So, today is Back To the Future Day (or #BackToTheFutureDay for all you Twitter fiends) and I couldn’t be more ambivalent. Everyone is celebrating this day like it is both a National Holiday and Day of Mourning. I even saw a little video detailing how many things the movies predicted would happen by 2015 and nearly all of them have. This is no big thing, by the way. You can take a film like 2001 or a show like Star Trek and do the same thing. The human capacity to forge our own realities seems to continually amaze people. I think the only thing Back to the Future failed to predict was the enormity of its own lasting popularity deep into 2015. Look, I liked the movies. I remember seeing and enjoying them in the 80’s, but I never would have guessed they would have had as much staying power as they’ve had. Honestly, in 1985, I would have sworn that Ice Pirates would have ultimately proven to be more successful. I still think it should have. Shows what I know. We miss you, Robert Urich!
Anyway, I thought this would be a great time for me to sound off about all the problems I have with any story that involves time travel. Although it is one of the most popular science fiction plot engines, it also happens to be the worst. Seriously. Stories about monkeys taking over the planet are better than anything involving hopping back and forth in time. So, what’s my beef with temporal high jinks?
Well it’s just one thing, to be honest. And it’s not scientific. Time travel is possible, most especially for going into the future. In fact, you can see this happen on an everyday basis. All you have to do is take a long flight. Going backwards through time is still pretty iffy, but who cares? This is science fiction after all. No, my main bone of contention with time travel in movies and books is the blatant disregard of plot holes.
Plot holes are the things that sink a story. I’ve written before that they can be small and therefore not leak too much suspension of disbelief, but they can also be Titanic-hitting-the-iceberg huge. Time travel plot holes invariably fall into the latter category. The one that bothers me the most also happens to be the most common one I’ve noticed. It occurs when the writer neglects to carry the accounting of cause and effect to its ultimate conclusion. Take Back to the Future, for instance. Marty goes back in time and fixes the screw ups he inadvertently causes so he can make sure his parents get together. All well and good, but along the way he also can’t resist adding in a few “improvements” that result in his parents being happier and more successful when he travels back to the future/his present.
That is, he thinks it’s his present, when in reality it is not. None of the memories that Marty McFly have are valid any longer. The life he once knew no longer exists. So, how can he remember his mom and dad being losers when it clearly never happened? One answer is that it did happen, but he did not travel back to that timeline. Instead, he traveled forward to the new timeline created by his actions. So, what then? Is time subjective? Do each of us only have timelines we perceive and others are not real? I hope not. That would be a highly anti-social stance to take. Is Marty a god, then? Are we all just living at the pleasure of his timeline? Or did he travel back to the future and somehow supplant the Marty McFly that had existed in that future – a future created by the Marty-McFly-with-loser-parents? What happened to the happy Marty-who-only-knew-winner-parents?
And let’s never mind the whole Travel-Back-In-Time-To-Kill-Hitler headache. If you traveled back in time to kill Hitler and were successful in preventing WWII, you could not conceivably come back. Why? Because the whole reason your time machine was invented ceased to be. There’s no longer a future where you sent yourself back, so how did it ever happen? Or did you think that everyone in your future suddenly breathed a sigh of relief and said, “Thank God you went back and killed Hitler! Now come on back and we’ll all talk about these fake memories we have” and then went on about their day? No, seems like if you really believe in cause and effect, then it’s a one-way trip, so get comfortable in the Weimar Republic, baby! Catch a cabaret or two and try not to have sex with your grandparents. That is, unless you believe in alternate timelines. You still shouldn’t have sex with your grandparents, but you can stay in the past and live out your life in the alternate timeline OR you can travel forward and see what the new one would look like – assuming it was technically possible, of course. And if you believe in alternate timelines, which I do, then why bother with time travel at all? Surely, at some point in time in the future (or maybe the past?), someone has already tried this and WWII was averted, only we didn’t get to see the results. Well, the “we” in this timeline, anyway.
This stuff just makes me crazy.
No, the only time travel plots I can stomach have more to do with letting go of the past than changing it. The Buttterfly Effect is a good one. The more the protagonist tries to change the past to “fix” the present, the more he destroys his life. We are forged by our experiences – to try to go back and change them is to unmake ourselves. So, when used as metaphor, time travel is ok. When used as an actual sci-fi plot engine, it’s unfailingly horrible.
Thanks for hanging out, everyone! Don’t forget to tip your driver!