Tackling Elements of Time Travel: In Academia and Pop Culture

Time travel has been a constant source of fascination throughout a number of media. It has enriched the imaginations of men, women, and children alike by forcing audiences to ask, “What if?” What if Hitler had never risen to power? What if Nixon hadn’t been impeached? These questions have no answers, but it is the drive of time travel, as a philosophical instrument, to ask ourselves the impossible. Paul Nahin, author of Time Machines: Time Travel in Physics, Metaphysics, and Science Fiction, details the origins of time travel as well as it’s philosophical and theoretical implications. Using an approach that combines science and science fiction, Nahin explores various theories on time travel and how it would affect the world as we know it. Through no fault of his own, however, he largely ignores one of the most recent incarnations of time travel: the television series. As any media scholar will tell you, the television series allows for the narrative to function differently than the confined running time of a movie, an idea that Jason Mittell discusses in his essay “Narrative Complexity in Contemporary American Television.” However, the complexity of the narrative is not the only difference when it comes to the exploration of time travel throughout literature, films, and television. Most importantly, it is crucial to recognize and understand how the nature of a television series allows for a new understanding, as well as presentation, of time travel.
In discussing time travel in television, even the most basic elements of the medium cannot be ignored. After all, as the well-known butterfly effect demonstrates, it is near impossible for us to understand the influence of any given thing in its lifetime. The starting point for any time travel narrative begins with the need for time travel. While “need” is a very vague concept, I’m referring to the character or characters’ motivation for time travel. Considering that television is typically character driven, this need usually stems from an aspect of the character’s personality, as the audience understands him/her. More often than not, this need stems from an emotional connection. This is demonstrated in the Fringe episode “White Tulip” where the character Alistair Peck continues to go back in time, at the expense of other people’s lives, to be with the woman he loves when she dies. This emotional desire for a certain outcome is a source of conflict for a particular character. Another show, Angel deals with time travel in some of its later seasons, but none compare to the season one episode “I Will Remember You.” In this episode, Angel, a vampire, is turned human by the blood of a demon and is reunited with his love, Buffy. However, being human means that Angel is without his powers to fight evil. In a difficult decision, he asks the Oracles to turn back time so that he never becomes human and is able to kill the demon. While time travel does not motivate the plot of this episode, it is a crucial element that provides the protagonist, as well as the audience, with an emotional conflict. Time travel could certainly serve as a source of conflict (and frequently does) but it is not confined to the role of the problem. Instead, it provides an emotional depth to the episode. This idea of emotion as both a staple of time travel as well as conflict provides a basic understanding of one of the undeniable necessities of time travel television, while also demonstrating its complexity as a plot point.
Although the previous examples privileged the characters themselves, the audience’s needs should not be forgotten either. The general “need” for time travel for the audience speaks to a dominant ideology that exists outside of the reality of the television series and engages directly with the audience. This social and/or cultural need for time travel speaks to early scholars understanding of television as escapism, but has become more explicit over the years. This idea is explained in Redmund’s piece “The Origin of the Species: Time Travel and the Primal Scene” when he discusses the “close correspondence between the political and economic crises” and the texts that they produce (Redmund 2007, 115). This encourages a more contextualized reading but fits with some contemporary examples of science fiction and time travel as social/political/cultural discourse. Doctor Who is a particular example where the showrunners use time travel to engage their audience, almost tricking them into thinking critically. This can be seen in a particular clip when a young girl takes down a sign in the window that says “no couloureds.” It is presented as such a minor point, but it informs the audience about the politics of the time period, such as rampant racism, and a contemporary handling of the issue, demonstrated by the young girl’s disgust at seeing the sign. Even South Park did it with the episodes “Go God Go” where, whether viewers acknowledge it or not, it spoke to our society’s need for instant gratification and the ability for humankind to pervert any system of beliefs into something dangerous. There are a number of examples of time travel in television, usually to a dystopian future, that use time travel to expose the audience to a certain set of social/cultural values and highlight a need outside of the characters’ own.
Just as much as there must be a need for time travel; there must also be something to motivate the character. One of the most common examples is the desire for a return. In fact, there are a number of examples where the motivation of time travel is to return. In the instance of Quantum Leap, each leap for Sam is motivated by his desire to return home. Although this is merely one example, there are countless instances of shows where the protagonist’s main goal in time travel is to return home, typically to a literal and physical location. This directly ties into the need of the series. There has to be enough for the character or characters to lose, such as a loved one, for the audience to be able to invest in his or her return.
However, the return exists on a grander scale as well. More often than not, this idea of return also refers to a return to a certain set of values. This was demonstrated with the 1970s version of The Time Machine, which sees the main character return to the time of the founding of America. Nahin claims this “accounts for the sweet pleasure most people get from experiencing almost any recreation of times gone by.” (Nahin 1999, 30) The specific choice of locations and time periods seems to suggest a specific meaning behind the time traveler’s coordinates that Nahin dismisses in some of his book. Although these two examples, a return to a physical location and a return to values, can be seen as separate, in more contemporary television the two are becoming more and more intertwined. The example that comes to mind is Heroes, when Peter Petrelli is transported to the future with Caitlin, his love interest. Although the two are separated in the future, his desire to return to the present to prevent the dystopian future, and his love for Caitlin are at odds with each other. This conflict between what does happen and what the character wants to happen is a recurring source of conflict throughout most time travel television.
Finally, one of the most crucial elements of time travel narrative is the consequence. As Nahin discusses the Grandfather paradox, he introduces a host of potential problems that could make time travel a very dangerous idea. While he later uses these to disprove certain theories regarding time travel, each paradox he discusses finds itself focused on the consequence of a time traveler’s actions. The consequences themselves are difficult to discuss because it is entirely dependent on the views of the creator. For instance, there are those who believe that things are fated to happen a certain way so no time traveler can interfere whereas there are others who believe that the very presence of a time traveler in another time would cause irreparable damage. This makes the notion of consequences a vague one, but should not discount their validity. If the actions of the main character have no influence, what is the motivation for the audience to care what he or she does? Television tends to have a more casual approach to the idea of consequences. For the sake of television, most people tend to relegate consequences to one extreme or another. The positive consequences usually involve the return of things to “normal.” Each television show determines its own set of norms, as Kozloff discusses, but these norms tend to reflect a dominant ideology at work, which the show returns to in its conclusion. In terms of the negative consequences, it is usually a direct rebellion against the pre-established norms. For instance, in one of the Halloween episodes of The Simpsons, Homer travels back in time and inadvertently changes the past. When he returns to the present, it is a dystopia where Flanders is essentially ruler of the world. The only reason that this is frightening and/or comedic to the audience is the way that The Simpsons has established Homer’s irrational dislike of Flanders in previous episodes. Consequences as a whole are much more varied than the general need for time travel and the desire for a return to a location or a set of values that I discussed earlier. However, it is the characters’ and audience’s combined desire for a certain outcome that renders the consequences of time travel either satisfying or horrifying.
Although time travel narratives tend to have a very basic structure, its execution is something that is much more complex. Much like any medium, it has its ups and downs. On one hand, it provides a wealth of opportunities for the creators of the show. For instance, if a certain story arc is not testing well, time travel allows them to reset the show. Time travel allows constant ingenuity to propel the show’s plots forward, but also to keep viewers engaged. Furthermore, time travel narratives have shown an incredible understanding of the cultural, political, and social ideologies at work throughout most of their existence. As the genre continues to evolve, it strikes me as potentially one of the most socially relevant forms of “entertainment” in a day and age that is characterized by remakes and reboots. Nevertheless, there is one concern that should be addressed when talking about time travel narratives in television. A better understanding of the theories that surround time travel would be useful. As its stands now, the various explanations and explorations of time travel present a number of different problems. This directly affects issues of continuity that seem to plague so many time travel narratives, which tend to be explained away by make believe scientific explanations.
Time travel remains one of the most fascinating possibilities in the realm of television entertainment. At its heart, it is made up of very basic narrative demands. For instance, it begins with a certain need, whether it be emotional or otherwise, which establishes the stakes for the character and the audience. It continues as the characters search for a return, both literally and symbolically. It ends in a very basic manner with either a reward or a punishment. Although this may seem like an oversimplification, time travel narratives in television illustrate varying degrees of complexity. To best understand the methods at work within these narratives, it is important to understand its most basic structure. It is only after understanding the elements of time travel television narrative that these series can be understood better.


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