Monday, April 14, 2014

Why I kind of detest time travel in my science fiction

Continuum is a show that's on SyFy, and its third season started a week ago. Warning: there will be some spoilers ahead (if only to use as a platform to allow me to bitch). So in Continuum, we've got this organization called Freelancers. We don't know much about them other than they like to put time travelers in glass boxes similar to Joss Whedon's horror movie Cabin in the Woods and they are an ancient organization that's been around for over a thousand years that doesn't "time travel." Instead they know all about "time travel", have great technology to do so, and monitor the integrity of the timeline like a "firewall" monitors the integrity of your network. When bad stuff gets through to corrupt the present, then they selectively choose and dispatch a cure because not everyone that goes into the past has the ability to change the future.

Continuum has decided to integrate time travel so much that it's a plot device. In some ways this works for me. I do like the idea that every time you time travel, you create a new branch of the timeline. I like the idea that when you time travel, you could meet yourself and this would be bad. It explains why Kagame had to sacrifice himself on the day he was born just to make sure that he never met himself (that was season one). It also explains why Kiera could not go forward in time and just stop herself from ever embarking on time travel to begin with.
I also like the idea that major paradoxes cause the universe to destroy itself. In Continuum, there's no Alec to grow up and invent the time machine and create Kiera's advanced suit and weaponry so super storms are basically destroying the earth. That scratches out one timeline.

It all sounds like great science fiction, right? But here's the thing: I feel like too much time travel just moves all the writing "left" into another universe kind of like a dream or where all the characters are just slightly different because they don't shave or wear wigs. I'm not a fan of "good Spock" meets "evil Spock" (nerdy Star Trek reference I know) and that's essentially what we're getting in this season of Continuum. Kiera has basically become an asshole because she's so stressed out over what her timeline Alec has done and it's almost like we've got entirely different characters. For one, she no longer trusts Alec (which was one of the things I really liked). Also, the flash futures no longer make sense to me because I don't know if they're actually plausible given the split that's now caused by so many time travelers going back in the past. Like why should I care if these things may or may not even exist now?

I guess this is where time travel really gets under my skin in a bad way. I detest clones running around and I don't think it ever really improves a narrative. Back to the Future's installments 2 and 3 were not superior to the original in this aspect and were simply an excuse to spend more time with a loveable character. Hopefully they (the writers of Continuum) will just stick with the one timeline and not pull this crap again because its too confusing, and I don't like the character changes occurring in their personality. Honestly, writers should steer clear of time travel. No one ever does it well unless "time travel" is part of the opening and that's where the readers/watchers are dropped. Doing time travel mid-series is just too awkward.

23 comments:

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

I never thought the second and third Back to the Futures were necessary.
Time travel can become like a crutch. Something the writers can use just to move the plot along or get out of corner.

L.G. Smith said...

A friend and I talk endlessly about this show. There's so much I like about it, but my brain gets bent into a pretzel trying to figure out the time travel stuff. Those collapsing timelines confuse the heck out of me.

I assume the writers must keep a book of rules on how time travel works. I know I could never keep it all straight. Once you open that door, it's like Pandora's box. Everything is possible.

D.G. Hudson said...

Time travel seems to be a common theme in many books. Our fascination comes with being in 'control' so much that we can 'fix' the current time. What fools we humans can be.

Time will fix us.

Pat Dilloway said...

I don't like time travel much...and then I use it in two Scarlet Knight books (my favorite one actually visits past, present, and future simultaneously) and one Girl Power book and maybe some other instances I can't remember at the moment. Probably because I'm a lazy writer.

David P. King said...

I do enjoy the concept of time travel, but man oh man is it hard to do it right. It's the ultra limited rules type of time travel (one way ticket ala The Terminator) that works for me. :)

Matthew MacNish said...

My problem with time travel is that if you travel back 100 years, the earth is going to be like 80 million miles away from where it was, because, you know it moves around the sun, which moves around the galaxy, which is moving away as the universe expands. So you'd just choke to death in the vacuum of space. Unless you have a TARDIS.

Sarah Ahiers said...

I like BTTF2 because i love the parts where he's, more or less, reliving the first movie in the background. Love it.

Do you ever watch Rick and Morty? There's an episode where they eff up the world, i mean, totally end it. And Rick's solution is to jump to a different timeline where they had just accidentally blown themselves up before they had a chace to screw things up, and take the places of the dead them in that reality. The last 5 mins of the episode is just Morty in this haze while he has to bury himself and just live in this alternate reality which is the same, but not really. It's hilarious, but also kind of deep and scary and depressing. I love it.

Robyn Campbell said...

I agree that the second and third BTTF's were kinda substandard.

But time traveling is bodaciously exciting, don't ya think? I mean the real thing. If I could, I'd be visiting places in time every week. WOW. That would just be so cool. But I wouldn't use it in my writing. If I wrote sci-fi, that is.

Continuum started back?

You're not doing A to Z I see.

Michael Offutt, Phantom Reader said...

@Robyn: You get the award of the day for using "bodaciously" in a sentence. It's been years since I heard it.

mooderino said...

Time travel stories make my head hurt and usually don't stand up to close inspection. The first Terminator movie is about the only one I think works.

mood
Moody Writing

Michael Offutt, Phantom Reader said...

@Moody: I agree. The terminator 1 and 2 movies were wonderful. I tend to like T2 more. T1 is unwatchable in its cheesiness these days. Time has ravaged its special effects and made them look so awful.

Andrew Leon said...

I skipped most of the post because I do want to check that show out at some point despite the fact that I think most time travel stories are crap. Like Looper.
Generally, it's just used like a magic reset button and the author never bothers to figure out his/her rules.
Figure out you rules! It's not that hard.

DEZMOND said...

I watched the first season and then they lost me after that. But I do positively adore me Rachel Nichols, I think she is one of the most underrated actresses out there

J.L. Campbell said...

This sounds like too much of a good thing gone bad. You watch so much of this stuff, you'd do well at coming up with ideas for Sci-Fi scripts.

Morgan said...

Time travel = Soooo many opportunities for plot holes!!!!!!

Though my favorite series EVER (Outlander by Diana Gabaldon) pulls it off. But it's definitely more fantastical than sci-fi. :)

Stephen Hayes said...

An interesting discussion. I spend a lot of time thinking about the past but haven't written anything about time travel yet.

Helena said...

I've always loved the idea of time travel because I'm a history buff, but in fiction it has to be handled just right or the story falls apart. The only true science fiction story I've read with time travel was Heinlein's "All You Zombies," a short story he wrote in one day; but I've got to believe that it gestated in his head for a long time before he put it down on paper.

Liz A. said...

The problem with time travel stories is maintaining internal logic. So many go wrong that way.

I have two Continuums sitting on my DVR. Soon. Soon I'll have time. (By soon, I mean the end of May.)

Spacer Guy said...

Time travel is like God out of the machine.

Michael Di Gesu said...

Hi, Michael,

SO see your point. I loved the first back to the future but really though the other two were not necessary. Why mess with a good thing?

I think time travel can be terrific if done ONCE... IN Harry Potter Three, Prisoner of Azcaban... my FAVORITE... JK pulled it of BEAUTIFULLY... never saw it coming. SO well done!

River Fairchild said...

I've never seen this show but it sounds like the characters chasing their tails instead of moving the plot forward as a storyline - and that storyline should be one timeline that you can count on.

Sheena-kay Graham said...

I watched the first season and a bit of the second. What you just described has me totally confused. But also excited. Sorry this annoys you but I want to know more.

Jay Noel said...

Time travel stories are extremely tough to do because it's tough to walk that tightrope between clever and crutch. But I still love them when done right, but I usually find little something wrong with ALL of them.

But as long as I'm enjoying myself, I try to just go with the story anyway.