Ugh. Time travel. Two new shows based on this super-annoying concept debuted this week: NBC’s Timeless and CW’s Frequency. I’m sticking with the latter for now, because its family-reunited-by-radio conceit is quite touching, actually, and because I am a sucker for TV adaptations of movies I like (as has been well established). But the former is of the old-fashioned time machine school, and I just cannot.
It’s bad enough that I have to watch those costumed renegades from DC’s Legends of Tomorrow gad about the time stream in their seemingly sentient future-mobile. I am not adding another motley bunch of misfit heroes staggering through various eras trying to right assorted wrongs.
One thing I will say for both shows — all three shows, actually — is that they have managed (so far) to avoid the whole time paradox thing. You know, that headache-inducing nonsense that amounts to “I have not yet done a thing but I will do a thing and therefore the fact that I will do it means that it was done.” Paradox is what makes the Terminator universe so difficult to navigate, plaguing us with questions like: if John Connor’s father was the guy John Connor himself sent back into the past, then how did John Connor come to be born in order to send his Dad back to impregnate his Mom in the first place?
Now, Legends of Tomorrow‘s time crimes are legion, but it doesn’t mess too much with causality (frankly, it’s just not smart enough) and with Frequency and Timeless both at pains to show us simple, straightforward cause-and-effect of the Back to the Future school, we are at least safe from the “Hey, it was me who stole my Dad’s keys!” brand of insanity.
But here’s my main complaint about time travel, both as a fictional narrative device and as a theoretical concept. Unintended consequences. This is something both Timeless and Frequency dealt with at the end of their first episodes, both involving the loss of family members. (The Flash is also in this boat, again, this season.) When the past timeline is altered, the present and future shift for everyone, not only those at the center of the shift. Maybe someone who should die doesn’t, or someone who shouldn’t die does, and all of a sudden lives — hundreds, thousands of Butterfly Effect-ed lives — are arbitrarily changed pretty much on the whim of someone who is supposedly our protagonist, our good guy.
Now, in fairness to Timeless, the alteration of that timeline is due to criminal interference and not selfish wish fulfillment on the part of our, for lack of a better word, heroes. (Well, not entirely.) But in Frequency, in Legends of Tomorrow and most assuredly in The Flash, we’re dealing with people who recklessly condemn the unknown masses to who knows what kind of fates in order to save their own loved ones from whatever destiny and/or random chance had in store for them. Of course, the impulse to save a spouse or a parent, a child or a friend, is laudable and understandable. But to endanger so many untold others just to get your own way is solipsistic in the extreme. It’s like when the Winchesters just willy-nilly save each other from hell (again) only to unleash that hell on the world (again). We get it, you can’t live without each other, but stop being such dicks to everyone else.
Mid-season will bring us more of the same, with Time After Time (a show about time travel and Jack the Ripper, based on the 1979 movie of the same name) and Making History, a comedy about messing with strangers’ lives because, hey, fun!
I can’t believe I am saying this, but at least in Terminator and its sequels and spinoffs, the purpose of the time travel (by our heroes, anyway) is to prevent the extermination of the human race. And quite honestly, I think that is the only possible justification for any kind of wibbly wobbly timey wimey stuff.
Oh, and history reports, of course.