Time Travel and The Problem with Saving the Future

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Yay for conservation of mass & energy!

I’m a sucker for all things related to time travel. I couldn’t get enough of Continuum (at least until they phoned in the final season), Primer is one of my favorite films, and I’ve just finished season 3 of Travelers (which gets bonus points for not violating the first law of thermodynamics in their use of consciousness-based time travel).

As a sort of fictional time travel connoisseur — I usually like to see how screenwriters deal with the recurring problems that arise from the genre. For instance, Doctor Who and The Flash like to have ‘paradox demons’ that will come after people who try to play around with the timelines too much — to avoid the problem of the ‘infinite undo’. Or stories like Edge of Tomorrow which make the ‘infinite undo’ the key part of the narrative structure. I also always like to point out when characters can travel back to a point on their own timeline, that the writers have allowed for infinite clones– something The Flash lightly touches upon.

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Here to protect you from an overpowered plot device

One trope I usually take for granted, as it’s the premise of most time travel stories, is — Time Travelers Have Returned to Save the Future. The premise is that time travelers have returned from the future to prevent some cataclysm that has resulted in chaos, lawlessness, people eating rat-soup for dinner, etc. etc. and that this is all preventable with some tinkering in the events of the past.

However, thinking about this– saving the future doesn’t make sense. There’s been a glaringly obvious flaw in this trope, which I will attempt to illustrate.

Let’s think through the typical scenario. Suppose some disaster takes place in our fictional year 2020 leading to a miserable dystopia in 2120 — but society isn’t so technologically backwards as to prevent someone from developing the means of time travel. Time travelers return to 2019 to prevent the events leading up to the disaster and their successes and/or failures will get spun out into a film or across many seasons of a TV series. We usually see that it’s not very straightforward, and changing one thing in the past leads to a domino-effect of consequences that sometimes create a worse future than the original. Also– presumably anything they consider worth saving about the future will have been changed by the new timeline as well.

So which future are we saving again?

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One of the many future timelines we’re hoping to avoid. (from Dark)

That’s generally the main plot device for these stories. You can’t predict the future once you’ve changed the past, and yet we’re lead to believe that ‘Saving the Future’ is a Worthy Goal — because of course it is. We all want a bright, shiny future, right?

That’s the flaw. If you can travel through time, then why do you care about the future, when you have a thoroughly stable and predictable past to inhabit.

So take our 2020 disaster scenario again. What if instead, our time travelers went back to 1980 and spent 10 years developing time travel technology, and the remaining 29 years advancing science and technology even further.

This scenario becomes even easier if you can transport mass through time, because then you pack everything up and bring it back to 1980 again, but even if you just have to memorize everything– with every loop you will get more efficient, quicker and better at developing new technology. Maybe you research how to build time travel technology with more and more basic available technology so that you can go back to 1960 or 1900 and build time travel tech from there.

The point is, why would the goal be an uncertain-but-hopefully-better Future when you could create a golden Eternal Present through a time feedback loop?

So the next time you see time travelers coming back to save the future — ask yourself: Why they haven’t just decided to camp out in the present and make some cool stuff ahead of time?

Written by

Experience Design at Netflix • Follow @kaigani

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