Serious/Literal Time Travel Stories are Fundamentally Flawed

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I am not saying that these movies should be done or that they're necessarily bad. Some of my favorite films (e.g., Terminator, Live Die Repeat) involve time travel. It's just that, in a significant sense, they have essential narrative flaws which cannot be corrected. You either have to spackle over those flaws (don't pay attention to the man behind the curtain!) or stipulate those flaws away in an ad hoc fashion (creating more flaws when you stop to think about them). A time travel film is always going to be a fractured vase.


Logic - Traveling backwards in time allows for contradictions. You go back in time and kill your grandfather. You are never born. If you're never born, you can't kill your grandfather. There is no avoiding this problem, in principle.



At most, one may write a story in which contingently/accidentally a causal loop is self-completing (e.g., you go back in time to stop something from happening, but it turns out that you made it happen by doing so). But even here there are logical problems. Instead of killing your grandpa, what if you are you're own grandpa? To simplify this, let's say you're your own parent in a self-completed time loop. That is, you go back in time, do the nasty with mom or dad (depending on your plumbing), resulting in a baby (i.e., you). Now, we have an account of where the DNA of one parent comes from (i.e., we can track it back through billions of years of mutation, adaptation, and selection), but where did your DNA come from? Even in such case that you cased it to happen (self-completing loop) there is an uncased cause that is needed to seal the loop.



Contradictions like this are impossible, so time travel is impossible, and there is no coherent way to seriously probe the implications of time travel. You can prove anything with a contradiction, so there is no serious counter-factual investigating the "What if" of time travel in hard/serious science fiction.



Stakes - Stories are interesting because they have stakes. What we care about is at risk. Resources are scarce. Things can be lost. Without stakes stories are boring. Dreamscape, A Nightmare on Elm Street, and The Matrix all have to artificially create stakes by stipulating that if you die in dreamland, you die in reality (since when?!?). Without that stipulation, however, Freddy would just be a nuisance and Neo could camp a re-spawn until he defeated Agent Smith.



With "anything goes" time travel (i.e., those stories where our protags can arbitrarily travel to any point and time for any reason), however, nothing is ever really lost. Did someone die? Go back in time and save them. One the glaring errors of Star Trek is that they occasionally forget that they can time travel. On the Picard show, for example, Picard lazily notes that "Well, Kirk traveled in time twice to do the sling-shot maneuver to undo Q's latest f***ery. In Star Trek IV Earth is under threat from a probe, so the crew just pops back in time to solve the problem. Why should any character stay dead? Why should any problem be unsolved? With time travel you can always go back and do it again.



Thus, we have to have stakes artificially created. The baddies control the time travel (Terminator) or your can time travel so many times (Live, Die, Repeat) or your time machine is on the fritz (Back to the Future). However, once you solve the problem in the film (assuming your survive), you can always "cheat" later. There is a scene, for example, in the Bill and Ted movies where our heroes are jammed up, but then they stop and think about it. One says to the other something along the lines of, "When we get out of this later, let's plant what we need right here!" and like magic what they need turns out to be waiting for them in a cupboard (or something along those lines). In this moment, this is the smartest time-travel writing, because our heroes realize that there are not really stakes.


Exhaustion/Laziness - It's been done and done and done. It's not even done well in most cases. It's just a cheap plot device/premise. If you paint yourself in too tight of a corner, you can always get out with time travel, which encourages lazy writing.



Again, I am not saying that it should never done or that it is not fun or that time travel ruins everything. However, I would suggest that if you're writing a script and you can solve a problem (i.e., move the plot forward) without time-travel, that it is better to think of a cleverer solution than a magic wand which rewrites reality.



Professional horse shoe straightener

Instead of killing your grandpa, what if you are you're own grandpa? To simplify this, let's say you're your own parent in a self-completed time loop. That is, you go back in time, do the nasty with mom or dad (depending on your plumbing), resulting in a baby (i.e., you). Now, we have an account of where the DNA of one parent comes from (i.e., we can track it back through billions of years of mutation, adaptation, and selection), but where did your DNA come from? Even in such case that you cased it to happen (self-completing loop) there is an uncased cause that is needed to seal the loop.
You've literally just described the plot to the Netflix series 'DARK' (which is awesome).

Logic - Traveling backwards in time allows for contradictions. You go back in time and kill your grandfather. You are never born. If you're never born, you can't kill your grandfather. There is no avoiding this problem, in principle.
This theory is also called the Novikov theory.

See also the Bootstrap Paradox.



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You've literally just described the plot to the Netflix series 'DARK' (which is awesome).

Cool. I might check it out.



I think the same logic can be applied to many narratives/stories. I would argue that all love stories are fundamentally flawed/ridiculous, because you can’t rationalise/script the shit people do when in love. Yet society remains obsessed with them. My father, originally a physicist, has been arguing mostly along the lines of your post all my life, especially about films like Triangle where
WARNING: spoilers below
a single body/physical object unscientifically multiplies itself in space
, yet he’ll still eagerly watch all sci-fi. I agree that it’s just something to accept a priori before watching a time travel film.



Professional horse shoe straightener
It's belief suspension. We'd have a lot less film without it. Triangle is very good -

WARNING: "Triangle spoiler" spoilers below
and if we're honest everything that happens in that film may all be in her head anyway.



It's belief suspension. We'd have a lot less film without it. Triangle is very good -

WARNING: "Triangle spoiler" spoilers below
and if we're honest everything that happens in that film may all be in her head anyway.
For sure. I adore it. It just stayed with me that he said that. “Against the laws of physics”… and then some techy gibberish. Primer however is entirely scientifically accurate, if speculative.



I remember an episode of Futurama where it was revealed that Fry was in fact his own grandfather due to time travel. Good times.



"The Vulcan Science Directorate has determined that time travel is impossible'....Works for me
T'Pol sure changed her tune on that sentiment by season 3! (or was it 4?)

Along with her skin-tight uniforms!



T'Pol sure changed her tune on that sentiment by season 3! (or was it 4?)

Along with her skin-tight uniforms!
I posted this before but it still cracks me up it's verbatim from the Enterprise episode Shockwave part 2.

Silik: Who are you working with from the future?

T'Pol:
The Vulcan Science Directorate has determined that time travel is impossible.

Silik: Does Captain Archer agree with that opinion?

T'Pol:
This is not an opinion.

Silik: Does Archer agree with that determination?

T'Pol:
Captain Archer believes Crewman Daniels... comes from the future.

Silik:
But Daniels is dead.

T'Pol:
Captain Archer claims he saw Daniels two days ago.

Silik:
Your Captain is gone. Did Daniels take him into the past or the future?

T'Pol:
Vulcan Science Directorate has determined that time travel is impossible.



I like how T'Pol goes from a skin-tight cat suit in early episodes to even tighter, more revealing skin-tight (albeit more colorful) cat suits!

I have to say I liked her casual wear that she wore when going home to visit her mother - very stylish (yet still somehow skin-tight and revealing)!

Sorry to go off topic (- my mind is just on how no matter the settings on Enterprise's gravimetric plating, T'Pol seemed to defy gravity at all times regardless!)



I guess, since nobody's ever done time travel, nobody probably ever will and nobody really has any idea how to do it, you can make up whatever rules you want. Let the script writers come up with a story line on what happens when you change something, but remember that it's just a story.

You're about as close as you will ever get when you do the math on whether two subatomic particles speed along and one is close to the speed of light and that one's half life changes. That's a long way from getting in a box, closing the door and going back to witness the signing of the Magna Carta.

You do have to admit, however, that time travel is a good device for a story.



Nice, she kinda looks 60s-hipppie. Too bad she didn't have some Vulcan love beads...Err I mean logic beads
I'd make some other comments too, but I'd probably get banned for a while. Suffice to say that, while vulcans don't do emotion, they do do other things kinda like humans.



I'd make some other comments too, but I'd probably get banned for a while. Suffice to say that, while vulcans don't do emotion, they do do other things kinda like humans.
Wow, that caught my attention...What could you say about Vulcans that could get you banned?



I'd make some other comments too, but I'd probably get banned for a while. Suffice to say that, while vulcans don't do emotion, they do do other things kinda like humans.
Although Vulcans don't show emotions, it's become quite obvious over the years that Vulcan women do their best to try to evoke certain kinds of emotions from men (Vulcan or otherwise)!



There's only one argument against time travel.

If time travel is possible... where are all the time travellers?
We're right here... and there... and then... and when.