News Ticker

[GUEST POST] Doug Molitor (MEMOIRS OF A TIME TRAVELER) Explores Time Travel Logic in SFF

dougmolitorDoug is a Los Angeles native who enjoys traffic, brushfires and smog.

Before learning to count to a dozen, Doug wrote the script and lyric for the 2008 YouTube hit Obama on the Run, in which Barack dueted with Hillary Clinton on “Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Better.” See it here.

Doug’s first writing jobs were on sitcoms like Sledge Hammer! and You Can’t Take It With You. He’s also written sketch comedy (Lohman & Barkley), sci-fi (Sliders), crime dramas (F/X), action (Adventure, Inc.), fantasy (Young Hercules), westerns (Lucky Luke) and cartoons (Sabrina, Totally Spies, Penguins of Madagascar, Beetlejuice, Sinbad, Shelldon and Captain Planet.)

On the latter show, he won two Environmental Media Awards and was a finalist for the Humanitas Prize; if Doug hadn’t lost his head and threatened that judge with a vial of acid, he would totally have nailed that Humanitas.

His comic novel, Memoirs of a Time Traveler is now available from Permuted Press, with a blurb by comedy legend Larry Gelbart.

Doug’s latest project is a supernatural romantic comedy. The story “Full Moon Fever” appears in the short story anthology Love and Other Distractions, edited by Christiana Miller. Another excerpt appears in the horror anthology Hell Comes to Hollywood II, edited by Eric Miller. Doug’s series of Full Moon Fever novellas. The first two, Monster, He Wrote and Pure Silver, are now available on line and in paperback.

Doug is a former Jeopardy Champion, including two days in the Tournament of Champions. He also lost $2 million on another game show, but please don’t ask him about it, it just depresses him.

Time Travel Logic

by Doug Molitor

Why do some time travel stories seem so satisfying…and others leave you wishing you could get those hours back? Spock would surely answer: logic.

Novelists tend to be more exacting about how their universe works. Having been a TV writer on shows like Sliders, being at mercy of network and studio notes, I can tell you that TV shows and movies have a harder time sticking to the rules. Rewrites are murder on logic. [SPOILERS BELOW.]

Ideally, a time travel storyteller decides first, what kind of universe it will be:

1) Single Unchangeable Timeline: No kill-your-grandfather paradoxes exist because you cannot change what happened/is to come, you can only visit. Though you might get killed. Examples: H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine (1895), Irwin Allen’s series The Time Tunnel (1966-67).

Wells’ traveler visits the future to see what will be; when he travels back to Victorian times to tell of the cannibal dystopia, he never even considers altering the present to avert it. In the 1960 film, Rod Taylor returns to the future with three books to remake a better world…but only from 802,701 A.D. onward. No logic problems here, just corking good adventure. Cool time travel moment: His friend (Alan Young) asks his housekeeper: “What three books would you have taken?”

The_Time_Tunnel_titlecardMeanwhile, those Time Tunnel guys are willing to change history to save their own hides: Dr. Tony Newman (James Darren) lands on Titanic, urges the captain to lower the lifeboats, and gets locked up as a lunatic; colleague Doug Phillips (Robert Colbert) goes back with the next day’s newspaper to prove that the ship will sink. The captain’s unconvinced; the disaster occurs on schedule. Captured by Japanese spies on the eve of Pearl Harbor, Tony snarls, “Do you want me to tell you about the atomic bomb?” And this is before they give him any truth serum! The general in charge of Project Tic-Toc says his job is to see to it that history is not altered, but he needn’t worry: Tony and Doug regularly kill badguys, blab the future and introduce modern technology…none of which alters the timeline one whit.

(A 2002 unsold pilot tried to reboot The Time Tunnel with a changeable past: This Tunnel is a runaway experiment which must be monitored to prevent further damage to history. Already, the U.S. is down to 49 states and a female Dr. Toni Newman is understandably guilt-stricken about erasing all traces of her siblings.)

2-A) Changeable Past, Multiple Timelines: Stories where a second history irrevocably branches off the first. Examples: Bill Marsilii & Terry Rossio’s Déjà Vu, Source Code, Terminator 2: Judgment Day. The traveler from the first history now exists only in a new timeline. This prevents paradoxes such as the protagonist remembering a different past than the one he’s brought about.

dejavuDenzel Washington’s ATF agent in Déjà Vu (2006) goes back four days to prevent a catastrophic bombing. Cool time travel moment: Unable to get a van rigged with explosives off a ferry, he drives it into the water, sacrificing himself to save the passengers (including the woman he loves.) She is the only one left in this world who knows he was a time traveler, but will presumably fall for this world’s Denzel, who was ashore.

Alas, Edge of Tomorrow (2014) defies logic: A few of the aliens attacking Earth have a biochemical ability to travel back in time on a loop, reliving a day until they get it right and win the battle (these things must have video games in their blood, literally!) Tom Cruise’s military flack gets alien blood splashed on him, enabling him to keep reliving the day he dies, like Groundhog Day, living scores of possible timelines until he gets it right and kills the Head Alien. But why don’t the aliens with the time-travel-blood learn from that mistake and win the next reset?

2-B) Changeable Past, Single Timeline: Time Travel 2-B provides a chance to improve a tragic past – Rian Johnson’s Looper (2012) or Toby Emmerich’s Frequency (2000) – or, to fix bad changes that have been made to normal history, as in Robert Zemeckis & Bob Gale’s Back to the Future (1985), and Harlan Ellison’s “The City on the Edge of Forever” (1967) on Star Trek. A hallmark of 2-B is that changes to the past physically change the present (or the time traveler) in real time.

frequencyIn Frequency, a time warp lets Jim Caviezel talk to long-dead Dad (Dennis Quaid) via the same ham radio, thirty years apart. Son warns Dad off a fatal mistake, Dad lives, but that causes Mom to cross paths with a serial killer. The son now has new memories of his widower father crowding out his original life with a widowed mother. Dad and son, linked in real time via the radio, track down the killer, saving Mom and creating another set of memories which are now their reality. Cool time travel moment: Dad (in the past) shoots off the serial killer’s hand – and as he hears the gunshot over the radio in the present, the killer has to stop strangling the son because his hand vanishes. Weird, but perfectly logical in a 2-B universe. And the hero’s traumatic original memories fade like a bad dream.

In Looper, Old Joe (Bruce Willis) explains shifting memories to his younger self (Joseph Gordon-Levitt): “My memories aren’t really memories. They’re just one possible eventuality now. And they grow clearer or cloudier as they become more are less likely. But then they get to the present moment, and they’re instantly clear again. I can remember what you do after you do it.” Sadly, like the hero of The Butterfly Effect, Joe is only able to save the ones he loves from his time traveling mayhem by committing suicide.

More instant timeline-adjustments: Marty McFly’s older siblings disappearing from his photo as his parents’ marriage becomes more and more unlikely, or young Joe in Looper, scarring his arm to send an instant message to his future self. (Project Almanac does an homage to that moment, but otherwise ignores the logic: People who meet their past/future selves inexplicably flicker and vanish.)

2-C) Semi-Changeable Past, Single Timeline: Non-historic changes are allowed (including killing people whose descendants are not part of future history) but the major events are predestined: In Rod Serling’s 1961 Twilight Zone “Back There”, Russell Johnson can’t prevent Lincoln’s assassination, but does let slip future knowledge which turns a present-day waiter into the scion of a wealthy family.

Terminator1984movieposterIn James Cameron & Gale Ann Hurd’s classic The Terminator (1984) Kyle Reese is destined to save Sarah Connor, since he will be the father of her child. Of course, Reese doesn’t know this; so he, and the audience, have the illusion of free will. Terminator is so great, we never ask, what’s Skynet’s motivation? It sends a Terminator back to kill Sarah Connor, so there will be no John Connor to defeat Skynet; but then there will be no reason to send back the Terminator, and thus John will be born. In a 2-C universe, Skynet’s invention of time travel is both pointless and self-destructive – all it does is allow Reese to fulfill his destiny and sire Skynet’s nemesis. Terminator 3 is also 2-C…but intriguingly, Terminator 2 is 2-A.

John Connor sending Reese back in time to meet Sarah and to father John is an example of a causal time loop – something that requires both time travel and predestined history to exist. But at least it’s not the “free lunch” or “bootstrap” paradox, (e.g., a man takes instructions for building a time machine back in time to its alleged inventor, who simply copies the instructions. Paradox: Nobody invented the time machine!)

Nor does it require a physical object to remain ageless, like the watch Jane Seymour and Christopher Reeve pass back and forth in Somewhere in Time (nor the watch the studio obliged me to write into an episode of Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventures, for all my impassioned logical arguments.)

3-A) Multiple Unchangeable Timelines: Tracy Tormé’s series Sliders (1995-2000) travels a second dimension of time, allowing its heroes to leap laterally across histories, but never into the past. It’s always a present that has diverged from our world in dramatic/satiric ways. The only changes possible are to the present and future, which the gang reliably manage to pull off before their next leap.

3-B) Multiple Changeable Timelines: Josh Friedman’s Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles (2008-09) inhabits a maddening multiverse, in which the heroes’ goal is to destroy Skynet in at least three timelines. Cancellation intervened, so the threat of Skynet remains in the upcoming Terminator: Genisys.

I hope you took my SPOILER warning seriously. Half the fun of a time travel story is figuring out how it works. For example, my novel for Permuted Press, Memoirs of a Time Traveler is a comic novel dealing, among many other things, with two mismatched time travelers and two time travel devices…which I figure quadrupled the possibility of error. I hope you’ll let me know if you trip me up on my logic.

And speaking of the multiverse, if you ever want to ruin the time travel genre for yourself, read Larry Niven’s short story, “All the Myriad Ways.” I will say no more. Only my deep love of TT allows me to continue toiling in this vineyard.

%d bloggers like this: