We have to go back, back to the time travel episode! We’ve discussed time travel before, but that was a long time ago, so it’s time to update our thoughts. Hopefully without creating a time paradox – Chris hates those. We talk about what the different options are for logical time travel, how much it even matters for time travel to be logical, and whether you can fake the universe out to save your friend from time. Also, how much time murder are you willing to commit?


Generously transcribed by Ursula. Volunteer to transcribe a podcast.

Chris: You’re listening to the Mythcreants podcast with your hosts Oren Ashkenazi, Wes Matlock and Chris Winkle. 

[Intro Music]

Oren: And welcome everyone to another episode of the Mythcreants podcast. I’m Oren, and with me today is Wes and Chris.

Alright everyone, we have to get this podcast going to exactly 88 words per minute, so that we can go back – back to the time travel podcast! 

Everyone: Wooooo! 

Chris: Was that number 88? 

Oren: No, it was 77. [laughter]

Chris: How does the time-travel math work here, I wonder?

Oren: It’s powered by Back to the Future references.

Chris: Oh, I guess I haven’t watched that enough times. 

Oren: I’ve got a reference capacitor in the back of the podcast right here. But yeah, we had a podcast on time travel in pre-Wes-storic times. I don’t know what we said back then. And I don’t care, because that was like 2016, what did I know? Nothing.

Wes: And you keep bringing me on it. What do I know? Nothing. This subject just breaks me. [laughs] So get ready for a lot of just groaning.

Oren: Look, it’s important to maintain tradition. 

Wes: Okay. Fair enough. 

Chris: So personally, I hate paradoxes and I want all the time traveled to be logical –

Wes: But can it be? That’s the problem!

Chris: Well, okay. So we have a guest post by Sofia Jeppsson on how to make time travel logical. She’s a philosopher, so she talks about the philosophy of time travel. Basically there’s three methods you can do that makes it logical without having a paradox. 

One, this is probably the trickiest one, but I like it the best. I call it “closing the loop”, Oren calls it “the illusionist’s gambit”. Basically, if you go back in time and you change something in the past, then you have to create a situation that would cause what you’ve already seen, so that you will go back in time again. Because if you change the past and then you no longer have an incentive to go back in time again, you create a paradox.

Oren: So we’re talking about the predestination paradox model, which is the idea that anything that you have done in the past has already happened because we’re all on one timeline. So from an objective reality standpoint, you can’t change anything. Now, there are plenty of other reasons to time travel. You can do time travel to go to a different location, that’s what Doctor Who does most of the time. 

But if you want to have the classic time travel of the “we go back in time and save our friend from dying”- type, but you saw your friend die, what you have to do is create a situation where it still looks like your friend died, but from the viewpoint character’s perspective, everything’s the same. But then if you go to the future viewpoint character, you can see that they actually changed something.

Chris: But it looks like they died to that person, so they still have a reason to go back on time and prevent them from dying. 

Oren: Yeah. The only problem with this idea is that it’s extremely goofy. And if you think about it for a few seconds, you will start to realize just how unworkable this is.

Chris: But it makes sense! But it’s logical!

Oren: I mean, sort of, but only if you assume that you have complete control over everything that happens. Try doing this with role-players at some point, and you can’t. It’s impossible.

Wes: It happens in, um, did either of you ever play Chrono Trigger? This is like a super callback, but there’s lots of time travel in that game. I’m spoiling the crap of it. Main character Chrono dies, and you can just go finish the game if you want. The nature of the time travel in that game is that you can finish it in all kinds of different times and progressions of the story. 

But you can save him: you end up getting this empty shell of a clone of him, and you go back in time to that moment and just swap out the real Chrono with the clone. And then you have him back in your party. You save him, but you had to keep that death real. I remember thinking that was cool. Now I’m realizing that’s kind of what you’re talking about. 

Oren: Yeah. That’s the illusionist’s gambit. 

Wes: That’s cool. Huh.

Chris: I will admit that when you explicitly tell people, “Okay, you can go back in the past, but you have to make it look like you’re not changing a thing” – yes. That can get a little silly. But if it’s just a law of the universe and that’s how the universe works, then whatever you happen to do in the past will just through the laws of nature be identical to your actual past. 

Oren: Yeah. The issue – again, this is just a matter of question of how much this bothers you, and it doesn’t bother everybody, but it really bothers me – is, if you have this situation where you’re trying to save your friend and your friend got hung. So what you’ve done is you’ve snuck your friend a little breathing tube so that the rope won’t actually kill him. And you’ve convinced him not to tell anybody about this, and you’ve made a fake body to smuggle into the morgue so that everyone who saw the body will still see the body and think that the person is dead. 

Then you have this weird thing where if the character traveling into the past tried to go and say hello to their past self, the universe would stop them. And it’s like – I guess that would happen, but it just feels so wrong to me. 

Chris: Wait. The universe would stop them from saying hello to themselves because…?

Oren: Because they don’t remember that happening. And it’s just very difficult to create a plot where that sort of thing is plausible. So your best option is just to hope that people don’t question it. And that’s a pretty established time trope, which you definitely can do. 

Wes: I think that’s what happens in Back to the Future, the second one, where Doc Brown ends up talking to himself, but he’s in disguise. So the past Doc Brown doesn’t really know that he’s talking to himself, so he can’t have a memory of having talked to himself.

Chris: I think it can be done, but again, it’s a very logistically tricky to try to do it. And the less natural it is, the more you have to have characters do weird things like purposely tell people, “Okay, I’m going to save this person’s life, but you all need to pretend like the person actually died.” Or things like, oh, we can’t meet ourselves in the past or time will implode. Or have the characters purposely acting to maintain the illusion. 

It is possible to do it naturally, so they don’t need to, and their actions happen to follow that pattern. But again, you’re adding more requirements on the story. So it’s just a really tricky thing.

Oren: Yeah, and it can work in a scripted medium. You can make that happen. It will never work in a role-playing game, unless you just say by GM Fiat that you’re laying down cut scene rules. 

Chris: Well, time travel and role-playing games… I guess if you go back in the past and you’re just not allowed to change things, that can work in a role-playing game and make sense. 

Another method is just, okay, we go back in time for the purpose of watching things happen, but we purposely don’t change anything cause we’re not supposed to. You will have one timeline, nothing actually changes, but the experience of storytelling wise is different because the characters aren’t actually trying to change the past. 

And then the third option is just to use an alternate timeline, where you go back in the past, but you’re actually not in the same universe, but in an alternate universe. The movie Source Code would be an example of this, where the characters go back in time and stop a bomb on a train, but it’s really not the same universe.

Oren: Yeah. That’s the Dragon Ball Z time travel method. Be careful with that one too, because depending on how much control your characters have over time travel, it’s very easy to get into a situation where logically, the thing they should be doing is going back in time over and over again to recruit new versions of themselves to come help fight the bad guy. [Chris laughs]

Because if you think about it in that framework, every time you time travel, you’re creating an alternate universe. And if that time travel is something you can do repeatedly, there’s almost nothing to stop you from just grabbing a bunch of your friends and going to beat up the boss, which is the thing I kept wondering about why they weren’t doing that in Dragon Ball Z. It seemed obvious. 

Chris: I mean, when it comes to plot breaking powers, time travel is the worst. If you’re going to have time travel in your story, try to find a reason why the specific time travel that you want your characters to do is for some reason the only time they can ever time travel. The technology worked briefly for five minutes and they ran through and then it stopped working again, or something like that. Because otherwise there’s no reason why people can’t continue to futz with past events, or the antagonist and the protagonist can’t continue to send more people until they win. There’s no way to get around that. 

Oren: I mean, nothing highlights shaky plotting like time travel. We all know the MCU’s plotting is not the best. We all know that it has big holes. And then you watch them go time travel, and it’s like, oh my God, nothing you say matters. The world is no longer operating on any kind of cause and effect I can recognize. It’s all just a soup of different events that happen whenever you feel like. 

Chris: Can we talk about the Time Variance Authority, because what’s happening there? 

Oren: What’s happening there is that you like Loki a lot and you’ll watch Loki in a TV show. So watch Loki in a TV show, okay? Stop asking questions. [all laugh]

It’s the wrong Loki, too, is my favorite part of that show. It’s like, we all want the 2018 Loki who’s gone through all this character development, but that one’s dead because we killed them for some reason. So instead we get the 2012 Loki who watched a video and knows the character development he’s supposed to have had.

Chris: … and suddenly became the 2018 Loki.

Oren: Yeah, because he watched – it was a very good video, Chris. It was like a really cool highlight reel. You can find those on YouTube. They’re pretty impressive. [laughter]

Chris: So the premise of this Time Variance Authority, which is part of the MCU Multiverse of Madness storyline, is that there’s an authority that is trying to keep everything to one timeline and they don’t want branching alternate universes, because they’ll always end up at war with each other.

But that doesn’t make any sense, because the premise of the show requires there to be alternate universes and multiple timelines. They frequently do this thing they call pruning where, when a timeline becomes too different from what it’s supposed to be, they basically destroy it and destroy everybody in that world to prune it back. But that means that there’s more than one – because there’s still a timeline. So this doesn’t make sense. 

Oren: And at first their implication is that once you deviate a certain amount, it sets off their sensors and then they go improve in the timeline. So all of the characters would be pretty close to our world, right?

No, absolutely not. Because then we couldn’t have the cool scene in the last episode or the last couple episodes where we get to meet all the different Lokis who are clearly so different that by the rules they established previously, those should have set off the timeline sensors way before any of them got to that point. So whatever. Who knows? No one knows what’s happening. 

Chris: So as far as we know, there are lots of multiple timelines, but they have to adhere to some kind of abstract standard, which is incredibly arbitrary. I think the example used in one of your posts, Oren is that Alligator Loki is okay. It’s okay to have a version of Loki that’s an alligator, but like if he eats the wrong cat, that is a bridge too far. And now we got to prune that timeline. 

Oren: Yeah. ‘Cause eating cats is bad because cats are adorable and you shouldn’t hurt them. So get in the void, Alligator Loki.

Chris: But it’s just very strange because the entire insistence is that there’s only one universe so that they won’t go at war with each other. And similar universes could be at war. 

Oren: I mean, I like our chances against the alligator universe. Alligators don’t even have thumbs. But they also show us a diagram of what time looks like. And it’s a line. It’s not a bunch of lines within a set of parameters. No, they’re very clear at the beginning that there’s only one timeline and anything that deviates from it is pruned. And then they just changed their mind at the end, ‘cause it would be neat if there were a lot of Lokis, which, you know, I can sympathize with. I like Loki.

I was very confused why classic Loki was getting so much screen time, I’m guessing I would understand that if I had read the comics. But I liked the actor they picked for him, so that’s cool. President Loki is funny. He doesn’t do much, but I like him. 

While we’re bashing on Loki: I love how at the end they have the big reveal that is like, “Oh, you were told that there were three Time-Keepers who created the Time Variance Authority to prevent war between the timelines. That was a lie. All of it was a lie. There’s actually one Time-Keeper, and it’s not a lizard. Is your mind not blown?” [laughs]

Wes: One Time-Keeper, for one timeline. 

Oren: “Yeah, it’s one guy. You thought it was a triumvirate? Actually it was one guy. It was a time dictatorship instead. Y’all have your minds completely destroyed. Your expectations have been subverted.”

Wes: The whole premise is just so weird to me, especially right off of Endgame where they’re like, oh, we’ll just hop into all the other alternate realities to grab what we need. 

Oren: I actually got an answer for that one: It’s because the Time Variance Authority sucks. And can you imagine them trying to bring in Iron Man? They could barely handle Loki when he doesn’t have magic. Try to bring in fricking Steve Rogers. He would just destroy their entire organization. He’d be like, “This seems like time fascism to me. I’m gonna take you guys down.” And they’d be like, “Oh, we’re very sorry, Steve Rogers, we have these batons.” 

Wes: Maybe that’s why Steve had such an easy time going and returning everything and fixing it.

Oren: Yeah. Who’s going to stop him? Certainly not these jokers. 

Chris: One of the weirdest instances of paradox time travel effects I’ve seen is in the movie Looper. So Looper has a very strange premise where you’ve got these people that are called loopers and they’re basically low-paid assassins. People get sent back in time and appear and the Looper just shoots them. And, arbitrarily, for some reason – ‘cause the movie needs to happen – after they’re done working, they get 20 or 30 years of just living the life. And then for some reason, their employer will kidnap them and send them back in time for them to shoot themselves. 

Oren: Yeah. Why not? You know.

Chris: Look, the movie’s gotta happen, okay?

Oren: I mean, that sounds like something that would happen under American employment customs, so I don’t see a problem. 

Chris: So the idea is, they know that their job is over and they get to go live their life once they shoot themselves. They’re like, oh, thatt’s great. I’m done now. I get to go 30 years or whatever. 

Oren: I’m sensing a few problems with this plan. 

Chris: So then what you have in the movie is, you have a couple of sets of people where we’ve got a younger version and an older version: The younger version who was the assassin, and the older version who was sent back in time to be shot by them.

And what they do is that if you kidnap the younger version and start physically hurting them, it shows up like a 30 year old wound on the older version. But in real time. It’s not like they were always that way. They’re shocked by the change, like it just happened. 

Oren: It’s okay, I got this figured out for you, Chris. See, the problem here is, that’s not even a time-travel effect. What’s actually happening is that this setting also has sympathetic magic. 

Chris: Ooh.

Oren: And the people who kidnapped young Bruce Willis – it was Willis, right? 

Chris: That is one of them – 

Oren: Yeah. The people who kidnapped him, they are also sorcerers. So they cast sympathetic magic, and since these are two different time versions of the same person, they have a pretty strong sympathetic magic link. So the time-travel is actually just a coincidence. That’s actually not the reason this is happening. [Chris laughs] Prove me wrong, Chris. You can’t! [all laugh]

Chris: I mean, if the sympathetic magic could look like anything – I don’t know if we actually see any of these torture scenes, we probably do, it’s kind of dark movie – but maybe the knives they’re using to hurt somebody are just magical. That’s how they conduct their rituals. 

Oren: That’s basically the Back to the Future premise where you change the future, and for some reason that manifests as people disappearing out of a photo one by one.

Chris: Yeah. But at least in Back to the Future, don’t people’s memories – other than the main character, of course, because the main character has to remember what the audience remembers – but don’t people’s memories change too? It’s not just like, I remember living a different life, but suddenly I don’t have any fingers and it’s been that way for 30 years. 

Oren: Which brings up another problem. One of the reasons why I would advise against doing what I called the “free for all” time travel method, which is what Back to the Future does, where the idea is that you can just go back in time and change things and they’ll actually change in the future –

Chris (angrily): It’s a paradox! I don’t like it! 

Oren: Right, but beyond the paradox and how much it bothers Chris, the reason not to do it is that your character is kind of murdering themselves when they come back to the present. Because if you’ve made significant changes, as happens in Back to the Future, then the person who you’re coming back to replace is a completely different person with completely different experiences. They’re not the same you anymore. 

So that is just extremely weird and awkward and kind of upsetting. This family, as far as they know, they’re just going about their normal life. Everything’s fine. And then suddenly one day their son starts acting like a completely different person and doesn’t remember any of the things they’ve done together. [laughter] It’s very depressing and I don’t like it. 

Wes: I always thought the weird issue that they never resolved – well, okay, another weird thing – was in the second movie, they actually go to the future and then they come back. But the whole point is that that’s the one with the alternate timeline where Biff is really wealthy and basically runs everything. And they’re mad about that. So they have to fix that. But the end of the first movie clearly shows how Marty makes his own family much better off, and they don’t have any problem with that. 

Oren: I mean, you know, Biff is pretty bad, to be fair. 

Wes: That’s true.

Oren: So there’s a movie that’s being advertised right now, I can’t remember the title of it, but the premise seems to be that time travel is real. It’s being advertised as a really dark and serious movie about how this guy is using time travel to break up the main character with his wife and it’s like, oh no, this is horrible. And I’m like, okay. That is bad. But on the other hand, if you can do stuff like that with time travel, I’m actually kind of relieved that the worst thing anyone is doing is messing up relationships.

I just feel like there would be people who would do worse things with it if you could actually do that with time travel. 

Wes: I watched a show a few years ago called Misfits. It came out on British TV first; I think they made an American version, but I never watched it. And they had two types of time travel. The premise is that these juvenile delinquents are doing their community service and a freak storm gives them powers, which manifest throughout the show or whatever. 

The first time travel is, one of the characters – he’s an athlete, a sprinter, there’s a stopwatch motif – he gets a rewind-reset that can time travel him back a little bit. So if something bad or shocking happens, he can throw himself back a minute, something like that. 

Chris, does that break you? Is that paradoxical and horrible to have a quick rewind button as time travel?

Chris: So is he still in – if he goes back a minute. Are we rewinding time or is he time-traveling?

Wes: I guess he’s rewinding time then, because something happens, he goes back and then he’ll try to stop that from happening. 

Chris: Right. But he replaces himself a minute ago. 

Wes: Yes. 

Chris: So it’s actually more like he’s rewinding. The only thing that’s really different is he has the memory of an additional minute that never happened.

Wes: So that’s okay if you could time travel and you went back in the past, but it was just simply to basically be a shade, gather knowledge and leave.

Chris: It’s like the Groundhog Day concept that is so popular. That’s a little different than time travel because in time travel, you take a person and displace them in time, and their previous self is still there.

Oren: It’s the difference between, let’s say that you walk across the street and get hit by a bus. In one version, with the rewind time power, you would stop that by simply rewinding time, time would play backwards and you would walk backwards across the street, but you would maintain your memories. So you would replace a version of yourself from a minute ago, which is still time murder – [Chris and Wes laugh] – but an acceptable time murder, because you’re close enough. There is no defining point at which you stop being the same person. It’s all just a big old blur. Chris: Well that person’s going to die anyway, if we’re really that concerned about the alternate one minute version of you.

Oren: But you would probably also do this to avoid a broken leg or something. I would do a one minute time murder to avoid a broken leg. [laughter]

And then the other version of this is – this is harder to do because if you’ve been hit by a bus, you’re dead, but let’s somehow avoid that part; maybe again, this is the broken leg scenario. So you teleport yourself back in time a minute, and now you are watching you cross the street and that’s when you start to get into paradoxes, because if you stop yourself from getting hit by the bus, why do you go back in time and blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.

The solution to that is, of course, Q did it. Which is why all of the best Star Trek time travel episodes have Q doing it.

Chris: Right, because Q can just fix everything for you. ‘Cause he’s all powerful. 

Oren: It’s not contrived at all. I promise.

Chris: Oh! That’s the other option for defeating a paradox! You need God as a character! A really cruel god though. Not an all-benevolent god, a very petty god like Q. 

Oren: I’m just telling all writers who want to do time travel, put God in your story. That will make things simpler. [all laugh]

Chris: A very angry god.

Wes: Since we brought up Q and Star Trek, the last episode of Next Generation has phenomenal time travel. But it’s all happening at the same time. Time is not linear; past, present, future – it’s all happening right now. And I like that. It hurts, but I like it. 

Oren: That’s actually a variation on the past is another country method of time travel, where we really treat different locations in time more like different locations in space. Doctor Who does this a lot. Most of the time when they go back in time, they aren’t really worried about changing the future. They do that sometimes. Sometimes they angst about it. Sometimes they’ll be like, yeah, we could totally have demons come through in Shakespeare’s time. The stake is real, believe in it!

And then other times it was like, this is a fixed point in time. A phrase specifically designed to cause Oren mental anguish. But in most of those episodes, it’s like, whatever. We’re far enough back in time, or even in a potentially mystical time period, like with Arthur or Robin Hood or something. At that point, we’re not really worried about changing the future, it’s just, we went there and visited for a while. A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court does that. We’re not really worried about changing King Arthur’s future, at least in the movie version that I saw. I haven’t actually read the book because I’m an uncultured swine.

But that Star Trek episode is basically that, except that, because we have Q here, we can justify there being a little bit more of a link. What Q is doing in that scenario is testing Picard to see if he can figure out if this rift was created by the three Enterprises firing their beams at the same place. And sure, that’s a good puzzle. Good job, Q. You made a cool little minigame for Picard to do as his finale. I appreciate that.

Chris: While we’re talking about Star Trek, I think Time’s Arrow is a good example of time travel where they do the illusionist’s gambit-slash-predestination. We start as they discover Data’s head, but it’s 300 years old or so. Then we go through a whole episode where they’re back in time, but they’re not actually trying to change the past. They’re trying to solve some other space mystery and uncover what happened, is their actual objective. So they don’t need to actually change anything. 

In the course of events, Data loses his head, but they bring the rest of Data back and then it turns out Geordi can restore the 300 year old head and they reattach it. So, technically, from that episode on, Data’s head is 300 years older than the rest of his body.

Oren: He aged like a fine wine. 

That episode is kind of funny. Star Trek does this a fair amount, where they get a vision of the future and they’re like, “Well, should we… do anything about that?” And then they decide, “No, we’re going to do things like we normally would, because for all we know, doing something different is what makes the past vision happen.” And it’s like – how?

They do that in the time loop episode, where Data passes information back through the loop. I liked that episode just fine, but they’re like, “Well, we know we’re going to crash and explode. Should we reverse course?” And then, “Maybe reversing course is what leads us to the accident.” I think you can pretty quickly figure out that that’s not the case.

Chris: It’s like they believe in predestination. 

Oren: We can’t violate the sacred timeline. The TVA will come after us. [laughter]

Chris: That’s very plot-convenient. We can see the future, but we can’t do anything about it, ‘cause we just decided not to.

Oren: It’s also kind of funny how they all act like, oh no, Data’s going to die, because we found his head. And then, when that actually happens, Geordi is like, “You know, I bet they could fix that.” Did that not occur to Geordi earlier in the episode? Did Geordi know that we, the audience, needed to be in suspense?

I mean, he can see a lot with his visor. Maybe he can see through the fourth wall. 

Chris and Wes (thoughful): Ooh.

Oren: Hah! Solved. That’s why all the problems on the Enterprise aren’t fixed until the last minute. Geordi could fix them earlier, but he can see us, the audience, and so he knows to only fix them at the last second. 

I’m glad we figured this out guys. We solved Star Trek.

Chris: We’re definitely getting into Redshirts, the book, territory. It’s all a TV show.

Oren: Well, now that we have solved time, I think that is a good place to end the podcast on, because we’re actually over time. So we traveled too far forward. We should have another episode specifically on forward time travel, because this episode we definitely assumed it was backwards time travel the whole time.

But until then, those of you at home, if anything we said piqued your interest, you can leave a comment on the website at Mythcreants.com. You can’t leave it before we recorded this podcast, because that would be a paradox, and that would annoy Chris quite a bit. So don’t! 

Before we go, I want to thank a few of our patrons. First, we have Kathy Ferguson, who is a professor of political theory in Star Trek. Next we have Ayman Jaber. He is an urban fantasy writer and a connoisseur of Marvel. And finally, we have Danita Rambo. She lives at therambogeeks.com. We’ll talk to you next week.

[Outro Music]

P.S. Our bills are paid by our wonderful patrons. Could you chip in?

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