Thursday, 31 January 2008

"Time Travel?? Yes!!"

I spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about time travel and the rest of my time trying to hide from people the amount of time I spend thinking about time travel. As such it annoys me when TV programmes don’t get it right. ‘Doctor Who’ is the worst offender (apart from Steven Moffat’s brilliant “Blink” episode) closely followed by its “gritty” spin-off ‘Torchwood’. In a way it’s worse with ‘Torchwood’ since that’s supposed to be more grown-up, which in actuality just means that the characters spend much of their time in pansexual liaisons. Last night’s episode “To The Last Man” was completely logically incoherent and it thoroughly offended my geeky sensibilities (it’s probably available for a week on BBC iPlayer (‘iPlayer’: what a lazy name!)).

My philosophy of time travel is that, setting the physical practicalities aside, it should at least be logically consistent. With that in mind, the only sensible stance to adopt is that of the Novikov self-consistency principle. This is also the view taken by philosopher David Lewis. Basically if something happens during time travel then it was always going to happen. You can go backwards in time and shoot your own grandfather but obviously you don’t because you exist. If you go back in time to investigate the Great Fire of London then accidentally knock over a lamp and start the fire, that’s fine because the fact that you knew the fire happened in the future shows that you were always going to knock over the lamp in the past. This requires a fixed timeline, past and future, as well as a degree of fatalism and lack of free will but frankly I’m OK with that. Robbing myself of the idea of free will is a small price to pay for a logically consistent universe. The Novikov principle therefore excludes any story that involves ‘changing the past’, creating a temporal paradox, or creating a parallel timeline (I’m looking at you, ‘Back to the Future’!). ‘Futurama’ may actually be the only show in recent years to get this right and the Professor sums it up succinctly: You mustn't interfere with the past. Don't do anything that affects anything, unless it turns out you were supposed to do it. In which case, for the love of God, don't not do it!”

What the writers of ‘Torchwood’ got wrong was infusing the whole episode with a sense of pointless urgency. Sure, it makes for more interesting television when the characters rush around to save spacetime from tearing without knowing if they’re going to do it: logically, however, it was unwarranted. There was no need to rush about like headless alien-chickens and no need to persuade the 1918 dude to do his duty. The very fact that the events happened and time still existed precludes the possibility of them not saving time. Had time ceased to exist, that would have been it; the events of the episode would never happen. Then at the end it just got silly as the events of the past produced a real-time effect on present-day Cardiff and they introduced without warning a complete deus ex machina: essentially a subjective time machine that tore plot-holes open all over the place.

I hereby decree that all entertainment writers who want to write about time travel need to track down a copy of Robert A. Heinlein’s short story ‘All You Zombies—’ and read it. Most of the American writers have time to do it now what with being on strike and all...

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