The End of Timeless

Poster for TimelessOver the holidays (Dec. 20) we saw the two-hour series finale of the time travel TV show Timeless, seasonally titled “The Miracle of Christmas.”  We were there at the beginning for this two-season series; let’s take a brief look at how it ended.

While I suspect everyone who’s followed this series will by now have seen the finale, just in case I’ll issue aSpoiler Alert!

An Appropriate Time

While we hate to see a good series go, sometimes closing down is the right thing to do.  Not every series can go on forever; we’ve all seen shows that linger on long past when they should have died.

Timeless was built around a wide-ranging conspiracy—an evil organization called “Rittenhouse.”  Such stories have a certain inherent instability.  If the secret enemy simply keeps going, with the good guys never making any progress against it, then we’re stuck with a fixed situation that lacks the tension of possible resolution or serious arc development—take The Man From U.N.C.L.E. or any similar 1960s-type spy series.  On the other hand, if the heroes do succeed in making headway against their opponents, they eventually win, and the show can find itself at a loss for what the heroes are going to do next (I’m looking at you, Chuck).  So a struggle against a secret conspiracy is a good candidate for a limited series.

In this sense, I liked the Timeless wrap-up.  The show wrapped before it could lose momentum.

The Pointless Conspiracy

This limited lifetime is particularly important here, because even the short run of the series was enough to reveal some significant weaknesses in the “Rittenhouse” idea.

Timeless character portraitsYou’ll recall that the principal characters are Lucy Preston, a history professor; Wyatt Logan, a U.S. Army Delta Force operative; and Rufus Carlin, the technical expert and pilot of the “Lifeboat” time ship used by the good guys—along with Jiya Marri, a programmer who isn’t initially part of the traveling team but grows into the role.  They skip around from time period to time period, trying to prevent two groups of opponents from changing history for the worse.

The time travelers gradually discover that a secret organization, passed down along family lines, has been dominating American history since the Founding.  A NSA renegade, Garcia Flynn, and his henchmen steal the experimental time machine in order to stop Rittenhouse by changing history.  There’s an interesting ambiguity from the beginning about who is actually the villain, since we see Flynn’s machinations before we find out about Rittenhouse.  But we’re never quite sure either what Rittenhouse is about or how Flynn expects to stop it.

The secret society is supposed to derive from an actual historical figure, David Rittenhouse (1732-1796).  Wikipedia describes him as “an American astronomer, inventor, clockmaker, mathematician, surveyor, scientific instrument craftsman, and public official . . . a member of the American Philosophical Society and the first director of the United States Mint.”  This Rittenhouse seems an odd choice for a sinister mastermind.  He actually sounds more like a hero (of science) to me.  So, right from the start, we’re a little at sea as to what Rittenhouse’s motives or goals are supposed to be.

Omniscient Council of Vagueness illustration from TV TropesTV Tropes has a hilarious discussion of what it calls the “Omniscient Council of Vagueness.”  Rittenhouse is a perfect example.  We don’t know what the organization wants.  We don’t know why.  If it’s been manipulating American society or politics, we don’t know when or where.  We don’t know how it exercises its influence or what historical events can be ascribed to that influence.  We know it’s bad, because its agents are ruthless.  Maybe the goal has something to do with master-race breeding (a favorite go-to way to characterize villains since the Nazis):  in the episode where David Rittenhouse actually appears as an old man (Season 1, episode 10), he declares that Lucy is a fine healthy specimen and orders her taken to his bedroom (a procedure which is of course timely interrupted before we can overstep the bounds of network TV).  But even the idea of some eugenic program isn’t really developed.

It’s easy to postulate some vast secret organization like Marvel’s Hydra or U.N.C.L.E.’s THRUSH, and equally simple to plaster them with enough repellent traits that we’re happy to take them for granted as The Bad Guys.  But given how sophisticated Timeless was in some respects, I was sort of surprised it never went further in fleshing out this premise.

Suppressing Technology

On the other hand, Timeless gets points for recognizing that you can’t wipe out a technology forever just by destroying all the prototypes.

Science fiction has frequently dealt with the difficulty of putting the genie back in the bottle.  If a scientific principle or technology can be discovered once, then even destroying all the existing examples won’t permanently prevent it from being used.  What can be discovered can be rediscovered.  (See, for example, Robert A. Heinlein’s 1941 story “Solution Unsatisfactory.”)

Doc Brown's time-traveling trainSo, at the end of Back to the Future, Doc Brown soberly declares that Marty must destroy the time-traveling DeLorean once he returns to his own time, since time travel is too dangerous to be allowed.  (In an appropriately comic conclusion, Doc then promptly negates his own directive by showing up with a wonderful time-traveling steam engine.)  But even if we suppose that the secret of Marty and Doc’s adventures is kept quiet forever, somebody else is eventually going to come up with a flux capacitor (whether or not the idea is occasioned by falling off a toilet and hitting your head).

The characters recognize this issue at the end of the Timeless finale.  Rather than destroying the “Lifeboat” prototype, they decide to hang onto it, just in case.  This is not just a good way to leave a thread hanging in case anybody decides to make a sequel someday; it’s smart thinking.  And, in a clever final twist, the last scene does suggest—in the innocuous setting of a science fair—that some years later, a high-school STEM student, in a program started by Rufus and Jiya themselves, is about to stumble upon the time travel principle again.

Character Development by Substitution

The most important part of the story’s end, though, is about the characters.

Timeless action scene in hallwayI was glad to see that, after a number of twists and turns, the romances worked out satisfyingly.  Lucy and Wyatt, as we always suspected, do end up together.  So do Rufus and Jiya—but their situation is a little more complicated.  There’s more going on than meets the eye in the resolution of these relationships.

A key part of Wyatt’s motivation throughout had been his guilt and grief over the death of his wife Jessica.  When Jessica turns up alive, after a particular historical change (Season 2, episode 3), this naturally throws a wrench into the budding romance between Lucy and Wyatt.  But Jessica, it turns out, is alive because Rittenhouse (now in possession of a time machine) has changed history to save her, and in the new history has inculcated Jessica into Rittenhouse’s plans from the beginning.  This is not, in other words, the Jessica that Wyatt originally new:  this is a Rittenhouse Jessica, subverted from childhood (Season 2, episodes 7, 9).

The plot complications that ensue are one thing.  But the setup produces a rather novel view of character.  To what extent is this alternate version of Jessica the same person that Wyatt fell in love with?  And if loving someone means loving her “for who she is,” what happens when she’s now someone else?

In a case of brainwashing or mind control or the like, one can at least imagine going back to the ‘branch point’ and recurring somehow to the original state of the person.  But if (in this timeline) Jessica has always been a Rittenhouse recruit, there is no such original state to return to.  (If there had never been Back to the Future sequels, one might imagine Marty similarly having some trouble coming to terms with his new, more assertive parents.)

The same issue is played out more subtly with Rufus and Jiya.  In the last regular episode, Rufus is killed.  Since this is a time travel story, the other characters are naturally bent on changing things to prevent that from happening.  In the finale, this is achieved:  but the Rufus who’s now alive is from a timeline different from the one originally inhabited by Wyatt and Lucy.  He hasn’t had all the same experiences.

Rufus and Jiya, San FranciscoMeanwhile, Jiya has experienced a much more traumatic change.  In the last regular episode, she is stranded in 1888 Chinatown and must survive by her wits alone for three years.  The Jiya who meets the revised Rufus has gone through things Rufus has never imagined.  We see that they nonetheless stay in love; but they will have to work through some major issues together.

This identity issue is not unique to time travel.  We have a much longer history of stories about experiences that significantly change a person:  for example, a man goes off to war and comes back “a changed man.”  For example, in the movie Sommersby (1993), a Civil War veteran’s wife is not entirely sure whether the man who came back is the one who left, or a near-identical twin.

But in this normal case, continuity is still expected:  the change is from an already-known branch point.  Laurel Sommersby ultimately concludes the man before her cannot be her husband—“because I never loved him the way I love you!”  Character development happens, if not always gradually, at least in some kind of organic way.  She does not believe her husband could have become the man she now loves.

If time travel can rewrite someone’s entire history, is that still true?  We’re almost back at the nature-nurture debate:  to what extent is my character fated at birth, and to what extent created through life?  Timeless gives us subliminally convincing evidence of continuity:  a new timeline’s version of Rufus or Jiya is played by the same actor, speaks with the same voice, wears the same persona—except to the extent specifically varied for purposes of the plot.  But the story of the finale raises disconcerting issues of how much continuity is necessary to remain “the one I love.”

Stories generally involve the kind of character development that comes through the accumulation of experience.  But Timeless gives us kind of character development by substituting a new version of a person, with a new history of experience—a deft use of the “what-ifs” for which time travel tales are famous.

 

Timeless has been a cool series to follow.  I don’t know that I’d have wanted it to go on indefinitely, but it sparked some stimulating thoughts in its brief run.

Timeless finale scene with Christmas lights

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Changing History: “Timeless”

The initial episode of NBC’s new time travel series, Timeless (premiered Oct. 3, 2016), does a neat job of handling the classic trope of changing the past.  There’s more to that kind of plot than generally meets the eye.

Spoiler Alert!The following necessarily contains spoilers for the first Timeless episode, so if you haven’t seen it and want to, be careful when scrolling down.  I’ll drop another alert message at the point where the spoilers begin.Poster for Timeless

The Lure of the Past

Oddly enough, travel to the past fascinates us more than travel to the future.  One might expect it to be the other way around.  After all, we’ve been to the past.  The first classic time travel tale, H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine, concerned itself exclusively with the future.  But it’s backwards time travel that lets us imagine changing the present by altering its causes—and produces the causal tangles that are unique to time travel stories.

Larry Niven’s essay “The Theory and Practice of Time Travel” (found in All the Myriad Ways) points this out:  “When a child prays, ‘Please, God, make it didn’t happen,’ he is inventing time travel in its essence. . . . The prime purpose of time travel is to change the past; and the prime danger is that the Traveler might change the past.”

The Past Doesn’t Change

Some stories assume that the past can’t be changed.  The time stream protects, or heals, itself automatically once the moving present has passed.  There was an old-time SF story (anyone remember the title?) in which successive attempts to change history misfire because of progressively more unlikely accidents.  The gun misfires.  The bullet misses.  A bystander intercepts the bullet.  A meteor knocks the gun out of the assassin’s hand.  The hypothesis has an air of fate about it, as in the Greek myths.

But unchangeability needn’t be a matter of fate.  It may simply reflect the fact that the past event has already happened, incorporating any interventions from the future that may have taken place.  There is a single past event, which is the product of all its causes, whether they come from the event’s past or its future.  As TV Tropes puts it, “You Already Changed the Past.”  Robert A. Heinlein wrote some of the most famous time travel stories using this approach to generate “constructive” or “ontological” paradoxes—By His Bootstraps and “—All You Zombies—”.

A technology that only allows viewing the past, rather than interacting with it, falls into a similar category.  There’s no chance of changing things; we’re mere observers.  Isaac Asimov’s The Dead Past leaps to mind.

These kinds of stories are fun, but they don’t have quite the emotional appeal of “Make it didn’t happen.”

How A Change Propagates

Suppose, then, that we can change the past.  How exactly is that supposed to work?

A writer sometimes introduces a sense of urgency into the plot by imagining that a change in history propagates through reality in a process that itself takes time (of some sort).  This is what creates the tension in Back to the Future.  We can see Marty’s family gradually disappearing as his disruption of history works its way forward.  Presumably Marty disappears last because he was conceived last.  If he doesn’t reestablish history before he disappears, it’s all over.

This makes a weird sort of sense, because natural processes do normally propagate gradually.  Even gravity has its waves.  But it does result in the curious phenomenon of a reality that isn’t entirely self-consistent.  Marty’s parents never got married, but Marty himself is still inexplicably there.  (For the moment.)

It makes more sense, maybe, to picture the change as taking effect instantaneously.  Take away the causal “supports” for something, and it’s no longer there at all.  This assumption would have made Back to the Future a much shorter movie—and highlighted the “Grandfather Paradox” at the core of its plot.  The time lag gives Marty a chance to cure the paradox before it fully takes effect.

What Happens to the Traveler?

But we’re assuming that the causal ripple from history’s change follows the time traveler even when the traveler’s world line has looped around into the past.  What if that isn’t how it works?  (We’re inventing a theory of time travel; we can make what assumptions we wish.)  If the traveler is absent from the future when the change “gets there,” will the traveler be affected at all?

If the traveler is affected by the same change that affects everything else, we get a time stream that’s more consistent, but harder to tell a story about—because no one in the story will remember the change.  The traveler’s memory alters along with everything else.  (There’s an old SF story about this, too—and it only works because the reader is outside the story’s time stream.  At the end the bizarre monster that was human on page one proclaims, ‘the time experiment is over, and nothing has changed.’  The story only works from an omniscient point of view.)

So a time travel story almost always assumes that the traveler, who was out of the affected time region when the change occurred, remembers the old when she encounters the new.

Here Be Spoilers!

You Can’t Go Home Again

Here’s where Timeless comes in.  Villains of some sort—or are they?—steal the secretly developed time machine and set off to change history.  Our three heroes take the older prototype vehicle (a little less streamlined than a DeLorean) and follow.  They don’t quite succeed in preventing their adversaries from altering the past.  The Hindenburg explodes on its return trip, rather than on its arrival in America.Hindenburg disaster

When our heroes come back to the present, their colleagues believe the zeppelin had always exploded on its return trip—because the change in history has affected them.  The three travelers have to explain to them what’s changed.  In a sense, they no longer belong in the world from which they set out.  It’s an unusual and interesting situation for a TV series.

The Butterfly Effect

So far, we haven’t seen what larger alterations or political ramifications may have resulted, in this new world, from the deaths of several prominent figures on what was now the Hindenburg’s ill-fated second flight.  But the personal implications turn out to be devastating.

Butterfly effect graphicThe screenwriters also have a good handle on another time travel staple, the “butterfly effect,” named for the metaphor that in a massive chaotic system, a butterfly flapping its wings on one continent might result in a tornado in another (or, possibly, named for a classic Ray Bradbury short story).  When main character Lucy Preston comes home from her adventure in the past, she is overjoyed to find that her mother, comatose when Lucy left, is now perfectly healthy.  But Lucy is appalled to find that her beloved sister never existed.  How could the Hindenburg’s altered history have anything to do with this, she cries—and now she has new, and very mixed, motivations as to setting time back on its original course.

The show thus picks up on a theme that’s frequently neglected in a tale about changing the past.  Each change has unpredictable ramifications.  Marty McFly comes home to find his parents much improved, his siblings successful, and the despised Biff reduced to a cipher.  But what of all the people in town who will have interacted with the changed McFlys and Tannens over the past thirty years?  If even minor events can have large long-range effects, it may not be so easy to confine a temporal change to the intended consequences.

This means that our Timeless heroes may have no way to put things back the way they were.  The change may be essentially irreversible—a sort of temporal entropy.  Anything they do to counteract the bad effects of the original change will lead to still more alterations.  They really can’t go home again.

If the writers carry through this fascinating, if rather chilling, line of thought in subsequent episodes, we may get some really interesting story lines—as time goes on.