Time Travel
And how Hollywood seems to consistently screw it up.


Wasted Years by Iron Maiden

As an avid movie-goer and science fiction fan, I am getting frustrated with the way hollywood tends to treat the subject of time travel. I wish to set the record straight and hopefully open some writers up to new ideas and directions, and maybe even start some debates. (Nothing like a good "plot debate" eh?)

This little "treatise" of mine comes from the view that time travel is possible. By that, I mean that you are physically in a different time: maybe five minutes in the past, maybe five centuries either way.

So, let's get to it!

LINKS TO THE FUTURE: This bothers me. Someone travels to the past, carrying something like a newspaper or a photograph (Back to the Future.) This person alters the past, and headlines magically change before his eyes, and people start fading from the photo. I don't think so! When you're in the past, you are a discrete physical being composed of matter like everyone else, and so is that newspaper. No matter how drastically you alter the future from this point, it has no bearing on your possessions right now. If you were to travel back to your starting point, the newspaper would be the same, but another newspaper from the altered future would be very different. This should be a no-brainer.

LINKS TO THE PAST: This is practically the same thing. A person/agency at some point in the future somehow knows when the past is being disrupted on a magic screen. Notice my wording-- when the past is being disrupted! They somehow see a change in progress. Hey! It's in the past! It already happened! It's part of your timeline now, and you wouldn't have any way of knowing how the previous timeline went! I am, of course, ignoring the possibility of transmitting across time. This is the only way I see it working-- sending a message in a time capsule stating the way history was supposed to go. The low-tech solution is nice, eh? In case you're wondering, this fault is found in Timecop, Trancers, and many others.

SPONTANEOUS INVENTIONS: I love this one! An invention turns out to be something brought from the future. Many shows and movies are guilty of this one. This is usually thrown in as some kind of humorous twist, or as a dark "danger to the world" thing. Examples: The "Terminator Chip," Transparent Aluminum in Star Trek IV, Chuck Berry's "new sound" in Back to the Future, and others. My take on this is that in the original timeline, the item was invented by someone, so that it can exist in the future to begin with. The dark side of this is importing an atomic weapon, or any advanced piece of knowledge to the past. The Terminator is NOT over, unless that scientist who died happened to be the one who invented those chips on his own in the future (the timeline that came before the first movie.) I'm sorry, Scotty, but I don't buy the "How do we know he didn't invent the thing?" line. (I also don't buy him being able to use a 20th century computer and keyboard so quickly, but that's what makes Star Trek humor so fun.)

CAUSALITY: Many people (writers included) are stuck on the idea that if you alter your own past, you cease to exist. I have a hard time buying that, because I don't believe that once you're physically in the past, you're somehow magically tied to the future from that point. You've literally stepped outside of time, so if you change something drastically, only you will remember how history was supposed to go. Of course, I could be wrong, that's just my simple opinion. I shall go into more detail in the next paragraph:

KILLING YOUR PARENTS: This is an example that I don't like to use, but it's the type of thing that people like to say when trying to explain a paradox, which I believe is false. How about "Preventing your parents from meeting?" it just sounds better, eh? Here's my take: you travel back, somehow prevent your parents from meeting, and then you were never born. There's the paradox: you weren't born, and therefore you shouldn't exist right now, and the whole universe comes apart or something. I don't think so! Let's say this dreaded event just happened. Now, you're a discrete physical being composed of matter, and you clearly exist right now. When you go back to the present, you still exist, but you'll have no legal identity—because you weren't born as far as the world knows. You might have taken your driver's license with you on the trip, but now it's practically the best forgery ever made. It's real, but you aren't in the computer, and your friends are now total strangers. This was all handled quite well in the Twilight Zone once. (Hmm, It's a Wonder Life did it too.)

SEEING YOURSELF IN THE FUTURE: I just had to say this, because I was groaning when I saw it on Back to the Future II. If you go forward in time, you disappeared and history happened without you. You can not see yourself as an older person. What were these writers smoking?

MEETING YOURSELF: This is a tough one. There are many possibilities here. In Timecop, our villian dies when he's forced into contact with his younger self, because "the same matter can't occupy the same place at the same time." Uhh... O.K. This is some kind of exotic matter thing to me, because an atom is an atom, and I just don't see it happening. Maybe someone with a nuclear physics degree would like to tackle that one? Even if this thing were true, the villian wouldn't be in danger because his skin would be composed of totally different matter. Human skin is constantly shedding and growing, so once again, I don't think so! How about something a little more challenging? Meeting yourself and altering your own future? You have basically created a new version of yourself, because your other self might not discover how to time-travel, and when you return, there will be two of you. I will provide a more interesting example of this in the next section:

DUPLICATION: Here's an original idea of mine. (Update: this pre-dates the second Austin Powers movie!) Let's say you traveled back five minutes. Now, at this very moment, there are two of you. If you prevent your earlier self from entering the time machine, then the world will be stuck with two of you! This can be carefully repeated until you have an army of duplicates. Cloning has just become obsolete. Think about it!

AND SO, REALITY? Conservation of Matter and Energy. E = mc˛. Travelling backwards in time implies that you duplicated yourself, which would require more energy than mankind could create. I didn't write this to get into a debate about whether reverse time travel is possible. I personally believe it can't really happen, but it sure makes for great movie plots! I'm just annoyed by certain shows and movies that don't treat it in a believeable way.

By the way, after I wrote the original version of this article back in '96, I discovered a great novel called The Time Ships, by Stephen Baxter. This guy was saying some of the same things that I was. His book is a continuation of H.G. Wells' Time Machine, and it's incredibly good. He's a mathematics professor in England who has a great gift for writing "hard science fiction." I rank him right up there with Isaac Asimov.


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