In one of the busiest few months in science-fiction and fantasy popular-culture, the beginning of 2019 has seen three major franchises in cinema and on television become embroiled in what could be rapidly becoming a narrative crutch.
The lacklustre Season 2 of Star Trek: Discovery (I *really* promise to stop talking about this soon) saw the crew of the Starfleet ship launch themselves almost 1000 into the distant Federation future to prevent a universe-destroying, rampant AI from wiping out all life. The gigantic conclusion to the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s first era, Avengers: Endgame, saw our superheroes enter the Quantum Realm and zip backwards across time to recover the universe-shattering Infinity Stones before the Mad Titan, Thanos, can snap his fingers again and wipe out half of all sentient life. And just this week, Game of Thrones saw the ultimate battle with the Night King and his army of the dead, coming to wipe out the living, which all hung on the fate of Bran Stark, a time-travelling tree-wizard.
Anyone noticing a pattern here? Three legendary franchises. Three titanic threats to the fabric of the entire universe. And in each case, the resolution of the paradox has the potential to lie in the bending of time.
We’re in danger of death by temporal mechanics if we’re not careful.
In fairness to Game of Thrones, we haven’t technically seen any characters time-travel in the conventional sense. Across Season 6, Bran was taken on some observation trips through time by his predecessor, the Three-Eyed Raven, primarily to witness the creation of the Night King in antiquity and the truth about his brother (or cousin) Jon Snow’s secret lineage and parentage, but the show has flirted with the idea that the bending of time could be more than a few vision quests for Bran. In Oathbreaker, while in the past, Bran calls out to a younger Ned Stark who can’t see him but does seem to hear him through the void. In The Door, while presumably in the past witnessing the gathering undead army, the Night King reaches through his vision and makes physical contact with him.
Game of Thrones’ most overt use of time-travel is also in The Door via the character of Hodor, whose life and death are inextricably linked via a pre-destination paradox; the elder, brain damaged servile version who looks after Bran, who can only say the word ‘hodor’, ends up becoming brain damaged in that exact way as a child because Bran has ‘warged’ into (mind controlled) his body in both the past and future. Hodor becomes Hodor because… Hodor, basically. Bran’s actions in the future directly affect the past, or did in this instance. It led to many theories subsequently of how Bran may end up actually travelling back and *becoming* the Night King to change history and save everyone in the future. As recent episode The Long Night has proven, this was not to be the case as Bran had a very different plan in motion…
If Game of Thrones has skirted the edges of time-travel to depict its gigantic-scale story over the last eight years, dipping in lightly when it became useful, Avengers: Endgame full on went for broke with the device to get out of the narrative corner that was Avengers: Infinity War.
As you would likely expect from an MCU movie, however, Endgame plays up to the idea it is throwing such a deus ex machina into the plot at this stage. When Scott ‘Ant-Man’ Lang posits using the Quantum Realm to get the Infinity Stones in the past (after the time-travel possibility was briefly hinted at in Ant-Man and the Wasp), he tries to briefly pass off Steve Rogers’ practical incredulousness at the idea of a time machine before admitting “Ok… it’s a time machine”. These are characters in-universe who have seen time-travel movies prevalent in popular-culture and check them off as Ant-Man and Bruce Banner’s Hulk (or Professor Hulk more appropriately) argue about the ‘rules’ of time-travel.
Oddly enough, these discussions and the subsequent plot developments that take place as a result lead to issues which call into question how well time-travel serves the movie from a logical perspective.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe sets out its stall in Endgame about how time travel works in the confines of this fictional universe, in that as The Ancient One describes, time being altered creates potentially infinite-sable branched realities. A central core of yanking the Infinity Stones through time is predicated on the fact Bruce Banner insists they need to put them all back where they found them once Thanos is defeated. To do this, however, they have to change the past and create several branched realities as a result; returning to the Battle of New York from Avengers Assemble, for example, leads to Loki escaping instead of returning to Asgard as a prisoner (thereby setting up his future Disney+ series) with an Infinity Stone in the Tesseract.
Steve Rogers ends up taking advantage of the mission to prevent these branched realities ever existing in order to create one of his own in which he lives a long, happy life with Peggy Carter, yet at the climax of Endgame he is able to reappear in the original ‘Prime’ (let’s call it, to borrow a Trek term) reality to hand over the baton to Falcon. This is all well and good from a dramatic perspective for audience closure but does it entirely make *sense*? If the MCU operated in the same parameters as Lost’s rules of time travel, whereby everything that happened happened and paradoxes were essentially impossible, then Cap being able to surf one distinct timeline could make a level of sense, but he became old in a different reality from the one he originally existed in.
Consider the journey of the original Spock from Star Trek, as played by Leonard Nimoy. To try and save the galaxy from the Hobus Supernova in the late 24th century, Spock enters a black hole and ends up in the so-called ‘Kelvin Timeline’ of the mid-23rd century, returning him to an era as an old man where a younger version of himself exists, a branched reality. From then on, Spock had no way of returning to his own time in his own reality, the ‘Prime Timeline’ of Star Trek (in which Discovery takes place). Unless the Quantum Realm allows Cap to surf between alternative realities, him being able to exist in his Prime timeline doesn’t work because, like Spock, he would never have been able to get back there. As Banner explains to Scott, the past would be his future and our future his past.
There is a perfectly strong argument that when it comes to time-travel stories, we shouldn’t look too deeply and unpick plot holes. Time travel is a theoretical science with (currently) no basis in reality so who are we to try and pigeon hole stories with rules when they’re just telling a ripping yarn?
Discovery is a good example of why rules maybe *should* exist in such science-fiction stories, and how time travel does not always equal quality.
Season 2 of the latest Star Trek incarnation built itself around time travel in a way no other season of that franchise has ever attempted. Temporal sojourns have been common in the Trek universe since the 1960’s had episodes such as City on the Edge of Forever—where Kirk and Spock chase a crazed McCoy back to 1930’s New York and save the life of a woman which through a remarkable butterfly effect leads the Nazis to win WW2—and continued through to The Next Generation era with episodes as varied as Cause and Effect (one of the best time loop tales, featuring a Kelsey Grammer cameo too), Trials and Tribble-ations (which sees Deep Space Nine actors digitally inserted into 60’s episode The Trouble with Tribbles), indeed Voyager’s entire denouement uses a time-travel gambit (appropriately, that episode is called Endgame…), and the consequences of time being warped even has directly created a new, branch universe of stories in the 2009’s Star Trek reboot. Star Trek is no shrinking violet when it comes to this narrative device but Discovery overloads the second season with time travel to the point it works to the detriment of everything else.
It also ties the device into something that just does not often sit right with Star Trek: destiny. Discovery suggests that Captain Christopher Pike is destined to end up on Talos IV (as we see in The Menagerie in 60’s Trek) and Discovery establishes he always knew of the dark fate he ends up suffering. Nothing in the franchise’s canon directly contradicts this but Discovery clumsily attempts to fuse time travel with a mystical journey of discovery (no pun intended) as Pike goes to the Klingon moon of Boreth and learns of his fate from monks by travelling to a strange cavern filled with ‘time crystals’ that show him his future.
Putting aside the fact that the time crystals (however technically rooted they are in some kind of scientific possibility) are among the most ludicrous Star Trek invention the franchise has ever provided (not to mention something entirely unmentioned previously in the lore), they are used as a crutch to place Pike where he needs to be—later Michael Burnham and the entire Discovery crew thanks to the Red Angel paradox—in much the same manner Steve Rogers *needs* to get to the past for his payoff with Peggy, or Bran *needs* to be able to take his mind psychically through time to calculate the necessary steps needed for the conditions to defeat the Night King. Destiny has only worked truly well once in Star Trek: the journey of Benjamin Sisko, mainly because it was telegraphed and foreshadowed for seven years, consciously and sometimes not. The payoff worked in a way those other examples struggle to match.
Time travel can be one of the most thrilling devices used in a story, particularly a science-fiction or fantasy series. It was a thrill to see Bran, in Oathbreaker, witness a younger version of his father Ned Stark fight one of the most legendary, whispered-of duels in Westeros’ history. The Next Generation’s Yesterday’s Enterprise is a brilliant hour of television in how a time-travelling earlier Enterprise changes the entire fabric of the future, or Deep Space Nine gets to explore some powerful (and increasingly prophetic) social issues as it’s characters travel into our near future in Past Tense, and while the execution wasn’t always there, the threat of the Temporal Cold War in Enterprise was genuinely inventive and allowed for some enjoyable, pulp storytelling along the way.
Yet in the space of six months, three of our biggest genre franchises have fallen back on time travel to write themselves out of corners, service fans or give their ongoing narratives a nudge, and if we’re not careful, our reliance on this device will become too strong.
Time travel should be a surprise, or a joy, or something a little magical, something that doesn’t come along very often. Let’s keep it that way.
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