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A Brief History of Time Travel

25 Jun, 2014 By: John Latchem

When word got out that X-Men: Days of Future Past would feature a time travel component, many fans became excited at the prospect. Sure, time travel is sometimes a crutch that franchises fall back on when they run out of stories to tell, but it’s also one of the unique conventions of science-fiction and fantasy that can instantly refocus a series in interesting ways.

In an age of remakes and reboots, it also gives filmmakers a chance to reshape franchises for new audiences while maintaining a connection to what came before. For “X-Men,” that meant not only uniting the casts of the original “X-Men” trilogy and its prequel, X-Men: First Class, but it gave director Bryan Singer a chance to address a problem common to long-running series: a growing list of contradictions that began popping up between films. Among the fanboy crowd, complaints about such things can be deafening.

So, for X-Men: Days of Future Past, the seventh film in the “X-Men” film franchise, time travel presented not only the catalyst for a story that “X-Men” fans would relish, but it also let the writers hit the reset button in a way that lets them carry on with the First Class continuity without worrying too much about inconsistencies with the previous films (a fact demonstrated in a final scene that tells the audience it’s OK to expect things can change).

Interestingly, the “X-Men” use of a standard sci-fi trope to reboot itself is extremely similar to another prominent sci-fi franchise, “Star Trek,” which in 2009 also used a time travel plot as the framing device for a reboot. Both films involved a traveler from the future changing history, and in the process resetting the franchise from what had come before without fully divorcing itself from the earlier stories.

This is a new approach to reboots, which typically wipe the slate clean, advancing a storyline with new actors as if the earlier works hadn’t existed, even though everyone knows they did (Casino Royale, The Amazing Spider-Man and Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit are just a few prominent examples of this).

Journey Into History

It’s only natural that time travel would emerge as a way to shape a reboot, since as a storytelling gimmick time travel solves any number of issues, the first being a lack of creativity. The prospect of characters meeting younger or older versions of themselves or interacting with historical or future events just opens up a bevvy of potential plot ideas. Men in Black 3 went this route after the franchise went dark for 10 years.

Time travel in movies and TV shows has had a long and varied history as a plot device, but certainly a popular one. While various authors had toyed with the concept as a literary device, Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court and H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine at the end of the 19th century were among the first major works to spark public interest in the idea of time travel.

Twain’s version was less interested in the mechanism of time travel, using a simple blow to the head to send a man back in time to Camelot. Wells’ story zeroed in on the mechanics of how someone could travel through time, and indeed, the 1960 film version of The Time Machine was one of the first major films to really outline time travel as in a scientific way, presenting history as immutable despite the potential presence of someone from the future (a concept completely botched by the film’s 2002 remake).

Since then, the use of time travel in film has enjoyed a complicated history, as writers determined new ways to use the plot device to create interesting situations. Along the way, the desired dramatic outcomes led to vastly different sets of rules for how time travel actually worked within a story — usually some variation of whether history could change or not.

Most Hollywood screenwriters will write time travel stories in which history is changeable, usually some variation of the protagonist having to correct a wrong of some sort. The TV show “Quantum Leap” made this its weekly premise. The underlying story arc wasn’t much different from a typical cop tries to stop a criminal act type of story, but the wrinkle of time travel gave it some extra oomph, raising the stakes or adding new motivations that otherwise couldn’t exist. Changing history could provide for a satisfying conclusion (albeit in ways that would ultimately make no sense if you actually think about them for more than a minute).

For example, the recent Looper is an effective thriller based on the idea a young hitman having to track down his older self, who is on a mission to prevent a disastrous future. Not only can the timeline be changed, but, as is the case with many time travel stories, the entire plot rests on the existence of two mutually exclusive potential futures both happening, which is logically impossible.

Of course, this is why the phrase “alternate reality” is a popular one in time travel fiction, and even something of a sub-genre in itself. It’s always fun to look at alternate versions of familiar things in fiction, especially when given a chance to explore the darker side of a franchise. This is the It’s a Wonderful Life Scenario, seen in some of the classic episodes of “Star Trek,” “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and others.

That’s not to say that stories with internally consistent timelines can’t work. The 1995 film 12 Monkeys is probably the best example of one of those. There’s also 1980’s The Final Countdown, built around the intriguing premise of modern jets vs WWII planes, although it’s mostly just talking about theory with little actually happening aside from a few events to make sure history unfolds as its supposed to, as a giant vortex sucks things back and forth through time when needed.

Funny as it may be to consider, the “Bill & Ted” films also presented time travel as an internally consistent loop, though this achievement is dampened a bit by the supernatural nature of the second film.

And if it’s too confusing to keep track of, there’s always “Doctor Who,” which just goes with the flow and saddles its time traveling main character with whatever rules are needed to tell a good story that week (although, in general, the show falls back on “some things can’t be changed, some things can, but if The Doctor knows the outcome of an event he can’t change it).

You know, Between The Doctor’s beloved TARDIS and Bill & Ted, there seems to be an abundance of time-travelling phone booths in science-fiction.

Tools and Talent

With storytelling as the writer’s primary motivation, and with most writers not being actual scientists, the method of time travel soon became secondary to the intended impact of the story. Anything from black holes to intense concentration could be enough to induce temporal displacement. Actually stopping for a moment to dwell on the physics of the thing was a rarity.

In “Back to the Future,” for example, the time machine, made from a DeLorean car, was practically a character in the film and one of its most popular elements. And the film’s humorous attempts to provide a logical context for the time travel didn’t detract from the film’s real goal, which was to tell the story a boy getting to hang out with his father when they were the same age. Back to the Future Part II, on the other hand, went out of its way to present a zany time travel adventure, filled with multiple versions of the same character, alternate timelines and potential paradoxes. The third film would return more to a character based approach, offering a love story between two people of vastly different eras brought together by a mutual affinity for knowledge.

Aside from “Back to the Future,” the most famous time travel-based franchise is probably “The Terminator,” a richly textured fictional world of a future overrun by cyborgs and their attempt to wipe out the resistance leader who defeats them by killing his mother, Sarah Connor, before he’s even born. In the process, their efforts to erase John Connor’s existence are directly responsible for his birth.

Days of Future Past is pretty much a reverse-Terminator. Both films showcase a future world overrun by artificial intelligence and machines of war. Where the plot of The Terminator is motivated by the machines using time travel to wipe out humanity, Days of Future Past is motivated by humanity (or the mutant strain of it) using time travel to erase the machines.

The "Terminator” films managed to exhibit both types of rules as the franchise went on, with the creation of the terminators as a result of the time travel from the first film suggesting a predestination paradox (when time travel is required to make the future possible, also known as a causality loop).

By the way, the hypothetical existence of causality loops even in an internally consistent time travel loop is for me the biggest logical problem with the existence of time travel in real life, since it opens up the door, so to speak, for ideas and objects to be created out of nothing. Take Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, for example, Scotty trades the formula for transparent aluminum for some plexiglas so he can build a tank to transport whales into the future, where they are extinct. He does this on the assumption the guy he gives the formula to is the inventor of it anyway. But the guy never invented anything, he only got it from Scotty who had it because he was from the future. Thus, the time travel loop has to take the credit for inventing transparent aluminum (a similar loop occurs in the 2009 Star Trek film).

In the 1980 film Somwhere in Time, a young man receives a watch from an old woman, and when he finds out why he figures out how to travel back in time to meet her younger self, to whom he gives the watch he brought from the future. This is then the watch she gives him as an old woman. So, not only was the watch never actually created (but by the time loop itself), its precise age is paradoxically infinite, since it is simultaneously its current age plus the duration of the time loop.

Anyway, Terminator 2: Judgment Day tries to weasel out of its causality loop by suggesting that history can be changed, prompting Sarah to kill the guy who invents the terminators to prevent the evil future from happening. The film’s alternate ending even shows a happier future, but the theatrical cut leaves this an open question.

And then Terminator 3 dumps all over this, replacing the “there is no fate but what you make” message with “fate will always win.” This is emblematic of a relatively new variant in the time travel rules that straddles the line between both types by saying that history isn’t as important as destiny, and that specific events can change but the universe will work to maintain a bigger picture (e.g., Judgment Day can be averted for a time, but is inevitable) which is a nicely literary romantic notion if ultimately lacking in any logical foundation. The 2009 Star Trek hinted at this as well by putting all the younger versions of the TOS characters together even though history had been drastically altered.

Now there’s a “Terminator” reboot in the works, and it will be interesting to see how they handle that from a storytelling standpoint, since Arnold Schwarzenegger is again playing a terminator and the franchise has time travel in its DNA. It already took an alternate reality approach when the “Sarah Connor Chronicles” TV show followed up T2 by ignoring the third movie.

Of course, just because time travel is a staple of a franchise doesn’t mean it’s the best way to reboot it. The third film in the original “Planet of the Apes” series used time travel to bring the future apes back to the Earth of the present (in that case the 1970s), where their offspring ended up being responsible for the evolution of apes seen in the first film. “Apes,” of course, went with the more traditional reboot, first with Tim Burton’s derided 2001 remake, and then the superior 2011 Rise of the Planet of the Apes, which took more of a prequel homage direction (to be followed in July by Dawn of the Planet of the Apes).

Retcons and Reactions

The prospect of a reboot can be a touchy subject among fans, who are often wary of investing interest in a continuing storyline if it suddenly stops continuing because the writers ran out of ideas. While time travel attempts to placate this concern, reactions to its use as a reboot agent have had mixed results. The reaction of “Star Trek” fans to the use of the plot device was polarized to say the least, while fans of the “X-Men” films have been mostly in support of its use there.

This varied reaction undoubtedly stems in part from the vast differences in the nature of the two franchises.

“Star Trek,” being primarily a TV franchise, had amassed more than 700 episodes from five live-action series, many of them also dealing with time travel plots. The 2009 film created a divergent timeline from before the era of the original 1960s “Star Trek” series. While the film’s writers insisted it was only an alternate reality, many fans interpreted the story as erasing not only the events of the original series, but also sequel series “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” “Deep Space Nine” and “Voyager” (not that there’d be much uproar over losing “Voyager”). That meant that the panned prequel series “Enterprise” was the only lasting bit of “Star Trek” continuity, which didn’t sit well with fans. Also confusing was the fact that the technology seemed vastly different than what it should have been had this new continuity really been connected to the old one.

In 2013, Star Trek Into Darkness further attempted to exploit the connection between the old and new continuities by reintroducing fan-favorite elements with alternate storylines, which just raised more questions. Why bother with the reboot if only to keep playing in the old continuity, and not as satisfyingly as it was portrayed to begin with?

In contrast, it’s widely acknowledged that the “X-Men” use of time travel as a reboot agent erased mostly aspects of the franchise that fans didn’t like, which says a lot, since lit basically says all the movies except First Class didn’t happen either, even the good ones).

Another key difference is the fact that Days of Future Past is a follow-up to X-Men: First Class, which is basically a pure prequel to all the other “X-Men” films and kind of a more traditional reboot in its own right. It didn’t involve time travel, but was simply set in the 1960s. Days of Future Past in many ways was an attempt to reconcile discrepancies between First Class and what was established about mutant history in the “X-Men” trilogy, but it also gave Singer an excuse to gloss over his own controversial history with the franchise and embrace his own second chance with it.

The key sticking point among “X-Men” fans is, of course, that Singer abandoned the third film, 2006’s X-Men: The Last Stand, to make the horrible Superman Returns, and in the process damaged two superhero franchises. The warm regard fans held for the first two “X-Men” films was not extended to the third, a situation exacerbated when the 2009 prequel X-Men Origins: Wolverine was considered even a worse step down. Singer’s return as a writer and producer of 2011’s First Class helped reverse the sinking fortunes of the franchise.

But even a wide net can’t catch all the fish. Days of Future Past doesn’t quite explain all the story inconsistencies between the films, even if it gives the audience an excuse to ignore them. For its own part, Days of Future Past seems to completely ignore anything that happens in Origins, since much of it is set during a 1970s timeframe also used during some of Origins, when characters are shown doing very different things.

Now, ask a “Star Trek” fan to ignore the original series, “TNG” or “DS9” and they might have a problem with that. But “X-Men” fans have no problem pretending Origins doesn’t exist.

What’s interesting to consider about the idea of creating an alternate reality as a reboot is that essentially Back to the Future did this to itself WITHIN A SINGLE MOVIE and no one has a problem with it, probably because it was planned from the start as the concluding gag of the film, and not conceived as a way to restart a franchise. It’s kind of like the gag from that “Simpsons” “Treehouse of Horror” episode where a time-travelling Homer has to keep going back and forth trying to restore his own timeline, until he finally gets to one he seems to recognize, except that everyone has a lizard tongue. Tired of his journeys, he utters the famous refrain, “close enough.”

But think about it. Logan in Days of Future Past undergoes essentially the same journey as Marty in Back to the Future. After returning from the past, his present has been replaced by one that’s similar, but different, and much happier (both for him, and, in this case, the fans).

This actually illustrates another constant to the idea of the time travel reboot is the presence of a character who remembers the way things were supposed to be, which gives the writer a frame of reference within the fictional universe to compare the two timelines for the benefit of the other characters.

Ironically, the traditional role of this character in time travel fiction would be to fix damages to the timeline. “Star Trek” is loaded with examples of this, and in the 2009 Star Trek, this role is filled by the older Spock, an artifact of the “prime” reality. When, at the end, he chooses to find a life for himself in the new reality (an alternate version of his own past, by the way), it marked the first time a main character from any “Trek” franchise was aware of a change in the timeline and didn’t bother to try to fix it.

On the flip side, some sci-fi franchises, such as “Battlestar Galactica” and “Star Wars” pride themselves in not having fallen back on using time travel as a plot device (though it did feature in some non-canon comics for both, and "Galactica 1980," but it's best not to think about that). Time will tell how long that keeps up, especially now that J.J. Abrams, architect of the 2009 Star Trek, and Rian Johnson, writer-director of Looper, have taken the reins of “Star Wars.”

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About the Author: John Latchem

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