Time Travel in Fiction
Time travel is one of the most explored concepts in fiction. One reason for this is because time travel can open a lot of really fun doors for creatives because there are so many different ways it can be done. For example: Is time a loop? Or is it a ball of “wibbly wobbly timey wimey stuff” as Doctor Who tells us? Can we interact with our surroundings or simply watch events unfold? Can we change our futures? Our pasts? How do we get into the past? A car? A memory? A cupboard? A call from our ancestors?
One can also see that time travel provides characters with an opportunity to learn about the world and themselves.
In order to give a small insight into time travel in fiction, the following works are all very different yet still highly effective presentations of time travel.
A Christmas Carol- Charles Dickens (1843)
Beginning in the 19th century, Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is one of the most iconic festive tales and has been reproduced many times. Arguably though, the novel is not given enough credit for its use of time travel.
A Christmas Carol follows Ebenezer Scrooge, a cantankerous and stingy businessman who detests Christmas and everything it stands for. Then, on Christmas Eve, Scrooge is visited by three ghost who show him the Christmas of the past, present and future ultimately leading him to change his ways.
Scrooge is taken by the first ghost to his childhood, a heartbreaking reminder of his loneliness. The ghost of the present takes him to see his employee’s sickly child, another harsh reminder to Scrooge of his mistakes. Finally, the last ghost shows Scrooge his own grave, with no one there to grieve him.
Time travel in Dickens’ iconic novel acts as a means for redemption. In examining our pasts, noticing new things in the present and thinking about the consequences of our actions, one can change for the better.
La Jetee- Chris Marker (1962)
Chris Marker’s La Jetee is a black and white film which consists almost entirely of still images, accompanied by score and voiceover narration. The film tells the story of a man who is experimented on in a post-apocalyptic Paris and forced to travel back in time by scientists. Supposedly, he has been chosen because he possesses a vivid image from his childhood- the death of man on an airport jetty- which the scientists believe that if he focuses on it enough he can travel back in time. The man does so and ends up fostering a relationship in the past with a beautiful woman whom he saw on that fateful day.
The use of still images perfectly captures what it feels like to remember or to dream as the pictures are so vivid but inaccessible in a strange way. One moment which is particularly striking is the sequence in which the man and woman go to a museum where they look at taxidermy animals. The still images make the humans seem just as frozen as the animals and, combined with the chiaroscuro of the black and white images, is a really haunting sequence.
[SPOILERS] Finally, the man transports back to the day at the airport jetty as he attempts to escape the scientists whom he knows will kill him. When discussing time travel this is probably the most interesting sequence to examine as it solidifies the version of time travel that Marker wants to present. The man sees the woman on the jetty and runs towards her thinking that he can finally be with her only for the scientists to appear and kill him. Then, the eerie voiceover informs us that “the haunting moment [the man] had been granted to see as a child was the moment of his own death”.
Whilst this is obviously a science fiction film, the context of post-war France is definitely relevant. It’s certainly no coincidence that this film is set in a post-apocalypse Paris when it was made only 17 years after the end of the second world war. The haunting images and general eerie tone combined with the existentialist themes and the heart-breaking ending also reflect the immense trauma felt in France at the time as well as Marker’s own pessimism. Despite being set in a dystopic France in an unknown time period, Marker is able to discuss his contemporary world and it’s issues in an almost allegorical fashion, one of the many strengths of the time travel genre.
Kindred- Octavia Butler (1979)
Octavia Butler’s novel Kindred follows Dana, a young black woman living in California in the 1970s. One day, Dana is suddenly transported back in time to a pre-civil war plantation in Maryland. As a black woman, she is forced to work for the white family who own the land but eventually learns that the people around her are her ancestors. Dana travels back and forth without control between freedom and slavery, learning more about her roots as she spends more time in Maryland.
Kindred is an ambitious and moving novel which makes the most of time travel as a mode of examining society. Butler explores anti-bellum America through Dana’s point of view, knowing how far racial relations will go but also knowing the issues that remain. The 1970s setting is also up for examination and the novel arguably holds even more weight 50 years on as modern audiences take on the role of Dana in criticising not only the pre-civil war society but the 1970s society as well.
Back to the Future- Robert Zemeckis (1985)
This next film is a bit less niche and it is probably one of the first films people think of when we talk about time travel but nonetheless it is a really interesting one to examine when talking about time travel.
Robert Zemeckis’ 1985 hit Back to the Future follows Marty McFly, a teenage boy whose mum is a distant alcoholic and whose dad is pushed around by the same bully that tortured him in high school, Biff.
One day, Marty’s (for some reason) friend, the town’s mad scientist, Doc Brown builds a time machine out of DeLorean car. Accidentally, Marty transports himself back to 1955 when his parents were teenagers and finds himself in the care of his young mother after being hit by his grandfather’s car. Not knowing Marty is her son, Lorraine (Marty’s mum) quickly develops a crush on Marty, preventing her from meeting and falling in love with Marty’s dad, George.
In Zemeckis’ version of time travel, events can be altered and Marty soon realises that his actions in the past are causing his present to alter; if his mum and dad don’t get together he will never be born, something which is nicely presented to us in the picture of his siblings which gradually begins to fade as Lorraine and George stray farther away from each other.
[SPOILERS] Luckily, Marty is able to save the day and ensure his own birth by setting up his parents at the ‘Enchantment Under the Sea Dance’. However, upon returning to 1985, some things have changed; Lorraine is beautiful and vibrant, George, no longer a pushover, Biff no longer a bully. Overall, this is pretty nice picture of time travel and the way in which it can alter the future, Marty ultimately gets his dream life despite all his meddling in the past.
Whilst it could be argued that Zemeckis’ message is not hugely ground-breaking or even morally sound one could say that by actually listening to their child, Marty’s parents ensure a better life for themselves. For example, George isn’t able to stand up for himself until he meets Marty and Lorraine won’t even look at George until Marty convinces her otherwise. By learning from their own child, George and Lorraine become better versions of themselves. Granted, Marty has the wisdom of knowing their potential futures but Marty is the only character who remains largely unchanged, implying that maybe he had it right all along. This wouldn’t be inconsistent with the growing popularity at the time, of teenage films such as Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and The Breakfast Club in which young people are actually presented positively and sympathetically.
About Time- Richard Curtis (2013)
Richard Curtis’ About Time starring, Domnhall Gleeson and Rachel McAdams is actually more of a rom-com than a sci-fi which is one of the reasons it makes for an interesting analysis.
About Time follows Tim, who, when he turns 21 learns that all the men in his family, including him are able to time travel. The film lays out the rules of time travel very clearly, something which can be helpful in time travel storylines; Tim can only travel backwards in time and only to moments within his own life, he can’t change history but crucially, he can change the trajectory of his future.
With the knowledge of his new power, Tim decides to make his life as perfect as possible, re-living and altering moments that could’ve been improved. When he meets Mary he lives the first date over and over again to make it as perfect as possible, when his best man gives an awful speech at their wedding he simply goes back in time and picks a different one.
[SPOILERS] Tim’s life is going great and eventually he and Mary have their first child. Then, one day Tim’s friend gets into a car accident, Tim goes back in time to stop her from driving that day only to find that when he returns Posy is a completely different child. Tim’s meddling has finally caught up with him and, after some other events that I won’t outline now, he eventually decides to give up time travel and simply live life as it was intended. This is an interesting way to end the film and the message that comes with it is really nice; to live every day to its fullest and appreciate it for what it is. This could also provide insight into the current state of the world as this more modern presentation of time travel exists in a society obsessed with technology and convenience where we have everything we could ever want at our fingertips yet we never take the time to look up from it and appreciate what we have.
Ultimately, About Time is a film about family and love but what’s great about it is the way that the sci-fi elements blend with the seemingly mundane romance narrative that Curtis composes. It helps to amp up the romance storyline but also to ground the more fantastical elements.
So, according to these works, the passage of time can be accessed via ghosts, a memory, ancestry, a DeLorean or even just simple genetics. You can be tied to your destiny like the man in La Jetee or you could permanently alter your future like Marty and Tim. Or like Scrooge you can learn from your past and change your future. You could exist within your own past body, like Tim or you could exist as two different versions of yourself like the man and child in La Jetee. You could be limited to your own memories like the man in La Jetee and Tim or you could be privy to an era in which you didn’t even exist like Marty or Dana. The possibilities are endless but ironically, one thing time travel can provide insight into is our current world whether that’s post-war France, the anti-Bellum South, the teenage empire of the 80s or the age of social media.
What do you think? Leave a comment.