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Sunday, 26 July 2009

Travelling in Time

I'm seeing trailers for the new movie The Time Traveller's Wife (as we'd spell it in the UK), and they've reminded me that a while back I did some thinking around the uses of time travel in fiction and on the screen. And what's a blog for, if not to share?

The most obvious form is the 'paradox romp' like Back to the Future, where something in the past gets changed, and repairs have to be made to safeguard the present as we know it. There's a '70s Czech comedy called Tomorrow I shall Wake Up and Scald Myself with Tea that involves defeated Nazis trying to go back and give the H-bomb to Hitler. The Terminator is one of these, inverting the concept so that the aim is to prevent an unpleasant future rather than preserve the timeline. NBC's Journeyman featured the same kind of action on a weekly basis, with Kevin McKidd going back to change individual lives for the better. Which is laudable but not half as much fun as killer robots. In Harlan Ellison's Star Trek episode City on the Edge of Forever, Kirk has to watch Joan Collins get hit by a car knowing that if he saves her, Hitler gets atomic weapons (again).

After that comes the 'story of ironic fulfilment', where someone travels back in time and becomes an essential part of history, for example by unintentionally starting the Great Fire of London. An extreme case here would be Michael Moorcock's Behold the Man, where the time traveller goes back to AD 28 hoping to meet the historical Jesus, only to end up taking on the role and being crucified. (In Garry Kilworth's Let's Go to Golgotha, time-tourists at the crucifixion are instructed not to change history and to join in the call for the release of Barrabas instead of Jesus; the protagonist realises that the baying crowd is comprised entirely of time tourists, and no-one from the actual era.)

Perhaps the most subtle riff on this theme is Chris Marker’s La Jetee, a French arthouse short told entirely in still images, in which a man is sent back from the future using his most powerful childhood memory as the means of focusing for his journey. The memory is that of seeing a man shot and killed at Orly airport moments after parting from his lover. Without realising it, he was witnessing his own death. The short was the basis for Terry Gilliam's Twelve Monkeys. Often the most memorable thing about these tales is the resonance of their conclusions.

The simplest form of time travel narrative is the 'fish out of water' story where paradox and consequentiality don't much matter, and the pleasure is in a) having a present-day protagonist experiencing a past or future landscape, or b) seeing someone from another era experiencing ours. Life on Mars and Somewhere in Time fall into this category but the granddaddy would probably be A Connecticut Yankee at the Court of King Arthur. Karl Alexander's Time After Time has H G Wells pursuing Jack the Ripper through present-day San Francisco.

And there are time travel stories that don’t involve actual time travel but achieve man-out-of-time scenarios by other means. In the Sixties the BBC made Adam Adamant Lives! In which an Edwardian adventurer frozen in 1902 was thawed out in Sixties swinging London. While being dismayed by just about every modern advance he encountered, he was also a walking 60s style icon. It was cheaply and sometimes quite shabbily made (an hour of TV, rehearsed for a week and then shot in 2 hours of studio time), but could be tremendous fun. It inspired/was ripped off liberally by Austin Powers to an extent that’s probably nuked its chances of ever being revived or remade. In Richard Ben Sapir's The Far Arena, a Roman gladiator is thawed out of a glacier and struggles to adapt to the modern world. It's a long novel with a promising concept in which not very much happens. The focus is on the detailed procedure of discovery, revival and adjustment. Very short on mayhem. The TV series New Amsterdam had its main character travel in time by living for 400 years, as in Highlander.

Probably the most robust way of doing a weekly time travel series for TV is to have a big machine, a team, and an agenda. Or a fault in the machine that repeatedly drops the main cast into new and dangerous situations. Time Tunnel immediately springs to mind, where the two leads bounce around time like a pinball table, every week showing up on the eve of some well-known historical event, while the 'control team' anchored in the present day mostly watch helplessly and occasionally manage to supply a warning or some vital information. In the UK we have our own Doctor Who, where the hero makes random jumps through time and space and happens upon a local adventure wherever he shows up. Originally this was because his time machine was busted and he’s hopping around trying to get home. In his current incarnation he’s the ultimate tourist, so far from his home that his home’s no longer there. Doctor Who mixes sf and historical episodes; my memory from when I worked on it is that the historical episodes were fewest in number but always drew the higher ratings. Quantum Leap, slated for a remake, had an everyman hero, again with no control over where he'd show up next. Sliders involved parallel worlds rather than time travel but it was pretty much the same kind of thing.

I understand that the late Michael Crichton's Timeline pretty much follows the machine/team/agenda model, although I haven't read the book or seen the movie. In series terms I can't help feeling that the Stargate franchise may have colonised the setup.

If the big machine isn't broken, then the key lies in the agenda. Jack Finney's Time and Again sends the hero back with a mystery to solve. But a weekly non-mythology series needs a weekly mystery. I've heard of – but never seen – a UPN show called Seven Days in which, after any national disaster, an agent is sent back in time (using Roswell technology) and has seven days to avert it. It's a neat idea.

My own modest contribution to the genre is the short story My Repeater (F&SF, Jan 2001), set in a near-future where time travel is available to all but used only by an obsessive few who waste their entire lives returning to the same moment in repeated attempts to perfect it.

16 comments:

Tom Murphy said...

BAFTA published some video on their site from an event on time travel in TV drama, with Steven Moffat, Ashley Pharoah and Maurice Gran: http://www.bafta.org/learning/webcasts/bafta-writers-time-travel,607,BA.html

Good Dog said...

The one thing I love about time travel stories is they can be so beautifully bittersweet, especially when sacrifices have to be made. In The City on the Edge of Forever Kirk actually stops McCoy from saving Edith Keeler, knowing that she’ll be run down. Of there’s that devastating last line in HG Wells’ The Time Machine, or Cole’s fate in Gilliam’s Twelve Monkeys.

I’m always interested in whether the time travel apparatus requires a set-up or is simply taken as read. Having not read Crichton’s Timeline, the only thing I head about it was that the travellers were turned into a stream of electrons and basically “faxed” back into the past. Hopefully not using TalkTalk.

I didn’t see the movie either but I don’t think it did very well. I suppose it depends of what the audience is looking for, like killer robots from the future. Ray Bradbury’s short story A Sound of Thunder illustrated the changes made by a far more literal “butterfly effect.” Shame the movie was such a dud, scuppering not just the production company but quite a few careers.

Sliders, with the weekly alternate realities/multiverses always reminded me of The Fantastic Journey from the 1970s and shows of that ilk and I always thought that Stargate SG-1 was a case of what would happen if UNIT ran off with the TARDIS. I always referred dramas that had a personal effect on the protagonist rather than giving a different lick of paint to the environs.

The first piece I ever had professionally published was a time-travel story that revolved around making contact with the past rather than journeying there. Really it was a love story in disguise. Still, it got quite a good write up in The Times.

Much as I’m looking forward to The Time Traveller’s Wife, I’ll have to wait until it’s on DVD. Having read the book on a recommendation and ending up weeping like a little girl long before I got to the final page, if the adaptation is even vaguely faithful to the source material I’ll make a public spectacle of myself in the cinema.

Lu said...

I love this topic, it's just fascinating. I'm hoping to read The time traveller's wife before it comes out, but I haven't found the book here.
One movie that I specially like is one starring Dennis Quaid and James Caviezel called 'Frequency' about father and son getting to know each other through a radio, and the son helping the father save his own life as well as others' and changing the future several times with devastating results.
Other than that, the Back to the Future movies and The Time Machine are also good examples of what could happen if you alter the past.

Stephen Gallagher said...

If you like Frequency you may take to a Harlan Ellison story called Jeffty is Five, about an odd little boy and his radio... it's a poignant little tale that will probably stick with you for a lifetime. I know it has with me.

Eleanor said...

The Philadelphia Experiment, although made in to a 'Hollywood style' film, is very interesting. I speak of the actual experiment and not the film I might add. Einstein and Oppenheimer were present and due electro-magnetic energy, those poor men of the crew of the battle ship that they got to disappear and reappear further along the eastern seaboard, died in some awful circumstances (their own atomic particles were taken apart and did not come back together properly). I know..it sounds like science fiction but it happened..you'll find it difficult to find out more about it too, or you'll find information that debunks it but just like the much missed Eleventh Hour and the brilliant storylines were sometimes hard for some to believe, they were based in fact. Our world is not so 'cut and dried' as we are lead to think.

Chris said...

All this talk of time-travel... and no mention of Quantum Leap? Surely shome mishtake...

As for the Philadelphia Experiment, I did read a very good book on the subject many many years ago - I had seen the film on TV and popped along to my local library to see if there was anything in print about it.

If it happened - and I am open-minded - the technology reminds me so much of many of Nikolai Tesla's more off-beat designs - and Tesla is a genius.

luvinx said...

Chris, see the end of the 7th paragraph for a QL mention; I was particularly excited to see that it is slated for a remake, although I love SB and DS.

I am actually counting on some new time travel stories from a new series on the US network Syfy called Warehouse 13. It has shown some promise so far, and I am hopeful that this element will be used.

Wonderful entry as always, Mr. Gallagher. Hope all is well with TF.

Stan said...

Not sure which category 'Donnie Darko' would fall into but it's worth seeing if you haven't already. You can pick it up everywhere for about £2 (or probably $2 where you are!).

Stephen Gallagher said...

I saw Donnie when it first came out - I wouldn't know how to categorise it either!

Lu said...

Thank you, Mr. Gallagher for the recommendation but I'm still frustrated because I haven't been able to find Jeffty is Five.
I hope you or someone can tell me how or where to find it. Now I'm interested!

Stephen Gallagher said...

If you're OK with shopping online, head to www.abebooks.com and search on the keyword Jeffty -- up will pop a bunch of anthologies, including the 1978 World's Best SF collection which is where I first read the story... but the story also shows up in copies of the October 1979 edition of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, which has an awesome lineup of other stories as well. Dick, Matheson, Heinlein, and the brilliant Flowers for Algernon which, trust me, you have to read if you don't know it.

Lu said...

I found it Mr. Gallagher! And I will get it. And I've heard so much about Flowers for Algernon, but had never had a chance to read it but I will also get it in the website you mentioned.
Thank you!

Lucy V said...

I've literally read hundreds of time travel specs and I'm always surprised by how confused the central premise is - like the time travel is *only* what's important, not what the actual time travel achieves. We don't go on journeys to "nowhere", even if we're sightseeing; there is always a destination of sorts in minds - a "walk across the moor" for example might not be a structured walk, but we know we're on a moor and we know what *might* happen whilst there, yet a lot of the time travel stories I see appear completely random and disjointed. A bit like this blog comment... I suppose the point I'm making is that time travel in a story needs some sort of point or else we can't connect with it?

Ben Frain said...

Surely Lost is worth a mention here? In my (very humble) opinion one of the more interesting skews on the time travel scenario in recent times; not least of all because it wasn't obvious that was happening for nearly 3 complete TV series.

And that brings me to 'Slaughterhouse 5' by Kurt Vonnegut (Lost uses the author name as a Lost character name as a deliberate nod). That's well worth a read if you are after an interesting time jump read.

Ben Frain

Stan said...

A know it's a few posts back but I thought I'd recommend a Spanish film I saw last night (if you haven't already seen it) called 'Timecrimes'. It falls into the 'Paradox Romp' category (although I don't think I'd call this a romp really). A small film but excellent.

On another note, I'm glad to see the 'Music Box' steps are still there in LA - it's nice to check out real film locations (although they do often look slightly less glamourous than they do on screen) - when in San Francisco about 10 years ago, we hired a car and drove down that wiggly road that's in numerous films (the only one I can think of right now is 'Magnum Force') - you couldn't do in a tour bus.

Also, on the 'Sergeant Cork' front, the series didn't exist on tape and has been newly transferred from 16mm telerecording prints - quality isn't wonderful on telerecordings but I do think it's good that Network are committed to getting these shows out there or they'd never be seen.

Stephen Gallagher said...

I absolutely agree. Shame CORK is only on 16mm, especially as my memory of its studio-created Victorian scenes is so vivid and crisp.