Time travel has been a topic on everyone’s mind since probably forever. There is a desire for people to go back in time to change things in the past. To go back in time to see events that you weren’t alive for. And of course there is the desire to go to the future and see what lies ahead. Either way you spin it nearly everyone has probably had the desire to time travel in some direction at some point. It makes sense that with an almost universal desire it would find itself as a device in many of the stories that we know.
A time travel story that is done will is not simple. In fact, a time travel story is anything but. Sure, there are ways to avoid the various issues and complications that arise with the tool. That is exactly what time travel is a tool. It is a device that will allow you to tell a different story than if it was set in the same era. But like any device there are complications that come along with it. In the case of time travel the complication tends to arise from believability. The more that someone will believe the way time travel works the better.
There are two major approaches on how to make time travel to come off in a believable way. The first method is to rely on the suspension of belief in terms of time travel. This is often done by avoiding the topic. The other major method of approaching time travel is to go the route of hard science fiction and learn the probable ways that time travel could be accomplished. By explaining how everything works you essentially reach a point where the majority of the audience accepts the method because they can’t easily poke a hole in the method.
The skirt the issue method is rather effective. Rather than focusing on all the mechanics the time travel is simply done. Sometimes the mode of travel is obtuse or even unknown, making it irrelevant as to what the story actually holds. In these cases, the story of what goes on after the time travel that actually matters. Sure there are still consequences based on the way that the story unfolds. Doctor Who is a great example of story that skirts the issue of time travel. We know that the TARDIS is responsible for the actual time travel. We also have a very basic understanding of how it happens from the 50 years the show has been around. However, the TARDIS is still just an elaborate machine (with a soul) that has lots of gears and levers and makes a lot of noise. How the TARDIS actually functions isn’t explicitly clear and it doesn’t matter. All that matters is that it works.
The other option of focusing in on the details of time travel is the route of hard science fiction. It works very well if done properly. However, its very difficult to nail this down. Overwhelming the audience with specifics on how it works can be dull if not spruced up. One other key is that if you commit to going the detailed route, you are in some ways committing to the mode of time travel being more than just the device but a part of the story. This is only because it will be a point of interest of whoever was smart enough to figure it out. They’ll discuss it and it won’t just be a situation and we are here because of this, let’s move on. Timeline by Michael Crichton is an example of this. Yes, the story focused on France of the past, but making the machine work was also a large part of it.
Time travel is prone to paradoxes, particularly time travel into the past. If one goes into the past and changes something anything, then what happens to the future? Is time then just one stream, or is it made of infinite streams? Is the reality that we live in one of many different possiblities? Are there only a few core universes influenced by major events? There are a lot of questions that are posed when one delves into time travel. For a time travel to maintain believability these must be addressed at least in some way. One can not simply travel to the past and return with no explanation of the impact. We need to understand how time travel works with the nature of the story. With that, I’m going to end this post here, because I could write an entire essay about all the pitfalls and advantages of the various issues of time travel paradoxes.
Do you enjoy time travel stories? Which do you find more compelling time travel to the future or to the past? What is your biggest pet peeve about time travel stories?