Is Time Traveling an Effective Means of Storytelling?
Stories about time travel have been told through television and cinematic history with a range of different examples. One of the first examples of time travel in a T.V. series dates back to Star Trek. The 1967 episode “The City on the Edge of Forever” involves the crew of the Starship Enterprise encountering a portal to the past. The Guardian of Forever, a portal to any time, is used to change the past.
The ship’s medical officer, Leonard McCoy, travels back into the 1930s using the portal and changes the past to entail a changed future for the crew of the Enterprise. Star Fleet and the Enterprise suddenly disappear and no longer exist. Captain Kirk and Spock are forced to follow McCoy into the portal and correct the changes McCoy has made to the past.
The episode raises interesting questions about cause and effect, as the episode focuses on Kirk and Spock trying to figure out exactly what they need to do to prevent McCoy from changing the future and correct the timeline. Bringing the Enterprise back into existence in their original time is their focus.
Time Travel was also used in the television series The X-Files, where the 1998 episode “Triangle” involved a ship from 1939 appearing in the future off the coast of the United States. Agent Mulder investigates only to find himself back in 1939, in a conflict between Nazi soldiers and the crew of The Queen Anne.
The ship disappeared in 1939 and Agent Mulder quickly realizes that his actions will determine whether the Nazi soldiers capture a scientist on board the ship with important knowledge about a weapon called “Thor’s Hammer”. The episode explores the simultaneous events of two timelines as Agent Skully rushes to rescue her colleague back on the mainland of the United States at the J. Edgar Hoover Building.
It concludes with the audience left pondering whether Agent Mulder’s encounter with The Queen Anne was real or dreamed. One could say that time travel is often used within series like these as a means of getting a bit more blood out of the stone, with little to no real pay off for audiences concerned with how the plot of the entire series will unfold.
Episodes like these often stand alone. As a result, writers of science fiction might convince themselves that they are better off leaving time travel unexplored given the trickiness that comes with using it. Whether this is always the case, however, is something I think should be disputed.
Effective Time Traveling Episodes?
A 1990 episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation entitled “Yesterday’s Enterprise” is a good use of time traveling in a story for a number of reasons. We can see the concept of time traveling has grown up for starters. One of the episode’s merits is not falling into the trap that the 1967 episode “The City on the Edge of Forever” did where things disappear, and characters change events without regard for their own existence being disturbed by them.
The episode is not consistent with past events in that season of The Next Generation which makes the audience suspicious of what has caused these changes. The Enterprise is now a warship rather than a ship of peace. A long war with the Klingons has brought Star Fleet close to surrender. What makes this a good time traveling story is how the episode uses the concept of time traveling to explore the possibility. This is set up by an Enterprise from the past meeting the Enterprise of the future through a temporal portal.
When the connection between the past Enterprise’s disappearance and the beginning of the war with the Klingons is established, the crew is forced to ask whether they should send the ship back through the portal or keep it in their current timeline. This brings to the surface deep questions about sacrifice and the worthiness of war without having to create one within the season and rupturing the nature of Star Trek: The Next Generation with it.
The episode added an extra layer when this was explored against the possibility. If we knew we were on the brink, would changing the past be justified given the bleakness of the future? The episode suggests that one is, which is a fresh take on time travel.
Another example of a television series that explored time travel in a number of cases was Stargate. One of the best was “Window of Opportunity” and involved a Groundhog-Day-type scenario, where Colonel O’Neill and Teal’c end up re-living the same day. All this is brought about when SG-1 travel to P4X-639, where they meet an archeologist experimenting with a time-traveling device he plans to use to spend time with his deceased wife. O’Neil and Teal’c find themselves back re-living the previous day, encouraging their colleagues to figure out how to stop the time loop.
Where the episode becomes most memorable is when O’Neill realizes they can do whatever they want with no consequence. This entails a number of humorous acts, including O’Neill playing golf into the Stargate with his colleague Teal’c (and complaining at General Hammond when their backswings are interrupted). All these charades are not only comical, but they give the audience the opportunity to view familiar characters in a different light. Through these charades, a potential relationship between O’Neill and Carter is teased. Teal’c is also depicted as a less serious character.
The producers of the episode later revealed during an interview how refreshing it was to give O’Neill and Teal’c the intellectual task of stopping the time loop. Carter and Dr. Daniel Jackson, who often figure out that kind of stuff, are not experiencing the time loop. The time loop ends up giving O’Neill and Teal’c plenty of time to figure out how to stop the day from repeating once more on their own.
Plot holes caused by complexity?
Time-traveling can be done effectively when it gives a fresh take on characters and time travel. However, one of the key ways that writing a time-traveling story fails to captures an audience, particularly of well-known characters, is due to plot holes. For this reason, and in spite of its obviously cinematic success, Avengers: Endgame is a good example of this.
A plot hole is when the writers disregard obvious things the audience knows about the plot. When it comes to Hawkeye and Black Widow retrieving the Soul Stone, for example, the fact that this will involve sacrifice is not made clear by Nebula who knows that Thanos killed Gamora to get the Soul Stone originally. These affect the audience as they reduce the believability of the story. One could look at Avengers: Endgame to bolster the claim that writing a time-traveling story involves inevitable plot holes.
One of the biggest plot holes beings that once Thanos from the past is destroyed the past is changed in a number of different ways which will not connect it to the present with Spiderman, Black Panther and so on are with the Avengers once more. All this, however, is kind of brushed to the side as fans become more concerned with novel moments like Captain America wielding Thor’s hammer. However, plot holes still take away from the movie as a stand-alone piece.
A case where complexity in a time-traveling story did not leave a trail of plot holes in the 2004 low-budget movie Primer. The movie is one of the most complex time-traveling stories in a film. It focuses on the invention of time travel by two business colleagues. They decide to use it to make money on the stock market. So, they turn on their time traveling boxes, hideaway for the day in a hotel only to return to their boxes later in the day where they enter their boxes to arrive back when their boxes were originally turned on.
The plot trails back on itself a number of different times as the two men travel back in time crossing over with their previous selves. I think what makes this a good example of the use of time traveling is how the concept of time travel was explored in a new way. The movie discusses potential harms resulting from time travel to those who time travel. One of the men ends up hiding a former self captive in the attic, and it becomes apparent that things have gone wrong to the point where one character leaves the country to let a former self who was held captive take his place.
Not only does this entail that plot holes can be navigated but that plot holes and complexity do not always go hand in hand. The film depends on the audience being willing to watch it more than once due to the complexity of the story and is refreshing for its unwillingness to dumb itself down.
Good writers always know that exploring the previously explored concept entails adding some new rather than dusting off an old take. Using time travel does not mean that plot holes are inevitable, instead, plot holes are a result of poor writing rather than using a specific concept like time travel.
Writers who want to incorporate time travel in their science fiction television or film should be vigilant about adding something new. We can see this in 1990 Star Trek, Stargate and more recently Primer. A movie like Source Code back in 2011 needed to do something new with the ground-hog-day loop rather than just going over a concept already explored. A movie like Avengers: Endgame needed to navigate plot holes better.
Episodes that fail to add something new or change the way we view time travelers are destined to not age well. I think that where a character is given a new angle and new light shone on time travel, future audiences will be invigorated. Should a writer, producer or director fail with the audience, time-traveling is not to blame. Good examples of time traveling in television and cinema support this conclusion.
What do you think? Leave a comment.