In every industry there is one achievement that is impossible yet everyone in that industry is foolishly compelled to try it and science fiction is no exception. Â In the world of the Sci-Fi writer, I have given my pain a name and that name is Time Travel. Â The shores of Sci-Fi television are littered with the corpses of time travel related plots that are dead before they’re even hatched, abandoned by the reckless writers who flee the scene of the crime like baby gazelles when the local lion tribe comes to visit.
As evidence I offer to you Lost, one of the best shows on television in a long time. Â They drank the kool-aid when they started bouncing the island through time, only to drop that plot line like a bad habit shortly after. Â Fortunately they bamboozled us with beautiful women, heart-wrenching scenes of love and bonding, rich with clever writing and fast-paced action, and consequently allowing us to leave behind that tiny voice inside of us that cries foul as we soaked in the entertainment that show provided.
This is not an original thought by me and has been pointed out by several other TV blogs as of late. Â Sadly, other writers are not nearly as kind leaving you wishing that you really did have a time machine so you could go back into the past and tell yourself to watch The Simpsons instead.
There are two huge problems with tackling time travel and I’ll cover them both.
First are the causality parodoxes. Â A classic example is the one where you go back in the past and shoot your own grandfather before he met your grandmother. Â What happens to you? Â The romantic shows fling that contradiction right out the window by gracefully fading out the hero into nothingness. Â Bzzt! Â If you were never born, you could not go back into the past and shoot your own grandfather to begin with deep sixing the plot immediately. Â Next?Â Other shows try to play it off by subtly asking for sympathy from the audience by having the characters talk jokingly about “how it will hurt your brain to think about it so just don’t”. Â Bzzt, bzzt! Â My brain hurts when I don’t get a decent explanation!
Smarter writers turn to the recent adoption of parallel universes by the Sci-Fi community to explain away the contradiction. Â It goes something like this. Â Well, you didn’t kill your grandfather. Â The instant you shot him you entered/created a parallel universe where an alternate grandfather died. Â Meanwhile, in the universe you were born into your original grandfather is still alive, deliriously happy you’re not around anymore you grandpa-killing fiend!
You don’t fade way cinematically either. Â You have now entered an alternate universe, one where there is no alternate-you in the future because he will never be born. Â You are essentially a misplaced visitor from another time stream.Â Â (I credit Fringe for creating the “alt-” prefix for quickly referencing a parallel universe other than your own or an item or person from that universe. Â Oh yeah, Fringe rocks!). Â But even with the help of parallel universes, the causality web created by combining them with time travel becomes so complex that sooner or later, like a liar that tells one too many lies and can’t keep track of them, the plot of the show becomes so incomprehensible or so lame that the show implodes like a black hole in heat. Â (Note, one of the coolest insights given about causality links was by the uber-Morlock in the remake of The Time Machine. Â Every time the time travelling hero goes back to the past to rescue his fiancee from being killed, she ends up dying a different way. Â The uber-Morlock, the one that telepathically controls the soldier Morlocks, explains to him that this is because without the death of his fiancee he never gets the inspiration to create the time machine since the hero invents it specifically to save her.)
But I said there were two problems.Â There is another huge elephant in the room and it’s proportions are astronomical. Â Literally. Â Worse, I have never heard anyone talk about it and that has made me feel like I’m Sarah Connor trapped in the mental ward trying to tell everyone that SkyNet is coming.Â The problem is motion. Lots of it.Â Think about it. Â The earth, at the equator, is rotating at 1,000 miles per hour. Â On top of that, it is circling the sun at 67,000 miles per hour. Â This phenomena of motion at extreme speeds compounding on itself continues all the way out to our galaxy The Milky Way, which is not only rotating but is itself moving through space at about 1,234,788 mph (552 km/s)!! Â To make a long story short, if you are at point X,Y,Z in the universe and with your time machine you go back even a moment in time, you are sucking vacuum in empty space because the earth, hell the entire galaxy, has moved!
Somehow all the Sci-Fi stories I’ve read and watched magically assume that you end up in the same place on Earth, or wherever you are in the universe after you travel time. Â There is no scientific basis for that given the time travel methods or devices you and I have seen depicted!
Ok, so you fire back, “well I’d be in a spaceship”. Â Fair enough. Â But how many times have you seen people travel back in time without a spaceship Â Worse, if you go back even an hour in time you better have a spaceship that has Faster Than Light (FTL) capability to get you back to where you were at point X,Y,Z in the universe before you made your time jump because you are now a long way from Kansas Dorothy! (Unless of course you have a spaceship that moves at the speed of plot, which is theoretically exponentially faster than the speed of light).
Stargate Universe, which is turning out to be a pretty damn good show, did touch on one theoretical possibility. Â In one episode, taking a page from Einstein’s ruminations on the universe, the writers proposed that you could create a wormhole that not only jumped space but could also exit into different portions of the time stream. Â But even SGU in its wisdom only touched lightly upon that idea and then promptly abandoned it, once they got some of the key characters of the show back on to the ship using that plot device.
In the episode I’m referencing they came up with the clever idea that when Destiny, the ship they are stranded on, created a wormhole during FTL travel that passed near a star along its route, the star’s immense gravitational pull might bend the wormhole’s exit point to a point somewhere else in time. Â I like that idea because damn it at least it’s a true Sci-Fi explanation. Â I’ll let the astrophysicists tell me how plausible it is since I’m not a scientist. Â But for Pete’s sake, the galactically large forces involved make the idea of using that technique for doing time travel in a way that allows you to pinpoint your destination in both time and space, unbelievably hard to swallow.
One funny anecdote before I go.
The original Star Trek did come up with the idea of sling-shotting around the sun with the U.S.S. Enterprise at high speed to travel back in time. Â That’s not an idea I buy into at all, but it did serve as another example of writer desperation resulting in hilarity. Â To show that time was moving backwards to the audience they had the numbers on the chronometer built into the ship’s dashboard rotate backwards instead of counting forward like normal. Â Obviously if the ship’s machinery was being affected this way the crew’s bodies and minds would be too and once they ended up at their destination point in the past, they would have forgotten or “unlearned” everything they learned during the time that is now considered the future from their new location in time. Â (For the record, I loved that show, plot warts and all and always will. Â It boldy went where no Sci-Fi show had ever gone before.)
Captain Kirk, after the time travel induced amnesia: “Spock, can you please explain what we are doing in this part of space?”.
Spock: “I assume you are going down to the planet below to find a beautiful, blonde, blue-eyed alien to make out with?”
What do you think? Â Please leave your comments, alternate theories, and dead bullet-ridden grandfather’s below.
 – Joe Straczynski, creator of Babylon 5 one of astonishingly best Sci-Fi television shows ever, and I mean ever.