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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

Chris Gavaler Explores the Multiverse of Comics, Pop Culture, and Politics

Tag Archives: time travel

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Dear Syfy Channel,

As much as I’m enjoying your new 12 Monkeys series, it’s also really annoying. This is not entirely your fault. Time travel is typically a mess in films and TV shows. Why, for instance, does Cole’s time travel chair lean him backwards like an astronaut, and yet when he appears and disappears in the past, he’s in a standing position? And why does he not return to the same moment in time that he left? I realize the answer is story convenience—sometimes it’s fun to have things happen while he’s “gone”—but couldn’t the doctor spout some techno-babble explaining how the machine somehow locks the two time periods in sync? Otherwise the past is less a “when” and more like a “where,” a place that exists simultaneously with “now” and so moves forward at a parallel rate.

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Cole’s mission is also a variation on Back to the Future and so suffers from a range of Michael-J.-Fox-fading-from-the-family-photo problems. For instance, when he loops back to a moment he’s already visited and alters it so this time his past self is accidentally shot in the arm, why does he experience the injury simultaneously with his past self? And why does the injury then turn into a sutured scar? At what point in time was the wound bandaged? Is the current Cole now a different Cole, the Cole who was injured in the past, and so then was the previous not-shot-in-the-arm Cole erased? If so, the new Cole wouldn’t even know something had been altered, because in fact “his” timeline hasn’t been altered, and so he would remember and have anticipated being shot—in which case, wouldn’t he take some precaution “now” to avoid it happening “again.” His whole mission is about altering past events, so there are no cosmic taboos like the kind the writers of Doctor Who keep having to invent, those inexplicably “fixed” points in time that make the plot work at the expense of everything else.

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I realize this sort of internal consistency is not the top priority when writing action-oriented entertainment. The top priority for writers of action-oriented entertainment is to be entertaining. There is no correlation between a well-tempered time machine and high ratings. Though I would not be surprised if TV and film producers imagine the correlation is inverse, that the more time writers spend tinkering with the nuts and bolts of their nerdy plot devices, the less entertaining the show will be.  And to a certain degree this is true, since sinking all of your effort into any one story element at the expense of the billion other story elements needed to make a story good is a great way to make a story very bad. Though at the other end of the spectrum, a story that ignores too many of those reality-securing nuts and bolts is going to score pretty high on viewers’ This-Is-Stupid meter. So most time-travel tales bounce around the middle, cutting corners while keeping the majority of their viewers’ frontal lobes intact.

But how about a time-travel story that’s both entertaining and makes sense? I realize “makes sense” is an oxymoron when talking about the impossible, but all I’m asking for is the appearance of plausibility. If that sounds like a pointless constraint on the creative process, remember that writers thrive on constraints—or as Robert Frost put it: “Writing free verse is like playing tennis with the net down.” 12 Monkeys could use a few nets.

So here’s one example of an entertainingly plausible time machine. Begin by taking the traveler out of time travel. Start simpler. Think of it first as a “time phone.” Your machine sends and receives signals from the future. This is where a TV producer hangs up, because a show about people talking on phones sounds really boring, but the constraints create new possibilities. What if the future end of the phone is a robot? And if this end of the phone isn’t a phone but a Wii, then instead of a cartoon in a 2-D landscape, your avatar is a remote control android physically interacting with people in the future.

That nuts-and-bolt net also manufactures some potential plot tensions. Since anyone can throw on video goggles and Wii gloves, anyone can “travel” in time—but to the folks in the other time destination, “anyone” always looks exactly the same. You can never know for sure who is remote controlling the android—the good guys or the bad guys. This is great news for Orphan Black actress Tatiana Maslany since who else could play so many parts within a part? But if Maslany is busy, I nominate Enver Gjokaj based on his brilliant stint on the not-so-brilliant Dollhouse (he’s pretty good on Agent Carter too.)

Meanwhile, the folks working the Wii, they first have to build the android before they can dial the future with the blind hope that they (or future generations depending on how far into the future you’re dialing) will have maintained it. Since the Wii controls can exist in the future too, future people can also dial backwards in time, beginning at the moment the android is first switched on. So while the inventors are visiting the unknown future, the unknown future is visiting them.

If that doesn’t give a team of writers material for a season or two, you can always throw in an apocalypse—a worldwide plague, a rise of the machines and/or apes, a dysfunctional family in need of an emotional reboot. Maybe Michael J. Fox can use Matrix technology to active an Arnold robot and prevent his parents from being zombified before he’s born so he can overthrow the Morlocks after he grows up to be Bruce Willis?

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Dr. Doom’s time machine premiered in Fantastic Four #5 back in 1961. Doom flings the FF “centuries into the past” to retrieve Merlin’s gems from Blackbeard’s treasure chest. His evil plan was “mastery of all the world.” The same as any politician. The plan didn’t work (will Dr. Doom never learn?), but, more importantly, it turns out the FF didn’t really return to the age of pirates. Doom’s machine doesn’t travel to other time periods. It creates them. Parallel worlds pop into existence whenever a traveler from our timeline invades the past.

A time traveler like, say, a Republican Presidential candidate.

Rick Santorum describes state education in America as “anachronistic.” Which is funny coming from a guy beaming in his campaign from the 1950’s. He wants to return to a simpler time when wives stayed at home and homosexuals stayed in the closet. Though for his education agenda that means the 1850’s. He wants to live in pre-industrial America, when there was no government oversight or funding and children learned at home or in “little neighborhood schools.”

I’m picturing the one Laura Ingalls attended in Little House on the Prairie. That 1970’s show was based on novels written in the 1930’s about a childhood set in the 1870’s. It premiered in 1974, same as Happy Days, another hit show about another golden age. Change time machine channels and you’re in Santorum’s magical 1950’s again.

But Happy Days wasn’t about the 1950’s any more than Little House was about the 1870’s. Ingalls’ novels sold because her Depression era readers needed an escape. They wanted to live in a time before the problems of their modern world existed. It’s the same today. In their heart of hearts, Republicans are wannabe time travelers. They want to return to the way things were.

Unfortunately, the GOP plan for world mastery relies on a time machine that, like Dr. Doom’s, doesn’t work. You can set the dials for whichever golden age is highest on your nostalgia meter, but you will never get there. Instead, like Dr. Doom, you’ll just create a parallel universe. An imaginary world where everything once was wonderful.

For George W. Bush, that was the 1920’s. And not just because of all the sex and drugs. The top tax rate for the wealthiest Americans was only 24%. The Bush tax cuts were modeled on the Revenue Acts of 1921, 1925 and 1926. Income inequality hit its highmark in 1929—just before the bubble burst and the planet plunged into Depression.

But that’s the magic of the Dr. Doom time machine. You don’t actually go anywhere. You selectively beam in what you idealize about some past moment and then pretend the rest of history won’t repeat itself.

Mitt Romney and today’s Republican establishment have their Doom dials set to 1913. When federal income taxes were first enacted, the top rate was only 7%. Romney had to pay a whopping 14% on the twenty million he made last year, but with him in the White House, the GOP should be able to half that in no time.

While Republicans scour parallel timelines for lower taxes, their Doom Machines are calibrated for a range of golden ages. Newt Gingrich best articulates their cold war nostalgia. Republicans miss Communism. So now they’re busy dressing up the Muslim world in Moscow’s retired gear. Gingrich claims the U.S. is “about where we were in 1946” against the Soviet Union. Those are big boots for Iran to fill, but Gingrich still warns of “another Holocaust” and loves the apocalyptic phrase “if we do survive.” The cold war wasn’t fun but it was fulfilling. Who doesn’t miss the clarity of Ronald Reagan’s evil empire? Things are so much simpler when there’s a supervillain to rally against. As Senator Lindsey Graham recently observed: “Iran has done more to bring us together than anything in the world.”

Santorum figured that out too. Instead of post-war 1946, he set his dial to pre-war 1940’s. Forget Communism. He’s aiming for the greatest supervillain of them all, Adolf Hitler. Iran may look silly in Soviet footwear, but that’s nothing compared to President Obama with the dictator mustache Santorum’s doodled under his nose. He says the President is like “that guy over in Europe” and Americans are sitting on the sidelines like they did while Britain was being “bombed and leveled.” It’s quite a leap, even for Dr. Doom, and Santorum knows it. He lamented how it will be “harder for this generation to figure it out” because there’s “no cataclysmic event.” He’s thinking 1942. His time machine is searching for Pearl Harbor.

It’s no coincidence that the golden age that Conservatives most love is also the golden age of comic books. World War II created the modern superhero. Men dressed in primary colors battling forces of undeniable evil. For once the world could simply be black and white, good and bad, right and wrong. For one moment in American history there were no gray areas. The cold war and Marvel’s guilt-burdened mutants were half-measure imitations. The 40’s Superman, Captain America, Wonder Woman, they were the cartoon embodiment of a unified nation acting with moral clarity.

It never happened before and it’s not happened since. But the GOP’s political machine remains marooned in that magical moment. It’s the gem they want to pull from Bluebeards’ chest. Never mind that all time travel schemes are doomed. Happy Days and Little House on the Prairie made for great escapist TV in the 70’s, but have you tried to sit through a rerun lately? They’re unwatchable. Have you ever read a 1940 comic book? My eleven-year-old thinks the golden age Superman is a jerk.

Times change. Barack isn’t Adolf. Muslims aren’t Commies. Also, state-funded education isn’t anachronistic, gay people aren’t sinners, and massive income inequality isn’t safe. Instead of trying to relive its selective past, our country could learn from it instead. Step one means shelving the time machine. Even Dr. Doom figured out it didn’t work.

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