I used to think time travel was a great science fiction concept which had unlimited potential in creating exciting storylines. This is almost certainly the fault of
a) Doctor Who (who as a time traveller was having loads of great adventures)
b) Best SF short story anthologies of the 1980’s which often had a killer time travel story in them
c) That Fonzie cartoon where he travelled in time with a dog and stuff.
However these three sources of inspiration, only one ever used the philosophical and logical problems of time travel in as a springboard for the plot. And I should have noticed that while there was a more than significant WOW factor in a lot of those SF short stories, they had next to no characterisation and story beyond the twists. Because time travel really does tend to boil down to two or three conclusions:
a) fidelity to timeline (determinism)
b) non-fidelity to timeline leading to wiping out of timeline or history (destruction)
c) non-fidelity to timeline leading to parallel timeline (multiple worlds).
The only real suspense in a time travel storyline therefore is which of these schemas are being used: and once you know the time travel is no longer an interesting factor. Unless of course the story tries to use more than one of these ideas at once, or breaks its own rules to continue suspense.
Take the Spanish movie Timecrimes. A nice little cheap sci-fi potboiler which you realise is using schema a) as its time travel rule. A bloke witnesses a random attack, is chased by a crazy guy and accidentally** ends up travelling three hours back in time where he accidentally gets embroiled in the previous events and – as it eventually works out is that crazy and is responsible for everything that happens (including the actual crime). But it clearly follows the “time is inviolable” rule, even though the lead appears to have agency and even considers breaking the rules – though never does. Overrated time-travel cheapy Primer also does this, but gets so confused with its nested leads that it is unclear whether or not it eventually breaks its own rules. Timecrimes is a good little film, but once you know how it will deal with time travel, it stops being strictly suspenseful, instead you wait for it to replay its events for the final time in a satisfactory manner.
Frequently Asked Questions About Time Travel unfortunately falls into the trap of appearing to know too much about its own rules. The lead character is apparently a time travel nerd (a bit weird), especially when all he spouts is the grandfather paradox. FQ Time Travel is a nice little comic sci-fi (SF! as the lead insists in authentic manner) film which unfortunately drops its own ball in the final reel. Because FAQ Time Travel uses schema b) for its time travel, wipes its own time travel out and then somehow resets its characters back in the original timeline with FULL MEMORY OF WHAT JUST OCCURRED. Poor work. It then flirts with schema c) but its way too late by then. A film called Frequently Asked Questions About Time Travel should avoid fucking up its time travel rules.
But the makers would argue that they do for a resolution where the characters can develop, which destroying them certainly wouldn’t do. They would argue character first (over a point previously where they said “STORY IS KING”), and I see what they mean. Because time travel generally can only lead to disappointment. Because look at the famous example of schema c): which is Terminator. The first movie suggests it may be schema a), John Connor sends back Kyle Reese who turns out to be his father so he had to do it. But he has to do it because a Terminator has been sent back to kill his mother before he was born, which would be common knowledge and thus why would Skynet do it as it ensures the creation of its main nemesis. Certainly by Terminator 2 the future has been changed by what happens in the past. And by now there are at least tenseparate Terminator timelines which have been identified. Which strongly suggests that somewhere along the line there will be at least one timeline where Skynet loses (hurrah) : lets root for that one.
Back to Frequently Asked Questions About Time Travel though, to wrap up. Its a nice little film, which is very good about how blokes who like each other interact in the pub. Indeed it is far to nice in lots of ways, there is barely a cross word as the time travel turns dystopian and beyond. Its big problem is that its not quite as funny as it should be and being a genre movie set in a pub, Shaun Of The Dead set that bar far too high. And it fucks up it time travel. But you could spend a worse ninety minutes in the pub, and actually would make quite a nice TV pilot. But I might have been a real booster if it had not fucked up its time travel. Cos there is no excuse for that. Since there are only three time travel stories. And you can’t have it both ways. So my answer to the question, why do time travel stories? Well Doctor Who has it right – its best used to make your lead character has a terrific adventure with Queen Victoria.
**You know. Like you do. Accidentally fall into your neighbours time machine