Time Travel, Rules and Having Fun


I have been thinking of late about time travel. In particular I have been thinking about how film and television handle the concept of time travel. Yesterday I was re-watching  Avengers: Endgame and came to the section where they debate how time travel works. As we all know trying to explain the rules of time travel (almost without exception) leads to confusion and a headache.


The best explanation I have come across regarding time travel is that it is only possible if all time exists at once. Past, present and future all co-exist, but we do not experience them in this manner. Time isn’t linear, it simply is. For whatever reason we experience it in a linear fashion.

All of this is to say that the idea is complex and people have been exploring it for a long time. What I have been thinking about is when it works and why it works.

When I first started writing this post I had just watched the film Arrival and then the two television shows, Travelers and 11.22.63. While initially disliking Arrival immensely (seeing it again made me understand why I was so wrong) the explanation offered as to how time travel works in that film is close to my preferred explanation. The idea that learning another language would then unlock the ability to perceive time in a different fashion is a very interesting one (rolled up in a rather sad story).

One review of Arrival I read said what the writer liked so much was that it was a woman’s brain that saved the planet – not the army with all of its weapons (or any other typical, male, response). That, for the writer, this was a novel and unexpected turn and it pleased her greatly. It’s an interesting story because in that film it isn’t really time travel, just perception of time that is explored but the result is somewhat the same.


Travelers and 11.22.63 are both shows that are more traditional with their approach to time travel. A person (whether their body or mind) travel through time. The explanations offered are different but both have a rather straightforward approach to how they offer it to the audience.

Travelers is a show where quickly you realize the creators have done their homework. They parcel out information only when needed, the characters do not have unnecessary exposition regarding time travel and the rules (before they are explained to the audience) are firmly in place. This is a best cast scenario. It allows the show to unfold and tell its story.

It is unfortunate that the story it tells 1) ends on a cliffhanger and 2) is somewhat lackluster. This is one of those television shows where what is missing is hard to define but when you watch it you can feel the absence of…something. It’s close to being quite good. One character in the show (David) is so well-defined and enjoyable to watch that at times you forget that things are not coming together as they should.

All that being said the time travel aspect is interesting, the rules are clearly understood and the worlds of present and future are solid.


11.22.63 lays out the rules of time travel in the first fifteen minutes. And by rules I mean specifics, each time you enter everything resets so that each entrance to the past occurs at the same time (and erases your previous efforts). The amount of time that passes in the present is always the same, regardless of how long you stay.

Defining the rules flies by and it happens right at the beginning, again, allowing the audience to sit back and enjoy the ride. Why is this the way it is? Who knows? It’s time travel.

This is the beauty of so many concepts in film and television, if the point is not to explain how time travel works you can make the rules be whatever you want them to be. Which is why Back to the Future is such an exceptional film despite the rules of time travel not being rooted in science. They don’t need to be.

In short I’ve been thinking about when this works well and is fulfilling and when it falls short. I feel that many of the Time Travel Shows I have seen in the recent past have not entirely worked, despite following the rules. Dark ultimately was a let down. 12 Monkeys was the same and for similar reasons. If you continue to rework your existing time travel loops there is a point where it either becomes too confusing or it no longer matters. If everyone in your story is a version of themselves (from some different point in time and everyone has been shuffled from their own time) and now they are interacting with one another but the audience never knows it…it isn’t satisfying.

All of this rambling is to say that I find this particular concept, time travel, to be intriguing. There is a reason why so many people want to explore it and have fun with it (or wallow in the misery it produces). Thinking about all that I have seen I would say it is one of the more difficult genres to work with and that the success rate is quite low. For those who view time travel as fatalistic the conclusion is rarely fulfilling. The bad thing still comes to pass. The hero still dies. Nothing changed. In fiction this is a terrible ending.

What works is time travel following the Back to The Future mode. Mistakes are made, then corrected and ultimately a solution is found. So much of life is regret and the inability to right previous wrongs. I’m not sure who wants to spend time watching fictional content that reinforces this point.


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