Wed
Nov 13 2013 12:00pm

How to Time Travel (Without Destroying the Universe) Part Two

Sliders Parallel Earths

Welcome back, time travelers! Last week, we took a look at some common methods of time travel in books, movies, and TV shows—including the “history can be changed” model of Back to the Future, the “time travel without consequence” model of Midnight in Paris, and the “self-fulfilling prophecy” model of The Terminator. This week, we explore some less-conventional theories of time travel, including temporal causality loops, the Multiverse theory, and a look at Einstein’s Theory of Relativity...

4. Sideways Through The Looking Glass: Exploring the Multiverse

The Multiverse is one of the newer and more interesting theories of time travel floating in the cosmic jetsam. The premise is this: there are infinite parallel universes all around us, and anything that can exist, does exist. This idea was explored in the 1990s TV show Sliders, in which the main characters “slid” between parallel universes; the multiverse has also showed up in Star Trek episodes, including a Next Generation episode in which Worf finds himself slipping into fractured parallel realities in which, amongst other things, he is married to the petite Counsellor Deanna Troi.

Mainstream movies and TV have explored the “alternate reality” idea to various degrees. The recent NBC series Awake followed a detective who found himself living two parallel realities after a car crash: one in which his wife survived, one in which his son survived. (The show was canceled due to low ratings, but only in this universe.) The romantic comedy Sliding Doors starred Gwyneth Paltrow as two versions of herself in branching timelines: one in which she caught a train, one in which she missed it. That movie brought back memories of Mr. Destiny, in which Jim Belushi learned how his life would have changed if he’d swung his bat a half second earlier at a high school baseball game.

But the multiverse really came into its own with Fringe, the J.J. Abrams show that explored two parallel universes bent on destroying one another. Complete with doppelgangers and government conspiracies and a rich alternate history, the show explored the twin universe idea from many bizarre angles. (The show’s opening credits even changed colors depedning on which universe took center stage that week.) Of course, Fringe was a jumping off point for a lot of great high concept sci-fi, including one episode involving our next kind of time travel: the infinite repeating loop.

 

Groundhog Day

5. Time Is A Loop: It’s Groundhog Day!

Many time travel stories feature characters caught in a “loop” where events repeat until they somehow find a way out. Groundhog Day did this so brilliantly that the movie’s title has come to be synonymous with déjà vu. In the movie, Bill Murray finds himself living through February 2nd over and over and over in a small rural town. At first he selfishly takes advantage of this (it takes him several loops to figure out how to bed Andie MacDowell); then he repeatedly commits suicide; and finally he learns that only kindness will get him to February 3rd. If you haven’t seen it, you haven’t lived.

A year before that movie was released, Star Trek: The Next Generation used a similar idea in one of its most brilliant episodes, “Cause and Effect.” The episode opens with the Enterprise exploding, and from there the hour is a series of loops in which the same events repeat themselves four times over, each with subtle differences, always ending with the ship’s destruction. Only after realizing they’re caught in a loop does Data work out how to send his future self a message (via a poker game) and avert the catastrophe.

A similar technique formed the basis of Source Code, a movie which Jake Gyllenhall repeats an eight-minute loop on a doomed train as he tries to find and stop the bomber. He succeeds, but discovers he’s doing this while on life support in a kind of digital time machine... the rest was forgettable, but the setup was pretty interesting.

 

Looper

6. Closing the Loop: The Special Case of Looper

Despite its name, Looper is closer to a changing-the-past story than a time-loop story, but it’s unique enough that it deservers a category of its own. The premise: in the late 21st century, the mafia eliminates people by sending them back in time to be killed by contract hit men. The catch: when a killer’s contract is up, they themselves get sent back in time to be killed by their younger selves, a process called “closing the loop.”

When Joseph Gordon Levitt fails to close the loop on his own future self (Bruce Willis), a cat and mouse chase ensues with strange repercussions. Willis, though fighting for his life, can’t kill or even maim Levitt, since whatever he does to his younger self affects him. When Levitt takes an injury, Willis gets the scar; then again, when Willis wants to know where Levitt is, all he has to do is remember. Looper conjures up some pretty unique time travel ideas, including its dark but poetic ending.

 

7. Time Travel as Hard Science: Einstein’s Theory of Special Relativity

Believe it or not, time travel is not just fiction: it’s a mathematical fact. Albert Einstein theorized nearly a century ago that objects traveling close to the speed of light experience something called “time dilation”—essentially, time passes more slowly for a fast-moving object than for the world around it. So in theory, if you take a quick flight across the galaxy and back, hundreds or thousands or millions of years will have passed on Earth. Flying extremely fast is actually a form of time travel.

Most science fiction ignores time dilation. But one movie took Einstein’s theory and ran with it: The Planet of the Apes. After an eighteen-month journey at near-light speed, the main characters crash land on what they think is a distant planet inhabited by talking apes—only to discover it’s actually Earth, thousands of years in the future. Unfortunately for the crew, time dilation only works in one direction....

Speaking of which: Superman flying around the Earth so fast that the planet spins in reverse and time flows backwards has nothing to do with Einstein. Even assuming Superman has enough magnetic power to change a planet’s angular velocity, Special Relativity only allows for backwards time travel if an object moves faster than the speed of light, which is impossible. Next time, Superman, try a wormhole...

 

8. Time Travel is Strange and Complex: Temporal Outliers

Time travel can be truly mind-bending. While a movie like Midnight in Paris might offer no real explanation for its termporal antics, Looper can tie your brain in painful knots. But if you really want a headache, check out the 2004 movie Primer, which takes time travel logic to a whole new level of complex. The movie’s timelines twist and diverge and intersect with each other to such a degree that you’ll need a chart to understand how it all fits together. Fortunately, several such diagrams are available online.

Another mind-bending outlier is Donnie Darko. This dark yet melodious film is essentially a multiverse story, but it plays as something more. The story is about a “Tangent Universe” that briefly comes into being, but grows unstable and unravels, leading a young, psychotic Jake Gyllehnall to experience memories in reverse (among other bizarre phenomena). The genius of the movie is that you can get all the way to the end and have no idea what just happened—not unless you watch the Director’s Cut, or read excerpts from the film’s fictional book, The Philosophy of Time Travel.

And then there’s Doctor Who. With eleven actors having played “The Doctor” over the show’s fifty year, 800+ episode run, Britain’s epic TV series is astonishingly unclassifiable. Not having seen enough Doctor Who to summarize it, I won’t embarrass myself by trying. Suffice it to say that no discussion of time travel would be completely without tipping one’s hat (and one’s police box) to the Time Lord. (Feel free to discuss in the comments.)

 

So what have we learned here, time travelers? The big lesson is this: before you embark on a trip through time, know thy universe. There are many ways to travel through time, and it’s essential to know whether you risk changing the future or simply getting lost in an infinitute of parallel realities.

When it comes to what type of time machine to select, there are tons of options available, from sleek silver cars to bubbling hot tubs. If anything goes wrong on your journey, just jump back in time and fix it—unless your time machine breaks, in which case you’re shit out of luck I’m afraid.

Just one request: try not to destroy the universe. Because then not only would we all cease to exist, we’d never get to see what other time travel stories the future has in store—and a future without time travel is no future at all.


Brad Kane writes for and about the entertainment industry, focusing on storytelling in movies, TV, games, and more. If you enjoyed this article, you can follow him on Twitter, like his page on Facebook, or check out his website.

18 comments
Matt Stoumbaugh
1. LazerWulf
#5 was also the plot to my favorite Stargate SG-1 episode, "Window of Opportunity".

There's also the "only objects/information can time-travel" theory of movies like The Lakehouse and I'm sure several others. I once read a manga about a cell phone that was hooked up to a microwave that was able to send text messages into the past, though I can't for the life of me remember what it was called.
JackAdan
2. JackAdan
Actually, some things do travel faster than light. Quantum entanglement, for one, is instantaneous.
Sean Calhoun
3. Musicspren
I feel like Homestuck (while not book, movie, or TV) deserves a mention. It falls most nearly into type 3 (standard for Time players), with elements of 2 (arms - intentionally vague to avoid spoilers) and 4 (particularly in the first Intermission), and an odd inversion of 7 (3 nanoseconds - intentionally vague again). All of which probably put it in the type 8 of Things That Don't Fit Categories Well (which is always the case for Homestuck anyway).
JackAdan
4. IamMe
An object i.e. anything with mass can't travel faster than light. However, an energy wave can.
JackAdan
5. Cybersnark
@1. Another example of "consciousness-only time-travel" is the Legend of Zelda game, Ocarina of Time. Link can "travel" between his younger (10-year-old) self and his older (17-year-old) self, but not beyond that.

(OoT is significant because it's actually the divergence point in the two Zelda timelines --in one universe, 10-year-old Link prevents Ganondorf from conquering Hyrule , while in another, 17-year-old Link defeats Ganondorf, leaving a devastated and war-torn kingdom behind him.)

And no discussion of the Multiverse can be complete without mentioning Transformers, which canonically states that every Transformer series (the franchise completely reboots itself every few years) is "real," just in a different "universal stream." It's even developed a labyrinthine system of classification (our "real-world" universe appears to be Quadwal 3760.925 Theta).
Brian MacDonald
6. bmacdonald
OK, I'll take the plunge: Over its 50-year history, Doctor Who has used just about every version of time travel mentioned, and probably a few others, too. Generally, how time-travel worked depended on the writer of that particular story. However, since the 2005 revival, a few rules have come into play:
Most of time and space is Type 1: history is fluid, and can be changed by time travelers. That means you can wipe out the planet in 1599, and the "present" will cease to exist, even if you're from there. The Doctor even specifically explained it in terms of "Back to the Future" once.
If you're on another planet, in the future, or at some point in time that viewers don't know about (because it's not recorded history), the show is functionally Type 2: you can do whatever you want, and there are no important changes. It's probably really a Type 1, but nobody really cares what changes you make.
Every once in a while, you run up against a Type 3. The show calls these "fixed points in time," and the Doctor either tries to avoid them, or ends up inadvertently causing them. The trick being that only Time Lords (of which there's only the Doctor, at the moment) can recognize a fixed point. Notable fixed points include the destruction of Pompeii, and the disaster of the first Mars colony. There have also been clues that while individual moments of World War II are fluid, the overall course of the war is fixed.
There have also been plenty of examples of stable time loops. The current showrunner, Steven Moffat, is particularly fond of these. Whenever the temporal mechanics gets too crazy, Moffat simply employs the phrase "wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey," which is code for "It's a TV show, OK? Don't poke too hard at it."
Brian MacDonald
7. bmacdonald
Whoops, forgot one important thing about Doctor Who -- once the Doctor has started to interfere, he's "part of events," and can't use time-travel to resolve the plot. That is, he can't screw up, go back in time a couple of hours, and then try again. He also can't pop back a couple of days and tell himself how things are going to work out. He also can't travel back in time repeatedly to the same spot, thus creating an army of alternate selves. Meeting yourself from another point in time is so dangerous, it has a name: the Blinovitch Limitation Effect. All of which holds true until and unless Steven Moffat thinks it'd be cool to write a story around breaking one of those rules, and then he'll figure out a way to justify it.
JackAdan
8. Brian_E
Or to sum it up, Dr Who generally works under the Rule of Cool (warning: TVtropes link. You have been warned)
alex
9. jerec84
The Doctor Who rule is basically "Time can be rewritten, but not once it's been read."
Birgit
10. birgit
An object i.e. anything with mass can't travel faster than light. However, an energy wave can.

Massless light can travel at the speed of light, but not faster. Only hypothetical tachyons with imaginary mass can travel faster than light.
JackAdan
11. rea
Time travel to the future is, of course quite feasible, although unfortunately the effect works only one way. I've time-traveled all the way from 1954 to 2013 . . .
Kit Case
12. wiredog
The Multiverse is one of the newer and more interesting theories of time travel floating in the cosmic jetsam.

H. Beam Piper wrote his Paratime stories (Lord Kalvan is one of them) which have the Paratime Police patrolling the multiverse. Since it's out of copyright (and on Gutenberg) I'm surprised no one has made a TV series out of it.
JackAdan
13. Drunken5yearold
1) As far as I know, modern physics has demonstrated through quantum entanglement that only information can be transmitted faster than light. I don't think anybody understands the how or why. All else is theoretical. It would be pretty amazing if, in the future when we have extra-solar colonies, communication could occur instantly between worlds via some sort of entangled computer.

2) This is just a side nit, but I'm pretty sure that Bill Murray's character never actually managed to sleep with Andie McDowell's during the events shown in Groundhog Day. I thought that one of the main points of the movie is that he tries his hardest and has every possible advantage but can't seal the deal. Then, he focuses on self-improvement and by then end it is Andie that is the one interested in Bill (although Bill falls asleep before they get around to it!). Someone please confirm my interpretation, because I've always loved that aspect of the movie.
Brad Kane
14. bradkane
@6 - Thanks for the summary!

@13 - Good call about Groundhog Day. Thanks for the correction.
JackAdan
15. CHip137
I am disappointed that after promising a discussion including books (in part 1) you toss off a couple of ancient works showing "it doesn't make a difference" and miss not only Bradbury but also a lot of other written work with different ideas. "The Brooklyn Project" (Tenn) is one of the sharpest variants of the butterfly hypothesis, but there are a number of other interesting ideas from the written world:
* A variant of Novikov: if time travel can alter the present, somebody will screw up(1) or deliberately break(2) the past in a way that makes time travel impossible. For 1, see Brunner, _Times Without Number_; for 2, Asimov, _The End of Eternity_.
* Any attempt to change the past will stress space-time so badly that the would-be changer is slammed back to the present (in bad condition) de Camp, "A Gun for Dinosaur".
* Trying to change the present just makes you so unreal that you can travel without a time machine but can't affect anything. Bester, "The Man Who Murdered Mohammed".
Jack Flynn
16. JackofMidworld
I know I'm late to be posting anyway, but it does my heart well to see that Stargate got the first comment :)
Robert Dickinson
17. ChocolateRob
A look at time travel in videogames would be interesting, quite a few of my games involve it in some way. The Prince of Persia trilogy is quite interesting in that it has three completely different methods, though all of them are powered by the Sands of Time.
1) The Dagger of Time allows its holder to reverse time by up to ten seconds (in order that they correct any mistake they have just made). This is most likely a form of mental time travel or is otherwise indistinguishable from it. It does allow you to change events however the setup to the second game infers that the overall timeline takes these mini changes into account. Essentially the timeline knows that any changes you make are the real history and not whatever you changed the events from.
2) On the Island of Time there are gateways that physically transport you into the distant past. However these trips are also part of the timeline and you are unable to change history, while there anything you do will already have impacted the future before you left it. The gates can only send you into their own past, if they weren't built yet you can't go there. Also the distance into the past is always the same on both ends - if you go back to the past and wait around for ten minutes before returning (through either the same gate or any other) you will reappear ten minutes after you left. If 500 years later someone else goes through the gate they will arrive 500 years later in the past than you did. Basically(ish) they connect two points in history which travel forwards at the same rate as everything else.
3) The Mask of the Wraith however works by a complete paradox. Once you put it on you are transported into your own past as a separate entity. The mask also fuses to the wearer and transforms them into a Sand Wraith, as such they have unlimited Dagger of Time like rewinds but their health will continuously decline and must consume the Sands of Time to stay healthy. The only way to remove the Mask is for your original self to be killed, which obviously did not happen or you could not have put on the mask. Once your original self is dead the Mask falls off and you take your previous selves' place in the timeline (even if you remember seeing the wraith creature die instead when you were there the first time) but change whatever you did wrong the first time. This Paradox is the only way that you can actually change the timeline and create a brand new history. Oh, and using the mask in combination with the gates means you can change your history from before whatever you changed after removing it. Paradox Power.

There are subtle variances to these but the basic three are -
1) Change a few seconds of history but these are accounted for in the overall timeline.
2) Travel into the past (or future) a set distance but you cannot change history at all. (you'll get a headache trying to figure out when the gate changed from sending you forwards to sending you backwards)
3) Paradox where you replace your previous self on the timeline and potentially change history completely (after running around for a while at the same time as your previous self).

The third game in the trilogy has the prince only using the Dagger of Time's abilities but learning about and dealing with the (current) consequences of having used the Mask to change his own timeline (past and future).

Don't even get me started on time travel in The Legacy of Kain series.
JackAdan
18. m.marsden
I'm not so sure time travel is legitimate, so, if you're interested in time-travel, and possible explanations around its confusions, you may like this... https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ii3gxxn2reA
M.Marsden (a brief history of timelessness )

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