The Rules of Time and the Codes of Time Travel

time cogs type 6

“Whether it’s the best of times or the worst of times, it’s the only time we’ve got.”

Art Buchwald

The Rules of Time

The Rules of Time in a Time Tale should be absolute and irrevocable. However, since it’s your Time Tale, you can decide what those Time Rules are. After all, you are the creator of your Time World. The point though is that once that world of yours has been imagined and created, like the scientific laws of our own Universe, those Time Rules must be kept to and never broken. Especially regarding Time Travel. If you start changing your fundamentals mid-story, your Time Tale will lose all credibility.

As with Time Beings, your Time Rules are primarily created for dramatic and thematic reasons. In DARK, it is established that Cause-Effect is halted in the moment that Tannhauser’s Time Machine is switched on. The stopping of the relationship even for a second allows two Timelines to be born. It’s a simple but ingenious concept.  The complexities that follow may well bring about a bewildering labyrinth of interconnecting lives but the fundamental principle of how Time works in the DARK Time World is always consistent.

Rules then vary depending on the story, some have limits on how far back the protagonist is able to travel in time, or indeed where they cannot go. For example, the Mission Team in TIMELESS are only able to travel to a period outside their own lifetimes. In Poul Anderson’s FLIGHT TO FOREVER, the protagonist’s machine can only move forwards in time and never back. Others have it that events can be witnessed, but not interfered with, for example, Daphne du Maurier’s THE HOUSE ON THE STRAND, and in Ray Bradbury’s A SOUND OF THUNDER it is not possible to return to the era previously visited for fear of creating a paradox. In ABOUT TIME, essentially a family father-son drama, the rule is that the travel must be kept within the traveller’s own lifetime and timeline. But there are some Time Worlds where there are no rules, or at least within them what is Time is purely random. And this Time World belongs to SLAUGHTERHOUSE-5 by Kurt Vonnegut.

The rules of Time Travel in TRAVELERS are to some degree flexible in that they are dependent on ever changing technology and the Artificial Intelligence of the future. However, even here there are principles that must be kept to, one being that Time Travel is limited to the computer age, as the quantum technology that allows for Time Travel in TRAVELERS is dependent on computer programming. No visits to the age of the dinosaurs, then.

The TRAVELERS series also has other rules such as it is only possible to go back as far as the most recent Traveler and so it is not possible to do ‘do-overs’ as this would create ‘ripples in Space-Time’. This later rule you’ll find in most Time Tales, and it makes sense, for in your story, if you didn’t get things right the first time and all you have to do is do it again, where the is the jeopardy? That said, episode seven of Season Two of TRAVELERS called 17 Minutes, features eight failed attempts at sending Travelers from the future to save The Mission Team from Faction assassins. However, it’s possible to argue that it’s not strictly speaking a ‘do-over’, as the time frame is measured in minutes only but here TRAVELERS is pushing at the boundaries of its own strictures. From a story point of view of course, there is obviously some jeopardy in that all eight of the previous volunteer Travelers are killed. That said, as the episode goes on, you sort of know that the Mission Team will eventually be saved.

The taking of the future America president Anna Hamilton to stop her from being assassinated does, however, have one event that seems inconsistent with the rest of the TRAVELERS series and that is when Anna is taken by the team acting for The Director, Time freezes. Well, that was new. And it’s never explained either. Also in this episode was something called a ‘Space-Time Attenuation’ device, which created a force field that The Director could not penetrate. That is until it was blown up. It’s a good device to increase the drama of the siege, but where exactly did it come from? And why is it not mentioned or used again? Not that such questions matter that much, at least as long as they don’t come up too regularly. Besides, the action in TRAVELERS is pretty fast paced and the makers probably hope that you’ll soon stop wondering or worrying about such pedantic details anyway.

What about establishing a rule as to how quickly time passes in the different Time Spaces? The same? Quicker? Slower? In BILL AND TED’S EXCELLENT ADVENTURE, the clock ticks the same in both worlds, the past and the present, but in Stephen King’s 11/22/63 no matter how long you spend in the past, when you return only two minutes have gone by in the present.

And what about clothes or anything else you can take with on your Time Journey? In THE TIME TRAVELER’S WIFE, it’s only Henry’s physical body that can journey in time and so Henry always arrives naked. Difficult for him, yes, but in a way this has dramatic advantages, for Henry is forced to find inventive ways of getting round the problem. A similar rule exists in THE TERMINATOR. Bizarrely, Austin Powers’ newly cleaned teeth in the 90s revert to back to being dirty and yellow when he travels to the 60s. However, Austin has already looked into the camera and winked and told us not to worry too much about all that time travel logic.

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Another question. Is the Time Journey a one-way ticket or a return? Scientifically speaking, a Wormhole Time Journey would definitely be one-way. But how would you construct your world? In THE TERMINATOR the TDE (Time Displacement Equipment also known as the Time Displacement Generator) is defiantly a one-way trip, and that suits the story. Likewise IN THE SHADOW OF THE MOON, the journey is in one temporal direction only for the serial killer pursued by the cop. That suits the story. But again that’s the whole point: construct the rules around the story you wish to tell rather than make up rules then create a story round them. That would be the wrong.

One final question here. What are the potential side effects of time travel? In the Korean time travel series ALICE (AELLISEU), written by Kim Kyu-Won, radiation from time travel can cause problems. Alice Time Agents Yoon Tae-yi (Kim Hee-sun) and Yoo Min-hyuk (Kwak Si-yang) are a couple expecting a child but, as time travel radiation would cause serious defects, the mother, Tae-yi, stays in the past to single-handedly raise her son, Park Jin-gyeom (Joo Won), who, because of this radiation, is born with Alexithymia, that is, a lack of empathy and emotional connection. When Park Jin-gyoem himself travels in time, the Time Card he was carrying is later measured to have 6.3 microsieverts of radiation, 20 times what it should be.

“Time is an illusion. Time only exists when we think about the past and the future. Time doesn’t exist in the present here and now.”

Mariana Abramovic

Time cogs type 2

“A star captain’s most solemn oath is that he will give his life, even his entire crew, rather than violate the Prime Directive.

James T. Kirk
The Omega Glory, STAR TREK written by Gene Roddenberry

Time Codes and Non-Intervention

As Granny says in Book One of SWIDGERS, “Rules are like pie-crusts, they are made to be broken.” Breaking guidelines is dramatic – THE TIME THAT NEVER WAS opens with William breaking one of the key Swidger strictures, which is not to follow those people whose timelines you alter. But William knows he must do this to save his life. This opening scene of the book immediately sets William up as different to his fellow Swidgers. And one willing to break his own kind’s Time Code again his own nature. But in a way, scenarios in Time Tales are built around how far Time Codes can be pushed. And that is ultimately the narrative purpose of all Time Codes in Time Tales.

In TRAVELERS (using the American spelling of the series), as with many series, there are strictures concerning how to behave in a Time Travelling situation and these are called Protocols:

Protocol One – The Mission comes first.

Protocol Two – Leave The Future in The Past.

Protocol Three – Don’t save a life, don’t take a life unless otherwise directed. Do not interfere.

Protocol Four – Don’t reproduce.

Protocol Five – In the absence of direction, maintain your host’s life.

Protocol Six – No inter-team/deep web communication except in extreme emergencies or when sanctioned.

You could argue that dramatically the entire series of TRAVELERS is built around how and why these Protocols occasionally must be broken. Indeed, even The Director sometimes sends messages suspending certain Protocols in an emergency or high priority mission, and this is the so-called Protocol Alpha.

The Mission itself in TRAVELERS is always to make changes in our era to help the world in The Travelers’ own Future, but with Time Tales, as in life, moral and practical ambiguities abound. And it’s around dilemmas and quandaries that many episodes are based. For that’s what drama is.

The overall objective of these Team Missions is to alter the future, save it in fact, but in Time Travel Tales where there is no assignment, then the default protocol is usually ‘Non-intervention’. Or put simply, Don’t leave your footprint in history.

The basic Time Code for Time Travellers in most Time Tales is that no interventions should be made, even if positive, for the simple reason that consequences further along the timeline could be catastrophic and even create a worse situation than that which currently exists. Yes, the present may not be perfect, but it’s all we have and all we can be sure of. Better the devil you know, and all that. Besides, change the past and we could end up erasing ourselves, and this is the premise of course of the famous STAR TREK episode The City on the Edge of Forever. Non-intervention is the name of the game no matter the cruel personal consequences.

The Prime Directive in STAR TREK was created at a time when US troops were in Vietnam doing a great deal of interfering. But that’s the point about all these protocols and codes: they raise challenging moral and political questions. That’s why Gene Roddenberry was always so pleased when his stories were understood and appreciated as moral and political fables.

“For the want of a nail the shoe was lost,
For the want of a shoe the horse was lost,
For the want of a horse the rider was lost,
For the want of a rider the battle was lost,
For the want of a battle the kingdom was lost,
And all for the want of a horseshoe-nail.”

Benjamin Franklin

Time cogs type 5

“Sometimes staying put is the best move you can make.”


Travelling in Time but Not Space

All theoretical time machines that have been written about in modern physics require spatial displacement. Put simply, they need to move. However, a time machine that journeyed backward through time and yet didn’t move in space would face a very troublesome problem – it would simply crash into itself. Scientists have dubbed this ‘the double occupancy problem’.

There is also the ‘Cheshire Cat’ problem – “This time it vanished quite slowly, beginning with end of the tail, and ending with the grin, which remained sometime after the rest of it had gone”. Well, is it there or isn’t it? And that’s a question that applies to travelling into the future as well as the past. Wells’s Time Traveller in THE TIME MACHINE mentions “diluted presentation” and then the unnamed Psychologist, one of the unnamed dinner guests in the story, offers the idea that the reason why people might not be able to see the time machine as it is sent on its way into the future is that, like the spoke of a wheel spinning, or a bullet flying through the air, it is invisible because those objects are “travelling through time fifty or hundred times faster than we are.” But is the Psychologist right in this case? Just because these objects cannot be seen doesn’t mean they aren’t there. Besides, a bullet moves through space and so do those spokes on a wheel. Anyway, in the story, Wells even has the Psychologist stick his hand into the space where the model time machine was last seen, and, as it doesn’t encounter anything, there is clearly nothing there.

But need we really worry? After all, even if the time machine isn’t moving in space, the Earth itself is. It’s spinning round right now. And isn’t the Earth also orbiting the Sun? And isn’t the sun itself revolving around the hub of our galaxy? So perhaps the real question for time travellers, who, shall we say, want to travel back in time to 1912 to save the Titanic from sinking, isn’t so much ‘When is 1912?’ but ‘Where is the 1912?’ And the idea of both ‘when’ and ‘where’ is explored in the 1980 novel TIMESCAPE by Gregory Benford (it should be said that Benford’s co-author was the unbilled Hilary Foister, Benford’s sister-in-law, who was later credited as having “contributed significantly to the manuscript”). The novel TIMESCAPE incidentally should not be confused with the 1992 movie TIMESCAPE which has a plot about time tourists. TIMESCAPE (1980) follows the work of a group of scientists in the United Kingdom and their attempts at warning the past of the impending disaster by sending tachyon-induced messages to the astronomical position the Earth occupied in the early 1960s. The idea is that given the faster-than-light nature of the tachyon, these messages will effectively reach the past (the when) at the right spot in the Earth’s course round the sun (the where).

Of course, H.G Wells’ time machine travelled only in time, not space. The only occasion the time machine is moved is when the Morlocks push it into the Sphinx and this creates problems for the Time Traveller. But jeopardy such as this never does any harm to a story. The DeLorean in BACK TO THE FUTURE clearly moves in space. And it needs to be fast too in order to hit the 88 mph mark and so do its stuff, yet it cannot ‘jump space’ in the way the TARDIS can, or even that phone box in BILL AND TED’S EXCELLENT ADVENTURE. But the DeLorean’s limitation is actually an advantage for it raises more danger and jeopardy for Marty, particularly in BACK TO THE FUTURE III where the bridge across the ravine is still unfinished in 1885 and so Marty has to risk driving over it in the hope he will travel in to the future and that the bridge will be there in 1985. As with any story rule, code or stricture, the space-time rule here is designed to suit and fit the individual plot. And here we again see the brilliance of the BACK TO THE FUTURE structure.

“There are no rules, but you break them at your peril.”

Peter Guber

Time cogs type 5

“Time is a drug; too much of it kills you.”

Terry Pratchett

Where the Dead Don’t Die – The Death Reversal

We don’t want to die and we don’t want those we love to die either. But Death is part of life and we must learn to accept this. And in their own way, Time Tales are creative stories that explore this area of human experience with stories around loss and bereavement.

The attempt to prevent a past death is often a key part of a Time Tale. Wyatt Logan, whose wife was killed in violent circumstances, is not the only character in TIMELESS who knows or has witnessed grief. Flynn, the supposed ‘villain’ of TIMELESS, jaunts to NASA in 1964 to save the life of his half-brother Gabriel, who he knows will die of an allergic reaction to a bee-sting without an immediate antihistamine injection. This is not a selfish act, for it was the grief and sadness Flynn saw in his mother who witnessed this terrible accidental death that was the motivation for this particular Death Reversal.

In TIMECOP, Max Walker has the job of preventing Time Travellers from altering time, yet is tempted to do so himself to prevent his wife’s death. And even Superman, when Lois dies, flies around the world in the opposite direction to its spin, thus causing the Earth to ‘turn the clock back’, as it were, and so reverse time and bring Lois back to life. Strictly speaking, travelling fast, according to Einstein’s theory anyway, simply wouldn’t do this, unless, like those mysterious tachyons, Superman went all FTL – that is, Faster-Than-Light. Anyway, this saving act of Superman does go completely against what his father had taught him. And that is the cost to Superman, for a trust and a promise has been broken.

There are a few attempted turnarounds for the dead in the Harry Potter World. In HARRY POTTER AND THE PRISONER OF AZKABAN, Hermione uses the Time-Turner to save Buckbeat, though in HARRY POTTER AND THE CURSED CHILD, using the Time-Turner to meddle with Time to save Cedric results in unexpected and disastrous consequences elsewhere. A rare success in preventing a death is HAPPY ACCIDENTS (2000), except here the time travellers, or ‘back- travellers’ as they call themselves, only reveal to the central character Ruby at the end that it is her death they have stopped.

In THE TIME TRAVELER’S WIFE, young Henry is with his mother when she is killed in a car crash. Of course, when he grows older he tries to reverse this but nothing he does can change things. His attempts only result in Henry having to witness his mother’s death many, many times. Eventually, Henry comes to accept that happened as irreversible and moves on. Lazarus is the exception, not the rule.

In DARK, Tannhauser’s back story turns out to be pivotal to the creation of the Endless Time Loops. A car accident led to the death of Tannhauser’s son, his daughter-in-law and his granddaughter and so when the knowledge of how to create a Time Machine comes his way, he builds one in order to save them. But in doing so, it leads to unimaginable suffering for the people of Winden. So then, bringing people back from the dead in Time Tales is really not a good idea – unless it leads to an award winning Netflix series and earns unprecedented 9.7 on IMDb for your final episode.

“Time decides the limits of existence. Nothing can be infinite if it exists in Time.”

Raheel Farooq

Time cogs type 5

“Our brain simulates reality. So, our everyday experiences are a form of dreaming, which is to say, they are mental models, simulations, not the things they appear to be.”

Stephen LaBerge

Where the Dead Don’t Die – The Life Simulation

Guilt plays a major part in the science fiction television series DEVS, written and directed by Alex Garland. The computer system that the boffins at ‘Devs’ come up with is able to analyse past causes and effects in a determinate way. And it can establish all the happenings of the past to such a level of depth that it can retrospectively create a physical generation of past events by means of a computer screen. The mastermind behind this remarkable technology that offers this simulated Time Window is Forest, played by Nick Offerman, who was spurred on to do so by the devastating loss of his young daughter. “I think Devs,” says Lily Chan, played by Sonoya Mizuno, who has experienced loss herself, “is how you’ve put yourself on trial. It’s judge and jury. If it works, determinism precludes free will, and you’re absolved, you did no wrong. But if it doesn’t work, you had choices. And you’re guilty.” The point Lily makes about determinism is that the Data gives Forest a godlike knowledge of all histories and their possible permutations, including his own. If there was only ever one possible outcome involving the death of his daughter, then Forest is off the hook, for in a determinist world there is literally nothing else he could have done.

The computer system at the centre of DEVS appears at first to be only a Time Past viewing portal. Unlike other Time Tales involving bereavement, the grieving parent doesn’t aim to change the past, more witness it and understand the possibilities around it. But there’s a twist. The machine is also capable of predicting the future, but this is limited only to seconds ahead. And Lily, it is discovered, could be an anomaly. So, will Lily act as she has been predicted to do, or not? As it happens the answer is no, she doesn’t, but as a result of taking this unexpected action, she and Forest fall physically into the vast machine and become part of the computer simulation itself. Exactly how all this comes about is never made clear, but the point is Forest finds himself in a place where his daughter lives and Lily too is in that world where she already knows the true worth of the lover she rejected in their flesh and blood world. Their simulated unreal reality offers them both a second chance. Of course both are fully aware their new world isn’t real, but it’s an unreality as real as reality itself. If that reality was ever real in the first place.

Here we are in the territory of the illusion and unconsciousness as explored in THE MATRIX and INCEPTION, plus those worries about the world possibly being a dream that Descartes had in his Mediations. Lily and Forest, like young Alice Liddell before them, have fallen down a literal hole into a strange wonderland that is as real in some way as real can be. In this context, it’s worth mentioning Ship in a Bottle, a popular episode from STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION, where the fictional holodeck character professor James Moriarty has his sights set on controlling the Enterprise and freeing himself into that reality. He succeeds, or at least believes he does, but ultimately he is tricked back inside the computer fiction, not knowing it is a fiction. What we know to be an unreality is to him his ‘reality’. As Counselor Deanna Troi says, “You did give Moriarty what he wanted.” Captain Jean-Luc replies, “In a sense. But who knows? Our reality may be very much like theirs. All this might just be an elaborate simulation, running inside a little device sitting on someone’s table.” Oh Jean-Luc, if you only knew.

Of course the difference in DEVS is that Lily and Forest once ‘inside’ the simulation, know they are in a simulation, yet they are with their loved ones once again and that makes them happy. Yes, it’s unreal but now they are free, if it is possible to use that word, to live a happier life than the one they had. Albeit in a life where they aren’t actually alive. Or real. But that’s the joy of science fiction for you.

“Personally I’m hoping to spend the last years of my life plugged into a real life MMORPG simulation that makes me think and feel like I’m 18 again while my 90 year old body lies in a tube somewhere getting fed thru an IV. Be a great way to finish up a life.”

Drew Curtis

Time cogs type 1

“Nothing in life is certain except death, taxes and the Second Law of Thermodynamics.”

Seth Lloyd

Entropy and Time

Entropy is complicated, but that’s sort of the point, because that’s what entropy is: the degree of disorder to which a system is susceptible based on its complexity. Entropy is closely linked to the Second Law of Thermodynamics that states that any entity in a system that is free of external influences (that is, it is a ‘closed system’) will continually evolve towards maximum disorder. Put as simply as possible, entropy is the measurement of that disorder. Or put even more simply, the universe is organised to go wrong.

We live in a disordering universe. It is made itself in such a way that it is built to unmake itself. The initial state of the universe, which many believe to be a singularity not that different from a Black Hole, was when the universe was at its most ordered. That is, the universe was an infinity of mass in an infinitely small space. Did someone give it a knock? Or did it, of its own accord, explode, giving us the much talked about Big Bang (though of course it wasn’t Big and, since there was nothing there in the universe to reverberate, there wasn’t even a Bang). The point is from that moment on the universe has become more and more disordered. Life or biology temporarily creates order, but it doesn’t last long. Time makes sure of that.

In the SWIDGERS book series, Swidgers are Cosmic Beings in human form who have been put on Earth tasked with slowly putting right Life, Time and the Universe that in the Swidger back story have been put out of sync – ‘The Time is out of joint’, as Hamlet famously observed. And the concept of Entropy, or the Swidger view of it, is central to their thinking. Although Swidgers look exactly like human beings, one thing that makes them different is the speed at which their hair grows. It can get very long. Granny, who styles her long ginger hair above her head, if styles is the right word, in what used to be called the ‘beehive’ look (think Patsy from ABSOLUTELY FABULOUS or even Amy Winehouse). Granny keeps it all in place with butterfly clips and constant adjustments. But of course, strands are constantly falling onto her face, and when this happens she says, “Entropy, I curse you!” Granny’s hair is in a ‘closed system’ in the sense that she can’t hold it in lace all the time. And left to themselves, hairs come loose, that is they are subject to The Second Law of Thermodynamics. And that explains, when hairs do drop across her face, Granny says, “Entropy, I curse you!”

Young William says he does not know what this word ‘entropy’ means, but Granny believes he does, and with a bit of questioning, as with Meno’s slave, William will work out the principle for himself:

‘Entropy, I curse you!’

‘You keep saying that,’ I blurted out, ‘but I’ve no idea what it means.’

‘You do know what it means, only you’ve never had the word for it. Big difference.’ Granny pursed her lips for a moment and then said, ‘An ice cube. On a hot day. What happens?’

‘It melts,’ I replied.

‘Into what?’ she then asked.

‘A pool of water,’ I answered.

‘So on a freezing day that pool of water will turn back into an ice cube.’

‘No it won’t! Not by itself!’

‘You mean someone has to come along and go to the trouble of turning it back into the shape of a cube?’


‘And that’s entropy for you. How something is put together and arranged. And we all need arranging. Only even when we are, everything still eventually goes to pot. That’s the sad rule of the universe.’

Another curl fell across her face, this time landing on her nose… and then I got it.

‘Your hair, it can go anywhere. Anywhere at all. But to go where exactly you want it, you have to put into place. But even when you do, it will still fall down.’

‘You see, William Arthur, you did know what entropy is. The universe, like my hair, is full of many possibilities, but even when it’s put in place nicely, as mine always is, curls will still fall down – because things that can go wrong, will go wrong. So, we have to make the effort to set them right again,’ she said, clasping another curl back in place with yet another butterfly clip, ‘which is, I suppose, why you and me have been put in the universe in the first place.’

As said, Swidgers have been put on Earth to slowly put right Time, Life and the Universe, but it’s a constant battle as Entropy doesn’t exactly help.

We’ve had Granny’s way of explaining Entropy, now here’s the summary from Claudia De Rham of Imperial College, London: “Entropy,” she Claudia, “is the measure of the level of order or the level of information. There’s a really fundamental law in physics telling us that entropy always increases. On average, things get more and more disorganized. That’s why we grow older – our body gets slowly more and more disorganized. That’s why it’s much easier to destroy something than to construct something.” True, but Granny’s hair was perhaps more fun.

Christopher Nolan’s TENET film introduces a concept known as ‘reverse entropy’. Nolan said, “This film is not a time travel film. It deals with time and the different ways in which time can function. Not to get into a physics lesson, but inversion is this idea of material that has had its entropy inverted, so it’s running backwards through time, relative to us. Inversion is a process whereby an object (or person) has its entropy reversed, essentially flipping its chronology so that from that point on it travels backwards in time instead of forwards.” In practice, the time machine of TENET is a ‘turnstile’, inverting or reverting the way you or any object, including cars and bullets, pass through time. The time travel mechanics in TENET are based on the idea that the arrow of time isn’t a primary rule of the universe. Of course, there may be pockets of space-time where entropy is increasing for some objects and decreasing for others, but scientist think even this is unlikely.

Another word here about The Second Law of Thermodynamics. It is after all one of the key laws of the universe. This law has it that in all energy exchanges, if no energy enters or leaves the system, the potential energy of the state will always be less than the initial state. Basically, life, as Granny said, is going to pot and you can’t turn the clock back. Entropy is irreversible no matter what Christopher Nolan says (Sf >Si).  But that’s not the point of TENET. The science of the movie may indeed be nonsense, but it is very clever, and mind-bendingly nonsense, with some element of truth in it as nonsense often has. And it’s fascinating how TENET explores and plays with these key concepts and rules of our universe. ‘Tenet’ after all does mean principle.

“Only entropy comes easy.”

Anton Chekhov

time cogs type 6