I have a theory about time travel.

My theory about time travel is as follows:

If your story is not about time travel, but it has time travel in it, then your story sucks.

For example. Stories that are about time travel:
Terminator, Back to the Future, Time Bandits, Bill & Ted, 12 Monkeys, Journeyman.
Their use of time travel is, at least, honest.

Stories that are not about time travel:
Star Trek, Stargate, Lost, Heroes.
Their use of time travel is a crutch or a gag, and all of their time travel episodes are stupid.

Tags: , ,

74 Responses:

  1. leopanthera says:

    Doctor Who seems to straddle these two categories. The Doctor is inherently a time traveller, his spaceship is a fully functional time machine.

    But with very few exceptions, the stories are not about time travel.

    (The Stargate time-loop episode was awesome.)

    • coldacid says:

      The time-loop episode wasn't really a time-travel episode. It's more like hitting the reset button repeatedly.

    • lionsphil says:

      I'd likewise defend Star Trek for the "Cause and Effect" Groundhog-Day TNG episode, but I'm afraid that jwz's argument lands a fatal hammerblow with First Contact. And probably many other examples I'm carefully repressing.

      Also, because Brannon Braga is, apparently, the most ignorant writer in sci-fi:

      I love time travel stories and I don't know who doesn't. We wanted to do a time travel story that had never been done before. Being trapped in a time loop is one I've never seen before.
      Memory Alpha

      • editer says:

        The time-loop TNG episode had a big abyss of suck in it, namely, Picard's insistence that all courses of action were equally likely to be the wrong thing to do and that thus they should take no unusual action, when doing the normal thing is what got them stuck in the first place.

        The Stargate time-loop episode had no flaws that glaring.

    • marapfhile says:

      i would also defend stargate-does-the-sixties. hippy teal'c was awesome.

    • wdr1 says:

      By "straddle" did you mean cleanly falls in the latter?

    • New Doctor Who pretty much supports JWZ's thesis:

      Two episodes which are widely agreed not to suck are Girl in the Fireplace and Blink, and aside from being written by the same guy, the other thing they have in common is that they're actually about time travel, whereas most new Doctor Who follows the old rule about no-one actually using time travel to do anything except get from one episode to the next.

      • jmtd says:

        I agree those two episodes are awesome, but I never connected that up with the strong use of time travel before.

        It looks like "time crash" and "silence in the library" which I haven't seen yet make proper use of time travel too.

        • thornist says:

          And from the original series there's "Genesis of the Daleks", which may have been the first real use of time travel as a plot device. Actually I'm probably wrong about that, but I can't think of an earlier one.

      • jwz says:

        Dr. Who is clearly about time travel. It is the premise on which the show hinges. Whether it makes good use of it is a separate issue.

        Though I will say that Girl in the Fireplace was so much better than just about every other episode that it felt like it had been dropped in from a different show entirely.

    • skington says:

      Similarly, Quantum Leap is about time-travel on the level of the series, but there's hardly any time-travel within individual episodes.

      • jwz says:

        Quantum Leap was one of the worst shows every on television, but it was about time travel in that you cannot describe the premise of the show without mentioning it.

    • psr says:

      I laughed. So hard.

  2. 0ntological says:

    I gave up on Lost a few seasons ago....around when they started using time travel.

    • notthebuddha says:

      Lost was always about figurative time travel ("modern" people are dumped on an island with bits of previous eras left over), it only later became about literal time travel.

      • thornist says:

        Actually I reckon it was obviously set up to be a time travel story pretty much from the start. In season 1, when Jack & Kate find the bones of a long-dead couple in the caves (holding a Chekhov's-gun-like pair of black and white stones) who didn't think "huh, so this is going to be a time-travel story"? Which puts Lost firmly in category one.

        • jwz says:

          I think that's nonsense, and they had no plan for Lost at all, but have just been making it up as they go along.

          Or possibly the original plan was in fact that they were dead and in hell, but then halfway through they realized that was dumb.

          • thornist says:

            Well I'm just saying I did think that back in season 1, and it does indeed turn out to be a time travel story. In fact I think I saw an interview somewhere where the writers cited this - the dead couple in the caves - as their planted evidence for there having been a plan come the conclusion.

            Of course as they haven't reached that point yet you could be completely right: the dead couple might never be mentioned again in which case I will have been royally duped and will happily admit to having been a gullible tool (plus eat my hat etc)

            • editer says:

              In fact I think I saw an interview somewhere where the writers cited this - the dead couple in the caves - as their planted evidence for there having been a plan come the conclusion.

              All that does is commit them to working the dead couple into whatever resolution they end the show with, whether they planned it all along or come up with it on the fly.

              • thornist says:

                If they manage a convincing enough simulacrum of a plan then frankly I don't particularly care how they get there. Having said that you are, of course, correct. I think the interview statement was actually more along the lines of "we put that there otherwise no-one would believe we had the ending planned from the start", which inverts the logic to allow for your position.

          • neko_special says:

            Alan Moore said pretty much the same thing.

            "I saw the first few episodes and there were already so many inconsistencies where all the writer would have had to have done was check back to the previous episode. I have no confidence in them knowing where they are going. I think they're just thinking of weird things week by week."

          • tedlick says:

            I think the 'primary conceit' about Lost that's been a part of it since the beginning is that the island is Atlantis, and time travel is an inherent reason that Atlantis was 'lost' to begin with.

            This makes it a show where time travel is a component, not a show about time travel. So jwz's observation stands.

            • thornist says:

              If the island is Atlantis - and I think there is indeed a fair chance of that - and an inherent reason for Atlantis being 'special', and thus worthy of being the focus of a story, is that it travels through time, then I'd argue that the show is at its core about time travel.

          • 0ntological says:

            they had no plan for Lost at all

            this. And I got tired of it....

          • belgand says:

            It frequently seems that as soon as any fan theory begins to gain traction they come out and say that it is entirely false. I suspect this is only because they dislike the idea that the fans may have figured out their plan and then decide to change it. In the end we usually get the least satisfying resolution possible because nobody would have thought of something that dull.

            It also seems that there is strong evidence that they never had a plan from the beginning. They wrote in a number of characters due to liking people's auditions and decided they wanted to kill someone in season one, but couldn't decide until the last minute... yet they repeatedly, and used to play up more heavily, that the characters are interconnected. You can't easily have an interconnected, fated cast if you also love to kill them off and replace them with new cast members every season.

            • rodgerd says:

              In the end we usually get the least satisfying resolution possible because nobody would have thought of something that dull.

              Battlestar Galactica, come on down.

        • notthebuddha says:

          I don't recall the exact episode, but I was thinking more of reincarnation or a "This Was Your Life"/Judgment Day sort of thing.

  3. neutopian says:

    I have a theory that nothing with a giant CGI creature roaring into a camera can contain anything that will make up for that.

    • crasch says:

      Uhura making out with the Orion alien woman would make up for it.

      But no director capable of putting a roaring CGI creature into a film would recognize such opportunities for quality cinema.

    • baconmonkey says:

      ditto for character screaming into the camera after having been launched into the air.

      also, raised eyebrow smirk on movie poster.

  4. ex_sonjaaa says:

    You forgot Poland Primer!

  5. I fail to see the difference between what you think is honest and what you see is a crutch or a gag. They're all the same to me.

  6. httf says:

    I have a theory about Star Trek.

    When someone says a Star Trek season, movie, episode is good, they mean this relative to the rest of the Star Trek canon--the bulk of which is utterly terrible.

    Sure, some of the Star Trek movies sucked less than others, but they're all worse than GOOD scifi movies. And if you're not starting your evaluation with a pre-existing attachment to Star Trek (and sure, many of us have this on some level) it doesn't really stand up.

  7. Zawinski's Second Law?

    Also, Lem's Star Diaries. And Henry Kuttner's Mimsy Were the Borogoves.

  8. buntz says:

    Let it be writ into the record that there are awful Star Trek time travel episodes. Then there's the Harlan Ellison-written TOS episode City on the Edge of Forever and the TNG episodes Tapestry and the finale.

    Star Trek always prided itself on being self-contained in each episode. If you had never seen an episode of Star Trek before, you could watch an episode and the story would make sense. Stargate, Lost and Heroes lack that property, and time travel is used in those series to explain parts of a larger arc. Whenever there was a time travel episode in Star Trek (TOS or TNG), it was a self-contained story about time travel, not part of a larger arc which the time travel helped unfold.

    That said, there are pretty weak time travel Star Trek episodes.

    • agrumer says:

      Oh, hold on there a minute!

      I agree that "City on the Edge of Forever" was one of the best Star Trek episodes, and was about time travel, and was a decent enough story in its own right. And (limiting myself to classic Trek), "Tomorrow is Yesterday" is arguably about time travel. But what about "The Naked Time"? That's the one with the disease that makes everyone nuts. A pretty good episode, especially notable for the scene where Spock tells Kirk how difficult it is being half-Vulcan, and the one where Sulu says "I'll save you, fair maiden" to Uhura, who replies "Sorry, neither!" But the ending, where cold-starting the ship's warp engines tosses them back in time a couple of days to before they were infected, thus curing the infection, was an idiotic cop-out and contrivance. (Note: "The Naked Time" and "Tomorrow is Yesterday" were originally conceived as a two-parter, with the implosion tossing the ship back centuries instead of days.)

      And "Assignment: Earth" was just a pilot for a proposed new show about Gary Seven. The time travel element is just there to connect Trek to the new show.

  9. shalpin says:

    More generally, if your story is about the rampantly implausible, yet this only forms a minor part of your story, then your story sucks.

    But hang on, what about Planet of the Apes?

  10. jdm0511 says:

    That's very similar to a theory I have about movies:

    If your story is not about shipwrecks, but it has a shipwreck in it, then your story sucks.

  11. hasimir says:

    Ah, but where would you put Alfred Bester's Tiger! Tiger! (a.k.a. The Stars My Destination) for it's use of the time travelling burning man?

  12. You know, I would agree with this wholeheartedly, except for one thing, which is that Red Dwarf had a number of good time-travel episodes.

    Of course, the whole show was about implausible gags, so time travel fit right in.

  13. carrie_gates says:

    I agree with you, generally.

  14. solarbird says:

    I dunno, maybe you think Babylon 5 was garbage, but there's a story not at all about time travel but which has a really important time-travel-story component and that to my mind was really nicely done.

    • blech says:

      For all of its many faults (low production values and an overly portentous touch to the scripts), I get the impression JMS, Babylon 5's creator, actually did have a five year plan, even if its realisation got a bit mangled by reality. Still, he had no need to randomly throw in time travel, or have his heroes suddenly allied to the people who caused their genocide, or any of the other bits of nonsense we've seen in arc-driven stories whose creators are trying to make up a plan as they go along.

      So, yes, B5 has time travel, but it's a single event seen in three episodes, and it actually logically holds together, and its implications bubble through the series. Whether or not it falls foul of jwz's (reasonably accurate) law, you'd have to ask him.

      • rodgerd says:

        I just about cried when the first time-travel episode appeared. I mean, here was TV sci-fi with something a bit more sophisticated than, "Those guys with the funny foreheads are aliens with a one-dimensional culture and no ability to develop character as individuals" and here was Star Trek crapulence infecting it.

        It turned out it wasn't so bad, but still...

        or have his heroes suddenly allied to the people who caused their genocide,

        Huh? The only example I can think of that are the humans and Minbari, and G'Kar working with Londo. Neither of those was exactly sudden.

        • blech says:

          The genocide line was a reference to BSG, not Babylon 5, just as the "random time travel" line was a dig at Lost. I've just realised that the sentence is totally unclear, though. I fail at English.

      • rodgerd says:

        ...the production values were actually pretty spectacularly high for the era. Compare and contrast with Star Treks of the same generation. The main shortcoming I found was that big chunks of the first season and a lot of the dialogue for D'lenn, Sinclair, and Sheridan was clunky as all fuck. The secondary leads and season 2 - 4 were gold, though.

      • jwz says:

        I thought B5 was one of the most stultifyingly boring and worst-acted things I've ever seen on television, so I couldn't say. I never made it as far as the time travel.

      • dzm6 says:

        I am of the opinion that JMS was forced into the time travel crap. It wasn't part of the original arc. He was forced into it by having crap actors in the first season, then replacing them pretty wholesale with some enthusiastic community theater dropouts. That broke his arc. The only way to "fix" it was to unleash the magic pixie dust of Time Travel.

        • rodgerd says:

          Well, he was certainly forced to replace his original station commander, but it wasn't because he was a terrible actor.

          (Although he was.)

  15. haran says:

    Heroes sucks but obviously time-travel was part of the story. From the first episode where Hiro stops the clock for half a second or whatever.

    • But it isn't /about/ time travel per Jamie's theory. If you were asked to explain Heroes in one paragraph, the only reason you might mention time travel is if you decided to waste the paragraph listing arbitrary comic book superhero powers which characters in Heroes happen to have.

      Whereas if you consider say Excellent Adventure, or Primer any summary that doesn't mention time travel is hopeless, because that's what the movie is about.

  16. ultranurd says:

    I am not at all surprised that pushing the fanboy klaxon has resulted in the most comments I've seen on one of your posts in a long time.

    Is this a Chekov's (the playwright) Gun thing? That if you reveal time travel in act 1, you'd better use it as a major plot motivator?

    • irilyth says:

      Also, that if your play seems to take place in a world without firearms, someone shouldn't pull a gun out of their ass in Act 5.

      • cnoocy says:

        That actually sort of worked in Long Dark Teatime of the Soul but since that story started life as the Dr. Who episode "Shada" I'm not sure it counts.

        • thornist says:

          You mean Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency right? Teatime was about Thor and Valhalla and stuff.

          Nonetheless, that is indeed an example of a great time travel story that didn't start off as one (regardless of its provenance).

  17. sheilagh says:

    saved us from Shatner. With time travel, they COULD have fit him in, and yet, they spared us.

  18. vordark says:

    There was an episode of John Doe where they explored the theory that he may have been a time traveler. The fictional science was pretty good, in that it pretty closely mirrored modern hypothesis about time travel.

    Plus, any show that features a sensory deprivation tank is just awesome.

  19. the_brad says:

    I like this theory.

    I have a theory that sequels and prequels that are not a part of the original story inherently suck because they were made to capitalize on the success and not advance the story.

    • rodgerd says:

      Disagree. Sometimes the only way to do something interesting in a given universe[1] is to be able to break with continuity in a big way, so you can tell the continuity nerds to fuck off.

      [1] I will happily kick anyone in the nuts who refers to "franchises."

      • the_brad says:

        Feel free to disagree. My concern is from an artistic standpoint, and not necessarily from a continuity one, though I see that the arguments overlap. There is a Taoist saying about doing your work and then walking away. If Da Vinci had released a Mona Lisa II and Lisa Strikes Back, he would have been accused by his peers of resting on his laurels, amoung other things. Generally, in the creation of art, an artist tells a story. When the story is complete, continuing the story, in my opinion, detracts from the value of the original piece. If the intent of the creation of a sequel is commercial, it is not compatible with the original artistic intent unless it, too, was commercial.

  20. luserspaz says:

    Probably has something to do with taking it seriously and actually working through the implications vs. just using it as a throwaway plot device with a lot of hand-waving. In the latter they're unlikely to think deeply about the consequences, and so you, the viewer, will come up with a dozen ways the characters could have done things differently given the situation, which will be frustrating.

  21. belgand says:

    The only real problem I have with this is that it seems to indicate that Journeyman was not astoundingly terrible. I realize it was not intended as an indication of quality, but I certainly wouldn't have used it as an example.

    Special case: Donnie Darko. Is it legitimately about time travel? The weird, crazy explanation that eventually showed up on the DVD and apparently was far more prominent in the Director's Cut seems to say that it was, but I'm not certain where it falls. I would, however, say that it definitely doesn't try to use it as a crutch.

    I'd also say that Time Crimes could possibly prove to be the exception to the rule here. It was definitely about time travel, but it functioned as a massive and obvious paradox and, well, it was about the level of quality of a mid-level Twilight Zone episode.