure experience as when you first watch it.”

Eli Roth

Time cogs type 3

‘Do you have any idea how rare it is to find a girl who’s into science fiction, who doesn’t have everything pierced?”

written by Jamie Mathieson

The Women Time Travellers

Science fiction stories have often led the way when it comes to diversity and gender casting, notably STAR TREK in the 60s. Yes, there are a few women in the series there to be the love interest of Captain Kirk, but often these are intelligent and independently  minded, and with their own agenda. And there was of course Nichelle Nichols as Lieutenant Uhura and later Kate Mulgrew as Captain Kathryn Janeway. There have also been excellent female writers of science fiction, for example Anne McCaffery (1926-2011) who didn’t hold back on her observations on the role of women before the 60s: “Prior to the 60s, stories with any sort of love interests were very rare. True, it was implied in many stories of the 30s and 40s that the guy married the girl whom he had rescued/encounter/discovered during the course of his adventures. No real pulse-pounding, tender, gut-reacting scenes. The girl was still a thing to perpetuate the hero’s magnificent chromosomes.” When it comes to gender roles, early time tales are, shall we say, ambiguous. GOLF IN THE YEAR 2000 OR WHAT ARE WE COMING TO is a 1892 novel by J. McCullough where Alexander J. Gibson falls into a deep sleep in 1892 and wakes up in the year 2000. Here he finds that women have been liberated and hold key positions in business, and in fact do all the work while the men play golf full time. ‘Utopia or Dystopia?’ Discuss.

Reference should be made to novels such as JESSAMY (1967) by Barbara Sleigh, CHARLOTTE SOMETIMES (1967) by Penelope Farmer, THE TIME TRAVELER’S WIFE (2003) by Audrey Niffenegger and more recently THE PSYCHOLOGY OF TIME TRAVEL (2018) by Kate Mascarenhas. JESSAMMY is a tale about a lonely orphaned girl in the 60s who finds love and affection not in her own time but in 1914. CHARLOTTE SOMETIMES is a Time Sleep tale with the twist that you wake up in the future or past depending on which bed you slept in. And when Charlotte does awake in another time she is also another person, which allows the novel to become in part a reflection on identity.

THE TIME TRAVELER’S WIFE is a best-selling novel that has great emotional depth. Yes it is about time travel but it is also about love, marriage, grief and trauma. THE PSYCHOLOGY OF TIME TRAVEL is also about loss, and the mental pressures resulting from time travel and how seeing past and future can change you in unexpected ways. And numerous other time travel stories by women writers could be added to this selection such as A WRINKLE IN TIME by Madeleine L’Engle, OUTLANDER by Diana Gabaldon, KINDRED by Octavia E. Butler, THE FUTURE IS ANOTHER TIME by Annalee Newsitz and WOMAN ON THE EDGE OF TIME by Marge Piercy. There’s no particular unifying factor about these stories, except the focus is on the people in them and their emotional lives rather than the paradoxes of time travel. The themes are primarily empathy, identity, loneliness, grief and companionship. We are light years away from TERMINATOR and AUSTIN POWERS.

WAREHOUSE 13 is an American science fiction television series that ran from 2009 to 2014 on the Syfy network. The program followed a team of field agents who retrieve artefacts that have somehow become charged with energy that gives them dangerous powers. Once retrieved and neutralized, the objects are stored in Warehouse 13, the latest in a line of storehouses with infinite capacity that have served this purpose for millennia. A recurring character in the series was Helena G. Wells played by Jaime Murray. Wells was portrayed as having a genius-level intellect and invention, but she was also something of a transgressional femme fatale. After the loss of her daughter Christina, who was killed in a robbery, Helena becomes obsessed with finding a way to turn back time and save her. Helena G. Well’s time machine in WAREHOUSE 13 differs from the machine described in the Herbert G. Wells novel in that the device is not a vehicle, but a mechanism that can transports consciousness to a directed target across time, not unlike the series TRAVELERS. After several failed attempts to save her daughter’s life, Helena eventually realises she is unable to change events from the past, and after murdering the men who killed her daughter, she continues to behave recklessly until she eventually inadvertently causes the death of a fellow agent. At this point, Helena G. Wells chooses to be ‘bronzed’ to prevent any further damage (bronzing is a method of imprisonment where someone remains conscious, but in a state that resembles cryogenic sleep). The choice of the programme makers to switch the sex of Wells, as it were, plus make her a morally ambiguous time traveller is worthy of mention.

BEFORE I FALL is a Time Loop tale of redemption and self-sacrifice. This successful 2017 American teen drama film was created by a female team, including Ry Russo-Young (director), Maria Maggenti and Gina Prince-Bythewood (writers) and it was taken from the novel by Lauren Oliver of the same name. RUSSIAN DOLL, an American comedy drama series again with a Time Loop storyline, also had a female creative team at the helm, including Natasha Lyonne, Leslye Headland and Amy Poehler.

“When I look around the world, I don’t see too many damsels in distress. If they’re a damsel in distress, they’re manipulating some guy to help them.”

Sigourney Weaver

Swidgers book quotes number 2

swidgers title in purple

‘You’re not my grandma,’ I told her again, ‘and in fact, I don’t think you’ve ever been anyone’s grandma.’
I expected her to stop again. But no.
‘It matters not who am, the only thing that matters is what I am. And I, William Arthur, am a Swidger. Just like you.’
‘A Swidger?’
‘Yes, that’s what we are. Swidgers. Put on this earth to change lives for the better with a switch or a dodge, a shove or a nudge.”



The SWIDGERS book series feature a teenage boy but he and his Mentor, who goes by the name of ‘Granny’, are essentially joint protagonists in the stories. Swidgers such as William and Granny look like us but in fact they are Time Beings who have been put here to alter human timepaths for the better with small adjustments to our daily lives. Their ultimate aim as cosmic beings is to set right Time itself, realign it with Life for, as the story reveals, Time, Life and the Universe were put ‘out of joint’ by a malevolent force at the beginning of creation.

Granny, whose homely womanly wisdom is peppered with the natural wit and poetry of everyday life, is funny and mischievous, whereas William is the quiet boy who underestimates himself but who ultimately discovers he is capable of great things. Together, Granny and William truly make a great team. And it would, perhaps, be both ageist and sexist to say that Granny was not an appropriate character for Time Travel.

Swidgers book quotes number 2

The SWIDGERS book series feature a teenage boy but he and his Mentor, who goes by the name of ‘Granny’, are essentially joint protagonists in the stories. Swidgers such as William and Granny look like us but in fact they are Time Beings who have been put here to alter human timepaths for the better with small adjustments to our daily lives. Their ultimate aim as cosmic beings is to set right Time itself, realign it with Life for, as the story reveals, Time, Life and the Universe were put ‘out of joint’ by a malevolent force at the beginning of creation. As moral beings, Swidgers are unable to lie or be violent, but that doesn’t stop Granny and William from doing all the things they must in their adventures. Granny, whose homely womanly wisdom is peppered with the natural wit and poetry of everyday life, is funny and mischievous, whereas William is the quiet boy who underestimates himself but who ultimately discovers he is capable of great things. Together, Granny and William truly make a great team. And it would be both ageist and sexist to say that Granny was not an appropriate character for Time Travel.

“Being a woman is a terribly difficult task, since it consists principally in dealing with men.”

Joseph Conrad

Time cogs type 2

“Of course it’s the same old story. Truth usually is the same old story.”

Margaret Thatcher

Same Old, Same Old, Same Old

Why in Time Tales is it always men who are unhappy with their lives, who long for a second chance, and so somehow are given the opportunity to alter things through time travel? Yes, the details may change, but the gender rarely does. Male angst is there in many Time Tales such as THE MAN FROM THE FUTURE, PRIMER, THE KID, in GROUNDHOG DAY and in MR DESTINY. And why is it always medieval knights or medieval townsfolk who are sent back and forth through time and not nuns or princesses? You’ll find medieval gentlemen in JUST VISTING (a remake of LES VISITEURS ), in BLACK NIGHT (2001) and THE KNIGHT BEFORE CHRISTMAS, plus THE NAVIGATOR: A MEDIEVAL ODYSSEY. And why is it always the assassination of JFK? It’s there is TIMEQUEST (2000), it’s there in The Kennedy Curse episode of TIMELESS, it’s there in the Lee Harvey Oswald two-parter in QUANTUM LEAP and of course the Stephen King story 11.22.63. Male angst.  Medieval knights. John F. Kennedy. Do you ever have a sort of déjà vu and think you’ve seen this story before somewhere?

Joseph Campbell’s book THE HERO WITH A THOUSAND FACES repeatedly makes the point that in Myth we are essentially telling ourselves the same stories. Carl Jung made a similar point when he spoke of the ‘collective unconscious’ and the archetypes we find in all stories. However, that sense of the universal narrative is not the same as churning out the same identical plot ad infinitum.

“So, Nat’ralists observe, a Flea
Hath smaller Fleas that on him prey,
And these have smaller yet to bite ’em
And so proceed ad infinitum.”

Jonathan Swift

Time cogs type 1

“The greatest mistake a man can ever make is to be afraid of making one.”

Elbert Hubbard

Getting the Future Wrong

You’re a hostage to the fortune whenever you set your Time Tale in the near future because time comes round quicker than you might think. October 21st 2015 was the future once, the day in fact that Marty journeyed to when he went forwards in time from the 1980s. It was therefore a big day for BACK TO THE FUTURE fans when October 21st 2015 came round for real. Marty (Michael J. Fox) and Doc Brown (Christopher Lloyd) even appeared on Jimmy Kimmel Live and discovered that 2015 had not yet invented flying cars or hover boards. And there was still no peace in the Middle East. Doc Brown is so taken aback by the society he saw that he feared they may have travelled into an alternate 2015 where human evolution had been stopped by superfluous technology.

There were other predictions in BACK TO THE FUTURE II that didn’t work out too well, either. The car licence plate in 2015 is a barcode (oddly enough, by 2015 barcodes were everywhere, except on license plates). The newspaper predictions for 2015 proved far from prophetic. Queen Diana? Sadly that never happened. A female US President? Well close, but no cigar. Fingerprint payments? Thumbprint passwords, yes, thumbprint payments, no. Tokyo stocks up? In fact, the 1990s and the 2000s saw the Japanese economy really struggle. To be fair, BACK TO THE FUTURE II was right about widescreen televisions, as was, incidentally THE TIME TRAVELERS back in 1964, but BACK TO THE FUTURE mis-predicted that fax machines would still be in operation and now the scene where Marty is fired, using that badly dated technology, looks like an anachronism. By then old fax machines would have been in the garage or recycled into something people actually still used.

But it’s understandable. The simple truth is that all Time Tales reflect the period in which they are made and what can lead people astray here, especially when predicting the technological future, is The Fallacy of Extrapolation. The Fallacy of Extrapolation says that it is a mistake to base the speed of future technological change on that which is happening right now. Scientific advancements may simply not keep up that pace in years to come. Cars, for example, even though many are now electric, haven’t fundamentally changed in what they can do over the last twenty years or so. They haven’t, unlike many predictions in futuristic stories, yet learnt to fly. There are no motorways in the clouds. That said, communication devices have completely altered the way we live. Mobile phones (cell phones in America) are essentially small computers which we carry around with us all the time. They are now even more developed in some ways than the ‘communicators’ in STAR TREK, supposedly state-of-the-art devices in 2265. That said, the tablet-like computer that Spock sometimes carries around with him looks very much like those that everyone seemed to have with them in the 2010s. And Scotty’s ‘transparent aluminium’ is reaching getting closer with research into aluminium oxynitride which is a ceramic polymer not that different from the principles set out by Montgomery Scott in that it is crystal clear and very strong. And another Time Tale that can claim a big win is DOCTOR WHO, which in a classic early episode talked about the ‘Network’ as means of sharing information as can THE TERMINATOR which came up with AI tanks before the US military did and who can forget MINORITY REPORT delivering all that personally targeted advertising before it happen it real life.

In 2014, Forbes magazine did an interesting investigation when it looked back at Isaac Asimov’s predictions from fifty years previously. “Robots,” he had said, “will neither be very common not very good in 2014, but they will be in existence.” He was right. Asimov added that ‘robot-brain’ vehicles would be able to be set for particular destinations, which sounds very similar to today’s GPS. And H G Wells, the writer of THE TIME MACHINE, is often credited with anticipating genetics (THE ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU), lasers or ‘heat-ray’ (WAR OF THE WORLDS) and modern communication (MEN LIKE GODS) – me “For in Utopia, except by previous arrangement, people do not talk together on the telephone. Message is sent to the station of the district in which the recipient is known to be, and there it waits until he chooses to tap his accumulated messages. And any that one wishes to repeat can be repeated. Then he talks back to the senders and dispatches any other messages he wishes. The transmission is wireless.” You heard it here first, folks.

“The future always comes too fast and in the wrong order.”

Alvin Toffler

Time cogs type 1

“I never make the same mistake twice. I make it five or six time, just to be sure.”


Getting the Past Wrong

Getting the future wrong is understandable and forgivable, but getting the past wrong is not. There are after all such things as libraries. But there are choices to be made when creating a Time Tale. What do you do about language? Even if you speak modern English, medieval English, including its grammar, would be almost like a foreign language. If you doubt that, try reading some Chaucer.

There are quite a few anachronisms in Time Travel Tales that have been spotted by eagle-eyed viewers. For example, in THE TIME MACHINE (2002) there’s a Swiss made pocket watch that was not introduced until 1920 and so couldn’t have existed in 1899. BACK TO THE FUTURE is often and perhaps unfairly singled out for its anachronisms. Marty McFly couldn’t have played a Gibson Es-345 guitar for his rendition of Jonny B. Goode at Hill Valley High’s dance because it wasn’t introduced until 1958. But it’s BACK TO THE FUTURE III that gets the worst stick for being anachronistic. In 1885, there are wire hangers, yet wire hangers were not invented until 1903. The sousaphone is heard being played, but that wasn’t created until 1893. A modern California state flag can be seen, but that design did not appear until 1911. The striped hat worn by the engine driver wasn’t produced until 1906. A Mills Dewy slot machine is visible in one scene but this wasn’t manufactured until 1898. But the simple answer to the these criticisms is ‘Folks! Who cares? It’s a movie! And a good one! Pass the popcorn!’

“I never made a mistake in my life. I thought I did once, but I was wrong.”

Charles M. Schulz

Time cogs type 3

“If life is a soap opera you shouldn’t be in too much of hurry to get to the final credits.”

Michael Portillo

It’s All Turning into a Soap Opera

Both TRAVELERS and TIMELESS began as adventure series with great characters, strong narrative hooks and unexpected plot twists, but with both, the dramatic emphasis moved away from exciting escapades and more towards the complex domestic relationships between the characters themselves. Mission Adventure became Soap Opera. In TRAVELERS, there were story lines about child custody, parental conflicts, drug addiction and marriages in crisis. Good soap opera, but still soap opera. Some liked the change, other didn’t. For TIMELESS, the move didn’t turn out to be a great ratings winner. However, its fans were rewarded by a fun two part story send off.

The revamped DOCTOR WHO in the 2000s also went domestic with Rose Tyler and her family, but these stories successfully gave the series a sense of terra firma, somehow rooting the tales in real life. As Granny says to William in the SWIDGERS book series, “Even heroes wear socks.”

“I don’t want to dream anymore, I want my life to be real.”

Ricky Martin

Time cogs type 5

“He’s not available right now – he’s in a meeting with himself.”

CORNE cartoon, with a wife making excuses for her husband in a ‘meditative’ position

Navel Gazing

Adventure Tales can become vulnerable as well to too much Time Traveller navel gazing. The classic Doctor Who of the 60s and 70s was essentially a ‘Travelling Angel’ character. In the Travelling Angel Tale, the ‘Angel’, that is the Doctor, drives the story but essentially it’s the other characters who have problems and must change. The most famous Travelling Angel is of course Mary Poppins and it’s no coincidence that she’s described as Practically perfect in every way.

Travelling Angels are essentially fixers who themselves don’t need fixing. The Doctor Who of the 70s would come into a situation, sometimes finding an imbalance and sometimes creating one, but either way he would somehow set it to rights. But the stories were rarely about him, at least until the regeneration story. But the modern era DOCTOR WHO series is as often as not about the nature of Doctor Who himself and now herself. She/he has become incredibly self-aware in a way she/he wasn’t in the earlier years. Yes, The Doctor is a fascinating character, and as naval fluff goes hers/his is perhaps more interesting than most, but the endless gazing at a Time Lord’s belly button has its limitations. Terry Pratchett had to admit he kept watching the ‘Messianic Doctor’ as he called him, and the show is never less than interesting, only nowadays it is perhaps for different reasons to those in the 60s and 70s.

“Be mindful of your self-talk. It’s a conversation with the Universe.”

David James Lees

Time cogs type 3

“If you don’t disagree with me, how will I know I’m right?”

Samuel Goldwyn


There are other obvious pitfalls that are applicable to all storytelling such as don’t stretch it out too long, a problem now common with many Netflix series. Oh, and try to avoid unsympathetic characters, something THE OA series has struggled with. Oh yes, and don’t insult our intelligence with daft plot contrivances.

In fact, there are now even phrases in screenwriting manuals for those moments where a series loses all credibility due to a silly plot device or story event. ‘Bobby-in-the-shower’ from DALLAS, which tried to re-set the whole series following a ratings fall by taking the action back several years and saying ‘it was all just a dream’. People just didn’t buy it and the rating fell even more. Then there is the expression ‘jumping-the-shark’ which came from HAPPY DAYS where The Fonz did exactly that while water-skiing. The actor could water-ski but The Fonz? It just didn’t make sense. Some fans point to the DOCTOR WHO story The Last of the Time Lords as a ‘jumping-the-shark’ moment. In the plot, the tenth Doctor is put in a cage by The Master, looking for all the world like a wrinkly Tweety Pie, and only escapes his imprisonment with a Messianic like resurrection when the whole world suddenly says his name. You can’t imagine William Hartnell or Jon Pertwee going with that.


And one final pitfall to avoid in Time Tales: Don’t call your story SPACEMAN FROM THE PLANET PLUTO. That was the title suggested by an executive at Universal Pictures for BACK TO THE FUTURE. It was a serious memo but Steven Spielberg cleverly sent a note back saying, “Thanks for the new title you sent over. It gave us all a big laugh! Keep ‘em coming!” And so that was the end of that.

time cogs type 10

“Looking at these stars suddenly dwarfed my own troubles and all the gravities of terrestrial life. I thought of their unfathomable distance, and the slow inevitable drift of their movements out of the unknown past into the unknown future.”