Writer's Block? Try Time Travel

By Doug Norrie 2008-12-12 00:44:02 discussion comments
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Writer's Block?  Try Time Travel image
During the first season of Heroes, I, like many others, used to think about which super power I would most enjoy exploiting for my own personal gain. (Eliminate Peter and Sylarís powers as those are cop outs akin to asking the genie for more wishes) At first Nathanís flying ability seemed appealing as I could do the traveling my wife always wants to do. Then it was Jessicaís super strength making armed robbery a cinch. Parkmanís mind reading abilities were also right up my alley, but then I realized Parkmanís real ability was to make me want to shut the TV off every time he came on. Finally, I settled on Hiro and the power to travel infinitely through time and space; the best, most prolific and easily exploitable power. Gambling, vacations, more gambling, practical jokes. The world would have been my oyster. Unfortunately, while Hiroís ability seems the most advantageous, it is also the very power the showís writers should never have introduced.

Time travel is a tricky thing (Just ask Marty McFly and Doc Brown). Unlimited time travel in a TV series is a nightmare. In movies, time travel has constraints because of production length and story. We can find holes but just as we are asking our questions, the end tidies up and the credits roll. (example: Wait a second how is John Connorís father from the future? F-it who cares that movie was awesome!) Not so the case in television. Consider this email I sent to Cinema Blendís TV editor Kelly West, about why I stopped watching Heroes:

"I stopped watching Heroes about 4 weeks ago because of this very problem. I just felt the show was stuck in this endless loop of: save the future, go back to the past, mess something up, try again, deal with another annoying Parkman arc, back to the future, realize they failed, start again. I just gave up. Too bad because that show's first season was excellent. All down hill from there.

For big Heroes fans out there Kelly swears the last few episodes have been great, but for me it is ruined. Heroes established a power with so many infinite possibilities and limited constraints that it matters little what happens from episode to episode. When in doubt, screw it, send Hiro or Peter back to figure out how to change it. Or send them forward in time to figure out what the future holds. Good for gamblers; bad for TV.

Time travel on TV needs rules. The rules need to be set early and deviating from them can cause problems. On Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles time travel is used as a link from the future, but not as a two-way portal. In essence, the writers use the concept on a functional level. Machines and resistance fighters return to the present to protect their future interests. This link to the future provides the characters with goals to work towards and information on how to complete missions. The show even touches on the idea that things the characters do to stop Judgment Day may just be an exercise in futility. Everyone is racing back to stop the other side from winning but we (viewers) are slowly learning that the little battles being fought rarely stop the time-honored march of inevitability. (I mean if they stop the machines for good the show would just end wouldnít it?) In the end, time travel acts as a means to an entertaining end. We arenít left considering its implications because it rarely affects the overall story.

In another example take the cut-too short show Journeyman. Dan Vasser suffers from literal bouts of uncontrollable time travel. Much like Quantum Leap, he gets a funny feeling, and seconds later vanishes back into the past to work on some sort of job to help the future. He has to determine his mission in each episode, and doesnít know when or why heíll zip back in time. The show had just started working on the future implications of his actions (the shifts in time lines and time theory) when it was canceled thus leaving the 4 of us (my wife and I and probably some other loser couple out there) that watched it to only wonder. Regardless, because his power held him powerless the writers were held relatively in check.

Back to Heroes. Maybe they have addressed some of these issues in the last few weeks when I havenít watched. I doubt it. Any scaling back to the time travel aspect of the show would just seem to be damage control at this point. They already screwed the pooch. Tip to future TV writers: handle time travel carefully. Once you start fiddling you canít go back. (pun?)
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