In speculative fiction, I’m usually drawn to time travel stories.
Such stories spark my imagination, whether in movies, books, comics or television. Who hasn’t wished, at least idly, that they could go back and do something differently, or, alternately, go forward to see what lies ahead?
I recently watched the Star Trek: TNG two-parter “Time’s Arrow,” in which the crew of Jean-Luc Picard’s Enterprise goes back to the 19th century. It was fun Trek. I also watched the Star Trek: TOS episode “Tomorrow is Yesterday,” in which the crew of Kirk’s Enterprise travel back to the late 1960s. Also an entertaining episode. These aren’t the only Trek episodes dealing with time travel. Far from it, in fact. It’s almost as if the universe isn’t a large enough playground for Starfleet; they have to journey through time itself on a regular basis as well.
But, the two episodes I recently watched caused me to begin thinking about the nature of time travel stories themselves. Since I’ve already established that I’m drawn to such stories, that I like them, allow me now to tell you what I think is wrong with most time travel stories.
We’ll skip the part where I say time travel is an impossibility, according to all known laws of science and physics. Also according to common sense, the same argument I would use to discredit stories about ghosts, UFOs, and Sasquatch. Reality is never a defense for fiction. We’ll just accept, for this bit, that time travel is possible.
I’m talking about the problem with most time travel stories on just a fundamental story level. And I have it boiled down to just two main issues.
The #1 problem for me is Historical Guest Stars. Taking one of the examples I listed before, the TNG episode “Time’s Arrow,” we have the Enterprise crew interacting with both Samuel Clemens (AKA Mark Twain) and Jack London, because any traveler to San Francisco in that era would naturally run into both of these famous authors. In the first Back to the Future, Marty McFly ends up influencing the guitar-playing style of Chuck Berry when Chuck’s cousin hears McFly playing—you guessed it—Chuck Berry music. In the aforementioned Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, our time traveler ends up in 528 AD and meets King Arthur and that bunch. The Doctor, in all the incarnations of Doctor Who, has met virtually everyone in time. In Planet of the Apes, we even get a cameo from the Statue of Liberty.
Here’s my problem with this. I can understand if you’re traveling through time with the intent of meeting and/or killing an historical figure, such as the protagonist of Stephen King’s 11/22/63 (which I never finished reading: Does Kennedy still get assassinated?). But, our fictional time travelers, in a lot of cases, just bump into these historically relevant people by happenstance. You could come up with dozens of examples yourself from all media. The Assassin’s Creed video game franchise alone is chockful of them.
Here’s the thing. I live in a Central Arkansas town of modest size and I know a lot of other people who live here as well. But, I can still spend an entire day out-and-about, shopping in grocery stores, or in Wal-Mart, eating at restaurants, going to the dog park or the DMV or the doctor’s office, and not run into a single person that I know, let alone a historically relevant individual. It’s always bugged me that a time traveler to ancient Rome would just naturally run into Caesar. I can accept the premise of time travel more easily than accepting this.
The other problem I have with time travel stories is one of dramatic tension and suspense. Once you accept the premise of time travel itself, there’s no real drama or suspense. If you don’t get your desired outcome, just go back a few minutes or days and get a do-over. Take a temporal Mulligan.
Yeah, yeah. I know. Many of these stories find ways around this inherent flaw. Problems with a power source for the time travel device, perhaps. Or the time travel mechanism isn’t something that can be controlled (or, in some cases, even explained). I get that. But, such workarounds seems like what they are to me: writer’s tricks. Some stories just never address this option at all. It’s difficult to get a dramatic clock ticking when you control which direction the clock hands travel.
That’s it. These quibbles don’t keep me from enjoying time travel stories. Far from it.
I’ll be watching the Trek: TOS episode “City on the Edge of Forever” again soon. And, I already know it’s on my All-Time Best Trek list.